TechDays 2010: Real-World Patterns for Cloud Computing

Tech Days 2010If it’s Autumn, it must be time for TechDays again here in Canada. This year  I was Microsoft Canada’s Content Lead for the “Real-World Patterns for Cloud Computing” session.

The Toronto flavour of the event has been taking place yesterday and today.

Compute, Store, Scale

The Cloud Computing presentation focused on scenarios involving where we use the cloud for compute, storage, and scaling (of both compute power and storage). It looked at a real-world case study using Windows Azure Worker Roles, and multiple Azure Storage account (leveraging Blobs and Queues – Azure Table Storage and SQL Azure are other stories for other presentations).

Demo Path

"Real World Patterns for Cloud Computing" Demo Path (click to enlarge)
"Real World Patterns for Cloud Computing" Demo Path (click to embiggen)

Here’s the basic demo path (as pictured above):

1. Efficiently upload content to the cloud

2. After upload, add message(s) to Azure Queue indicating to a Worker Role there’s content to process

3. Use a Worker Role to read messages from the Queue and process the uploaded content

4. Show how to scale the whole thing – both storage (if it exceeds 100TB, the limit of an Azure Storage Account), and compute (if there is too much content to process by a single Worker Role).

The focus of the talk was on incorporating good practices (and avoiding gotchas) throughout this process. We started with some simple code that uploaded content to the cloud and processed it using a worker role, and then modified the solution to incorporate a number of improvements. Then we slammed the whole thing with a heavy load and used the Windows Azure Dynamic Scaling Sample to monitor the growth of the queue and scale up and down accordingly.

(This last part addresses what is certainly one of the most frequently asked questions I get about Azure – does it scale its computing automatically, and if not, how do I do so? The Dynamic Scaling Sample provides one very configurable and suitable solution for automated scaling of Azure computing.)

If you were at TechDays and are interested in the sample code, please contact me and I’ll send a link. You may also be interested in Microsoft Evangelist Wade Wegner’s presentation from TechEd2010, which he delivered with Jerry Schulist from the Tribune Company. I’m indebted to Wade and Jerry for their excellent presentation and their pioneering work with Azure.

Today: More TechDays + streaming PDC 2010

If you’re interested in Azure and cloud computing, you almost certainly will be interested in following what’s going on this week in Redmond at Microsoft PDC 2010. The entire conference will be streamed online – follow that link for a slick schedule and some nice .ics links so you can add talks of interest to your calendar.

[Update, 29 Oct 2010: There were indeed quite a few announcements related to Azure at PDC2010 – check them out!]

Thanks Again

Thanks to everyone who came out – I really enjoyed the day and that was probably the best post-presentation Q&A session I’ve ever had, even if Joey had to “Kanye” me off stage again when question time ran out! My compliments to the MS Canada team – they have the choreography of these large-scale tech events down to an art.

Next stop: Ottawa!

I’m looking forward to presenting this talk again in Ottawa on November 9th for the TechDays Ottawa event.

Cross-Country Olympic Mind Games

During the Winter Olympics, the lights of the CN Tower are taking part in an interactive art installation that’s controlled by a participant’s brainwaves.

What I like about the CN Tower installation (in addition to the cross-country nature of the biofeedback loop) is how they teach participants to generate the correct brainwave patterns. We faced a similar challenge back at MediaLabEurope.

CN Tower Light Show
CN Tower Light Show

During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the lights of the CN Tower are taking part in an interactive biometric art installation.

From 3,300km away, a participant in Vancouver has their brainwaves monitored as they watch a live video of the Toronto skyline. When they are inattentive, the CN Tower’s lights move at a lethargic pace. But as the participant concentrates, the lights of the CN Tower cycle around with the speed of Christine Nesbitt ’round the speed skating track.

The measurement being used to determine a participant’s attentiveness is their ratio of their alpha waves to beta waves. This very rough estimate of attentiveness is also what we used for an early project in the MindGames group called “BrainChild”, where a participant unlocked a door through sustained concentration.

What I like about the CN Tower installation (in addition to the cross-country nature of the biofeedback loop) was something I read in this Torontoist article. If participants are having trouble “concentrating,” they are encouraged to count the lights in skyscraper windows.

This is a very clever, indirect way to achieve the desired result. When working with “untrained” biofeedback participants, it can be difficult to articulate the subtle changes that they need to make which will lead to a desired signal (in this case, a change in the ratio of alpha to beta waves).

Mind Balance Training

Mind Balance Screenshot
Mind Balance Screenshot

A project we built at MIT MediaLabEurope called Mind Balance faced a similar challenge.

Mind Balance also relied on an electroencephalogram (EEG) metric to create a control mechanism. However, instead of measuring the ratio between alpha and beta waves, we were monitoring the occipital lobes at the back of the head to detect artifacts from the electrical signals produced by the brain’s visual processing.

The subtlety there was that success for a participant required not just having a visual pattern in your field of view, but also attending to that pattern – a “squishy” concept that required training. Some of the “indirect” methods we used to explain a “good stare” included encouraging a participant to “stare right through” a region on the screen.

We used a 45-second acoustic feedback training session to help participants learn this concept assisted by very clear and immediate feedback. It worked with varying degrees of success, but thankfully, enough success in over 95% of cases for a participant to successfully go on to generate a single reliable control axis.

We resurrected Mind Balance for the Microsoft Ireland Visual Studio 2005 launch and it was awesome (and somewhat improbable) that we got it to work in an Irish pub setting. You can read more about Mind Balance here, and check out the shots of our prototype headgear called Cerebus.

(Another MindGames project where indirectly achieving biometric results played a big role was Relax to Win. The techniques players used to achieve relaxation under pressure was an important and fun part of the interaction.)

Jedi Mind Tricks Re-Re-Rediscovered

Ed Lalor wears Cerebus
Mindgames researcher Ed Lalor models Cerebus

Excitement around Brain-Computer Interfaces for commercial and artistic use seems to resurface every few years.

Although the headgear for the Olympic installation looks considerably refined compared to our prototype (pictured here), achieving reliability for novel and useful BCI metrics remains a really tough problem, principally because most people aren’t cool with having someone drill into their head, which is a shame, because the brain’s electrical signals are so much weaker by the time they reach the surface.

Later this year, with the imminent launch of Project Natal, the focus now seems to be on visual and acoustic interfaces.

But during the Olympics, it’s all about the Mind Games. My hat’s off to Interaxon for putting together this engaging cross-country installation.

(More about the Olympic mind-controlled art installation at PopSci, Interaxon, Torontoist)

(More about Mind Balance here with links to pics)

Four Perspectives on Delivering ‘Return on Experience’

Metro Toronto. NET Users Group
Meeting, 16 sept, 6PM, Bloor East, Toronto (click)

I’m looking forward to the conversation at this Metro Toronto .NET Users Group meeting:

Four Perspectives on Delivering
‘Return on Experience’

We’ve heard a lot recently, from Microsoft and others, about the importance of user experience (UX) and delivering ‘return on experience’ to clients. Tools like Sketchflow for prototyping, Expression Blend for visual design, and frameworks like Silverlight and WPF, are designed to change the way we deliver software projects that incorporate rich and intuitive user experiences.

The reality, of course, is that there are many stakeholders with different perspectives on this process. This evening, let’s talk about how things really work during project delivery “in the wild.”

We’ll discuss the process of enhancing user experience from four perspectives: a designer, a developer team lead, a client, and an account manager.  (not personas, but thoughts from real people who have performed or are performing these roles).   Their perspectives will begin a conversation about the tools and processes, challenges and rewards of delivering ‘return on experience.’

(September 16th, Manulife at 200 Bloor East, Toronto, 6:00PM)

[Update, 17 Sept – I really enjoyed last night – and a huge thanks to all 4 members of the panel (Susan Greenfield, Ernie Taylor, Daniel Cox, Bill Baldasti) and everyone who came out. I will post slides and follow-up either later today or early tomorrow!]

Cycling in Toronto: 3 Things I Learned Today

1. A few years ago, I won a “Door Prize” and had no idea!!

This one time, in Dublin, I was cycling along minding my own business, when a car passenger carelessly opened her door into the bike lane.

She’d given me just enough time to slam on my brakes and think “oh noes–” (or localized cussing equivalent) before I received what I now know is called a door prize straight across my helmet-protected face.

It can be a lot less funny and significantly more tragic.

So I am relieved to move swiftly on to report —

2. Proposed Changes to Toronto Cycling Routes will reduce your odds of winning a Door Prize!

The Toronto waterfront along Queens Quay is under review for a major redevelopment that, among other benefits, would make it significantly more cycle- and pedestrian-friendly.

It would “mend” the waterfront cycling trail, which currently suffers from an unpleasant discontinuity downtown.

If only Queens Quay looked like this...!
If only Toronto's Queens Quay looked like this...!

The shortlisted plans in this document (.pdf), found on the WATERFRONToronto site, would improve “active transportation” and go a long way toward revitalizing the waterfront.  The sketch above is from the consultation report.

For more information, there is a summary report here (.pdf) which includes upcoming meetings at which the public can comment (including City of Toronto Executive Committee Meeting June 2nd, and Council Meeting July 6th).  Head to WATERFRONToronto to learn more.

You may be interested in one thoughtful cyclist’s recent concerns regarding the current state of the plan.

The redevelopment, of course, is about much more than cycling.  But for cyclists, it could offer a very welcome change.

(Also, in case you missed it, earlier this week Toronto City Council approved a bike lane on major north-south artery Jarvis as well! Woohoo!)

3. There is a vibrant biking community here in Toronto!

The 2009 Toronto Bike Summit was a packed house
The 2009 Toronto Bike Summit was a packed house

I met some of that community today at the 2009 Bike Summit, which coincided with this week’s launch of Bike Month in Toronto.  The image above is from Ralph Buehler’s session this morning about Freiburg, which is widely considered Germany’s most sustainable city. The ways in which Freiburg’s infrastructure and culture accommodates cyclists provided the case study for Buehler’s very interesting presentation.

Considering I’ve been cycling like crazy of late, I’ve created a “Toronto Cycling” topic on this site, and what better way to kick it off than with a link-list.

Toronto cycling resources, publications and bloggers:

The Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT) co-hosted the summit today.

The City of Toronto’s cycling site includes a .pdf of the Toronto-area bike map.

The Toronto Bicycling Network, and BikeToronto, and BikeLane Diary, and sites all offer Toronto cycling community news and insight.

Roadrash chronicles the escapades of a Toronto cyclist who’s en route to cycling 1,200km this summer.

Dandyhorse is a new print publication – elegantly designed, clearly a labour of love, and filled with insightful and well-written articles about everything “Toronto on Two Wheels.” More love for Dandyhorse here at Eyeweekly.

I’d be very happy to hear of any other Toronto cycling resources you know of out there.

See you on the roads and trails!