Joseph Smarr

Thoughts on web development, tech, and life.

Month: September 2008

Performance Challenges for the Open Web (Stanford CS193H)

Performance Challenges for the Open Web
Stanford CS193H: High Performance Web Sites
Stanford, CA
September 29, 2008

Download PPT (6.8 MB)

Open Web brings new performance challengesWeb site performance guru Steve Souders is teaching a class at Stanford this fall on High Performance Web Sites (CS193H). He invited me to give a guest lecture to his class on the new performance challenges emerging from our work to open up the social web. As a recent Stanford alum (SSP ’02, co-term ’03), it was a thrill to get to teach a class at my alma mater, esp. in the basement of the Gates bldg, where I’ve taken many classes myself.

I originally met Steve at OSCON 07 when I was working on high-performance JavaScript, and we were giving back-to-back talks. We immediately hit it off and have remained in good touch since. Over the last year or so, however, my focus has shifted to opening up the social web. So when Steve asked me to speak at his class, my first reaction was “I’m not sure I could tell your students anything new that isn’t already in your book”.

But upon reflection, I realized that a lot of the key challenges in creating a truly social web are directly related to performance, and the set of performance challenges in this space are quite different than in optimizing a single web site. In essence, the challenge is getting multiple sites to work together and share content in a way that’s open and flexible but also tightly integrated and high-performance. Thus my new talk was born.

Lots of open building blocksI provided the students with an overview of the emerging social web ecosystem, and some of the key open building blocks making it possible (OpenID, OAuth, OpenSocial, XRDS-Simple, microformats, etc.). I then gave some concrete examples of how these building blocks can play together, and that led naturally into a discussion of the performance challenges involved.

I broke the challenges into four primary categories:

  • minimizing round trips (the challenge is combining steps to optimize vs. keeping the pieces flexible and simple),
  • caching (storing copies of user data for efficiency vs. always having a fresh copy),
  • pull vs. push (the difficulty of scaling mass-polling and the opportunities presented by XMPP and Gnip to decrease both latency and load), and
  • integrating third-party content (proxying vs. client-side fetching, iframes vs. inline integration, etc.).

In each of these cases, there are fundamental trade-offs to make, so there’s no “easy, right answer”. But by understanding the issues involved, you can make trade-offs that are tailored to the situation at hand. Some of the students in that class will probably be writing the next generation of social apps, so I’m glad they can start thinking about these important issues today.

Web 2.0/Web 3.0 Mashup (EmTech08)

Web 2.0/Web 3.0 Mashup
Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT (EmTech08)
Boston, MA
September 24, 2008

Attribution: ValleywagI was invited to speak on a panel at EmTech, the annual conference on emerging technologies put on by MIT’s TechnologyReview Magazine, on the future of the web. The conference spans many disciplines (alternative energy, cloud computing, biotech, mobile, etc.) and we were the representatives of the consumer internet, which was quite a humbling task! Robert Scoble moderated the panel, which featured me, David Recordon, Dave Morin, and Nova Spivak.

It was a loose and lively back-and-forth discussion of the major trends we see on the web today: it’s going social, it’s going open, it’s going real-time, and it’s going ubiquitous. These trends are all working together: it’s now common (at least in silicon valley) to use your iPhone on the go to see what articles/restaurants/etc your friends have recommended from a variety of distributed tools, aggregated via FriendFeed, Plaxo Pulse, or Facebook. A lot of the vision behind the Semantic Web (structured data enabling machine-to-machine communication on a user’s behalf) is now happening, but it’s doing so bottoms-up, with open standards that let users easily create content online and share it with people they know. As the audience could clearly tell from our passionate and rapid-fire remarks, this is an exciting and important time for the web.

We got lots of positive feedback on our panel from attendees (and also via twitter, of course), as well as from the TR staff. We even received the distinct honor of attracting snarky posts from both Valleywag and Fake Steve Jobs (if you don’t know the valley, trust me: that’s a good thing). You can watch a video of the entire panel on TechnologyReview’s website.

I must say I’m quite impressed with TechnologyReview and EmTech. They do a good job of pulling together interesting people and research from a variety of technical frontiers and making it generally accessible but not dumbed-down. The piece they wrote recently on opening up the social web (which featured a full page photo of yours-truly diving into a large bean bag) was perhaps the most insightful mainstream coverage to date of our space. They gave me a free one-year subscription to TR for speaking at EmTech, and I’ll definitely enjoy reading it. Here’s looking forward to EmTech09!

Tying it All Together: Implementing the Open Web (Web 2.0 Expo New York)

Tying it All Together: Implementing the Open Web
Web 2.0 Expo New York
New York, NY
September 19, 2008

Download PPT (7.2 MB)

I gave the latest rev of my talk on how the social web is opening up and how the various building blocks (OpenID, OAuth, OpenSocial, PortableContacts, XRDS-Simple, Microformats, etc.) fit together to create a new social web ecosystem. Thanks to Kris Jordan, Mark Scrimshire, and Steve Kuhn for writing up detailed notes of what I said. Given that my talk was scheduled for the last time slot on the last day of the conference, it was well attended and the audience was enthusiastic and engaged, which I always take as a good sign.

I think the reason that people are reacting so positively to this message (besides the fact that I’m getting better with practice at explaining these often complex technologies in a coherent way!) is that it’s becoming more real and more important every day. It’s amazing to me how much has happened in this space even since my last talk on this subject at Google I/O in May (I know because I had to update my slides considerably since then!). Yahoo has staked its future on going radically open with Y!OS, and it’s using the “open stack” to do it. MySpace hosted our Portable Contacts Summit (an important new building block), and is using OpenID, OAuth, and OpenSocial for it’s “data availability” platform. Google now uses OAuth for all of its GData APIs. These are three of the biggest, most mainstream consumer web businesses around, and they’re all going social and open in a big way.

At the same time, the proliferation of new socially-enabled services continues unabated. This is why users and developers are increasingly receptive to an Open Web in which the need to constantly re-create and maintain accounts, profiles, friends-lists, and activity streams is reduced. And even though some large sites like Facebook continue to push a proprietary stack, they too see the value of letting their users take their data with them across the social web (which is precisely what Facebook Connect does). Thus all the major players are aligned in their view of the emerging “social web ecosystem” in which Identity Providers, Social Graph Providers, and Content Aggregators will help users interact with the myriad social tools we all want to use.

So basically: everyone agrees on the architecture, most also agree on the open building blocks, and nothing prevents the holdouts from going open if/when they decide it’s beneficial or inevitable. This is why I’m so optimistic and excited to be a part of this movement, and it’s why audiences are so glad to hear the good news.

PS: Another positive development since my last talk is that we’re making great progress on actually implementing the “open stack” end-to-end. One of the most compelling demos I’ve seen is by Brian Ellin of JanRain, which shows how a user can sign up for a new site and provide access to their private address book, all in a seamless and vendor-neutral way!

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