Puakma: Under the hood

I'm Brendon Upson, jack-of-all-trades, master of one or two. I'm talking about life running a small ISV tackling business issues and leaping technology hurdles in a single bound.

webWise Network Consultants is based in Sydney, Australia and develops the groundbreaking Tornado Server technology.

Product Company vs Services Company

Filed under: by Brendon Upson on 2008-04-29

For last last 6 or so years I've been running a company that is split between products (software) and services (contract software development). As the services side demands more of my time, I am increasingly questioning the "value" of a services business. In this context I am referring to a services business as a business which requires a human to perform some service at an hourly rate for another company.

Growing a services business is difficult. Since a human is providing the service, to provide more service you need either a) more humans, b) more revenue per service or c) more time. Scaling these variables is challenging part.

  1. We know that time is fixed and that 100% capacity is 168 hours per week, in reality much, much less, around 40 hours.
  2. We also know that companies have a natural cieling for what they are willing to pay for a service, let's say $300/hr.
  3. We know that the more complex the service provided, the more difficult it is to get additional qualified staff to perform said service. 

So, according to the variables above, the only real way to expand a services business is to add more staff. In reality, as the number of customers grow other activities take up an increasing amount of time in communications, account management, staffing issues, etc. Thus the original 40 hours begins to fall as more and more hours are taken up with non-billable time.

As a small business it is almost impossible to compete for the high end consulting work as customers deem you as high risk. A perceived "safer" choice is to engage large consulting companies with supposed "experience". The reality is the large consulting company will subcontract out the work to smaller suppliers such as myself while skimming a (often large) margin. 

Another factor particularly important in IT services is the fact that software development projects are not discrete. That is, it is unlikely for a software development project to actually end. We regularly have projects that come back like the ghost of Christmas past as the customer wants to add a few more tweaks and updates. Conversely, if you are an an excavator operator you dig a hole and leave, the customer will never get you back to continue work on the same hole to perhaps turn it into an airplane ;-) These continual mental context switches, jumping back to projects that were developed years ago, is a real mind bender and absolutely kills concentration since a small change involves relearning what was done in the past and what the implications of adding the new change are.

The provision of complex services require the use of competent and highly skilled staff. The more complex the service, the higher the staff knowledge needs to be. A couple of examples: 1) You run a window washing business. 3 of your staff members leave to go backpacking. It is very easy to replace them since after around 30 minutes of training you are a competent window cleaner. 2) You run an obstetrics business (you deliver babies). 3 of your staff leave to become GPs. Replacing them is a difficult task since they need a medical degree plus more years specialising. Software development is somewhere in between.

So what's the bottom line? If you plan to run a small services business you need to really think about the economics and compare that to working in some other services business. Effectively you are buying a job and a lot of headaches (tax, accounting, marketing, planning, staffing, ...). 

Product based companies scale much better. If you make widgets, selling one or ten requires little extra effort. You can also engage less skilled staff in the sales and billing parts of the company to streamline the sales and billing process. In addition the negagement of resellers further alleviates the sales burden. Rather than dealing with 100 customers directly you deal with say 10 resellers. Sure, you take a small hit on the margin but the resellers really absorb a large portion of the sales effort.

Now I'm sure the skeptics out there may not believe the above hypothesis, so here's some research for you: Take a look at the following top 50 companies for 2007 and work out the proportion of products vs services companies. The results should be obvious. http://www.diversityinc.com/public/1595.cfm

BBTF - Bring Back The FUN!

Filed under: by Brendon Upson on 2008-04-16

in the last few weeks I've been taking a rather critical look at what I do. One thing became abundantly clear I have somehow managed to push aside most of the stuff that I love to do to make way for the stuff I have to do. End result = unhappy camper. Last Monday I started making some changes.

Some of you may know I play the guitar. When I was younger I played it LOADS. It's something I really enjoy but somehow in the last 10+ years I never was able to make time to do it. On Monday I visited the local guitar store and bought a shiny new guitar stand and some new strings (Mmmmm DR 9 to 42's rock!). Now I have my guitar set up right next to the desk. When I need to think something over I'll pick it up and play it for a couple of minutes while I mull over the problem. Two birds, one stone. Perfect.

I had completely forgotten how great that guitar is. Sadly in the same music store they are selling the Ibanez RG550 "20th Anniversary" model. Bummer I have the original and I now feel oooooold! 

 bbtf.jpg

 

Eating dogfood with i18n

Filed under: by Brendon Upson on 2008-04-09

So Tornado is getting pretty mature, but all the work to date has pretty much revolved around a single company server where everyone is in the same timezone and speaks the same language. Until now :-(

As we peg away at ProjectReactor, things crop up. Important things. Let's say we have a project with 2 project managers, one in Sydney Australia and one in New York USA. The Sydney PM enters a milestone to be due mid-day friday, when the New York PM looks at the same record he also sees due mid-day friday. Disaster! Different time zones.

Then there's the date input formats. Sydney PM uses "dd/MM/yy" and New York PM uses "MM/dd/yy". Ouch. How do we make one application design easily cater for the different formats (and also "yy/mm/dd" and many other variations)?

When you have the sourcecode, anything is possible :-) 

Step one: Extend the session object. Add two new attributes to the session; time zone and locale. Upon login we get the timezone from the browser and the locale (language) from their account record. The server code then uses these new properties (if they have been set) when dealing with dates. If they are never set by the application then we default to the server's locale.

Step two: Custom date input formats. This was the tough one. The Tornado app uses <P@Date @P> fields with a format attribute, eg <P@Date name="x" format="dd/MM/yy" @P> The format attribute is stored in a page design element and is certainly not easy to change on a per user basis! Custom session objects to the rescue. Tornado allows any kind of object to be stored on a user's session. So now we just store a session object called "dd/MM/yy" on the session and give it value we want for that user eg "yy.MM.dd". Now when the server is parsing and rendering dates it does a check on the session to see if there is a session object of the same name as the format attribute's value, if there is use this value instead of the format attribute value. If there is no session object by that name, then just use the value this allows it to work either way.

i18n_pr.png

My head hurts. I'm off to bed. 

Tornado Performance - minification

Filed under: by Brendon Upson on 2008-04-03

It seems no matter what I've got going on my mind is always keeping one eye on Tornado server performance. A while ago I implemented a method of 'minifying' Javascript code on the server side. That is, you develop the js code with comments, linebreaks and all the formatting to make it easy to ready but when a web app asks for the resource it is automatically squished to reduce the file size. As our web apps begin to include more and more client side functionality, the size of javascript libraries is steadily growing.

Here's a real world example: prototype.js

Prototype is a very common library now used extensively in a lot of web applications. Version 1.6.0.2 is 126,127 bytes in it's raw format and looks like:

 

prototyperaw.png

 

When we turn on the automatic minification the file is reduced to 93,689 a saving of 32,438 bytes in network I/O. This is what it looks like after minification:

prototypemin.png

Of course Tornado also has gzip compression built in too, so the overall file size is further reduced to 23,527 bytes, a reduction of 102,600 bytes or 81.3%.

So what does this mean in terms of network I/O?

Based on a MTU size of 1492, the raw prototype.js file will be broken into 85 packets. The minified and gzipped version will result in just 16 packets. Also remember with TCP/IP we have guaranteed delivery so each of those packets has a matching ACK (acknowledge) packet sent back to the sender, so packetwise it's more like 170 vs 32. Note these figures are approximate, based on 1492 MTU and an ethernet network, disregarding socket creation and breakdown overhead and any packet loss. 

More information:

http://www.inconspicuous.org/projects/jsmin/jsmin.java
http://support.microsoft.com/kb/140375