What SXSW is to the user experience (UX) and design geeks who make the Internet useful, useable and desirable, the Cultivate and Velocity conferences are to the teams of geeks that literally make the Internet function. Both conferences, produced by O'Reilly, were held this week in New York City. The week began with the warm and fuzzy, culture-focused Cultivate (which actually kicked off with a morning yoga session). Day two and three at Velocity… not so warm or fuzzy. Velocity is designed for the hard-core web technology geek. The tag line says it all — "Building a Faster, Stronger Web"
Much of the content at the Velocity conference focused on the past: what has been created and what has been done (such as creating a vibrant startup culture, utilizing performance management tools, leveraging DevOps culture and practices.)
Courtney Nash, the conference co-chair, spoke about the future. The next wave, she said, would be dominated by three themes: resiliency, concurrency and adaptability.
Richard Cook, professor of healthcare systems safety at the Kungliga Techniska Hogskolan (the Royal Institute of Technology) in Stockholm kept the crowd befuddled and slack-jawed with a keynote that synthesizes and make relevant complex dynamic enterprise systems theory in less than 20 minutes. He opened his remarks by explaining how resiliency in systems is necessary to ensure safety — so much so that lives around the world are dependent upon it.
Once he got through a couple of quick examples from the medical, public safety, energy, transportation and military communities, his talk took off at near light speed to explain three complex forces that concurrently apply pressure to all complex enterprise systems:
- Economic failure
- Unacceptable workload
- Acceptable performance
Interaction of the operations, financial and safety boundaries. Adapted with permission from “Going Solid” by R. Cook and J. Rasmussen.
These three forces are always in concordance, forcing complex critical systems to operate at peak capacity. Because of the nature of these forces, systems will move in a form representative of "Brownian motion" — a mathematical model that describes how small particles move in a random way. Propelled by the economic and human workload forces, systems will ultimately and continuously "normalize deviance" to the point where the systems "flirt with the margin of disaster."
Flirting with the margin and marginal creep. Adapted with permission from “Going Solid” by R. Cook and J. Rasmussen.
With this understanding of dynamics, it becomes apparent that the salient question is not "Why do systems fail?" but rather "How is it that they don't fail more often? Why do systems succeed as much as they do?" The answers: Because humans monitor, alert, anticipate and learn from the operating point of the system. These four activities are what create resilience.
Dave Zwieback, VP of engineering at Next Big Sound, spoke about resiliency and what lies beyond it. Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese American essayist, scholar and statistician whose work focuses on problems of randomness, probability and uncertainty, recently coined the term "antifragility," which is primed to take off in the web technology community.
Taleb and Zwieback have chosen the new term for a reason. Resiliency brings up ideas and images that are close to a mattress made of memory foam: it bends around pressure and returns to form when pressure is removed. Antifragility is distinct from resiliency because it notes that some systems can do more than be resilient.
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