What happens In Vegas….

The old adage tells us that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But for one week a year the reverse becomes true. Thousands of cloud enthusiasts descend on the city of sin and come away filled with renewed vigour to play with, and ultimately implement, the latest toys from Amazon Web Services.

This year I’ve been lucky enough to represent Shine by travelling to Las Vegas and participating in this prestigious event. In this post I’ll be recapping some of the things I’ve seen. I’ll add more as the week goes on with my thoughts and reflections, as well as the latest announcements from AWS.

Midnight madness

The week of re:Invent kicked off this year with the “Midnight madness” session from 10.30 – 1am on Sunday night. Open only to the first 3500 die hard fans, I decided to head along, convincing myself it would be good for my jetlag.

Apparently, midnight madness is a style of event common to sports teams in the US where at the beginning of the season they have a party for the fans and give them access to the teams. Any announcements are made on the stroke of midnight.

AWS used the same format and at midnight used the occasion to announce the release of Amazon Sumerian, browser-based tooling for the creation of AR/VR applications using WebGL. This was followed by a party DJ’d by ‘DJ Diesel’ aka Shaquille O’Neal, the retired basketball player.

Logistics

AWS re:Invent has only been around for a few years but has grown from a conference in a single hotel with about 6,000 attendees in its first incarnation to its latest physical manifestation of a distributed system as 43,000 attendees jostle for access to over 1,300 session in 6 separate locations along Las Vegas’ most famous boulevard – the ‘Strip.’

It’s of no surprise that an event of this size could be hosted in very few locations around the world and is a mammoth undertaking. From catering to travel, wifi to social events and presenters to parties, organising re:Invent is a major undertaking, and the planning for this year’s event began on the day the previous event in 2016 finished.

However, we’ve witnessed a few hiccups on the first day. There are shuttle buses between the venues but there seems to have been a lot of confusion with buses going to the wrong locations and attendees missing session due to the time it’s taking to get to the correct venue. Let’s hope they take note and optimise this over the week. Clearly scaling in the physical world is somewhat more challenging than the virtual one!

Many sessions on machine learning, serverless and Alexa, which are key areas at this year’s conference, are being held at the Aria and although sessions are staggered so that not everyone descends on the meal areas at once, I thought it best to wait till toward the end, after the rush.

That turned out to be a big mistake as the hotel ran out of lunch, rustled up some more and then actually run out of raw ingredients to be able to put any further meals together, with many still left in the queue, including me. We were told to head to the Venetian (luckily my destination for afternoon sessions anyway) as they still had food but with the times taken to transit, all that was left was some sandwich boxes.

Monday’s sessions

Sessions at this year’s conference are managed by an online portal and a mobile app allowing pre-registration to desired sessions but availability is limited and 25% of all sessions are held back for ‘walk-ups’, theoretically allowing you to attend any desired session. In practice, it seems you are unlikely to get into sessions as a walk-up less you are there upwards of 45mins in advance and the numbers are strict – there is no standing room due to fire restrictions.

Despite this, I’ve managed to get into several sessions on the first day, with subjects as diverse as Alexa Voice Service, container control planes, hidden features of EC2, serverless architectures, and the future of energy and the connected home.

Alexa Voice Service

This talk focused on adding Alexa, the technology behind the Echo, into other products such as smart televisions. There were demonstrations of the ‘cards’ that can be displayed alongside a voice response and how they differ in appearance on a ‘tablet-style’ device vs something larger like a TV. There is also a special ‘voice chrome’, i.e. an on-screen indication of Alexa’s status similar to the function of the light ring on the Echo.

Container control planes

I’m predicting that containers are going to be a big part of the announcements this week at re:Invent and this talk was focusing on the tooling that Clever have put together to support using containers for development and production. This is basically a series of command-line tools and services which allow a user with a fresh laptop to be up and running in minutes. They can create a new service with everything they need to dev, test and push to production whilst enforcing standards and managing dependencies. More info on the individual components can be found at their repo.

And you thought you knew EC2…

This excellent talk, part of the community track (i.e. talks lead my prominent members in the AWS community rather than AWS themselves) outlined some of the lesser known aspects of EC2 and the related technologies including ECS, Systems Manager, AWS Config. It also demonstrated the pace of innovation in the EC2 space is as fast as ever, despite EC2 being one of the older and more established services that we all rely on, showing the number of related announcements since June this year, which were considerable.

Ben Whaley from Kountable also talked about parameter store and how it could (or even should) be used for holding credentials etc. required by instances and how they could be manipulated with his shell tool pssh using a fun example based on the characters in Game of Thrones.

Serverless

The folks at A Cloud Guru presented a session on serverless systems as viewed by the community. Covering aspects of security, architecture, tips and tricks and highlighting a large number of talks from conferences such as Serverlessconf, Sam Kroonenberg and Peter Sbarski covered the current state of serverless, how it evolved and where it might go in the future.

Hive – The Connected Home

As the site-leader out at one of Shine’s big clients, EnergyAustralia, this final talk was of interest. Given mainly by a representative of the Hive connected home (a spin off from British Gas and now a first class subsidiary of Centrica), this talk demonstrated how the architecture for their smart thermometer and associated technologies has evolved over time and now embraces AWS IoT, Lambdas, DynamoDB and more.

Along with Claudiu Pasa from AWS’s IoT Competence Center they showed how their architecture had been simplified and made more scalable and cheaper by the move to AWS. For the energy industry there were some interesting statistics around how their Net Promoter Score (NPS) is significantly higher from people who own a Hive or a Boiler IQ product which allows boiler problems to be diagnosed remotely resulting in 19% fewer engineer visits to customers and more successful rectification of faults on the first visit, significantly affecting customer perception of the brand for the positive. Customer churn also drops by 2/3 for those with Boiler IQ.

They also covered a number of the challenges for them in the IoT space and how these can be solved by Aws IoT. Examples included ‘reconnection storms’ after comms failures (when large numbers of devices come back online after some sort of outage causing a massive spike in requests) and how they decide what’s the ‘source of truth’ i.e. whether it’s the device or cloud.

They have a lot of data on when people turn on their heating, what temperature they set it to and what the external temperature is and this has led to analysis which suggests that people do not have an absolute temperature beyond which they turn their heating on or off but rather it is determined by other factors such as how much the differential is (I.e daily max vs min) as well as visual aspects like whether they can see snow on ground. This has allowed them to determine the thermal behaviour of property properties helping consumption forecasts and also influencing customer action by encouraging them to insulate.

Well that’s all I’ve got to say for now. Thanks for reading and hopefully there’ll be more to come as the week progresses!

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