Tuesday, July 01, 2014

My Top Tech Trend: One Click Server Installs: New Realms

On Sunday I was part of the ALA Annual Conference's Top Tech Trends Panel, which I shared with good company:

You can watch the 90 minute discussion on YouTube if you'd like (my five minutes of fame begin at 11:35). Some of us are writing up notes and links from the event. Here are the words that I meant to say:

You may not know this but already thousands of families around the world are already taking advantage of my top tech trend for this year, which is One-Click Server Installs. Since March, thousands in the US are using this particular technology from the company Mojang through its new service called Minecraft Realms. Minecraft Realms allows users to have private Minecraft servers hosted by Mojang for $13 a month for up to 20 people. As such, Minecraft Realms allow for a safe, private place for kids to build collaboratively with their their friends across the neighbourhood and even with their cousins across the country.

Now, for a long time, Mojang made Minecraft available to be installed on servers but this ability was restricted to those who had the ability and the means to install software on a server.  And that's why I'm so excited about this particular technology: it promises to lower the barrier of access to a whole set of powerful software to the end user and to the end library.

For example, the CUNY Graduate Center is currently developing DH Box. Their mission is to make well established Digital Humanities software including Omeka, NLTK, IPython, R Studio, and Mallet readily available on a pre-configured DH server so scholars and future scholars can get to the business of using software for investigations instead of spending their time doing the labor intensive work of installing it all.

I'm not sure what software that they are going to use to run this project but it's likely that it's going to be one of the big three in this space: Chef, Puppet or Docker. What this type of software does is that it automates the process of setting up a server. You see, if you've never set a server up before, you might not know that there are a number of processes that have to happen in step in order to get a machine ready for production. First the server software has to be installed on the server, and the programming languages for the software that you then install install next. And then there are the program dependencies and modules that have to be to be in place and then everything has to be configured so it can all work together. Once all the hard work of setting up the steps is in place, this type of software remembers the process not unlike a recipe, so the next time you need a similar server, it will run all these steps for you. In fact, I've already seen people on twitter swap recipes for servers - such as one for a Data Science Box that's hosted on github.

And if you don't have a computer under your desk to install server software, there are services such as Amazon EC2 that give you cloud computers which you can use to load software on and Amazon Web Services Marketplace that provides one-click pre-configured server instances so you can try out software such as ThinkUp or try your hand at languages and frameworks such as Ruby on Rails.

If you are not interested in using Amazon there are other companies that provide this type of service, such as Heroku. And, in what I think it is an interesting development, last month or so Google announced that its own cloud computing services would be making much more use of Docker. What that actually means I'm not sure, so we'll have to see about that.

But what I do know is that there are other related projects that libraries should keep an eye on. In particular, the Digital Library of America recently put in a proposal for e-rate funding - which is funding from the FCC that is used by libraries and schools to provide internet access to the people in their communities - and the DPLA's proposal is that they provide digitization software - presumably using the server automation tools that we're talking about - to public libraries so everyone can get involved in making community collections more readily available.

So those the reasons why I'm very excited about this technology trend. And I'm also excited to now hear from my fellow panelists about their choices. Thank you.

As this was a panel discussion, there were opportunities to ask and answer questions from both the audience and those on stage.  I got my nose in there a several times.

In response to an audience question about what type of hardware to buy for the library in a mobile-first world, I suggested that we consider what sort of work our users would like to engage in when they are at the library.  While we use mobile phones and tablets to access information during the day, especially during commutes and when we crash on the sofa at the end of a hard day, there is still a need for machines for those who do things, when we are engaged in 'long-form' work such as editing video.

In response to Bohyun Kim's introduction to Bio-hackerspaces, I mentioned that O'Reilly publishing has books supporting biology and chemistry projects in the home.

In response to two similar questions, one from a colleague from Columbia and another colleague from a place I don't know, both bout how to expand services when resources are scarce, I suggested partnering with organizations such as Hackerspaces where there are frequently civic-minded technology enthusiasts who would love to use their skills in meaningful work and that gives back to the community.

In response to Roger Schonfeld's trend of antidisciplatory discovery:

One place in the conversation where I missed my opportunity to speak up was after David's response to our moderator's question of whether always available mobile connection would affect our  work-life balance.  David's response was there was little he could do if his employees wanted to work outside of established working hours because they loved their job.

Chris Bourg rightly followed up on this response

And I am grateful that she brought this up.  Because I respectfully disagree with David's response:  I believe that the ever-constant of contact with work means and will increasing mean that more employees will be responding to work emails at home because of increasing expectations from their place of work.

When childcare, housework, and eldercare fall predominantly on women's shoulders, the constant threat of having to provide labour that is involved along with always being on call to respond to technical emergencies - much less keeping up with technology and dealing with the expectation to contribute to open source projects in one's "spare time"  - can feel heavier when you are a woman.

Adding salt to the wound, where I live, IT professionals fall outside of normal employment standards. They are not even entitled to time to eat. For real. 


But it doesn't have to be this way:

Our panel discussion was designed to generate a wider discussion (see #alattt ) and I would like to thank LITA for letting me be a part of it and what I hope will be a longer conversation about technology and the world we want.

And on that note, I'm going to sign off so I can install Minecraft on our family's new-to-us laptop so we can collectively build together in our own local LAN server.  After that perhaps, we will explore new Realms.