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Monday, September 22, 2008

Reflections on the Gartner Conference and EPTS4

Posted by Louis Lovas

Like many of my colleagues in the event processing community, I thought I would share a few reflections on the recent happens at the two back-to-back technology conferences of the past week. Gartner sponsored their annual vendor-fest known as the Event Processing Summit, and the EPTS had their fourth annual symposium. This being my first EPTS, I've had some initial thoughts and reactions which I've shared over the weekend.  For this, I'll delve more into the conference's content.

I attended a number of the sessions at the Gartner conference. I did not have any set agenda so I picked the sessions more on a personal appeal rather than some well thought out plan. While I do work in an engineering team, I have a customer focus so I attended all the customer sessions. I always find it valuable to understand how customers are deploying event processing technology in real-world use cases. Their efforts clearly infiltrate the product roadmap of vendors.

  • Lou Morgan of HG Trading, a lively speaker described his use of event processing technology in high frequency trading. Lou has been an Apama user for quite a few years and we've invited him to speak on our behalf on a number of occasions. He's an entertaining soul with a clear understanding of the Capital Markets business. We're delighted he presented his use of Apama at this conference.
  • Albert Doolittle of  George Weiss Associates Inc. gave a talk on using event processing technologies in this firm.  Albert described his technique to pick a vendor for his CEP project, which if I were to paraphrase was a coin flip.  Towards the end of his talk, he digressed from CEP technologies to present a short discourse on high performance computing (HPC). The idea of leveraging supercomputing-like technologies and FPGA's for compute intensive operations like Black-Sholes Options pricing certainly has caught Mr. Doolittle's attention. Typically CEP and compute intensive tasks don't mix well because of latency considerations. However, a marriage of CEP and HPC is possibly one made in heaven. I was intrigued.
  • The ebullient Marc Alder gave his brusque, no-holds-barred perspective on the CEP project he embarked on at Citi. Marc did a great job of explaining the challenges of introducing a new technology at a large corporation, one with a well entrenched bureaucratic IT organization.  I think most of us have faced the bureaucratic fortress at some time or another in our careers. Knowing how to play the game is a skill only a few master well, kudos to Marc for his successful venture.  As Marc unfolded his project's architecture he wisely chose a course to prevent vendor lock-in.

The juxtaposition of these three use-cases was most curious. Lou Morgan jumped deep into CEP technology and bet-the-ranch on it. Albert Doolittle took a gamble with a coin flip in choosing a vendor and Marc Alder kept his choice of a CEP product isolated and contained within his overall system architecture. A safeguard in case he felt the need to replace it.  Nonetheless all great examples of how CEP is gaining momentum in main stream business.

One session I thoroughly enjoyed was Don  DeLoach's "Extending the range of CEP". Don is the CEO of Aleri. I'm not sure I enjoyed this session more for its content or for Don's presentation skills. As is usually the case at technology conferences, it's death-by-Powerpoint. Slideware is typically jammed with an overabundance of barely readable text and dazzling graphics.  Don's slides however had a clear minimalist slant. A plain monotone background with either a single word or a (very) short phase well choreographed with his oration. He spoke of CEP as an evolving technology from the simple ability to filter streaming data to managing complex application state. He used an example that has become the Pièce de résistance of Aleri, order book consolidation.

There were many sessions on SOA and Event Driven Architectures - so many I lost count. 

I attended the panel discussion on low-latency messaging protocols. This was a Q&A session moderated by Roy Schulte of Gartner. The panelists were the crop of high-speed/low-latency message vendors. TIBCO-killers as I've affectionately referred to them. Vendors such as 29West, RTI, Solace Systems, IBM and even TIBCO themselves (apologies to those vendors I've not mentioned). Each described how they have defied physics to achieve incredible speeds yet still provide reliable delivery, management tools and even application level services (i.e. RTI's last value cache).  However, its noteworthy to contrast these low-latency vendors, all focused on shaving microseconds off message delivery via proprietary, even hardware-based schemes, to the many standard-based messaging systems trumpeted in other sessions. Those SOA and EDA sessions paraded a whole barrage of Web Services based standards models (i.e. WSDL, WS-Eventing, WS-Notification, WSDM, the list goes on and on) as the right way to build applications. These certainly seem like opposing forces that will only foster confusion in the eyes of those who have a clear business need for low-latency yet desire to adhere to a standards approach.

The EPTS Symposium began its first day with a keynote address from a VC which had funded Event Zero.  I had first met with Event Zero about a year ago, they have appeared to recast themselves from an adapter/connectivity vendor to one delivering an Event Processing Network (EPN). An EPN can be defined as an infrastructure platform for event processing agents or services. Those CEP agents performing both independently and in concert with other agents (or services) act upon streaming data sources. Together the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Such is the grandiose vision of an EPN.  SRI was also promoting a similar notion of event processing as a service, which I would argue is a variation on this same theme.  Unfortunately, I think there is trouble ahead. The problem is simply timing, maturity and standards (or lack thereof).  I don’t think customers will buy into EPN's or Event Zero's vision until there is a clear establishment of standards for CEP. As a perspective, Application Server vendors tried this and failed (anyone remember SilverStream? Apptivity?). It was not until the J2EE specification established a uniform model that created true viability for a network or service infrastructure platform for AppServers.  Until we see the formation of CEP standards for interoperability and integration, the appeal of CEP will remain as basically a standalone application platform and vendors will continue to market a solutions approach, just look at any CEP vendor's website for proof of this. Nonetheless, Event Zero has embarked on a bold initiative and I wish them all the best.

Speaking of standards, moving slightly up the stack one could clearly detect the prevailing wind blowing against streaming SQL as the language of choice for CEP.  Going back to the Gartner conference there were a few noticeable comments to that effect. Marc Adler, described streaming SQL as making the simple things difficult to do.  Don DeLoach, downplayed the SQL language in Aleri in favor of the SPLASH enhancements. The renowned Dr. Luckham in his closing keynote address outlined Holistic Event Processing as the future implied it required a language beyond streaming SQL. 

At the EPTS Alex Koslenkov from Betfair castigated the streaming SQL approach for his use case in managing complex long-running state. Alex is an advocate of the RuleML approach to CEP languages, as such it stands to reason he doesn't have a high regard for streaming SQL and it showed.

Susan Urban from Texas Tech University presented a research project on a language they've dubbed StreamCEDL. Susan denounced streaming SQL as lacking the algebraic expressiveness necessary to move beyond simple stream processing to true complex event processing. One example, she mentioned in the description of StreamCEDL is its support of an APERIODIC operator.  The intent is to process irregular or out-of-order data streams.

Lastly, Chris Ferris from IBM presented on Industry Software Standards. This was a great session that portrayed the far reaching impact of adopting standards across our industry.  He stressed the importance in making every attempt to get broad vendor agreement, customer validation and to be sure the adopted technology serves the needs of the community because you'll have to live with it for years to come.  This is such an important message in the quest for standardization of CEP. Open, widely accepted standards are exactly what the CEP community needs; the sooner we embark on this journey the better.


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