Picking a Server Platform

Many small businesses want websites or mobile applications that require server-side functionality. Often, this functionality includes a database to store user information. What options exist for a user? What are the pros and cons for each one? I will examine three different frameworks – Node and SQLite3, PHP and MySQL, and Tomcat. These represent just a small number of options available to a business – from small scale applications to enterprise solutions.

For small applications, I like Node and SQLite. Node is a simple platform to run server-side programming. Since it requires virtually no infrastructure, Node services can be installed and deployed in minutes.  Likewise, SQLite requires no installation. SQLite databases are a simple file that can be easily backed up or restored by copying the database file. While this framework is great for small applications, enterprise applications would benefit from more robust environments. Node and SQLite can work really well for small internal applications or to implement a small number of services using a small database.

Next up, PHP and MySQL. This combo is widely deployed on a variety of platforms. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I like it. Typically, service providers like GoDaddy have support for PHP and MySQL out of the box, so applications and services can be deployed without much effort.  PHP/MySQL is also more robust than Node/SQLite. On the negative side, PHP has a variety of versions that are substantially different and PHP code can easily become unmanageable if developers aren’t careful.  I like this solution for smaller customers needing a small number of services on an existing PHP server.

Finally, there’s Tomcat. This option is an excellent Java-based server bringing all the advantages of the Java programming language into a robust server environment. Tomcat can integrate with any database, but MySQL is a common solution. Tomcat is an excellent option for Java web applications or services, but suffers from one big problem – it’s the most complicated option to setup.  This option is best when a large number of users or a large database must be supported. This is the option I like to recommend for enterprise customers.

Numerous other databases and server platforms exist. Microsoft’s .NET platform can work great for customers who prefer Microsoft products and Ruby may be a desirable option for some customers too. As with all technology choices, server platforms must be selected based on customer requirements. Small customers appreciate rapid, low cost development while larger customers will want more robust solutions while being less price sensitive.

Software as an Iterative Process

The world can broadly be divided into the physical world and the digital world.

In the physical world, products are manufactured and deployed. Those products never again see the manufacturer. If there is a problem, a new process may be implemented to solve the problem; but customers with the existing product will not likely see the benefit of the new process.

In the digital world, products are created and deployed just like in the physical world. However, everything that follows is different. When software problems are identified, patches are created or new versions are deployed. When the customer accesses the patches or upgrades their software, they see the benefit of the new changes.

This difference allows for a vastly different approach to creating and deploying products in the digital world. Unlike physical products, software can benefit from an iterative process. Software can be modified today, tested tomorrow, and deployed the following day. What if it doesn’t work? The changes can be rolled back or a new patch can be deployed. Unlike a physical product, a digital product is never complete.

This huge paradigm difference means that software companies can be far more nimble than manufacturing companies. Since changes can be made at any time, software companies enjoy far less risk than manufacturing companies.

As a developer of custom software, I often work with customers that are uncomfortable with this process. These customers want to wait until all functionality is present or until everything is fully polished and tested. This makes sense in the physical world, but can actually be detrimental in the software world.

Why is it important to use an iterative approach to software development? Since deploying software can be done quickly and changes can be rapidly fixed if necessary, frequent software releases allow customers to receive updates more quickly than if they waited for a major release. This allows customers to provide feedback if the features are not useful or if they work improperly. This feedback creates a loop that allows developers to go back and ‘get it right’ if they need to in a more controlled environment. Without this loop, it’s possible to spend months developing features that don’t actually meet user requirements or to create bugs that require substantial cost to find and rectify. This means wasted development time as well as missed opportunity costs. Additionally, small frequent software updates means that each individual update can be tested independent of other changes and issues are kept much smaller than in large updates. Frequent software updates also means a decreased time-to-market with new features.

Iterative approaches to software improve user experience, improve time-to-market, decrease difficult to find bugs, and shorten and simplify test cycles. Are you frequently releasing software updates, or are you treating software like it’s a physical commodity?

Business Ownership

I started my own business about 5 years ago just to make Android apps for the play store. It was never really intended to become a full-time thing, just a hobby. Then, over the next few years, I started being asked to develop Android software for local businesses. Working full-time while running a growing business on the side was a challenge. Then, as my business continued to grow, I realized that I could no longer do both. I had to quit my day job if I wanted my business to continue growing. Of all the things I’ve ever done, that may have been one of the scariest and most difficult decisions I’ve ever made.

Now, after running my business full-time for the past three months, I wonder what took me so long. Every single day I wake up excited for the day. I get to choose what I’m working on today, when I go to work, where I will work from, and how long my lunch break is. I have the freedom to take complete control of my life. Sure, it’s scary at times, but it’s absolutely worth it. My friends look to me with awe – as though I’ve done something special. The truth is, I haven’t – I just did what millions of other Americans have done and said goodbye to the traditional job.

Have you ever considered starting your own business? If not, what’s holding you back? In another decade, will you look back and wonder ‘what if’? For me, I know that even if my business were to ultimately fail, I will never regret the choice I made to give it a try!

Read the Fine Print

Yesterday, I was contacted by a customer who wanted to add push notifications to their mobile application. This is a common desire from customers, but they generally don’t have the infrastructure to support push notifications. Push notifications require a server to generate the notifications as well as some type of software to allow the user to create and send those notifications. Without any server infrastructure, smaller businesses are left without the ability to implement push notifications. Of course, there are a variety of services available for users to overcome this problem. One such service is OneSignal. OneSignal allows for very rapid implementation of push notifications using their servers and infrastructure. A developer can have everything setup and ready to demo in less than 15 minutes. Before suggesting this solution to the customer, I wanted to see pricing options and terms of service. But when I looked for pricing, I found it was completely free – there were no pay options. That sounded great, but I knew there had to be a catch – after all, businesses have to make money somewhere! As I read the Terms of Service, I was shocked to see:

Licensee acknowledges and agrees that the SDK enables Licensee to collect certain information from end users (“End Users”) of the SDK’s functionality (collectively, “SDK Information”), which generally helps provide developers with functionality to target and personalize the notifications they send to end users. This data collected includes: End Users’ mobile advertising identifiers, such as Apple IDFAs and Android Advertising identifiers; End Users’ email addresses End Users’ IP address, device push token, precise location (e.g., GPS-level) data, network information, language, time zone, product preferences, and privacy preferences.

So, this free service is collecting just about every piece of information possible about the user. While this may be ok for some apps, for many apps this would constitute a pretty substantial privacy invasion. Now, for my application, I would have to craft my own Terms of Service and ensure the user was aware that I was collecting the above information. In the tech community, do we read the terms of service, particularly when they will impact our end users, or do we just ignore them? In this instance, I am very glad I dug further. While I found OneSignal to be an awesome product, the terms of service are simply incompatible with the application I’m working to deploy.

Language Overload

As a technology enthusiast, I live in a great time. Computing devices are everywhere, artificial intelligence is advancing by leaps and bounds, and hardware platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi have made it easier for people to tinker with new technologies without spending a lot of money. But with all the great advances in technology, there is one advance I do not enjoy – the endless list of new programming languages released every single year. I’m not opposed to new languages, they are a necessary part of the march of progress. But don’t we have enough already? One example is the proliferation of languages that operate on the Java Virtual Machine. Originally just Java, now we have Scala, Groovy, and Kotlin too. And, each one has their own group of advocates saying their language is the best.

When Apple announced a few years back that they were replacing Objective-C, I was originally optimistic. Objective-C is pretty much unused outside the Mac world. If you wanted to write iOS applications, you had to learn an otherwise useless language. Was Mac going to lower the bar for new developers and allow them to use a language that was already widely used? Nope – they invented another language – Swift. I’ve heard lots of great things about Swift, but I’m not really interested in learning another niche language to develop for a single platform. (Instead, I’ve chosen to use hybrid tools such as Cordova and Ionic).

What’s the harm in all these languages? While different languages do bring different things to the table, there has to come a point where the market is over saturated. With all the languages out there, developers have to pick which ones to learn and which to skip. While every developer should be competent in more than one language, it’s certainly not realistic to expect a developer to be an expert in a dozen different languages. And since every language needs their own libraries of code, scores of developers are wasting their time writing standard functions for another language. Solving a problem that has already been solved a dozen times in the past – with a new language – is not particularly useful.

Where do we go from here? I suspect that we will continue to see the proliferation of languages. Long term, we will see languages transition to legacy code far sooner than previously. This will make it increasingly difficult for companies to maintain their codebase and will mean more frequent rewrites of software applications just to stay current. For companies, I would suggest ensuring that the languages you choose are solid, stable, mature, and likely to be around long term. You can go for the newest language out there, but you’ll struggle to find developers now and you’ll likely end up having an ever more difficult time maintaining the application long-term.

Loosely Coupled Systems

One of the principles of modern engineering is to create loosely coupled systems. But what does that mean and why is it so important?

In the past, it was common to create huge systems that included code for a wide variety of different functions. For example, an eCommerce system may include code for accessing the database, processing credit card payments, and interacting with an inventory management system. While having all the code in one place may sound great, it has some serious drawbacks. For example, maintenance becomes increasingly difficult the larger an application becomes. Additionally, testing must include the entire system, and deployment is an all or nothing deal. Upgrades are also more difficult as the entire system must be upgraded at once and opportunities for regression errors multiply.

Today, systems strive to be modular and loosely coupled. One piece may do credit card processing, another service may provide database access, and still another service may provide email support. While there are more pieces, these pieces can be assembled into a wide variety of configurations across different applications and these modules can be more easily tested. Once the credit card service is deployed, for example, it does not need to be changed or tested again until new features are required or bugs are found. Each piece can use the best technology for the task, and upgrades can happen on a per-service basis.

Currently, these services are often deployed as JSON-based REST services. These types of services are now becoming ubiquitous. A large variety of publicly available services are available for things like weather data, stock quotes, ISO country codes, etc.  This modular approach not only decreases development effort, it improves application stability as well.

On any project you’re involved in, whether it’s in writing the code or managing the project, modularity and loose coupling should be one of the most important guiding principles.

Expertise and Versatility

Successful entrepreneurship hinges largely on maximizing benefit and  minimizing risk. While striving to solve some of the world’s most difficult problems, entrepreneurs that rise to the top are those who optimize the process of weighing the risk versus reward of their decisions. The end goal for businesses and communities should not only be to survive but to also thrive. Rather than making strictly safe and comfortable decisions, people ought to encourage taking an appropriate amount of risk for the right reasons. After all, the health of a society cannot adequately be defined by “success” or “failure” in a word.

In a world replete with industries that constantly change and develop, consumers have grown to expect that products and services will become better and cheaper over time. Entrepreneurs and businesses who look beyond the basics tend to find opportunity knocking much more frequently, because they are willing to learn and share their knowledge with others.

With others striving to beat out the competition and have a “better than them” mentality, some of the greatest success stories have started with an individual whose desire is to become better today than yesterday and become better tomorrow than today. This yearning to improve and accomplish more each day ensures that the business will exceed customer and consumer expectations, delivering greater quality and value over the long term.

Over the long term, expertise alone will not suffice to assure sustained business growth. Along with expertise, businesses need to be able to understand how to apply their knowledge and continue addressing the new problems that arise. Versatility paired with expertise can provide the essentials necessary to build a business that is strategically positioned to endure the storms that businesses ultimately face.

Businesses ultimately face many challenges.  The task of satisfying and exceeding the expectations of clients, customers, and consumers can seem daunting. However, those who more willingly face adversity tend to more easily overcome adversity. We have woven these principles into our own business model, so that we grow alongside our community by sharing our expertise to help businesses create new value. As you consider applying this information to your own business, think of ways that you might increase expertise and versatility to make awesome happen for our community.

Getting Started with Artificial Intelligence

It seems that artificial intelligence is in the news more and more. Most larger companies use AI for something within their business, and more and more businesses are finding ways to improve their organization with AI. Purchase recommendation systems, self driving cars, video games, language translation apps, and route mapping software are just a few examples of artificial intelligence we see every day.

But where does someone interested in AI get started?  AI can be very complicated, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved too! One of my favorite resources for learning AI is the series Artificial Intelligence for Humans by Jeff Heaton. In his books, he covers a variety of topics including genetic algorithms, machine learning, clustering, linear regression, swarm algorithms, and so much more. While these topics can be complicated, Jeff presents them without all the math in a way that is far more readable than most texts on the topic.

If you are interested in AI, one of the first questions to answer is what programming language you want to use. While any language can be used for AI, the bulk of the tools and frameworks available exist for Java, C++, Python, and R. If you’re big into number crunching and Big Data, R may be the obvious choice. If you’re not a programmer, Python may be easier. For existing developers, Java or C++ may be best.

What type of AI do you start with? Try genetic algorithms or swarming algorithms. Genetic AI assumes the answer to be like a genetic genome and, through a series of mutations and genetic splicing, attempts to find an answer.  Swarming algorithms look at groups of objects and attempts to have them behave like a cohesive team. Swarming algorithms are great for games with AI controlled enemy armies and are commonly used by game developers. Other common, and simple, AI algorithms include K-Means clustering (used to group objects by similarity),  linear regression (used to predict unknown values using relatively simple algebra), or path finding algorithms such as Dijkstra’s Algorithm.

Once you understand the basics of AI, you can move onto frameworks like DeepLearning4J or TensorFlow to help create Neural Networks (a far more advanced type of AI) or look into libraries like OpenCV for tinkering with Computer Vision.

Whether it’s creating an emulation of a fish tank using swarming algorithms, solving the Traveling Salesman Problem using genetic algorithms, or calculating a path through a maze using Dijkstra’s Algorithm, artificial intelligence is loads of fun.