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SearchCloudComputing Advisory Board profile: Alex Witherspoon

In March 2016, SearchCloudComputing formed an Advisory Board to delve deeper into the latest cloud trends. In our last post, we introduced Advisory Board member Bill Wilder. This week, we talked with Alex Witherspoon, vice president of platform engineering at FlightStats, a global data service company in the aviation space, based in Portland, Oregon.

Witherspoon manages IT infrastructure and software engineering teams, which handle global flight data for the company. Witherspoon was also in charge of the company’s migration to Amazon Web Services’ public cloud, and manages the company’s hybrid cloud environment.

In the Q&A below, SearchCloudComputing spoke with Witherspoon about everything from cloud security and management trends to hybrid cloud and drones.

SearchCloudComputing: What drew you toward a career in cloud?

Alex Witherspoon: What really drew me into this whole field is I just have this kind of love/hate relationship for computers and what they did. I originally got my beginning on mainframes when I was working on an IBM AIX system. It’s kind of funny, in computer science we see trends come and go again, but they tend to repeat. With mainframes, they actually operate at a lot like what we refer to as the current cloud. It was a way to interface with a whole bunch of CPUs, memory, storage and network all in one big box. It was kind of elastic and when you needed more you just shoved more in there. And that’s a really cool capability.

It was hard to afford back then, but it was cool, because you could just expand to whatever scale you needed; you could tackle the really hard problems. There was this period of time when you could buy a smaller, cheaper server and people thought, “Well, instead of buying a big monolith, I’ll buy a hundred of these smaller cheaper servers.” We did that as an industry… and at the time, managing and orchestrating those [servers] had to become software-driven and that’s where we see the cloud today, in all of its various facets. [Cloud computing] is a really cool way of managing computers at a scale that we’ve never been able to do before.

What’s one project you’re especially proud of in your cloud career?

Witherspoon: There were a lot of projects around Internet2 earlier in my career when I worked with Wichita State University in Kansas. At the time, we were stringing 10 gig network connections, when most people only had dial-up, so this was considered absolutely blazing fast. We were trying to build a cloud — I mean, what we today would call cloud — and this private cloud was a second rendition of the internet. When we work on cloud, what we are doing is shifting the human effort into a different level of the stack, instead of spending all the human investment; we only have so many waking hours in the day. The project is still alive, except much, much faster now. And from what I’ve heard, those projects have only continued to grow and have enabled these folks to do higher resolution and more rich data exchanges across the world, and Internet2 has become an international effort worldwide.

What are the top challenges organizations face with cloud?

Witherspoon: One of the big issues has always been management, so if you want to deconstruct what cloud really means, it’s the ability to actually manage and orchestrate all of these CPUs, memory, storage, network and all these [other resources]. What we commonly refer to as cloud means that it is all software-orchestrated. It means that we go to AWS and push a button or make an API call, which is a huge fundamental step from just a few years ago when everyone was pushing a button on a server and waiting for it to boot up.

The setup time for an individual service or server could be an hour, it could be days– and that isn’t someone just twiddling their thumbs, it’s a different way of interfacing with the same classical problem.

Why did you adopt a hybrid cloud at FlightStats?

Witherspoon: We wanted to have high performance compute so we could do things like predict where airplanes would be months from now – to be able to determine and clean up dirty data in a big data set. That required higher performance than what AWS could give us at a reasonable rate, so we created this private colocation facility and endowed it with all those cloud-like qualities, so we could actually have a private cloud to complement a public cloud. It’s programmatically managed, it is amorphous in that I can expand it horizontally as much as our budget allows and have it manage itself. I don’t have engineers working under me, staring at a storage array and managing it day to day.

What cloud trends are you especially interested in?

Witherspoon: At a really broad level, I am watching the investments of these cloud providers because they’re not all lining up. Some of them are making investments that cater to specific use cases and we’re still watching that evolve. What is really interesting is the niches of cloud; these cloud providers are working to provide for very specific niches. So AWS and Azure are trying to be general cloud compute and solve every issue, but we see some other folks making other steps and I am kind of watching those because, as someone managing engineering efforts into cloud, I might choose to pick one if it better caters to my solution at a better rate. So that is kind of the cost-effectiveness piece, but that’s also the technical capability of these clouds — they aren’t all built the same on purpose, they all are a little bit different. On the other hand, I’m looking for any kind of growth pains and some of the really big ones with AWS. They have been really struggling to get their support where it needs to be. If anything, it’s a growth pain from the enormity of their success.

To get a little more in the weeds, I am definitely watching cloud security. I am not one of the folks who are simply “tin foil hat” scared of the cloud, however, I am absolutely confident that I can call cloud security less mature on most environments than what I would expect in an enterprise environment. I would expect better reporting [in the cloud], and I would expect to see that security layer. In AWS, we just have to trust that it’s there. So, watching that trend to see how it improves will be very curious to me.

When not working, what do you enjoy doing?

Witherspoon: I am also a business man, and I find a lot of those work passions manifest in some of my hobbies. For example, I really like to race cars and motorcycles, and so I did semi-pro racing and things like that. So I really enjoy that. I also used to run a little company, as a hobby, that built drones and flew those around. Obviously, that’s a very interesting topic with all kinds of stuff going on right now. So I did long range drone flights where I would fly from Portland, Oregon to the coast and back with autonomous flights. And even stuff like gardening, so I am all over the board — you could call me a polymath.