Saturday, February 4, 2012

Rolling in the Aisles Comedy at RootsTech

Josh Coates delivers keynote at RootsTech 2012He was one funny guy. We were rolling in the aisles. I’m not talking about the Thursday evening comedy performance of Ryan Hamilton (although that was rolling funny as well).

No. I’m talking about the Friday morning keynote session of Josh Coates, “Exabyte Social Clouds and other Monstrosities.”

Coates, was the founder of cloud backup company and is currently CEO of Instructure, an education-focused software company.

He set the mood for his presentation from the moment he set foot on stage—barefoot—and announced that “you hear a lot of people blab at conferences. Half of them are full of crap.” From that moment on he was tit for tat. Serious point. Funny comment. Serious point. Funny comment.

In less than 60 minutes Coates walked us through social networking, exabytes of storage, and cloud computing.

Coates started with a history of social networking. His first participation in social networking was the old BBS dial up systems. (Remember those? Can you say “300 baud”? Sure, but can you say it painfully slow?)

A scientist named Dunbar studied interactions among monkeys and found they could integrate no more than 148 other monkeys in their social structure. Later scientists extended the study to humans and decided we weren’t much better, upping the number to 231. He joked about people on Facebook claiming more friends than that. And if you have less friends? You should be more friendly.

The idea behind a social network is that you link people together electronically, and really amazing things can happen. Take Wikipedia for example. Coates thought the idea would fail.

“Never underestimate the tenacity and drive,” he said with a long pause, “of unemployed PhD graduates.”

While there will be another Facebook at some point in the future, don’t bother trying to be the one that gets rich creating it. There are several necessary requirements that you are unlikely to meet. You won’t be able to achieve critical mass—that is, having enough participants for the network to have value. It costs too much to acquire users (even free has costs in time and effort). And you won’t be able to provide users a compelling reason to return.

No small special interest group will ever make one work. (Say, genealogists?)

The humor sprinkled throughout the presentation is illustrated by one of his slides. Right in the middle of a series of slides, up popped a slide about zombies. He paused.

“I don’t…” Long pause. “…even know…” Another pause. “…how that slide got in there.”

Josh Coates, Types of Zombies

Coates went on to illustrate the size of an exabyte.

  • 1 gigabyte is equivalent to the human genome. The 3.2 billion base pairs would take 9.5 years to read aloud.
  • 1 terabyte is equivalent to 32,000 trees worth of paper (18” diameter trees).
  • 1 petabyte is equivalent to a truck filled with one ton of paper. Then get 1,400,000 of them.
  • 1 exabyte is equivalent to all trees in the US that are larger than 8” in diameter being cut down and turned into paper. (That’s 30,000,000,000 trees.)
  • 1 zettabyte is equivalent to all the grains of sand on every beach in the world, seven times over, 1 grain representing 1 kilobyte.

Finally, Coates talked about “the cloud.” Cloud computing is a metaphor. He compared the cloud to electric utility companies. In the early days of the industrial revolution, manufacturing plants had their own power generators. They had to generate their own power. That required tons of equipment, large costs, and wasted capacity. With the development of power companies, factories could buy their electricity for a fraction of what it cost to generate it themselves.

That is what the cloud is like. We buy electric power from the cloud. Even computer servers can be marshaled from the cloud. And the cost is pennies on the dollar of running your own data center. A teenager can assemble a super computer in his room for a few hundred bucks. Really.

We live in a day when amazing things impossible just five years ago, are possible today.

In closing, Coates brought it all together in one question.

“The question of the era is, ‘what would you do with unlimited bandwidth, storage, and CPUs?’ No other generation has had this question posed to them. It’s a pretty heavy responsibility.”

“What are we going to do with this?”


(The zombie slide was actually an inside joke, perhaps known to no one else in the room. Coates had previously done a comic presentation including the slide. See “Effective Tactical Responses in a Post-Apocalyptic Environment.”)


  1. This is a great review of his high energy, fun presentation this morning (er, yesterday morning). Thanks for all the details about *bytes.

  2. Loved his presentation... thanks for such a great summary. I think I'm going to have to watch it again... and maybe again. :-)

  3. I agree. Hamilton and Coates were both amazing.

    But I think a 3rd person could be added to the group: Ron Tanner's first half hour on his Saturday morning talk had us rolling on the floor prior to him getting more serious and telling us about the new FamilySearch Family Tree.

  4. The Industrial Revolution long predated the existence of electrical power. Some folks could bone up on developments in technology.


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