Posts Tagged ‘open source’

Lucene/Solr London Meetup – BioSolr and Query Deep Dive

This week we held another Lucene/Solr London User Group event, kindly hosted by Barclays at their funky Escalator space in Whitechapel. First to talk were two colleagues of mine, Matt Pearce and Tom Winch, on the BioSolr project: funded by the BBSRC, this is an opportunity for us to work with bioinformaticians at the European Bioinformatics Institute on improving search facilities for systems including the Protein Databank in Europe (PDBe). Tom spoke about how we’ve added features to Solr for autocompleting searches using facets and a new way of integrating external similarity systems with Solr searches – in this case an EBI system that works with protein data – which we’ve named XJoin. Matt then spoke about various ways to index ontology data and how we’re hoping to work towards a standard method for working with ontologies using Solr. The code we’ve developed so far is available in our GitHub repository and the slides are available here.

Next was Upayavira of Odoko Ltd., expert Solr trainer and Apache Foundation member, with an engaging talk about Solr queries. Amongst other things he showed us some clever ways to parameterize queries so that a Solr endpoint can be customized for a particular purpose and how to combine different query parsers. His slides are available here.

Thanks all our speakers, to Barclays for providing the venue and for some very tasty food and to all who attended. We’re hoping the next event will be in the first week of June and will feature talks on measuring and improving relevancy with Solr.

Elastic London User Group Meetup – scaling with Kafka and Cassandra

The Elastic London User Group Meetup this week was slightly unusual in that the talks focussed not so much on Elasticsearch but rather on how to scale the systems around it using other technologies. First up was Paul Stack with an amusing description of how he had worked on scaling the logging infrastructure for a major restaurant booking website, to cope with hundreds of millions of messages a day across up to 6 datacentres. Moving from an original architecture based on SQL and ASP.NET, they started by using Redis as a queue and Logstash to feed the logs to Elasticsearch. Further instances of Logstash were added to glue other parts of the system together but Redis proved unable to handle this volume of data reliably and a new architecture was developed based on Apache Kafka, a highly scalable message passing platform originally built at LinkedIn. Kafka proved very good at retaining data even under fault conditions. He continued with a description of how the Kafka architecture was further modified (not entirely successfully) and how monitoring systems based on Nagios and Graphite were developed for both the Kafka and Elasticsearch nodes (with the infamous split brain problem being one condition to be watched for). Although the project had its problems, the system did manage to cope with 840 million messages one Valentine’s day, which is impressive. Paul concluded that although scaling to this level is undeniably hard, Kafka was a good technology choice. Some of his software is available as open source.

Next, Jamie Turner of PostcodeAnywhere described in general terms how they had used Apache Cassandra and Apache Spark to build a scalable architecture for logging interactions with their service, so they could learn about and improve customer experiences. They explored many different options for their database, including MySQL and MongoDB (regarding Mongo, Jamie raised a laugh with ‘bless them, they do try’) before settling on Cassandra which does seem to be a popular choice for a rock-solid distributed database. As PostcodeAnywhere are a Windows house, the availability and performance of .Net compatible clients was key and luckily they have had a good experience with the NEST client for Elasticsearch. Although light on technical detail, Jamie did mention how they use Markov chains to model customer experiences.

After a short break for snacks and beer we returned for a Q&A with Elastic team members: one interesting announcement was that there will be a Elastic(on) in Europe some time this year (if anyone from the Elastic team is reading this please try and avoid a clash with Enterprise Search Europe on October 20th/21st!). Thanks as ever to Yann Cluchey for organising the event and to open source recruiters eSynergySolutions for sponsoring the venue and refreshments.

Free file filters, search & taxonomy tools from our old Googlecode repository

Google’s GoogleCode service is closing down, in case you hadn’t heard, and I’ve just started the process of moving everything over to our Github account. This prompted me to take a look at what’s there and there’s a surprising amount of open source code I’d forgotten about. So, here’s a quick rundown of the useful tools, examples and crazy ideas we’ve built over the years – perhaps you’ll find some of it useful – please do bear in mind however that we’re not officially supporting most of it!

  • Flax Basic is a simple enterprise search application built using Python and the Xapian search library. You can install this on your own Unix or Windows system to index Microsoft Office, PDF, RTF and HTML files and it provides a simple web application to search the contents of the files. Although the UI is very basic, it proved surprisingly popular among small companies who don’t have the budget for a ‘grown up’ search system.
  • Clade is a proof-of-concept classification system with a built-in taxonomy editor. Each node in the taxonomy is defined by a collection of words: as a document is ingested, if it contains these words then it is attached to the node. We’ve written about Clade previously. Again this is a basic tool but has proved popular and we hope one day to extend and improve it.
  • Flax Filters are a set of Python programs for extracting plain text from a number of common file formats – which is useful for indexing these files for search. The filters use a number of external programs (such as Open Office in ‘headless’ mode) to extract the data.
  • The Lucene Redis Codec is a (slightly crazy) experiment in how the Lucene search engine could store indexed data not on disk, but in a database – our intention was to see if frequently-updated data could be changed without Lucene noticing. Here’s what we wrote at the time.
  • There’s also a tool for removing fields from a Lucene index, a prototype web service interface with a JSON API for the Xapian search engine and an early version of a searchable database for historians, but to be honest these are all pre-alpha and didn’t get much further.

If you like any of these tools feel free to explore them further – but remember your hard hat and archeology tools!

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Posted in Technical

March 19th, 2015

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Rebrands and changing times for Elasticsearch

I’ve always been careful to distinguish between Elasticsearch (the open source search server based on Lucene) and Elasticsearch (the company formed by the authors of the former) and it seems someone was listening, as the latter has now rebranded as simply Elastic. This was one of the big announcements during their first conference, the other being that after acquiring Norwegian company Found they are now offering a fully hosted Elasticsearch-as-a-service (congratulations to Alex and others at Found!). As Ben Kepes of Forbes writes, this may be something to do with ‘managing tensions within the ecosystem’ (I’ve written previously on how this ecosystem is expanding to include closed-source commercial products, which may make open source enthusiasts nervous) but it’s also an attempt to move away from ’search’ into a wider area encompassing the buzzwords-de-jour of Big Data Analytics.

In any case, it’s clear that Elastic (the company, and that’s hopefully the last time I’ll have to write this!) have a clear strategy for the future – to provide many different commercial options for Elasticsearch and its related projects for as many different use cases as possible. Of course, you can still take the open source route, which we’re helping several clients with at present – I hope to be able to present a case study on this very soon.

Meanwhile, Martin White has identified how a recent book on Elasticsearch describes literally hundreds of features and that ‘The skill lies in knowing which to implement given the nature of the content and the type of query that will be used’ – effective search, as ever, remains a difficult thing to get right, no matter what technology option you choose.

UPDATE: It seems that www.elasticsearch.org, the website for the open source project, is now redirecting to the commercial company website…there is now a new Github page for open source code at https://github.com/elastic

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Posted in News

March 11th, 2015

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A review of Stephen Arnold’s CyberOSINT & Next Generation Information Access

Stephen Arnold, whose blog I enjoy due to its unabashed cynicism about overenthusiastic marketing of search technology, was kind enough to send me a copy of his recent report on CyberOSINT & Next Generation Information Access (NGIA), the latter being a term he has recently coined. OSINT itself refers to intelligence gathered from open, publically available sources, not anything to do with software licenses – so yes, this is all about the NSA, CIA and others, who as you might expect are keen on anything that can filter out the interesting from the noise. Let’s leave the definition (and the moral questionability) of ‘publically available’ aside for now – even if you disagree with its motives, this is a use case which can inform anyone with search requirements of the state of the art and what the future holds.

The report starts off with a foreword by Robert David Steele, who has had a varied and interesting career and lately has become a cheerleader for the other kind of open source – software – as a foundation for intelligence gathering. His view is that the tools used by the intelligence agencies ‘are also not good enough’ and ‘We have a very long way to go’. Although he writes that ‘the systems described in this volume have something to offer’ he later concludes that ‘This monograph is a starting point for those who might wish to demand a “full spectrum” solution, one that is 100% open source, and thus affordable, interoperable, and scalable.’ So for those of us in the open source sector, we could consider Arnold’s report as a good indicator of what to shoot for, a snapshot of the state of the art in search.

Arnold then starts the report with some explanation of the NGIA concept. This is largely a list of the common failings of traditional search platforms (basic keyword search, oft-confusing syntax, separate silos of information, lack of multimedia features and personalization) and how they might be addressed (natural language search, automatic querying, federated search, analytics). I am unconvinced this is as big a step as Arnold suggests though: it seems rather to imply that all past search systems were badly set up and configured and somehow a NGIA system will magically pull everything together for you and tell you the answer to questions you hadn’t even asked yet.

Disappointingly the exemplar chosen in the next chapter is Autonomy IDOL: regular readers will not be surprised by my feelings about this technology. Arnold suggests the creation of the Autonomy software was influenced by cracking World War II codes, rock music and artificial intelligence, which is in my mind adding egg to an already very eggy pudding, and not in step with what I know about the background of Cambridge Neurodynamics (Autonomy’s progenitor, created very soon after – and across the corridor from – Muscat, another Cambridge Bayesian search technology firm where Flax’s founders cut their teeth on search). In particular, Autonomy’s Kenjin tool – which automatically suggested related documents – is identified as a NGIA feature, although at the time I remember it being reminiscent of features we had built a year earlier at Muscat – we even applied for a patent. Arnold does note that ‘[Autonomy founder, Mike] Lynch and his colleagues clamped down on information about the inner workings of its smart software.’ and ‘The Autonomy approach locks down the IDOL components.’ – this was a magic black box of course, with a magically increasing price tag as well. The price tag rose to ridiculous dimensions (even after an equally ridiculous writedown) when Hewlett Packard bought the company.

The report continues with analysis of various other potential NGIA contenders, including Google-funded timeline analysis specialists Recorded Future and BAE Detica – interestingly one of the search specialists from this British company has now gone on to work at Elasticsearch.

The report concludes with a look at the future, correctly identifying advanced analytics as one key future trend. However this conclusion also echoes the foreword, with ‘The cost of proprietary licensing, maintenance, and training is now killing the marketplace. Open source alternatives will emerge, and among these may be a 900 pound gorilla that is free, interoperable and scalable.’. Although I have my issues with some of the examples chosen, the report will be very useful I’m sure to those in the intelligence sector, who like many are still looking for search that works.

Lucene/Solr London User Group – Alfresco & Datastax

We had another London user group Meetup last week, hosted by Reed.co.uk who also provided some tasty pizza – eaten under the ‘Love Mondays’ sign from their adverts, which now lives in their boardroom! A few new faces this time and a couple of great talks from two companies who have incorporated Solr into their platforms.

First up was Andy Hind, a founding developer of document management company Alfresco, who told us all about how they originally based their search capability on Lucene 2.4, then moved to Solr 4.4 and most recently version 4.9.1. Using Solr they have implemented often complex security requirements (originally using a PostFilter as Erik Hatcher describes and more recently in the query itself), structured queries (using Phrase and SpanQueries) and their own domain specific query language (DSL) – they can support SQL-like, Lucene and Google-like queries by passing them through parsers based on ANTLR to be served either by the search engine or whatever relational database Alfresco is using. The move to a recent version of Solr has allowed the most recent release of Alfresco to support various modern search features (facets, spelling suggestions etc.) but Andy did mention that so far they are not using SolrCloud for scaling, preferring to manage this themselves.

Next up was Sergio Bossa of Datastax, talking about how their Datastax Enterprise (DSE) product incorporates Solr searching within an Apache Cassandra cluster. Sergio has previously spoken at our Cambridge search meetup on a very similar subject, so I won’t repeat myself here, but the key point is that Solr lives directly on top of the Cassandra cluster, so you don’t have to worry about it at all – search features are directly available from the Cassandra APIs. Like Alfresco, this is an alternative to SolrCloud (assuming you also need a NoSQL database of course!).

Thanks again to Alex Rice for hosting the Meetup, to both our speakers and to all who came – we’ll return soon! In the meantime you may want to check out a few events coming later this year: Berlin Buzzwords, ApacheCon Europe and Lucene/Solr Revolution.

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Posted in Technical, events

February 16th, 2015

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Searching for opportunities in Real-Time Analytics

I spent a day last week at a new event from UNICOM, a conference on Real-Time Analytics. Mike Ferguson chaired the event and was kind enough to spend time with me over lunch exploring how search software might fit into the mix, something that has been on my mind since hearing about the Unified Log concept a few weeks ago.

Real-Time Analytics is a field where sometimes vast amounts of data in motion is gathered, filtered, cleaned and analysed to trigger various actions to benefit a business: building on earlier capabilities in Business Intelligence, the endgame is a business that adapts automatically to changing conditions in real-time – for example, automating the purchasing of extra stock based on changing behaviour of customers. The analysis part of this chain is driven by complex models, often based on sets of training data. Complex Event Processing or CEP is an older term for this kind of process (if you’re already suffering from buzzword overflow, Martin Kleppman has put some of these terms in context for those more familiar with web paradigms). Tools mentioned included Amazon Kinesis and from the Apache stable Cassandra, Hadoop, Kafka, Yarn, Storm and Spark. I particularly enjoyed Michael Cutler’s presentation on Tumra’s Spark-based system.

One of the central problems identified was due to the rapid growth of data (including from the fabled Internet of Things) it will shortly be impossible to store every data point produced – so we must somehow sort the wheat from the chaff. Options for the analysis part include SQL-like query languages and more complex machine learning algorithms. I found myself wondering if search technology, using a set of stored queries, could be used somehow to reduce the flow of this continuous stream of data, using something like this prototype implementation based on Apache Samza. One could use this approach to transform unstructured data (say, a stream of text-based customer comments) into more structured data for later timeline analysis, split streams of events into several parts for separate processing or just to watch for sets of particularly interesting and complex events. Although search platforms such as Elasticsearch are already being integrated into the various Real-Time Analytics frameworks, these seem to be being used for offline processing rather than acting directly on the stream itself.

One potential advantage is that it might be a lot easier for analysts to generate a stored search than to learn SQL or the complexities of machine learning – just spend some time with a collection of past events and refine your search terms, facets and filters until your results are useful, and save the query you have generated.

This was a very interesting introduction to a relatively new field and thanks to UNICOM for the invitation. We’re going to continue to explore the possibilities!

Out and about in January and February

We’re speaking at a couple of events soon: if you’re in London and interested in Apache Lucene/Solr we’re also planning another London User Group Meetup soon.

Firstly my colleague Alan Woodward is speaking with Martin Kleppman at FOSDEM in Brussels (31st January-1st February) on Searching over streams with Luwak and Apache Samza – about some fascinating work they’ve been doing to combine the powerful ‘reverse search’ facilities of our Luwak library with Apache Samza’s distributed, stream-based processing. We’re hoping this means we can scale Luwak beyond its current limits (although those limits are pretty accomodating, as we know of systems where a million or so stored searches are applied to a million incoming messages every day). If you’re interested in open source search the Devroom they’re speaking in has lots of other great talks planned.

Next I’m talking about the wider applications of this kind of reverse search in the area of media monitoring, and how open source software in general can help you turn your organisation’s infrastructure upside down, at the Intrateam conference event in Copenhagen from February 24th-26th. Scroll down to find my talk at 11.35 am on Thursday 26th.

If you’d like to meet us at either of these events do get in touch.

Solr Superclusters for improved federated search

As part of our BioSolr project, we’ve been discussing how best to create a federated search over several Apache Solr instances. In this case various research institutions across the world are annotating data objects representing proteins and it would be useful to search not just the original protein data, but what others have added to the body of knowledge. If an institution wants to use the annotations, the usual approach is to download the extra data regularly and add it into a local Solr index.

Luckily Solr is widely used in the bioinformatics community so we have commonality in the query API. The question is would it be possible to use some of the distributed querying capabilities of SolrCloud to search not just the shards of a single index, but a group of Solr/SolrCloud indices – a supercluster.

This is a bit like a standard federated search, where queries are farmed out to various disparate search engines and the results then combined and displayed in some fashion. However, since we are sharing a single technology, powerful features such as result grouping would be possible.

For this to work at all, there would need to be some agreed standard between the various Solr systems: a globally unique record identifier for example (possibly implemented with a prefix unique to each institution). Any data that was required for result grouping would have to share a schema across the entire supercluster – let’s call this the primary schema – but basic searching and faceting could still be carried out over data with a differing, secondary schema. Solr dynamic fields might be useful for this secondary schema.

Luckily, research institutions are used to working as part of a consortium, and one of the conditions for joining would be agreeing to some common standards. A single Solr query API would then be available to all members of the consortium, to search not just their own data but everything available from their partners, without the slow and error-prone process of copying the data for local indexing.

We’re currently evaluating the feasibility of this idea and would welcome input from others – let us know what you think in the comments!

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Posted in Technical

January 20th, 2015

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Elasticsearch London user group – The Guardian & Orchestrate test the limits

Last week I popped into the Elasticsearch London meetup, hosted this time by The Guardian newspaper. Interestingly, the overall theme of this event was not just what the (very capable and flexible) Elasticsearch software is capable of, but also how things can go wrong and what to do about it.

Jenny Sivapalan and Mariot Chauvin from the Guardian’s technical team described how Elasticsearch powers the Content API, used not just for the newspaper’s own website but internally and by third party applications. Originally this was built on Apache Solr (I heard about this the last time I attended a search meetup at the Guardian) but this system was proving difficult to scale elastically, taking a few minutes before new content was available and around an hour to add a new server. Instead of upgrading to SolrCloud (which probably would have solved some of these issues) the team decided to move to Elasticsearch with targets of less than 5 seconds for new content to become live and generally a quicker response to traffic peaks. The team were honest about what had gone wrong during this process: oversharding led to problems caused by Java garbage collection, some of the characteristics of the Amazon cloud hosting used (in particular, unexpected server shutdowns for maintenance) required significant tweaking of the Elasticsearch startup process and they were keen to stress that scripting must be disabled unless you want your search servers to be an easy target for hackers. Although Elasticsearch promises that version upgrades can usually be done on a live cluster, the Guardian team found this unreliable in a majority of cases. Their eventual solution for version upgrades and even more simple configuration changes was to spin up an entirely new cluster of servers, switch over by changing DNS settings and then to turn off the old cluster. They have achieved their performance targets though, with around 375 requests/second supported and less than 15 minutes for a failed node to recover.

After a brief presentation from Colin Goodheart-Smithe of Elasticsearch (the company) on scripted aggregrations – a clever way to gather statistics, but possibly rather fiddly to debug – we moved on to Ian Plosker of Orchestrate.io, who provide a ‘database as a service’ backed by HBase, Elasticsearch and other technologies, and his presentation on Schemalessness Gone Wrong. Elasticsearch allows you submit data for indexing without pre-defining a schema – but Ian demonstrated how this feature isn’t very reliable in practice and how his team had worked around it but creating a ‘tuplewise transform’, restructuring data into pairs of ‘field name, field value’ before indexing with Elasticsearch. Ian was questioned on how this might affect term statistics and thus relevance metrics (which it will) but replied that this probably won’t matter – it won’t for most situations I expect, but it’s something to be aware of. There’s much more on this at Orchestrate’s own blog.

We finished up with the usual Q&A which this time featured some hard questions for the Elasticsearch team to answer – for example why they have rolled their own distributed configuration system rather than used the proven Zookeeper. I asked what’s going to happen to the easily embeddable Kibana 3 now Kibana 4 has its own web application (the answer being that it will probably not be developed further) and also about the licensing and availability of their upcoming Shield security plugin for Elasticsearch. Interestingly this won’t be something you can buy as a product, rather it will only be available to support customers on the Gold and Platinum support subscriptions. It’s clear that although Elasticsearch the search engine should remain open source, we’re increasingly going to see parts of its ecosystem that aren’t – users should be aware of this, and that the future of the platform will very much depend on the business direction of Elasticsearch the company, who also centrally control the content of the open source releases (in contrast to Solr which is managed by the Apache Foundation).

Elasticsearch meetups will be more frequent next year – thanks Yann Cluchey for organising and to all the speakers and the Elasticsearch team, see you again soon I hope.