Activate 2018 day 2 – AI and Search in Montreal

I’ve already written about Day 1 of Lucidworks’ Activate conference; the second day started with a keynote on ‘moral code’, ethics & AI which unfortunately I missed, but a colleague reported that it was very encouraging to see topics such as diversity and inclusion raised in a keynote talk. Note that videos of some of the talks is starting to appear on Lucidworks’ Youtube channel.

Steve Rowe of Lucidworks gave a talk on what’s coming in Lucene/Solr 8 – a long list of improvements and new features from 7.x releases including autoscaling of SolrCloud clusters, better cross-datacentre replication (CDCR), time routed index aliases for time-series data, new replica types, streaming expressions, a JSON query DSL, better segment merge’s clear that a huge amount of work continues to go into Solr. In 8.x releases we’ll hopefully see HTTP/2 capability for faster throughput and perhaps Luke, the Lucene Index Toolbox, becoming part of the main project.

Cassandra Targett, also of Lucidworks, spoke about the Lucene/Solr Reference Guide which is now actually part of Solr’s source code in Asciidoc format. She had attempted to build this into a searchable, fully-hyperlinked documentation source using Solr itself but this quickly ran into issues with HTML tags and maintaining correct links. Lucidworks’ own Site Search did a lot better but the result still wasn’t perfect. Work remains to be done here but encouragingly in the last few weeks there’s also been some thinking about how to better document Solr’s huge and complex test suite on SOLR-12930. As Cassandra mentioned, effective documentation isn’t always the focus of Solr committers, but it’s essential for Solr users.

The next talk I caught came from Andrzej Bialecki on Solr’s autoscaling functionality and some impressive testing he’s done. Autoscaling analyzes your Solr cluster and makes suggestions about how to restructure it – which you can then do manually or automatically using other Solr features. These features are generally tested on collections of 1 billion documents – but Andrzej has manually tested them on 1 trillion simulated documents (yes, you read that right). Now that’s some scale!

The final talk I caught before the closing keynote was Chris ‘Hossman’ Hosstetter on How to be a Solr Contributor, amusingly peppered with profanity as is his usual style. There were a number of us in the room with some small concerns about Solr patches that have not been committed, and in general about how Solr might need more committers and how this might happen, but the talk mainly focused on how to generate new patches. He also mentioned how new features can have an unexpected cost, as they must then be maintained and might have totally unexpected consequences for other parts of the platform. Some of the audience raised questions about Solr tests (some of which regularly fail) – however since the conference Mark Miller has taken the lead on this under SOLR-12801 which is encouraging.

The closing keynote by Trey Grainger brought together the threads of search and AI – and also mentioned that if anyone had some spare server capacity, it would be fun to properly test Solr at trillion-document scale…

So in conclusion how did Activate compare to its previous incarnation as Lucene/Solr Revolution? Is search really the foundation of AI? Well, the talks I attended mainly focused on Solr features, but various colleagues heard about machine learning, learning-to-rank and self-aware machines, all of which is becoming easier to implement using Lucene/Solr. However, as Doug Turnbull writes if you’re thinking of a AI for search, you should be wary of the potential cost and complexity. There are no magic robots (Kevin Watters’ robot however, is rather wonderful!).

Huge thanks must go to all at Lucidworks for putting on such a well-organised and thought-provoking event and bringing together so many Lucene/Solr enthusiasts.

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