Guest Post: The Origins of Monitorama — Librato Blog

Guest Post: The Origins of Monitorama

In his guest post on the history of Monitorama, founder and organizer of the first and only U.S. conference that focuses strictly on monitoring, Jason Dixon reminisces about the history of monitoring-as-a-service, composable monitoring, #monitoringlove, and more.


It's hard to imagine that just three years ago, there were no conferences (at least in the USA) focused on software monitoring. Much has changed since then: containerization has taken the industry by storm, countless Monitoring-as-a-Service startups have launched with enormous backing by venture capitalists, monitoring architectures have begun to shift away from polling engines towards stream processing of metrics, and a small seed of an idea for an Open Source monitoring hackathon has grown into a hugely popular international conference series.

Even back then it was clear that something special was happening with monitoring software among the Open Source community. Although tools like Nagios and Cacti had been around for many years, there was a growing discontent with the "good enough" mantra associated with these old standbys. Projects like Sensu, Logstash and Graphite were gaining in popularity, designed for modern, flexible infrastructures that relied heavily on cloud services and Configuration Management. Personalities like John E. Lusis, Jordan Sissel, John Allspaw, and yours truly drove home the message that monitoring sucks, our vocabulary matters, that we need a more fundamental understanding of human error, and that composable systems were the future of monitoring.

Mere minutes after my own State of Open Source Monitoring talk at DevOpsDays Rome, Ulf Mansson presented his ignite talk, coining the phrase "monitoringlove". This fresh idea forced many of us to reframe the discussion about monitoring software from "why do we put up with it" to "how can we improve upon it". A new age of discrete monitoring components (agents, stream processors, time-series storage engines, data visualization libraries, alert engines, etc) began to gain adoption, made possible by software developers who embraced the idea of standardized interfaces, pluggable architectures, and compatibility in their monitoring services. Services like Pingdom, PagerDuty and Librato already understood the benefits of these composable systems, building monitoring-related services for anyone to consume, at scale.

Initially, Monitorama was intended to be a small event designed by developers, for developers. I wanted to do my small part to bring together the community of Open Source monitoring contributors in a forum that would allow us to collaborate in person, sharing our vision for the future and continuing to promote cooperation and interoperability. Before long we'd assembled a veritable who's who of monitoring developers and thought leaders for our inaugural event in Boston, MA. In spite of my poor attempts at branding and logo design (I'm a blatant fan of Futurama), tickets sold out quickly, leading some individuals to purchase sponsorships just so they could get a seat at the show.


That first event was not without its share of challenges. The live video stream never quite worked right, the lunch lines were longer than expected, and the in-house video capture used technology so outdated that the video files would only play in RealPlayer. Nevertheless, the event was a huge success. There were some truly memorable moments courtesy of John Allspaw, Dr. Neil J. Gunther, Kyle Kingsbury and others, but one of my highlights was the "8-bit monitoringlove" mini cupcake display (sponsored by my friends at Librato) that volunteers rushed to construct during one of the sessions. The end result was so large that we had to ask our tallest attendee, ex-collegiate volleyball player and Heroku alumnus Blake Gentry, to take "aerial" photographs of the creation.


In keeping with our hackathon theme, the second day of the event involved a series of "workshops" intended to showcase individual Open Source projects. In parallel, a competition was held for participants who wanted to hang out and hack on Open Source monitoring projects. Project ideas were seeded as GitHub issues and contributors were asked to submit pull requests to their favorite project. Final submissions were presented to the audience and judged for completeness, originality, and impact, with awards distributed to the winners and runners-up. The outcome was hugely successful, but the amount of work required to prepare the hackathon was... substantial. We've yet to repeat this style of hackathon, although we continue to tweak our approach to the annual "Hack Day" in an effort to raise awareness to these projects while still making it fun for everyone.

Sponsors continue to be important partners in the success of the conference. Traditionally you'll find rows of exhibitor space at technical events like Monitorama, lined up to let you view their products and chat with their experts. In some ways this can be effective, helping customers and vendors meet and learn about new offerings. But in many cases it resembles a cheap carnival, with salesfolk fighting to scan your badge in order to add you to their email blast. To date we've resisted the urge to go down this path, instead offering our sponsors the opportunity to present a brief demonstration between normal sessions. This has proven to be a successful formula, giving vendors a stage to showcase their product or service in real-time, while attendees get to see what sort of innovations are out there without having to stumble around the expo blindly or fight for attention in a booth. I think this mingling of Open Source and commercial offerings brings a unique sense of purpose to the event, driving innovation through friendly competition.

Next week's Monitorama marks our return to Portland, Oregon for another year of fantastic talks and project showcases. The City of Roses is a perfect setting for this event with its mild weather, a great public transit system, fantastic restaurants and food trucks, and a collection of the best breweries on the west coast. We had such an amazing experience last year we had no choice but to return. Thanks to the variety of talks last year from speakers including James Mickens, Ashe Dryden, and Katherine Daniels, we were forced to increase the number of tickets available for this year's event to the full capacity of the Gerding Theater.

This marks the fourth consecutive sell-out in the short history of Monitorama. People ask me how we intend to grow the event further, and my answer is the same: carefully. Monitorama was designed to address what I perceive as shortcomings of other technical conferences: too many tracks, not enough diversity, lack of a cohesive vision, and a poor experience for new attendees. The single track format allows us to curate a unified experience for all attendees. I generally avoid multi-track events due to "choice overload"; I always feel like I'm missing out on a better talk elsewhere, or I end up sitting around waiting to find any talks that interest me. Diversity is increasingly emphasized throughout the technical community and I couldn't be more thrilled to see this happening. Unfortunately, an event like Monitorama is still considered a niche among niches, so we continue to work hard to improve our results every year.

Last but not least, I want everyone who attends this conference to feel welcome. Empathy is a guiding principle of Monitorama and we rely on it to curate the experience for everyone involved. I know what it feels like to be an outsider at an event where you're not part of the inner circle, and I never want anyone else to feel that way at Monitorama. As emotionally and physically draining as it may be to meet every last attendee, that's my goal every year. I want this event to be a reflection of everyone who participates, and knowing each attendee personally will help me understand what this event is really all about and where we need to point the compass in future years.

Asking John Allspaw to return for next year's event

Asking John Allspaw to return for next year's event

If you managed to snag tickets for Monitorama PDX 2015, I look forward to seeing you in person next week. We have another outstanding lineup of speakers and talks, and plenty of "extra-curricular" activities for after-hours. If you missed out this time, rest assured that we'll be live streaming the event on our website and making videos and slides available soon after the conclusion of the event. If you're not already, I encourage you to follow @Monitorama on Twitter for announcements and news regarding future events.