The venue for this years PHP UK Conference, The Business Design Centre in Islington, North London was a pretty good choice in my opinion. With over 600 delegates attending over the 2 days, the large lobby outside the three conference rooms provided a good space to mingle, check out the numerous display stands (whilst grabbing a few free goodies) and scan the selection of discounted books on offer from O'Reilly.
There were 34 sessions in all, however a number were repeated across both days. I guess it's hardly surprising as many visitors will attend just one of the two days, and it does give the super-keen amongst us the opportunity to grab more of the talks.
Rasmus Lerdorf gave an entertaining if somewhat unconventional keynote on the Friday - a potted history of the PHP language given by the man himself was, for me at least, very memorable. The second half of the talk concentrated on the new features available in PHP 5.4 and whilst not the usual rousing call-to-arms we expect from a keynote, it was useful to know.
Following on from that was a talk entitled Big Data by James Littlejohn. For me, and a few people I spoke to afterwards, this was a disappointing talk. Littlejohn quite possibly had a very good idea but the talk did not do it much justice. I would have preferred if he had begun by explaining the problem he was trying to solve and then show the software he had built. The remainder of the time could then have been spent looking at the guts of the system.
After that I strolled down to the Unconference and ran into my colleague Marcello Duarte giving a talk about Deliberate Practice which was a nice 20 minute aside and considering how short these talks are, it packed in a good deal of information (or should I say conveyed strong values?). The idea is to practice a task not with the intention of getting it done, but with the intention of getting better at that task. The analogy was drawn from the field of sports and in particular martial arts when students perform drills to increase their proficiency.
Distribute the Workload in the afternoon gave a flying tour on how to build applications that can scale more easily: by using a larger number of smaller servers, making it easier and cheaper to scale the parts of your platform that are under the greatest strain. Of course, more servers means more management overhead and Helgi expertly ran thought the various monitoring, scaling and multi-cloud technologies. I was particularly interested in New Relic for monitoring as it offers a good level of information that you can drill down into for more details. Gearman also got a well-deserved mention for allowing your application to distribute the workload across multiple servers. Interestingly, Gearman tasks can also spawn sub tasks if they see fit, making it a very flexible architecture. If you are about to build a high-availability multi-region application then this was the talk for you.
One of the few non-technical talks was given by June Henriksen. Creative Coding looked at how the brain works and coming from the standpoint that software development is a creative task, looked at how to stimulate the creative parts of the brain to achieve better solutions. For my money the talk would have benefited from a little less emphasis on how your brain works and more practical examples of how to get these benefits in your work environment. It was however, an enjoyable talk, and with a bit of polish this could make a pretty good keynote.
Ian Barber delivered a very interesting session on Teaching Your Machine to Find Fraudsters which explained how you could use SVM (Support Vector Machine), which is now part PHP 5.4, to predict if something is true or not. Ian, who is the maintainer for SVM, put it to good use in this talk and explained how to feed the machine a bunch of historic data about credit card transactions where you know which transactions are fraudulent and then ask the machine to predict if new activity is fraudulent or not.
Friday was rounded off nicely with a panel discussion chaired by Ian Barber with Rasmus Lerdorf, Nikolay Bachiyski and Hugh Williams. The panel answered questions that had been collected via Twitter during the day and further questions fed through as the discussion went on. The general message was that for most of us mere mortals, PHP is more than adequate at scaling. Even Hugh Williams admitted that at one point eBay were considering rewriting their whole front-end in PHP. However, when things get really big (Facebook, Yahoo size) then the problems are not the language but rather the architecture. Even though the discussion was PHP at Scale, much of what was said was relevant to any language. It was a very enjoyable end to a good day of talks.
Last but by no means least was the after-conference social which lasted about an hour or so. All attendees were automatically entered into a prize draw for technical books. At a guess I think they must have handed out 40 or 50 books and it appears to go on for quite a while. I even managed to bag a book myself!
If this years conference had a theme, it was "scaling" with quite a few talks dedicated to this subject. If I had to find a criticism I would probably say that the talks were probably not quite technical enough, but I appreciate you can't please everybody and perhaps the purpose is to whet your appetite rather than provide an in-depth how-to or workshop. Overall a great conference and I'm sure I'll go again next year!