Takeaways From the Topcoder Team at This Year’s AWS re:Invent

This post was co-authored by these Topcoder team members: Dave Messinger, Chief Technologist; John Wheeler, VP of Security; Matt Twomey, Principal Devops Architect; Christopher DeLaurentis, Principal Application Architect

Recently, Topcoder sent a team of people for a great week in Vegas to find out what is going on at AWS. Joining over 50K builders (what a great term for software professionals), Topcoder was fully engaged at AWS re:Invent — learning about all things security, machine learning, serverless computing, infrastructure as code, and even self-driving cars using reinforcement learning. Okay, we may have spent too much time on the last one… In any case, here’s a rundown on our key takeaways from the event.

Dave Messinger: the power of crowdsourcing

Every time I attend an AWS event or read about any of their product releases, I can’t help but think about parallels in crowdsourcing. One of the things I took away from Andy Jassy’s keynote (it was ~3 hours long; definitely one of the more knowledgeable CEOs I have ever heard spoke) was his statement that AWS clients don’t like to get locked into costs and are always looking for flexibility and on-demand access to resources.

In fact, AWS is proactively making on-demand scaling easier and easier. Look at some of the releases this week: S3 now automatically moving assets from one level to another to save money, DynamoDB rolling out read/write on-demand capacity (don’t worry upfront about buying capacity), and even the new AWS Managed Blockchain service lets you create and manage scalable blockchain networks. It is also amazing to me that year over year, the same unit of work costs less than it did the year before. This reminds of what we are doing at Topcoder, specifically with providing flexible, on-demand access to talent to produce quality work. Companies should be thinking about producing the best output with the most optimized resources.

Another release was the ability to add GPU resources to any EC2 instance, allowing the instance to quickly work on complex machine learning calculations. This isn’t much different from what Topcoder is doing — where you can design and build an application with on-demand software resources and quickly add data scientists or mathematicians at a moment’s notice. It is amazing to me now how quickly a company can build a complete project with no servers and no developers by using on-demand resources through Topcoder and AWS.

John Wheeler: advancements in security

This was my first AWS re:Invent and there was a lot of content, so I’m still getting my head around what I’ve learned but here are some key concepts. AWS introduced Control Tower, which “automates the setup of a baseline environment, or landing zone, that is a secure, well-architected multi-account AWS environment.” Automating and securing the setup and deployment of landing zones will enable the secure-by-default position companies are expecting. AWS also introduced Security Hub. Amazon’s security ecosystem has continued to grow with the introduction of Macie and GuardDuty at last year’s re:Invent. Security Hub provides visibility into these — as does Inspector. The consolidated view for security is a welcome addition to the AWS security portfolio.

Though these additions are compelling, one thematic change that will further enable the democratization of work is the realization of infrastructure as code (IaC). Customers constantly ask “How can you build for my environment”? Technologies like CloudFormation have been around for more than five years, but as the adoption of cloud-based services has increased, the ability to replicate infrastructure is quickly becoming a reality. Soon we will be creating sandboxes of customers’ environments with containers and IaC will now — with secure-by-default constructs — enable a developer to contribute anytime, anywhere.

Matt Twomey: community and joy in the unexpected

More chicken wings than I’ve ever seen in one place, pub crawls, human labyrinths, Skrillex, Mija, air hockey, robots, drones, “Killer Queen,” swag raining down on you from all directions… Of course I ignored all of that and got straight to business!

It’s been a few years since I’ve been to a big industry convention like AWS re:Invent. It was awesome to have the chance to attend. For me, the greatest joy in a conference like this is the unexpected. I signed up for and attended several sessions on some great topics, including devops scaling, AWS Mechanical Turk, event-driven architectures, etc.

However, it was the unplanned sessions I wandered into that really made the difference. Having nothing specific on the agenda, I joined John for an IAM policy session. I didn’t know what to expect, but I learned a ton in that session. (I was completely oblivious to the newer guardrails functionality, along with several brand-new announcements.) I got an unexpected and thrilling introduction to machine learning and SageMaker due to a last-minute decision to attend a DeepRacer workshop.

I had some great conversations with our existing vendors and discovered some exciting new ones in the expo halls. There were also quite a few lines to wait in. However, waiting in lines at a convention like this is an opportunity to meet new people and hear about their experiences. I met folks from all over the place — all passionate about cloud services. In short, there was a really great sense of community. At Topcoder, we crowdsource software development, we work every day with developers from all over the world. Community is what we’re all about.

Christopher DeLaurentis: emerging technologies and AWS’s serverless platform

I honestly hate traveling. It’s one of my least favorite things to do. Living up to my handle of lazybaer, I prefer to hunker down at home. However, when Mess (Dave) asked me if I wanted to go to Las Vegas for AWS re:Invent I absolutely could not pass up the opportunity. re:Invent was impressive in breadth and scope. Aside from being spread across seven different casinos, there were over 3,500 sessions to choose from — on topics ranging from auto scaling elastic compute resources to the latest and greatest in serverless tech to artificial intelligence.

A developer at heart, the announcements and sessions that most piqued my interests were around the new advances in AWS’s serverless platform known as Lambda. Lambda had a few major announcements:

  • The first was support for custom runtimes on Lambda. This allows developers to utilize any language runtime underneath the hood with their Lambdas. In addition, AWS has released Lambda Layers, which allow developers to share code and data artifacts across Lambda functions. These two capabilities should be a boon for developers as they promote asset reuse and extensibility. You can read more about these here.
  • Another related announcement is the open-sourcing of the Firecracker microVM system — the underlying engine that Lambda runs upon. This will open the door for others to adopt Lambda-like development on their own infrastructure and likely create an interesting competitive market for serverless hosting.

Besides all the cool serverless announcements, another area that caught my eye was in the area of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). AWS’s Sumerian has been out for a little while now, but seeing it in use firsthand was very impressive. On the expo floor we met with Kyle Roche, the GM for Sumerian, at the developer lounge. There we watched a designer wearing an Oculus headset create an amazing 3D scene in real time on the screen right in front of us. Kyle explained to us how rapidly developers can create and deploy AR and VR experiences that will run not just on high-end headsets, but also within any webGL-capable browser. We also checked out the Sumerian-based Into the Spider-Verse AR app that places Spider-Man live into your environment.

Last but certainly not least: artificial intelligence. I was very impressed with the Full Court Press of AI offerings being presented. From the training sets now being generally available to all to the GPU on-demand capabilities announced to the DeepRacer, it’s clear that AWS wants to commoditize AI, and bring it to the masses as a service and enable developers to integrate AI into everything.

We spent a significant amount of time checking out the DeepRacer and its reinforcement learning. DeepRacer is basically a DeepLens camera attached to an RC car. The system used a “reward” fitness function that we developed on our own, and then gave feedback to a DeepRacer simulator. This function “rewarded” the neural net for making good driving decisions as we attempted to get the racer around the track. It’s surprisingly easy to get started with this and it’s all built on current AWS offerings like SageMaker. I’d really like to see how we could bring this, maybe in conjunction with Sumerian, to the Topcoder Open next year.

The future for Topcoder + AWS

So what does this all mean for Topcoder? As AWS continues to innovate, drive down costs, and enable developers to do more with less, we’re going to do more exciting and cutting-edge work with the Topcoder Community. We foresee Topcoder and our amazing community being a perfect pairing for all these new AWS offerings — and we can’t wait to see we can cook up together.