Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Podcast Interview with Nigel Small, Neo Technology

Waw. Seems like I have recorded 22 (!) podcast episodes in the past 2 months - that's pretty sweet! So here's another one that will make you smile: great conversation with the inimitable Nigel Small, aka Technige, aka Neonige. You may know Nigel from his work on the superb Python language driver for Neo4j, py2neo. What you may not know is that he was one of the original (co)inventors of Graph Karaoke, and that he is a generally super sweet and smart guy. He's currently working on some super interesting stuff at Neo's engineering team - but let's have him explain that himself:

Here's the transcription of our conversation
RVB: Hello everyone. My name is Rik - Rik Van Bruggen from Neo Technology, and here we are again recording another podcast session. Today I am joined by Nigel Small all the way from the UK. Hi Nigel.
NS: Hello Rik. 
RVB: Hey. 
NS: How are you doing? 
RVB: I'm doing very well, and you? 
NS: Yeah, not too bad. Thank you. 
RVB: The sun is shining over here. I hope it is over there as well. 
NS: It's pretty bright here as well, actually. 
RVB: Fantastic. Nigel, welcome to the podcast. We always talk about a couple short things here. The first thing is, who are you? 
NS: Well, Nigel Small [chuckles]. I joined Neo Technology last year - last August. And that was after being a groupie for about three years prior to that. I built one of the python drivers, so I've been hanging around the community for some time, gathering uses for the driver and gradually getting more and more into the database itself. 
RVB: Absolutely. Well, You know the py2neo is very popular it seems, right? That's a-- 
NS: It's definitely become a lot more popular than I ever expected. It kind of fell out; it was an accident really but [laughing] it's become reasonably successful. I'm quite pleased. 
RVB: Fantastic. Would you mind telling us a little bit how you got into graphs? And why you got into graphs and, of course, why do you get into py2neo? 
NS: All right. Well, it all started due to Jim Webber. 
RVB: Oh, no. Not Jim again. 
NS: Yes. His name keeps cropping up. I worked with Jim briefly when he was consulting in a previous life, and we stayed in touch, and I remember having a conversation with him at some point about databases and him telling me that the odd relational type of table-based databases were a bit passé and I needed to look at [chuckles] these graph databases. So, having no knowledge really of what these were and no knowledge of graph theory at all - it's not something I'd ever come across - I spent some time looking into it and decided to try to apply it to my family tree, which was a hobby of mine at the time. So I started looking at how I could store some of my family tree data into a graph. Python was the language which I enjoyed using anyway, from a hobby point of view. So played around with the REST interface which was quite new at the time. Wrote a few bits of python code to get some data in and out and ended up getting rather distracted on the mechanism for actually putting data in and out and forgot about the family tree side of it [chuckles]. And ended up developing those bits of code into what's now py2neo. 
RVB: Oh, wow. So it's basically a wrapper around the REST API that you built, right?
NS: Exactly. Yeah. It's-- 
RVB: What's called the language driver. 
NS: Absolutely. One of the early ones. I think because the REST interface was reasonably new at that time, I was one of the early pioneers I think of writing drivers. 
RVB: It's called a guinea pig, Nigel [laughter]. 
NS: [laughter] It's been rewritten several times since to correct a lot of the errors I made in the early days. 
RVB: Oh, okay. So what do you like about working with the graph database? At the first instance, what attracted you? 
NS: I think the fact that it was something different. It was good to get my head in something that was a lot different to anything else I'd used before. I'd worked very heavily with databases for some time. I'd worked as a DBA and programmer for about 15 years prior to that. But had only ever been exposed to standard tables. So it was nice to get my head in something else and see what it was like. It was a challenge to start with. Because as I say, I knew no graph theory at all. Didn't really, at first, see quite how this was going to apply to the vast majority of data that I'd ever worked with before, because I was still thinking very much in tables. It took quite some time to undo everything that I already knew and reapply it to graphs. But now I think I'm looking around at most bits of data-- I was recently putting together some political data for a session that I'm doing and realising that it actually fits very, very naturally when you're talking about politicians who belong to a particular party and who stood in a particular election. All of those things are very much objects you can represent as notes with relationships between them. And a graph now feels very natural for most kinds of data modelling. 
RVB: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. To be honest, it's funny that you mention the family tree. Hierarchies are graphs, right? I actually did a family tree of my own one day and I discovered I was Dutch. [laughter] Which was a hilarious meetup presentation actually. 
NS: Was that a good or a bad thing? I don't have much opinion on-- 
RVB: Let's talk about something else [laughter]. 
NS: Okay [laughter]. 
RVB: So let's talk about where is it going, Nigel. I mean, you've been working on some really exciting stuff at Neo. Where do you see graph databases in general and some of the work that you've recently been doing as an engineer at Neo-- where do you see that going? 
NS: Well, the work I've been doing for the past few months has been on what we've loosely branded our new remoting project, so, given that I've come in with some knowledge of drivers and the interaction between the clients and service, it's been quite nice to fall into a project that's very closely related to that, to rebuild a lot of the protocol and the client server capabilities for the database itself. So we're looking-- 
RVB: Is that an alternative to REST then? Or what is-- 
NS: It will be eventually, yes. We're looking at something that's going to be, hopefully, well-- more performant. Something that's much more in the order of magnitude of performance that we see the embedded databases. Ultimately, yes, replace a large number of the used cases for the REST interface. I don't know whether we'll end up replacing everything, because there are still some good uses of having an http interface for a very low barrier of entry. But the vast majority of applications, I think we'll end up using our new protocol. And one of the things I particularly want to do is to try to level out the experience across languages.
Traditionally, Neo's been very Java-centric for obvious reasons. This is where it came from. This is it's back-- but coming from a Python world I want to make sure that we've got the same kind of performance capabilities in Python and then the same in PHP and Ruby and all the other languages that we want to be able to connect to Neo. You almost shouldn't have to know that the underlying database has been written in Java. It doesn't matter what you're using - what stack you're using - you're going to find the Neo performs blistering fast regardless. 
RVB: So that's the first point of evolution, right? Where we're going with the binary protocol like that. That's a big new thing, right? 
NS: Absolutely. 
RVB: Any other new things that you see coming up on the horizon that you think are really exciting? 
NS: There's a lot of work going on with the big graph side of things. So not only are we making access faster, but there's a team working on scalability as well and making sure that we can add new servers, make things perform [chuckles] in a linear way, faster with each server that you add. So I think the capabilities of the platform itself are growing very, very rapidly and I think we're going to see a little more installs. It's going to become a much more mainstream product than it has been in the past. 
RVB: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Nigel, for taking your time to come on the podcast. It was a pleasure talking to you. 
NS: Thank you. 
RVB: I'm sure ever one will have a chance to meet you at the GraphConnect right? 
NS: Yes. I'm going to hovering around London on the 6th to 7th and the 8th, so we've got-- the 7th is the graph connect day but on the 6th, we have an eco-system day where I'm doing a couple of sessions talk about the new remoting project as well. It will be good to see as many people as possible. 
RVB: Yes, super. Thanks, Nigel. Talk to you soon man. 
NS: Great stuff, Rik. Thanks very much. Bye bye. 
RVB: Bye.
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