Amazon Web Services

Jeff Barr addressing the IWMW 2007 conference in York
Jeff Barr of Amazon addressing the IWMW 2007 conference in York

Back in June, at the snappily-titled Institutional Web Management Workshop 2007 conference at the University of York, I attended a presentation by Jeff Barr, who has the enviable job title of Senior Manager, Web Services Evangelism at

That’s right, Amazon have a Web Services Evangelist. Go spread the word! And you thought that all Amazon did was allow you to buy cheap books, software and DVD box sets.

What are Amazon Web Services?

In the words of Jeff Barr:

Amazon Web Services are a set of APIs and business models which give developer-level access to Amazon’s infrastructure and content.

In words that my Mum would understand:

Amazon Web Services provide ways for you to connect your programs and websites to their programs and websites.

Jeff’s presentation was entitled “Building Highly Scalable Web Applications”, and while it was very interesting I struggled to see the immediate practical application for using Amazon’s Web Services at The University of St Andrews. I could certainly see its relevance in other contexts.

Find out more

For those of you interested in finding out more about Amazon’s Web Services I can recommend the following online resources

The real St Andrews

There was a comment at the IWMW2007 conference in York last week about how deceptive many photographs on university promotional websites are; for example, they always show deep blue skies with hardly a cloud in sight.

So today I decided to put it to the test.

The frontpage news headline on the BBC News website says “Flood crisis grows as rivers rise“, and the UK’s bad weather has been the number one topic of conversation for weeks (besides Beckham’s move to LA, of course. And the release of the final Harry Potter book: Harry Potter and the Lucrative Franchise).

So of any day this ought to be the one utterly, 100% honest photograph of the real St Andrews.

St Salvator's Quad, St Andrews

As you can see: glorious sunshine, blue skies, hardly a cloud in sight and the green, green grass of home.

It’s like this all the time!

IWMW2007 Day 2

Paul Boag - he is making it all up!

Amazon Web Services

Day two kicked off with a fascinating presentation by Jeff Barr, who is the Senior Web Services Evangelist for Amazon. While the presentation wasn’t particularly relevant for the kind of work I do, it was very interesting and did remind me that I want to order the new Danzig album from Amazon when I get home!

(Read more on IWMW2007 Wiki)

Can your website be your API?

Next up was Drew McLellan from Yahoo! who gave an excellent presentation on Microformats.

For those who don’t know, Microformats are quickly becoming a web standard that allow you to mark-up calendar and contact information using simple HTML classes so that these details can be automatically entered into your calendar or contacts applications (such as Microsoft Outlook, Google Calendar, etc.).

We already have a few Microformats used on the University of St Andrews website, and I have them on the contact page on this blog too.

The Firefox add-ons that I recommend that will show the presence of Microformats on a web page are:

Apparently Firefox 3 and the next version of Opera will natively support Microformats.

(Read more on IWMW2007 Wiki)

The promise of Information Architecture

Keith Doyle from Salford University gave an excellent and very accessible presentation on Information Architecture: why it is such an utterly essential activity and it should be the concern of all Web content authors.

“What if a web designer designed a house?” he asked. The front door might be made of Flash! It would change every few seconds, and entering it would transport you to a different room each time!

Another quotation that I liked:

The net is like a huge, vandalized library…

(Read more on IWMW2007 Wiki)

Trends in Web Attacks

Arthur Clune from our hosts, the University of York gave a fascinating talk about Web security. Afterwards I heard loads of folk chatting especially about SQL injection and Cross Site Scripting (XSS).

(Read more on IWMW2007 Wiki)

Marketing man takes off his tie: Customers, Communities and Communication

Peter Reader from the University of Bath’s presentation was accompanied by a very impressive electrical storm.

It was early afternoon, post-lunch and I was struggling to stay awake, to be honest. But I did enjoy his talk, very much so. I just wish that I could now remember what it was about!

(Read more on IWMW2007 Wiki)

Social participation in student recruitment

Paul Boag finished the day’s plenary talks with one about social participation. Very Web 2.0! His presentation was slick (it’s a Mac thing!), his delivery passionate and entertaining, and one of my favourite slides (no bullet points in sight!) was of a screenshot of a Google search for “why doesn’t social participation produce better results?”.

There was a good plug for Get a first life, a parody of Second Life.

(Read more on IWMW2007 Wiki)

Contextual Accessibility in Institutional Web Accessibility Policies

The workgroup that I attended after the coffee break was led by David Sloan from the University of Dundee, who turned out to be the older brother of a friend of mine from Melrose. The session was a good balance of chat from Dr Sloan and input from the punters.

(Read more on IWMW2007 Wiki)

Drinks reception at the National Rail Museum

Mallard - the sleek blue locomotive

In the evening, after a couple of hours’ break, we were bussed into town for a drinks reception at the National Rail Museum.

Now, my dad was a massive trainspotter (in the good sense) and so most of our family holidays would invariably revolve around some steam railway landmark, so I was actually quite excited to be amongst the locomotives in the Grand Hall (formerly Shed 4).

I walked into the hall with a friend Mark. “Is that Stevenson’s Rocket?!” I exclaimed. And it was. Standing next to the legendary, world speed record holding 4-6-2 A4 Class Pacific, 4468 Mallard.

I’ve not been this excited since they released Firefox 2, I was overheard to say.

IWMW2007 Day 1

Paul Boag and Brian Kelly chatting at IWMW2007
Paul Boag and Brian Kelly chatting at IWMW2007.

We arrived safely in York on Sunday evening, though (unlike Scotland) it was disappointingly wet and cold. Our rooms have no WiFi access so, like other parts of this ancient city, it feels in many ways like being transported back to Roman times. But with more electricity. And indoor sanitation.

A few highlights so far:

Dr Steven Warburton

The first talk was by Dr Steven Warburon, from the School of Law at King’s College London who talked, amongst other things, about digital identities, and how much of what is done online these days is about curating your own online identity. He is part of the Emerge project.

Innovation often happens at the boundaries of communities where interaction exists.

“Let the students do the talking…”

Next up was Alison Wildish, Head of Web Services at Edge Hill University who gave a fabulous presentation entitled “Let the students do the talking…”.

University web services are often somewhat behind the cutting edge online technologies offered by the likes of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, for example. And since many young people come to university already with their own blogs, social networking, email and instant messenger accounts they don’t take up the services that are offered by the universities. After all, who wants to manage so many duplicate accounts?

So Alison’s point was that we should instead go out to where the students already are and deliver our information to the platforms and applications that they already use, such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, etc.

They don’t come to us — so we’ll integrate with them.

Sounds like a good gospel message that; something for the Church to bear in mind.

Portable Devices for Learning: A Whistlestop Tour

Stuart Smith ran a very good workshop introducting people on the web and portable devices, highlighting important differences between serving up “device agnostic” or “device specific” applications or pages.

I was encouraged to see that I have more of an understanding of the issues involved in writing for portable devices than I had given myself credit for — it’s all those years playing around with Psions and mobile phones I guess. So for that reason alone I would have liked him to have gone into much more depth than he was able to with such a whistlestop introduction.


One of the other highlights so far is simply meeting people and chatting. There are quite a few of the Scottish Web Folk group here, so it’s been great to catch up with them.

Shortly after registration Brian Kelly, who’s chairing the conference this year, came up to me and said “You have a blog!” And he was right: I do! But I knew that already. I think his point was that he recognised me from it. See … blogs are good things!

I also met up with Paul Boag who produces an excellent weekly podcast on all matters related to running, coding and managing websites. It’s available as a download from his website or you can subscribe to it via iTunes.


Tomorrow we have a full day of talks on such topics as information architecture (by Keith Doyle from the University of Salford), building highly scalable web applications (by Jeff Barr of Amazon), and social participation in student recruitment (by Paul Boag).

Then in the evening we have a drinks reception at the National Rail Museum. But for now, I’m off to bed and I’ll post this in the morning once I get into WiFi range!

Off to IWMW2007

York skyline, showing York Minster
York skyline, showing York Minster. (Photo from York Musical Society.)

At lunchtime today I’m heading down to York with one of my colleagues from The University of St Andrews to the Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW) 2007 at The University of York.

Assuming that I can get my wireless setup properly there (unlike at the IWMW last year — mind you I was using my Psion Series 7 which couldn’t quite cope with the amount of security thrown at it!) I should be blogging from there, and may upload a photo or two to Flickr if I get the opportunity.

So it should be business-as-usual at the geeks’ conference!

New rules

I have some new rules for this residential conference, that I’m going to try to stick to:

  • Only one bag
    I usually end up taking far too much stuff on residentials, so this time I’m taking just one bag: my laptop-rucksack. Everything that I want to take has to fit into that; it’s the SAS approach!

  • Convergence technology
    I need to take as few gadgets as possible. So given that my O2 Xda Orbit phone covers GPS, WiFi, Calendar, Contacts, Phone, and Camera this is the first residential that I’m not taking a digital camera or a Psion PDA (sorry old friend!)

  • Online applications
    Wherever possible use online applications to manage resources that I might want to share with others or access at work after the conference without copying data from PC to PC via memory stick, e.g. files, email, bookmarks, RSS feeds, etc.

Wish me luck!