Author Archive: Mark Quigley

December 8, 2010

Cultural Leanings

Culture is important. It is important to individuals, to countries and to companies. Sometimes a culture is nuanced and difficult to get your arms around; sometimes it is in your face leaving you no doubt. Think of Joni Mitchell and Slayer. Nuance versus a ball peen hammer to the forebrain.

Over the past 18 years, I have worked for a number of companies in a number of geographies. I have spent time in smaller, ego-driven companies and time in large organizations that have years of cultural baggage to weigh them down. I have worked in Japan, the UK, France, Spain, and Germany where country specific nuance has a great impact on company culture. In all of that time, across all of those geographies, I have not come across a corporate culture as strong as SoftLayer’s.

When newly minted SoftLayer employees arrived at the Alpha facility, it was a curious thing to observe because (being relatively new, myself) I could not tell the difference between old and new employees. Everyone was decked out in the unofficial SoftLayer uniform – a black SoftLayer shirt and jeans. On the official move in day, a tattoo artist was on site to ink people. In the two days he was there 15 people were tattooed, including a couple of people who did not work at SL, but were married to someone who did.

The proviso was that each tattoo had to be SoftLayer related. I am still awed by this – I have never seen this before. I cannot remember anyone from anyplace else that I worked making the suggestion, never mind actually going through with it. And if I think about it for a second, no one would have done it even though we all professed pride in the company and what it represented. Either we BELIEVE in where SoftLayer is going, and are proud to be a part of it, or we are all a little off-center, crazy even.

Think of it in terms of chickens and pigs – a chicken is involved in the breakfast process. The pig is committed. We are committed to making SoftLayer succeed.

The guy who applied the ink is now the official SoftLayer tattoo artist. He will be back and I suspect that he will have a line up as long as he had previously; perhaps longer given we now have 13 souls who wear the battle scars resultant from conversations with wives and girlfriends to explain what was done. Those who sit in the chair next will have the benefit of lessons learned from those conversations – they would be better prepared to successfully navigate them.

-@quigleymar

November 24, 2010

Bigger, Better, Badder!

Part of the branding exercise that we are going through post-merger revolves around the tag line “Bigger, Better, Badder”. And it is true. Every word of it.

Bigger: We will have 75,000 servers under our control. That is more than Rackspace (63,996). We are the largest dedicated hosting provider in the world, possibly the galaxy. That is kool.

Better: We have all of these servers and yet we have less than 20% of the people that Rackspace do. Automation (sorry, automagic) and innovation rule the SoftLayer world. We are better at this than anyone else.

Badder: Our CEO is Lance Crosby. He is 6’6”, tips the scales at 350, drives an F250 and rides an Iron Horse. Need I say more?

-@quigleymar

November 22, 2010

Free is Just a Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Last week, Amazon Web Services unveiled the “AWS Free Usage Tier”. The idea is to encourage customers to experiment with the cloud, hopefully leading to a fee-based relationship sometime in the future. You can read about it here.

Free is always an interesting concept. Everybody loves free – free beer, free music, free love and now free cloud. The question that begs to be answered is what, exactly, does free mean when we are talking about an Amazon cloud. In other words is it an award winning Cigar City Bourbon Barrel Aged Hunaphu’s Imperial Stout or a PBR? There is little doubt that they are offering lots of stuff – storage, load balancing etc - but it ought to come with a caveat that reads “If you intend to do anything other than play with this, please think again.” The service offered is clearly not robust enough for much else beyond experimentation. A company that plans on presenting an application via the cloud to internal or external customers must simply make other arrangements. Limited RAM, combined with no processor guarantees and no service promises make for a poor business decision.

So, is this really a bad offering? The answer is no it’s not, just so long as everyone maintains a cool head and remembers what it is for – experimentation and education. And this makes it a good offer. Amazon is effectively helping to seed the marketplace for the cloud by providing a free platform to encourage a wider audience to dip their toes in the cloud. There is little doubt that some will transition from this offer to a full blown, fee-based service with Amazon because they generally do a good job. The great thing is that as the market educates itself about the cloud, SoftLayer will also benefit. We are very good at what we do and it simply makes sense to have a SoftLayer discussion when a company gets serious about the cloud.

-@quigleymar

November 12, 2010

A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On

General George S. Patton once said, “A good plan vigorously executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” This statement sums up the SoftLayer philosophy (well some of it anyways) - decisions are made and then quickly executed against – no paralysis by analysis here. Given the speed that the market is moving at, I think this is a good thing.

The events of the past few weeks are great evidence of a market that is moving at a rapid pace with little signs of slowing down.

  • SoftLayer opened our second DC in Dallas at the end of September. In ten days we were pushing 10 GB of traffic. Yesterday we hit 15 GB of sustained traffic.
  • Rackspace announced that they are already hosting 2 million paid users of its hosted email solution.
  • 1 million servers have been announced as registered in Cloudkick.
  • Siemens has revealed that they have 400,000 employees that interact with the HR system for a number of functions including compensation management, performance management ad career development planning via the cloud.
  • The Android version of Angry Birds was downloaded an astonishing 2 million times on its launch day. (Angry Birds publisher, Chillingo was purchased by EA for under $20 million in cash plus other “undisclosed considerations”. I keep thinking that I am in at the wrong end of this business…)
  • The US General Services Administration has announced that its Apps.gov cloud solution is going to add storage, virtualization and hosting to its portfolio. This will impact federal, state, local and tribal governments across the county. This works out to over 19 million employees, spread across thousands of departments (federal, state and local) and tens of thousands of municipalities. (SoftLayer is a part of this with strategic partners, Computer Technologies Consultants, Inc. Check out the PR stuff here.)

My suspicion is that you can pick almost any month over the previous 6 and you would find similar announcements and I suspect that they are going to continue over the next 6 months and beyond as well. The sign post seems pretty clear to me – we are in a rapidly growing market with little signs of a slowdown ahead. I don’t think this is going to be a market for the timid, companies that have a clear vision of what lays ahead and possess the ability to quickly execute against that vision will succeed. The rest will falter and miss the turn ahead. Guess where SoftLayer is going to be?

-@quigleymar

November 8, 2010

Innovate or Die

Softlayer moved into a new complex (complex sounds better than building) in July. Like everywhere else, the building has its quirks – all part of what help the place feel like home. Those quirks have extended to how we have named the conference rooms throughout the building.

Being relatively new to the place, I take a certain amount of delight in discovering how each room was named. For example, CBNO translates to Challenging But Not Overwhelming, which is a mantra SoftLayer has adopted; Muenster is not named for the cheese, but for the Germanfest in Muenster, Texas that Sam and the SoftLayer BBQ team attend each year; and Jeep has its name due to the wide variety of Jeeps that are found daily in the SoftLayer parking lot. However, I think the most appropriate name has to be Sharkbyte. The reason is simple – Softlayer is an obligate ram breather.

The room features a stuffed shark that is mounted on the wall. The fish in question is a Bull shark, it is 7 feet long and weighed 200 pounds before it was caught off the Florida coast following a momentous struggle with SoftLayer’s CSO, George.

The urban myth goes that all sharks have to keep moving in order to maintain a flow of water over their gills or they risk suffocation. In reality this is true for only about two dozen of the 400 identified shark species. The species include the Great White and the Mako Shark. These species are called obligate ram breathers.

Like the Great White, SoftLayer is an obligate ram breather. The difference is that SoftLayer needs to keep innovating to keep thriving. Without constant innovation, we lose our competitive edge and risk falling back into a pool of ‘me too’ players in the market. The true test of this theory comes when we are faced with extraordinarily challenging times. The work to merge SoftLayer and The Planet is a great example of this. Innovation keeps coming even though everyone has been spending significant time focusing on how to deliver a seamless customer experience from day one. In the past few months we have partnered with Nimsoft to deliver a unique network monitoring solution to the cloud; a new customer driven firmware update tool has been developed and launched; ‘smarter’ signup forms that will have multi server sign up forms (among other things) are available and we have given customers increased network transparency. At Softlayer we simply cannot stop.

CBNO.

-@quigleymar

November 2, 2010

Don Draper Had it Easy

I was speaking with Softlayer’s PR guy the other day. The topic of conversation was the television show ‘Mad Men’. When I returned to my desk, I couldn’t help thinking that Don Draper had it easy. The advertising and communications game has changed radically since his fictionalized time.

When Don Draper was thinking about making his clients happy in 1964, print, radio, television and billboards comprised the palate that he had to play with. The Internet has changed this in ways Don would struggle to comprehend were he to time travel to 2010. This new palate is virtually endless, essentially combining everything that Don was familiar with, putting it in one place (sort of), and then putting it on steroids.

While Don would have a hard time understanding the internet, he would appreciate the power that it brings, and not only in terms of how he can get his message across. The ability to track who goes where and what they do when they get there has enabled market segmentation far beyond what Don would have ever considered. And because the internet has a little something for everyone, companies are able to market with a greater degree of accuracy.

In theory, we ought to be able to spend less money to reach OUR audience, versus spending more money to hit a broader audience only some of whom are interested in what we do. Theory also dictates that companies ought to be able to measure a real return on this investment. Don would be amazed as this was mostly unheard of in his world - the desire was there, but no one really knew which parts of the budget were delivering results. As the old saying goes “I know that half of what I spend is wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

The advent of ‘social networking’ sites like Facebook or Twitter has made matters more challenging as they change the relationship a company has with its target audience.

First, a company first needs to be attractive enough to merit being followed or ‘friended’. This theoretically means that a captive, receptive audience has self-selected for you. The challenge is in understanding why people show up in the first place.

A Facebook page provides the audience with a profile – this gives the audience context and a reason for adding you as a friend. Twitter is not like this in that in depth profiles do not exist in the same way. On Twitter, the ‘who you are’ element plays itself out over a series of 140 character Tweets. The odd part is that people often ‘follow’ based on a single Tweet, which may or may not be related to what you do. The audience is there, but the intention is often less clear.

While I understand why I follow the people I follow, I confess that there are Tweets that I get from people that I follow for reasons I have long since forgotten. It gets tough to filter things when you are following only 186 people like me, never mind the thousands that some people do. For example, journalist Leo Laporte follows 1,427 people, while English actor / author Stephen Fry follows an astonishing 53,230 people. When you are following that many people, there is not going to be a lot of consistency regarding a decision made to follow. Indeed, the inflow of Tweets is so prodigious that filtering the noise must be next to impossible.

Does that mean that Twitter does not have value as a marketing tool? Don would probably think so, but I don’t. I think that Twitter becomes a valuable tool, but not as a standalone means to reach your customer. If you start to think about Twitter (in combination with a bunch of other stuff) as a means to build community, then I think you are on the right track… I will get to that line of thought later.

-@quigleymar

October 22, 2010

Microsoft Windows 7 Goes Mobile

On October 11, our friends at Microsoft unveiled what promises to be the first in a long series of devices that will be powered by the newly minted Windows Mobile 7 operating system.

From a device perspective, they look familiar to what we currently get from Apple and Google Android powered devices. Each device features a relatively large touch screen, and a number of on-board applications that let you send and receive phone calls, send email, listen to music, watch videos and browse the internet. In addition, Microsoft offers the promise of the Marketplace Hub – here you can download other applications and games to the device.

The great thing about all of this is the potential impact on SoftLayer. The success of both Apple and Google’s Android OS (which is found on a number of different vendors including HTC, LG, Lenovo, Samsung and others) is due to a lot of factors. What is certain is that one of those factors has been the birth of a developer community that feeds all sorts of wild and wonderful applications to the Apple App Store and the Android Market. It is amazing how many people will pay $2.00 to hurl a bunch of fowl at pigs…make no mistake, this is a lucrative marketplace.

It goes without saying that SoftLayer has a bunch of app developers as clients. Our ability to quickly scale combined with a network architecture that can take whatever is thrown at it makes us a great partner. Not only do we host a number of test and development environments, but we also host a number of the live applications that are getting pushed out to end users. The addition of a robust Microsoft powered device to the family means a few things for us:

  1. A number of companies will begin to work on porting games/apps to Microsoft Mobile 7. (We have already started)
  2. A new flock of developers will arrive that are focused on Microsoft Mobile 7 apps. They will start there and consider porting to Apple and Android environments if they are successful.
  3. Once the test and development work has been completed, it will be time to put those new apps in the hands of a bunch of eager consumers.

As far as I can tell, everything points to more SoftLayer! And the world needs more SoftLayer. So, on that note, let’s me take the opportunity to wish Microsoft terrific success with the new mobile OS. After all, a rising tide raises all ships!

-@quigleymar

October 20, 2010

Happiness is a Warm Firmware Update

I thought this was pretty cool. SoftLayer has just launched a firmware upgrade tool to the customer portal. No more waiting for SoftLayer to upgrade your firmware, no more uncontrollable downtime when you don’t want it. The new upgrade tool places upgrade control firmly in the hands of customers, giving them the ability to march to their own drummer.

Simply click the relevant radio button, press update and the upgrade begins. If there is a problem, SoftLayer gets notified and we will replace any failed components to get a customer back on line. Done. How cool is that??

New Account

-@quigleymar

October 18, 2010

Another Day. Another Product.

Today, SoftLayer released an Advanced Monitoring Solution based on Nimsoft's Monitoring software suite. In a nutshell the product will give SoftLayer visibility onto a customer's server at the OS level. In addition to the great product benefit the customers receive, it will add tools to our sales and support staff to troubleshoot, diagnose and systems design.

The core product works through a piece of software that gets installed on a customer server called a robot. The robot in turn allows probes to be run on the server. The different probes collect various data points from the OS and applications. As the probes collect data they pass the information onto some intermediate backend servers, and eventually end up on our brand new HBase data warehouse (HBase is the massively scaled database for large amounts (petabytes) of data). This is the corner piece for the scalability of the offering. So, robot is the main software and the probes are the application watchers that run inside the robot framework.

There are additional features outside of the process mentioned called 'Offbox Monitors' or 'Offbox Probes.' These are probes that live on servers in the SoftLayer data center. The idea behind these is that we are able to let customers have network services they want to monitor from a remote location. An example would be url_reponse, which monitors if a url is active and passing data (along with some other pieces of data people might be interested in like response time).

What it can monitor? The better question might be what can't it monitor? The SoftLayer offer comes in three packages - Basic, Advanced and Premium. Basic is a free package that monitors core hardware (CPU, memory, disk) along with simple process and services. Advanced moves into deeper system monitoring, and Premium adds more application monitoring (like databases, web services etc.). This offering is available for hardware, Monthly CCI's and hourly CCI's - basically for everything we sell. Customers can order the software from all order forms (external, internal, cci, server etc.) as well as add the service post deployment from the advanced monitoring portal page.

The service offering has two distinctive reporting features that we call graphing and alarms. Graphing allows customers to (yep, you guessed it) graph all the data we collect. For example, we can show a graph of CPU usage over time. Alarms are notifications that services are outside of a predetermined range. For example, you could setup an alarm when CPU usage goes above 90%. Alarms can be tracked from the customer portal, or email alerts (SoftLayer calls this list 'Alarm Subscribers') can be setup by the customer.

All the features of the product are accessed via the customer portal, or via SoftLayer's internal portal. Configuration, graphing, and alarm management can all be done from one management page in the customer portal. In near real-time customers can change configurations directly on their server or cloud computing instance (CCI) for the various data points they want graph and alarm. It's pretty slick, and it adds to the SoftLayer secret sauce. We have also added a feature that allows the customer to save configurations on a particular server and “redeploy” them on different servers or future servers they may add. This feature makes it easier to scale and customize for a particular customer's needs.

As time goes on we will continue to add more probes and more features. This is just the beginning - make no mistake it's pretty damn cool.

-@quigleymar

October 15, 2010

How to Stop Worrying and Love the Network

I have recently discussed the network from a couple of perspectives. I have discussed the fact that traffic continues to grow at a furious pace, and the fact that SoftLayer spends a lot of time thinking about and designing our network to keep ahead of this growth. It makes sense to extend the discussion to the customer - what does any of this mean for me?

An increase in traffic means a couple of things. It means that there are more people joining the community - they might be in places that you have not considered yet (like India), but they are there. It is also true that the services and applications that people are using are getting more varied and sophisticated. There is another Facebook or Twitter waiting to happen. It might be in India or China, but it is going to come. Trust me. The business opportunity ahead is immense.

Whether they are consciously doing it or not, customers will work through a decision tree when they are choosing a hosting partner. Key discussions ought to occur that will address what happens in the data center and what happens in the network.

  • In the Data Center - A lot of what happens in the DC is similar across providers. Hosting companies choose from the same hardware vendors, picking from the same basket of processors, memory, storage and security. I am not so sure there is significant differentiation on the hardware side. However, there are significant differentiation points when it comes to implementation. What is the time frame between ordering a service and having the service live? What happens when I need to add another server? What happens when I become the next Twitter?
  • In the Network - I think that network is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. I also think that is gets overlooked. It does not matter how good the DC is managed, or how great your application is, if your customers cannot get access to your stuff, it does not matter how many or whose processors you use or how much RAM you have onboard or what firewalls are in place or what your storage architecture looks like. The only thing that matters is if YOUR customers can use YOUR app. Nothing else, nobody else matters.

We get it - that's why SoftLayer puts terrific effort into architecting our network. It’s why we have 10 carrier partners with 1000 GB of capacity. It’s why our new Dallas facility has bonded 2X1 Gbps links to both our private and public networks. It’s why we are deploying 10 Gbps servers. And its why we are thinking about next year, not just about tomorrow.

We are ready for whatever comes next. The question is: Are you?

-@quigleymar

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