Author Archive: Scott Thompson

November 1, 2011

SoftLayer on the iPad

Shortly after we began implementing the SoftLayer Mobile application for the iPhone and Android, Apple released the iPad. With our development resources limited, we focused on adding the functionality our customers required to the iPhone application with only a few small features added to support the new device.

As we became more familiar with the iPad, we started seeing a few key areas where SoftLayer Mobile could benefit from the large format iPad user interface. We've been able to incorporate a phenomenal feature set in the SoftLayer Mobile application, and as our desired feature set has become more and more complete, we've gotten a bit of breathing room from our iPhone releases. We used that breathing room to re-visit the iPad and what it could mean for the SoftLayer Mobile customer experience on a tablet. The result of that investigation is the SoftLayer Mobile HD application:

SL HD

As you might expect, SoftLayer Mobile HD shares quite a bit of functionality with its iPhone sibling. The application offers a window into your SoftLayer environment so that you can browse, create and edit support tickets; discover information about computing resources and bandwidth; and keep up-to-date on the latest notifications from our data centers. The iPad application also helps you keep track of financial information by allowing you to browse your account and its invoices. All this functionality benefits from the intuitive interface of the iPad. You have more room to browse, more room to edit, and fewer screens to navigate as you manage and explore your virtual SoftLayer data center.

SL HD

SL HD

Best of all: The application is only in its first release, and already shows great promise! We have plenty of room to grow and tons of ideas about the next features and functions we want to add. If you're iPad-equipped, get the SoftLayer Mobile HD application in the iTunes App Store. When you're navigating through the interface, take note of anything you'd like to see us change or add, and let us know!

-Scott

October 7, 2011

On the Passing of a Giant

In March of 2000, Apple was set to launch the first version of Mac OS X. At the time, I was working for a company called Macromedia (creators of Flash, subsequently purchased by Adobe) on a professional illustration program called FreeHand. Part of the Mac OS X transition was a system that reimplemented the programming interfaces from Mac OS 9 on the operating system kernel of Mac OS X. That system was called Carbon and was key to the strategy that let Mac OS 9 application transition to the Mac OS X platform. We had worked very hard with Apple and FreeHand was one of the first applications to run under the new system. I was invited to demo FreeHand running on Mac OS X at the Mac OS X launch event.

The launch was held on the Apple Campus in the "Town Hall," the same venue that recently hosted the launch of iOS 5 and the iPhone 4s. Members of The Press were across the hallway in an adjacent room while those of us who were going to present were reviewing our parts, being fitted with microphones, and anxiously milling about. At one point an Apple employee stuck her head into the room and announced that Steve Jobs would be arriving in a few minutes. Most people took the announcement in stride and continued about their business.

At some point in this process, two of the representatives from Apple's Developer Relations team that I had been working with seated themselves about halfway up the auditorium; they were innocently waiting for the event to start.

When Steve walked into the room, he did so through a side door that was just to the left of my seat. I was standing in front of the seat, and Steve came to stop right in front of me. The moment he walked into the room, all conversation died out. The entire room held it's breath for a few heart beats while Steve stretched and commented aloud about being "ready to do this thing."

As the conversations around the room came back on-line, Steve turned to me, pointed at the Developer Relations folk halfway up the auditorium and forcefully asked "Who are those people?" Naturally I fumbled to find a reply and was explaining that they worked for Developer Relations. Thankfully the VP of Developer Relations was nearby. He tapped Steve on the shoulder and told him "Those are my people, Steve." I often tell folks at that point that "The Eye of Sauron turned" as Steve went off to review his presentation.

This was my first encounter with Steve Jobs. I've had a couple more over the years, minor interactions that I have no doubt he would never have remembered. Still, I have been working on Apple products since I was very young. Over the years my specialization in the field of Apple development has allowed me to care for myself and my family. Apple's products continue to be an important part of my life.

Shortly the official press event announcing Mac OS X, I was invited to the cafeteria at Apple, Caffe Macs, and heard Steve talk about how Mac OS X was going to change everything. Over 10 years later, and that operating system now powers not only the Macintosh computer, but the host of iOS devices as well. A decade away I'm now working at SoftLayer to bring some of that innovation, and excellence to our mobile products.

I am one of millions whose lives have been touched by Steve Jobs. I know that while he was here he seized life with an intensity that inspires many of us. I hope that where he has gone he will have time to relax, reflect, and rest for a time.

That is, I have no doubt, before he starts "One More Thing..."

Rest in Peace, Steve.

-Scott

Categories: 
May 27, 2011

SoftLayer Mobile - Coming of Age

The SoftLayer Mobile application allows customers to work with support tickets, examine and control servers, monitor bandwidth information and more. The application is available on two platform: Apple iOS - supporting iPhones and iPads, and the Google Android operating system - supporting mobile phones and devices from a variety of vendors.

The SoftLayer Mobile application is quickly approaching its first birthday. The application was first introduced to the world in June of 2010. Frequent visitors to this blog may remember when we introduced the iPhone application right here in the SoftLayer blog. We got back with you again when the Android application reached the milestone of 100 downloads. Our success with the application continues to this day with the both the iOS and Android versions sporting impressive download statistics which multiply those of a year ago many dozens of times over.

In the course of the past year, we've gotten some great suggestions for improvements from our customers. The first request was for the application to store account passwords a feature which we implemented quickly. From those humble beginnings we added some larger, more complex functionality based on your feedback like two-factor authentication using VeriSign Identity Protection, bandwidth charting, and the ability to check account balances and make one-time payments against those balances from your phone.

We'd love to continue that trend and hope to tap into the experience of the thousands of you who are working with the application. In the coming year, we hope to expand our existing functionality, include new features, and support both new operating systems and new devices. We'd love to hear about your ideas on how we can best improve the SoftLayer Mobile application to make it an even more valuable tool for you.

Would you like improved tracking of your bandwidth? Can we offer greater control over your server's network ports? Do you need to monitor your server's CPU usage even while you're in line at the bank? Is there one particular task that compels you to visit the SoftLayer Customer Portal time and again? If so, and if it would be convenient for you to have that information on the phone in your pocket rather than on the computer at your desk, please let us know!

To offer your suggestions, please create a support ticket in your SoftLayer account detailing your needs. Alternatively, if you are already using the SoftLayer Mobile application, drop us a line through the feedback links built into the Support section.

If you haven't been using the SoftLayer Mobile application, then we'd like to invite you to download it and explore its features. For more information, and for links and information about downloading and installing the application, visit our Mobile Application resource page.

Keep watching that page over the coming months as well. We have some exciting projects in the works and hope to share them with you very soon!

-Scott

April 14, 2011

Lone Star Uke Fest 2011

When spring is in the air, and the first breath of April showers blows across the plains, the mind turns to simple passions. Luckily, for the past three years, the first week in April has wrapped lovingly around the Lone Star Ukulele Festival in Dallas   happily just down the street from SoftLayer's main office.

Now I know what half of you out there are thinking: "UKULELE festival?!? Isn't the ukulele that kitschy instrument that every college kid in the 1930's carried around in the pockets of their raccoon coat? Isn't that the twangy noise maker that Tiny Tim crooned to on variety shows in the late 60's and early 70's?"

The answer, of course, is yes to both questions. Nevertheless, as attested to in the excellent documentary film Mighty Uke, the ukulele is enjoying something of a renaissance these days. From television commercials, to the Grammy award winning "Hey, Soul Sister" by Train, and across the globe the ukulele has plucked its way back into popular culture.

The other half of you are thinking, "Ukulele FESTIVAL?!? What the heck is a 'Ukulele Festival'?"

A Ukulele festival is an opportunity for ukulele players of all levels to gather together and learn. The Lone Star Ukulele Festival featured nationally recognized talent like Kimo Hussey, Pops Bayless, Michelle Kiba, Ukulele Bart, Four Strings of Swing, and Texas' own middle American good times band, The Wahooligans. These professionals taught seminars in topics ranging from basic music theory, to songwriting, to advanced blues and jazz chord structure, to performance skills. Such an event cannot be all work and no play, however, so the festival also hosted an Open Mic night, a Songwriter's Contest, and not just one, but two concerts, one of which was dedicated to classical music interpreted on the Ukulele. Vendors had a forum to sell their instruments and books and there was no shortage of "Jam sessions" where participants gathered in the hotel lobby just to enjoy each other's company and play songs together.

In short, a Ukulele Festival is a fun, relaxed atmosphere were like-minded people can revel in a common interest, share their favorite beverages, meet new friends and generally have a ball.

Now somewhere out there between the half of you that were wondering about the ukulele part, and the other half that were wondering about the festival part, I sense there is a cross section that is wondering what in the heck this has to do with SoftLayer and hosting. For those folks, I can only say this: At SoftLayer we work hard. We deal with large, complex systems and the difficult problems that arise from keeping those systems up and running. Sometimes the sailing is relatively smooth, and sometimes the waters can be a bit choppy, but we like to move forward and to do that we have to keep rowing.

Every once in a while though, when one has the chance, it's nice to take a break: let the current carry you. When that time comes, for me anyway, I pick up my trusty ukulele. For me, the Lone Star Ukulele festival was a great place for me to rest and refresh.

My friends, we've all made it through winter and into spring. April's showers bloom May flowers, ready for someone to stop and smell them. Hard work and dedication are important; get your work done! But equally important, be sure to set aside time to find your own simple passions, a place to indulge them, and friends to sit at your side once in a while. When you find your place, perhaps you could even pick up your own uke, and join them in a song.

-Scott

Categories: 
August 19, 2010

The Girls' Engineering Club

I remember when I got started in computing. For the morbidly curious it was officially "a long time ago" and I'm afraid that's all I'm going to say other than to note that a major source of inspiration for me was the movie TRON, or more specifically the computer graphics in that movie (naturally I'm looking forward to the release of the new TRON movie!).

Computers have come a long way since then and what they've gained in power, they've also lost in simplicity. To draw an analogy, the kids of my father's generation, who spent a lot of time in the garage tinkering with cars, would have to make a big technological leap before they could monkey with the guts of today's newfangled automobiles. In a similar fashion the computers of my era, with built in Integer BASIC and simple graphics modes, have given way to mouse-driven, fully graphical user interfaces of today. Where I started programming by entering a few lines of text at a prompt and watching my code spit out streams of text in return, these days an aspiring programmer has to create a significant chunk of code to put up a window into which they can display their results, before they can write the code that generates those results.

In short, there's a bit more of a learning curve to get started. While kids are a bit farther along when they start out, it doesn't hurt to give them a push where you can.

Several months ago, the counselor at the local elementary school called to invite my daughter to join a newly-formed Engineering Club for the girls in the fifth grade. My daughter had scored well in her math and science tests and they wanted her to be a part of a pilot program to help foster an interest in science and engineering. For various reasons (most having to do with bureaucracy) the school was unable to get the program off the ground. My wife, not wanting the girls to miss out on an opportunity, took the program off-campus and created an informal club, divorced from the school, and driven by the parents. The Girls Engineering Club was born.

The club has a dozen or so young ladies as members and since they're not tied to the school calendar, they have meet once or twice a month through the summer. In the club they explore applications of science, mathematics, and technology with a particular focus on experimentation. For example, the club formed shortly after the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The girls spent their first meeting talking about what the professional engineers were doing at the time, and then trying to find ways to separate motor oil from water using things like sand, soap, coffee filters and dish soap. When I got home that day, I saw the aftermath. I hope the girls learned a lot... it was certainly clear that they had made a big mess and had a lot of fun.

It became my turn to help when the club took up the subject of Software Engineering. I'd like to say that the club leadership took me on because I have degrees in Computer Science and I'm a professional Software Engineer by trade. In truth, however, I think it was just my wife who thought I needed something better to do with my weekend than play video games. For whatever reason, however, I was pressed into service to teach the girls about Software Engineering.

Naturally I wanted to teach the girls a little bit about how engineering principles apply to the creation of software. But I imagine that a group of pre-teen women would find an hour and a half exposition on the subject at best half as exciting as that last sentence makes it sound. Moreover, these girls were used to hands-on engineering club meetings. If the girls didn't "get their hands dirty" with at least a little bit of programming, the meeting would be a bust. The problem was... How do you teach a dozen pre-teen girls about programming; and on a shoestring budget?

When I was taking computer science classes in school we had very expensive labs with carefully controlled software environments. For the club, each girl probably has a computer at their house, but I wasn't anxious to ask parents to pull them out of place, drag them somewhere that we could set them up, and then slog through the nightmare of trying to get a semi-uniform environment on them.

Instead, I gathered up my veritable museum of computer hardware. Using those that were only a few years old, and still capable of running Mac OS X, I pulled together three that could be wirelessly networked together and have their screens shared. It was a bit of an ad-hoc arrangement, but functional.

Next came the question of subject matter. In my daily life I work with a programming language called Objective-C. Objective-C is a really fun language, but it requires a pretty hefty tool chain to use effectively. I didn't want to burn a lot of my hour and a half with the girls teaching them about development tools... I wanted them writing code. Clearly Objective-C wasn't the answer.

A while back I read about a book called Learn to Program by Chris Pine. Mr. Pine had created a web site dedicated helping people who had never programmed before learn enough to get started. After the web site had been around a while, and after a bunch of folks had offered their comments and suggestions to improve it, he collected the information from the web site into the book.

The book uses a programming language called Ruby as its teaching tool. Ruby is a fantastic language. It's one of the so-called "fourth generation" scripting languages (along with Python, Perl, JavaScript, and others). The language was designed to scale from the needs of the novice programmer, up to the demands of the professional Software Engineer. For the girls in the club, however, the nice thing about Ruby is that it provides a "Run, Evaluate, Print, Loop" (REPL) tool called IRB (Interactive RuBy). Using IRB, you can type in a Ruby expression and see the results of executing that expression right away. This would provide the great hands-on experience I was looking for in a reasonably controlled environment. More importantly it would run (and run the same way) on my collection of rapidly-approaching-vintage hardware.

I wanted to get a copy of the book for the girls. The Pragmatic Programmers offers many of their books, including this one, in electronic formats (PDF and eBook). I contacted them about a volume or educational discount on a PDF copy of the book. A company representative was kind enough to donate the book for the girls in our club!! You could have knocked me over with a feather. That gift put the train on the track and the wheels in motion.

(In appreciation, let me mention that Learn To Program is available in its Second Edition from The Pragmatic Bookshelf today. This is not an official endorsement by SoftLayer, but it is an enthusiastic recommendation from your humble author who is very grateful for their generous gift).

In the end, the club meeting was on a very rainy day. We struggled to keep the computer equipment dry as we hauled it to the home of one of the club members. Their poor kitchen table became a tangle of cords carrying power and video signals. Using shared screens, and my iPad as a presentation controller, I walked the girls through a Keynote presentation about some of the of the basic concepts of Software Engineering. Then we fired up Ruby in IRB and I showed the girls how to work with numbers, variables, and simple control structures in Ruby. They had to sit three to a computer, but that also let them help one another out. They learned to use loops to print out silly things about me (for example, I had my computer print out "Mr. Thompson rocks!", the girls felt that they absolutely must get their computer to print "Mr. Thompson most certainly does not rock!" 1000 times). There was an awful lot of giggling, but as the teacher I was proud to see them pick up the basic concepts and apply them to their own goals. My favorite exclamation was "Wow! I could use this to help me with my homework."

As a Software Engineer, I spend an awful lot of my time sitting in front of a screen watching text scroll by. My colleges and I have meetings where we work together on hard problems and come up with creative solutions, but just as the computing environments of the day have become more complex, I've become a bit jaded to the discovery and wonder I enjoyed when I poked away at my computer keyboard all those years ago. One of the benefits of volunteering is not what you do for others, but what they can do for you. With the Girls Engineering Club, I got to experience a little of that joy of discovery once again. The price was a little elbow grease, some careful thought, and a bit of my time. It was absolutely a bargain.

Categories: 
June 4, 2010

The Conception and Design of the SoftLayer Mobile Client for iPhone

A few short months ago, SoftLayer began a new application initiative, the Mobile Client. Our overarching goal is straightforward, take the powerful capabilities of the SoftLayer web portal, and put them in the palm of your hand. As is often the case, however, the things that are easiest to say, are not so easily done.

The fundamental problem we face in designing the mobile portal is the sheer volume of functionality available. On the web, the SoftLayer portal keeps the customer in control of their server environment. To offer that level of control the portal offers access to both a broad spectrum of information and a host of useful functionality. With the bar set that high, a mobile device with its comparatively sparse resources and small screen presents something of a challenge.

When computer scientists face a difficult problem, the first step is to narrow that problem down to a manageable size. There are some things you can do the vast, open range of a browser’s web page that are simply impractical on the small screen of a mobile device. Moreover, there are tasks you would perform when sitting at your computer in the office that you would likely never need to do from a mobile device when you are on-the-go. These two criteria helped us set aside some of the functionality found in the Web Portal as being not well suited for implementation on a mobile device.

Of course, a monkey wrench was thrown into this evaluation right in the middle of development. While we were working on the first version of the Mobile Client, Apple released the iPad. Suddenly things that would not have worked well on the small screen of a smart phone, were practical for a mobile device. Unfortunately (since happened in the middle of our development effort) we were unable to fully change our plans to incorporate the iPad, but it does offer an attractive avenue for future consideration.

In the end, what we decided was that the best way to focus our efforts, the best way to ensure that customers get the tools they need at their disposal as quickly as possible, was to make the customers a part of the design process. Our strategy would be to create a small application, one which could be developed quickly, and get that into our customer’s hands. From there we would let the customers help guide us to the additional functionality they desired the most.

Working with the body of experience at hand, we narrowed down the functionality of the vast web portal to a small seed, a set of features that are absolutely crucial for our customers. We focused on that small set of core functionality and planned out an application that would both be an asset to our customers and meet our goal of putting it in their hands quickly. The result is the Mobile Client we offer today.

At SoftLayer we are committed to providing customers with building complete access, control, security, and scalability into all of our portals. For the Mobile Client, however, we have intentionally started with a small, focused subset. As we grow the Mobile Client, we will do so in response to customer feedback to help ensure that the tool focuses on providing the functionality our customers need the most as soon as possible. The Mobile Client team invites you to try our application on your favorite mobile device and add your voice to helping it grow.

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