November 28, 2008

As the SLAS (70) Turns

Welcome to the Wide World of SLAS 70 (for those who use Google it is really SAS-70 Type II)! Shh, don’t tell anyone but we are in the final audit stages now (under review). For some reason this is supposed to be a big secret, well not really or I wouldn’t be telling you about it. Maybe it is just so you don’t jinx the whole process.

If you are over 40 and doing the things you are supposed to do at the doctor then you have a pretty good idea of what SLAS 70 is. So we open our company up for the scope. I will just leave it at that. SLAS 70 is us telling the world how good we take care of our processes and procedures when dealing with our customers and also our internal controls. Since we would like to have more publicly traded companies as customers we need to be compliant according to my brother (the other Kinman blogger) and Mike Jones, CFO extraordinaire. It really is a good thing because the investors in these public companies like the fact that they use compliant companies, well they demand it apparently, which helps give them peace of mind in their investment. I’m not sure how many investors are left in the world but even the 1 or 2 still out there count for something. In a nutshell, we have to be good at what we do and we have to let an accounting firm come in and look at everything we do and then sign off that we are the best. WE know we are the best and now we will show the world.

SLAS Hint #1 – PDF! So I don’t know how many sheets of paper I saved with good old fashioned PDF conversion but I can bet I saved at least 2 trees. If I had to print out all this stuff like in the old days it would have been scary.

SLAS Hint #2 – Stress! On my desk right now I have, a half full Monster, an iced RedBull, 1 baby rattle, 1 golf ball, 1 rubber ball, 1 tennis ball full of BB’s, and 4 Squishy stress balls. The stress balls de-stress me and the baby rattle calms me of course.

SLAS Hint #3 – Time! It is all about how much time you have or don’t have. I should have kept track of the hours for this project but they all ran together at some point last week. I thought Thursday was Friday, and was really bummed out when I was told it wasn’t. I bet everyone has done that at least once.

Ok, well it is back to staring at the screen and hunting and fishing, not the fun kind either, just for data needed for the scope! I don’t want my new buddy, the auditor, to miss me since we hang out and email so much. Hey, can someone please pass me some latex gloves?

November 26, 2008

Coffee Debacle

Early one Friday morning, as I made my way into the NOC for my usual shift, I was greeted by my fellow workers for what would seem a normal workday. Immediately upon my arrival, I was given my first task of the day by David, the overnight datacenter manager – get some coffee ready for the tour we have going this morning. I will submit to you, the reader, that making coffee should be no daunting task, but even the best of are tricked sometimes by simple machinery. With that in mind, I went ahead and made the coffee as I had done many times in the past with similar coffee makers. At that point I figured I was good to go, and went about my business. When I went to double check the coffee, I was treated to a nice little puddle of steaming coffee in the break room. While mopping up my little creation, a few things came to mind:

While I had done this many times in the past with similar coffee pots, this one has some bells and whistles that the old school ones didn’t have. New buttons and some water piped in directly.

I was going to have to attack this problem head on, because there was no way I was going to deprive our customers of their caffeine!

As I thought about it more while bringing the sopping wet trash downstairs, I realized this little debacle wasn’t too far distanced from what I do here at SoftLayer.

Imagine this: You have a piece of hardware you use all the time. It’s a great piece of hardware, it rarely fails, and its principles have remained steadfast over the years. Suddenly, though, a new firmware version is released, and your “tried and true” methods are no longer working! Working in a dynamic business like the web hosting industry, things change at the blink of an eye. Its quite the detriment to get stuck in the rut of “that’s how I’ve done it for years!”. Flexibility and the ability to adapt are crucial. Otherwise you find yourself with a server that doesn’t work, or a pot of coffee overflowing in the break room.

Second, every day offers new challenges from the last. Much like the dreaded coffee maker, there are many a problem that can be solved with a little perseverance (or a user’s manual – something the coffee machine didn’t feel the need to grace me with, unlike the Manual pages, or the trusty F1). Every day, it seems a new hardware problem presents itself. It’s up to the Server Build Engineers here at SoftLayer to ensure that those problems don’t keep the customer from getting their server in the window in which it was promised. Whether it’s incompatible hardware, or just a piece of gear that doesn’t want to play nice, you can rest assured that the SBE’s here will be on their toes solving problems rather consistently.

And to answer David’s question about how can he trust someone to answer tickets when they can’t brew coffee? Actually, easy – I figured it out. Not to mention, I’m sure I saw the lucky people leave the tour today with a little extra pep in their step. I can only hope it was only *partially* because of the coffee.

November 24, 2008

I'll Never Use This In The Real World When I Get Older

Do you remember sitting back in a high school class saying to yourself: “I am never going to use this in the real world once I grow up!” Well I often felt that, especially when I was in the Student Computing Services program at Henderson Bay High School in Gig Harbor. The year was 1998 and Henderson Bay had just landed a grant from the Intel Corp, which made us a certified Intel refurbishment program.

Intel and the computer teachers worked on a program, which they donated old hardware (Pentium 90’s when Pentiums 120’s where being released) to our school. We then had to develop a streamline operations program of building these computers, using an imaging system to install the OS and applications. Then we had to create an inventory tracking system to track them prior to giving them away to other schools in Washington State. Over the course of 3 years, I think we deployed a few thousand machines throughout the state, while Tigard High school in Oregon was doing the same thing.

I was working a long day at the beginning of this month for our beloved truck day here at SoftLayer, this is when we get all of the servers the SLales team will sell for the month. All local staff is required to be there and work long hours. We streamline the process so well that within hours we have unboxed, sorted all the parts, double checked the inventory, and deployed the 500 or so servers into the rack each month at each location.

The process reminds me of the truck days we used to have when the Intel truck would show up with cases, motherboards, processors, ram, and hard drives. All which had to be put together. We never had a problem building and deploying boxes for the schools ten years ago, and that is because the teachers ran it as a company. We had a staff of students that operated as inventory control managers, project managers, systems administrators, and front line technical support, and hardware technicians supporting each school district that we donated systems too. The process was overseen by two teachers, that ran the SCS program, and it was there fine detail that kept 50 students running this mock company.

It’s the same fine detail that the operations team at SoftLayer has taught us while doing truck days. I first dreaded my first or second truck day – something about working doubles didn’t appeal to me. After one or two of them, I started to like them. It’s a wonderful way to start off the month. Now if you would have asked me during a high school truck day, if I’d be looking forward to doing it again in ten years, I would have told you that you’re out of your mind. Ask me today and I will tell you it was one of the greatest processes that I learned during my high school years (Along with ditching English to hang out in the computer lab).

November 22, 2008

SoftLayer = The Empire

Time to turn up the nerd!

I have long pondered the parallels of SoftLayer and Star Wars. At first, I thought we might be the rebels. But I soon realized we are here to dominate the galaxy (and the dark side is much cooler!)

So I have come up with some parallels between SoftLayer and the Empire. Some are a bit of a reach, while others are spot on. I will start with what I know. I am in Operations, so this is obviously going to be Ops biased. Systems and Development probably deserve a bigger part, but as I don’t dwell in that world every day, I can’t get the detailed analysis needed to formulate an accurate correlation.

So let’s start with Systems and Development. I think they would be the Death Star. Our primary source of galactic domination. The mostly unseen heroes that created it and keep it going. Note: we are more like the 2nd Death Star without the access port weakness.

Some obvious correlations would be:

Lance is Darth Sidious / Senator Palpatine – that one is easy. All knowing and all powerful.

Sam is Vader – another gimme. To the point with a strong hand. ( get it? Hand? Vader, you know, chokes, eh.. okay, moving on. )

Joshua is Boba Fett – Many secret and not so secret missions with a huge impact on the course of the Empire.

Chris is Darth Maul – Enforcing the Empires rules near and far.

CSA’s are the Stormtroopers with their managers being the commanders and generals. Handling the special ops and direct requests of the Empire.

SBE’s are the battle droids with the hardware manager being General Grievous. (Yes, that’s me. I clear my throat frequently so that was the final nail that solidified that comparison. ) The front line.

We do have some Ewoks that have defected to our side and some of our vendors are like Watto. So I have distorted the Star Wars timeline to suit my needs. Just the way the Empire would do it! But I am sure The Galactic Empire would approve. And besides, it gives me focus and makes me stronger.

Oh and one final note, in this version of the story, The Empire wins.

Feel free to comment your Star Wars / SoftLayer comparisons!

November 20, 2008

SLadies' Night

There are many ways to turn regular, every day lingo into "SLingo" (or SoftLayer lingo). SLance Crosby and Steven Canale constantly encourage their SLales team to keep the momentum going and SLell, SLell, SLell! Shawna Furr is constantly encouraging the SLayers and SLackers to write a blog and keep our InnerLayer interesting! In the employee side of our customer portal, we don't have your regular Wiki, we have a SLiki.

But my personal favorite SL word would be "SLadies!" Us SLadies on the SLales team work very hard and try our best to make SoftLayer the best in the industry. I have been extremely proud of the newest SLadies to join the group. Arielle Eaton, Laura Gardner, and Giselle Manning sure hold their own in closing the big deals and thoroughly taking care of customers. Hopefully Mary Hall and I are teaching them well, and sharing our experience with them during the learning process. They have really shown true SLoyalty since each of their tenures have begun. Now, I cannot leave out Brad Swick, another new member on my team. Although he is not a SLady, he sure does have the SLove for his job (and his proving himself quite well indeed) - that goes for all of our hardworking men out there!

Not only do we work hard, but we like to have fun! Every two weeks to a month, we have a "SLadies’ Night" and get together for drinks, food, and fun to get away from the trials and tribulations of our very exciting, rewarding, but sometimes stressful job. So here is an open invitation to all the SLadies for a big, combined SLadies’ night (that's you Accounting, HR, technical support, Marketing, etc.).

November 18, 2008

Twenty Reasons Why Linux Is Great

I often get asked why I started using Linux as my core desktop OS and server OS over 10 years ago. And why I continue to use it today. Linux has come a long way since its early days as a free OS and I am thankful for that. Here are a few reasons that I choose Linux:

  1. It is free - no license fee or maintenance associated with it
  2. Spyware / Viruses are very rare
  3. Requires few reboots
  4. It can read most any file system that has been made
  5. Open source, so you can see what you’re running!
  6. It’ll run on just about anything (WiiLi.org)
  7. Built in virtualization that is also free
  8. The shell environment is much better than any type of DOS
  9. Lack of a registry, most configurations is stored in standard text files
  10. It has more documentation than any other open source O/S
  11. It will still run fine as a proxy on my Pentium II
  12. Most distributions now come bundled with an awesome desktop environment
  13. Saves on bandwidth due to not having to update virus dat files and windows updates every night
  14. The Linux kernel comes shipped with an enormous load of hardware drivers, already installed, making most PNP friendly things available after you plug them into the machine
  15. Easy to build into a home media center
  16. Most server distributions come bundled with a database program, so you don’t need to purchase an expensive database service
  17. It can scale to 1024 processors on a single computer
  18. Easy to setup in a dual boot configuration
  19. Linux is easy to updated, most distributions make it quick and easy to upgrade from on version to the next
  20. The Linux community is very helpful out here on the internet
November 13, 2008

Size Isn't Everything

A couple days ago, I took my daughter to her favorite store. We picked up a fair amount and on the way to the car she asked a simple question, or so I thought. “Why did they only fill these bags half way”. Confused I looked at the bags and realized she was holding a bag which had a large stuffed bear in it and was looking at a bag less than half full of canned food.

Being the person I am, rather than attempt to explain this to her I wanted to let her try and figure it out for herself so she would understand it better. When we got home, I filled the rest of the bag with cans and had her try and pick it up, as I expected the bag broke in her hands. I explained to her that the cans were much heavier then the bag. She still doesn’t quite understand the concept that the bag has 2 limits, size and weight but she is starting to understand this concept.

I thought about this story this morning when I started working on a project of determining how many containers a Virtuozzo server could handle based on its system requirements. Just like the bag, a Virtuozzo system has multiple limitations that need to be observed, the size of the containers as well as their “weight”. In this situation “weight” would be the drain on overall system resources. When attempting to determine how many containers a system can handle, you need to take into account not only how many will fit size wise, but also how much of the overall system resources each container will require.

It turns out this question is much easier to ask then to answer. You can take a small server such as a dual core with 4GB of RAM and put 20 or even 30 containers onto the server and have it run flawlessly when those containers are small and do not require much in the way of system recourses. At the same time however I can take a quad proc quad core with 64GB of RAM and grind it to a halt with 1 or 2 containers.

At the end of the day, I have found that you can make just about anything work, but before you attempt to determine what hardware you will need to run a Virtuozzo server, it’s a good idea to have an estimate of what you expect the containers to be doing. What could be worse than spending hours configuring a server and getting it online only to watch it grind to a halt because there are just too many containers completely saturating your system resources?


November 7, 2008

Tax Policy as Pricing Strategy

One of the big items up for “spin” and a little debate in this Presidential election is the tax policy proposed by each candidate. We’ve heard accusations ranging from tax breaks for wealthy CEOs to socialist welfare where money is taken from the rich CEOs and given to the non-taxpaying poor under the guise of a “tax cut”. The word “fairness” gets thrown around a lot and now Joe the Plumber may get a record deal out of all this.

Absent any fiscal discipline by the government (and I have never seen this from either political party), it’s clear that the government needs more money or else it will run deficit spending until we’re all bankrupt. Therefore, tax policy should be nothing more than a pricing strategy to maximize government revenues. Taxes are essentially the government’s pricing structure for their offerings of goods and services (roads, law enforcement, subsidized student loans, etc.)

The problem is, if cutting a particular tax or tax rate will actually bring more revenue to the government, it will be criticized for whatever group “benefits” from the lower rates, regardless of how much better off the government treasury will be.

Yes, it is possible to bring in more revenue and profit by reducing prices. It is a very, very common practice in the business world and we employ this practice at SoftLayer. Consider this scenario:

You sell a product that cost you $50 to build.

At $100, you can sell 1 unit per month. Here is your revenue and profit calculation:

$100 x 1 sale = $100 revenue – $50 costs = $50 profit

Now, if you cut the price 20% to $80, you can sell 2 units per month. In this case, here is your revenue and profit calculation:

$80 x 2 sales = $160 – $100 total costs for 2 units = $60 profit

So, most people would think that $60 in your pocket is better than $50. By cutting the price, you have made more money.

What if you could sell 3 units if you drop the price to $60? Let’s take a look:

$60 x 3 sales = $180 – $150 total costs for 3 units = $30 profit

Because you only keep $30 profit, in this case the BEST price for your product is $80 because at that price you maximize the profit that you keep.

Likewise there are ways to increase government revenue by cutting tax rates. Let’s say we want to tax more dollars from the rich and give to the poor – fine. The paradox is that the way to get more tax dollars from the rich is to cut their tax rates. Really, I’m not crazy – Congress itself has reported this fact.

Business people know that if you raise your prices, people’s behavior will change and they will buy lower volume of what you sell. Even with must have items like gasoline, as the price rises, people find ways to use less of it, even if using less is inconvenient because you have to get up earlier to carpool.

By the same token, if taxes go up, those who are exposed to those taxes will change their behavior and reduce their exposure to those taxes. As a result, the government can actually collect less money by raising taxes.

Every time we set a price or run a special deal here at SoftLayer, we are well aware of this fundamental law of supply and demand. When we need to move units on a particular item, we will reduce the price.

I only wish our government would apply the same principle when pricing its products and services with tax policy – not because I want to pay less in tax but because I want the government to maximize its profit and avoid burdening our children and grandchildren with unmanageable government debt.


November 5, 2008

Can I Get an Update?

I recently signed up for a Twitter account, to add to my ever growing list of email, chat, and social networking groups—maybe just to give myself a new user name to forget. I wasn’t really familiar with Twitter and was surprised to learn that its sole function is to provide status updates. This got me thinking about our ever growing need as a society to share, broadcast, and receive information about ourselves. From Google alerts to Facebook and MySpace status updates I receive untold daily emails that are for the most part irrelevant.

But, I subject myself to this ever-growing, streaming feed of information in the hopes that I won’t miss anything and that at some point I might learn something useful. At SoftLayer we have streamlined this process through our industry leading customer portal, where monthly, daily, and even real-time reports are filed, sorted and posted to customers' login accounts. Our portal provides a single interface to manage and monitor customers’ servers and IT infrastructure. If only my life were as simple as having a single, manageable interface, maybe I wouldn’t have already forgotten the password I set up 20 minutes ago.


November 3, 2008


What if I asked you to guess the name of a video game that came out within the last 10 years, and has sold more copies than the Halo series, the Half-Life series AND the Metal Gear series? No, it’s not Guitar Hero or Rock Band, and it’s not Pokemon. It’s not even made by one of the “serious” game development companies. The game that I’m talking about is Bejeweled (published by PopCap), a simple online flash game that has garnered 25 million purchases and more than 350 million free downloads.

The secret to PopCap’s success lies in creating simple, easy to use games that the average person finds fun. They’ve built an entire market segment from the simple beginnings of Bejewled, and now offer more than 50 games for sale, and even more in their free download section with almost a billion downloads between them. The “casual gaming” market is so large that the Nintendo Wii has almost been completely taken over by casual games.

By why has the industry taken off so much? Sure, casual games can be easy to make. I remember whipping up a version of Bejewled in a VBA form that I built as an Excel macro so I could play it in my “business software” class in high school. The real secret is that these games are easy to pick up and play, and in that sense they’re far better than their competition for people who are busy, inexperienced, or just plain tired.

People these days have less and less free time, which means they have less time to learn the function of the right trigger in crouch mode, run mode, driving mode, flying mode, stealth mode, raspberry jam mode, etc. The instructions for Bejeweled (“Swap adjacent gems to align sets of 3 or more”) are almost as simple as the original Pong’s instructions (“Avoid missing ball for high score”).

That’s what we try to do here at SoftLayer. Our portal is specifically designed to be used by people who just don’t have the time or inclination to perform menial repetitive tasks manually. From configuring a load balancer to rebooting your servers to performing notoriously difficult SWIP requests, the portal handles it all for you. Of course, the task we’re trying to help you accomplish is a lot more complex than “avoid missing ball for high score,” but we try our best to make the process as easy as possible. Maybe with the time saved you can come up with a new business segment to send more server orders our way, but I’m betting you’ll be playing Bejewled, or Peggle, or Zuma…




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