October 7, 2015

Give me a MOOC with social proof

I’ve spent the last few weeks investigating the technologies needed to deliver e-learning, and it’s been a real eye-opener as to what’s hot.

I thought the only way to investigate was to try out a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for myself. After all, “eating your own dog food” is an essential skill for any entrepreneur.

Most of my learning in the last 20 years has been through the School of Life—I haven’t been in formal training for a while. Going back to school (or at least digital school) has been a fascinating experience. MOOCs, as offered by the likes of Coursera, iVersity and Udemy, represent a real step change in learning technology.

We all have areas of interest beyond technology; mine is global politics and development. (So keen am I on this subject that after a recent hackathon, I started running an employee advocacy program for the United Nations: the UN Social 500.) I enrolled in a Coursera course, Configuring the World, to learn how data drives political decisions. Perfect for a startup founder offering automated statistical release software!

The course covers eight weeks of lectures with reading material for each week and a quiz at the end of the week. You can watch the videos in normal or double-time on the web, or you can download them to your mobile device of choice to watch on-the-go.

Having the content accessible via mobile turned out to be essential for me. I thought I was going to block out the time at work (two hours every other day), but client needs always felt more pressing. In the end, I found that perching the phone above the sink whilst doing the washing up worked best (although I frequently have to dry my hands to press play on the next video).

As head of a company offering digital services, the mobile need has been a great lesson for me. You can’t always expect your users to either have Internet access or the time to sit at a desk. Mobile offers the experience offline on a smartphone and is utterly necessary if you want to retain your customers.

The second key I picked up from the course has been the value of interaction with others. It is in the discussion forums that you can review the lectures, ask questions, and extend the conversation beyond the confines of the curriculum.

I’m a social person, so you’d think I’d love the discussion forums. While helpful, they aren’t enough for me. They lack a killer feature, which is a social proof mechanism: a way of comparing my progress with other participants. On Twitter, I have a social proof mechanism: I can compare numbers of followers. That may be an overly simplified score (what’s the value of a follower anyway?), but at least it allows me compare progress via some standard metric.

What I really craved was a similar mechanism in my course. Not because I particularly wanted to compete—I’m not aiming to be top of the class—but because I wanted to make sure I am keeping up. Are my quiz scores worse or better than the average? Am I watching enough of the lectures?

The traditional way for us technologists to solve this problem is to offer a dashboard. You know the type: a page of multiple bar graphs, dials, and gauges.

The trouble with these types of data dashboards is that it is pretty difficult for the user to figure out whether he or she needs to do anything or not. The insights are not exactly “actionable.” If one gauge has gone up and another has gone down, is that good or bad overall? Moreover, should I be panicking?

Dashboards of this nature also tend to be fairly passive. Unless you remember to check them regularly (and who does?), they are quickly forgotten. I would prefer to see a single composite score (much like what Nike+ does for running or Klout for social media) that has an embedded weighting method for the relative importance of each metric. For my MOOC example, watching videos is important, so that should be worth 60 percent of the score. Scoring well on the quiz also counts, which should be worth 30 percent of the score. That leaves 10 percent for the discussion forums.

Now that I have a score, it should be sent to me each week (no passivity here), and I’ll know whether I’ve done well or badly. Even better: show me how I compare versus others across the world or in my country on a leaderboard. Then I will really have a social proof mechanism to help guide my behaviour.


Toby Beresford is CEO and founder of, a social utility to share the score. Rise provides an automated statistical release service to create composite single scores and to distribute the results via web, social media, and email. Rise scores and leaderboards have been used across enterprises for multiple use cases including employee advocacy programs, partner management, e-learning, audience development, digital marketing, and digital sales enablement. Rise is a member of the SoftLayer Startup Catalyst program.

October 5, 2015

The SLayer Standard Vol. 1, No. 15

The week in review. All the IBM Cloud and SoftLayer headlines in one place.

It’s time to Box.
Which cloud platform will offer Box first? We will! Our new deal with Box helps the company expand its customer base and further its IBM partnership. Whitney Bouck, general manager at Box, said, “This is a fabulous step in the right direction and satisfies the majority of customers in Europe that have maybe been uncomfortable with a U.S.-only data centre approach.”

EVRY one gets cloud.
IBM will be the go-to provider for EVRY Partners’ cloud infrastructure offerings. The services will start running in SoftLayer data centers in 2016. “Our partnership demonstrates how IBM’s expertise, technology and services can help EVRY adapt to new market conditions and opportunities while having trusted infrastructure services supporting the ongoing operations,” said Martin Jetter, senior vice president at IBM Global Technology Services.

With new platforms comes cloud growth.
How does IBM expand its global business solutions? With cloud, of course. Sanjay Rishi, managing partner at IBM Global Business Services, said, "Our new IBM Cloud Business Innovation Center will help us co-create with our clients, addressing their unique needs with tailored solutions, delivered on the cloud for fast results."

Welcome to the family!
Cleversafe, a data storage vendor newly acquired by IBM, is the next step in providing customers a way to “build a hybrid bridge to the cloud.” IBM discussed the benefits of Cleversafe in a press release, saying, “The company uses unique algorithms to slice data into pieces and reassemble the information from a single copy, rather than simply making multiple copies of the data, which is how storage traditionally has been done. As a result, Cleversafe can store data significantly cheaper and with greater security.” We would like to welcome Cleversafe to the IBM family!


October 2, 2015

Under the Infrastructure: Growth account manager Matthew Miller is a problem solver

We’re creeping up on two months into the series, and Under the Infrastructure has introduced you to seven SLayers. We’re a pretty diverse and interesting bunch—if we do say so ourselves.

This week, we’re staying in amazing Amsterdam and chatting with growth account manager Matthew Miller. Fast approaching his six-year mark at SoftLayer, Miller is a born and bred Texan who moved to Amsterdam almost four years ago. He’s not a fan of the weather, but, well, this Dallas-based company wishes the whole world could be Texas.

SoftLayer: You’re a growth account manager. What does it mean to be a growth account manager?

Matthew Miller: We are responsible for worldwide growth account activities, which include revenue generation, long-term customer relationship management, retention, and business development with Internet-centric and tech-savvy companies. Our daily activities include vetting current Softlayer accounts and proactively engaging the accounts with the use of different communication methods to identify new sales opportunities and grow existing portfolios.

SL: You’re pretty much a relationship builder.

Miller: Correct.

SL: So what particular skills and talents, do you think, make a successful growth account manager?

Miller: Great communicator, problem solver, and trust. Most of the customers we deal with have so many problems, they don’t know where to start. You need to be able to communicate. But I don’t mean that as in just talking [laugh]. I’m talking about being able to explain things within the customer’s range. There are customers we deal with on a daily basis that have different levels of knowledge when it comes to technology and our business as a whole. So being able to understand your customers needs, while being able to explain it to them on their level, really helps build trust and confidence.

SL: So you kinda have to be, like, a technology whisperer. You have to understand what they’re looking for and interpret it.

Miller: To a degree, yes.

SL: What do you think is the coolest thing about your job?

Miller: Every day comes with its own little challenges. Not every day is the same; that’s the excitement of being in this position. You’re not going to have the same day yesterday as you do today. One day it could be super busy, the next day you’re selling, the next day you’re dealing with problems—there are always different day-to-day operations.

SL: Diversity in work responsibilities definitely makes life more interesting. Sort of on the flip side, what do you think is the most challenging thing about your job?

Miller: Customers [laughs]. We deal with customers all day, and that requires me to take the good with the bad. That’s the beauty of the job. One day you’ll be helping out a customer and they’re happy with our service, while you have another customer who’s struggling and is not happy. It’s part of the challenges we deal with daily.

SL: If you woke up and you had 2,000 unread emails and you could only answer 300 of them, how would you choose which ones to answer?

Miller: I’d start from the top and go down.

SL: You would? There wouldn’t be any sort of filtering in looking for specific names or companies or subject lines? You’d just start at the top?

Miller: Well, yeah, because if I can only do 300, it’s first come, first served.

SL: OK. In case anyone ever needs to get your attention and this 300 rule is implemented, they’d better email you a lot.

Miller: I hope I don’t wake up with 2,000 emails [laughs].

We think 2,000 of you should email Matthew right. this. second.


September 25, 2015

Under the Infrastructure: Fueled by chocolate, EMEA senior marketing manager Michalina Kiera lives on a diet of planning, monitoring, and executing regional tech strategies

Sure, we’re the cloud that’s built to perform. Yes, our network of networks is fast, resilient, and seamless around the globe. But our machines are nothing without human energy—because our teams are second to none. And you’d better believe that we’re going to brag, brag, and brag some more about the folks that comprise them in the latest edition of Under the Infrastructure.

This week, you’re meeting Michalina Kiera, another gem in our Amsterdam office. She’s been going strong with SoftLayer for over three-and-a-half years, and leads strategic marketing efforts in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

SoftLayer: Describe your role at SoftLayer in 140 characters or less (the length of a tweet).

Michalina Kiera: Oh gosh, that’s why I’m not on Twitter—text length limitations make me twitch. I’m going to try, let’s see. I’m a transmitter and receiver in one, with cognitive thinking being part of the process. I stay tuned to what the EMEA technology market needs today and tomorrow, match it with what SoftLayer has to offer, and translate it into a compelling story with a goal to get people to the edge of their seats if they are not using SoftLayer yet.

SL: You’re a bit over the character limit, but that’s good enough for us. Tell us about a day in the life of a senior marketing manager in the EMEA region.

Kiera: If I’m not traveling or attending or speaking at some conference, then I’m at our Amsterdam office. I start in the morning with some tea (no coffee for me, thank you; I live on chocolate instead). Then I’m reading and writing tons of emails. Participating in tons of meetings online, on the phone, and face-to-face. All those are internal and external: with my colleagues, customers, partners, contractors, etc. Once a week, I’m going through reports on campaigns we’re running in the region, the number of servers humming in our European data centers, and the customers from the region that are deploying the servers around the world.

I’m busy coming up with new ideas to deliver on strategic goals, bouncing those off the team, and planning, monitoring, readjusting, and planning. In between, I always go through my daily pill of the news from the technology and marketing world—I rely on Google Alerts and religiously check LinkedIn Pulse, as it intelligently curates content for me from many sources that I used to check individually and adds the featured articles, blogs, and channels from people and organizations I either respect or need to stay tuned to.

Lunchtime is almost always in front of my screen, typing with one hand, eating with the other. It sounds sadder than it actually is—I enjoy the pace and the busy-ness! If the system overloads, I unwind watching a TED Talk.

It usually gets even busier in the afternoon, as the U.S. team comes to the office. And then my husband calls to tell me that it’s time to close the shop and come home—which I do with pleasure, as I love my little family to the extreme.

SL: How many black SoftLayer shirts do you own?

Kiera: Fourteen. Three cardigans. One dress. And one hoodie.

SL: What’s your best Server Challenge time?

Kiera: I’m more a fan of games in 11000001000101110010. With that in mind, I’ve brought in an idea that is currently in production; it should see the daylight soon, but shhhh—for now.

SL: What did you do for fun when you were 10 years old?

Kiera: I had volleyball training five hours a day (I was on a professional team), rollerblading (usually over the weekend, after the volleyball game). I hung around with my friends from the neighborhood. I sang along with Michael Jackson holding a hairbrush for a microphone. (Don’t judge me.)

I was hooked on Nintendo—the good ol’ cartridge-fed machines—playing Super Mario Bros., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Adventure Island and Mortal Kombat. I also played PC games, from Phantasmagoria to MDK to Jack Jazz Rabbit—although I think when I was 10, it was the era of DOOM and Duke Nukem. My nerd-self expressed itself by going through math riddles for fun.

I have no idea how I found the time to do all of that. I prefer to think the days were simply longer.

Yes, all of our employees are just as ambitious and multitalented as Michalina. You’ll just have to stay tuned to the Under the Infrastructure series to keep up with them.


September 18, 2015

Under the Infrastructure: EMEA regional sales director Jonathan Wisler champions putting the customer first and the return of Disco Fridays

It’s time for the latest and greatest Under the Infrastructure! We’ll be honest: introducing you to our crew always gets us exclamation-point excited. (Sorry we’re not sorry.)

Up next is a chat with Jonathan Wisler, EMEA regional sales director in our (bursting at the seams) Amsterdam office. He’s originally from California, but he’s been in the Netherlands for about 10 years—and with SoftLayer for about four of those. He’s grown our Amsterdam location from an empty space to a bustling place.

But we’ll let him tell you the story himself.

SoftLayer: What was it like being SoftLayer’s first European employee?

Jonathan Wisler: After I interviewed, I went to Dallas for training, and it was all very exciting. I found out this was a great group of people doing fantastic things. Then I got back to Amsterdam and sat down in an empty office with an empty data center. I had mixed feelings: part of me was super excited—“OK, we’re part of a movement; I can get started!”—and the other part of me said, “What did I sign up for?” So it was both exciting and intimidating at the same time.

And now, the first [Amsterdam] data center is nearly full and we have a total of six data centers in Europe. The office is overflowing, so we’re expanding into the IBM offices, and we’re opening up some space in the coming days. It was a very exciting journey and it’s also very exciting to see the growth.

I have to admit: the first day I got back from Dallas and sat down in Amsterdam in an empty office, with an empty data center—it was a bit intimidating [laughs].

SL: How has SoftLayer changed or stayed the same since you started with the company?

Wisler: It’s certainly been an evolution. It’s evolved significantly, and you see the scaling in action. When I first started, we were the second international launch, only one month behind Singapore—so it went from a U.S.-based company to an international company virtually overnight.

Now, in Europe alone, we have five different locations, global teams, and we’ve integrated into IBM. The SoftLayer kernel is now scaling exponentially—not only inside SoftLayer as an organization, but we’re building and scaling inside IBM as well. It’s fantastic to see that it’s mushroomed and virtually exploded in terms of growth.

So naturally, what comes with that is that you see all different types of personalities and different types of cultures, all working together and getting the SoftLayer buzz, so to speak. They’re feeling the growth and developing the cloud movement.

SL: We’ve had monumental, volcanic change. Has anything stayed the same?

Wisler: The core definitely has. We were on a call last night to resolve some customer issues. We’re working across time zones, we’re working across regions, and we’re working across IBM and SoftLayer. But the fantastic thing is the glue that is our customer-first attitude. The first thing we said was, “OK, we need to solve the problem for the customer, we need to do it within hours, not days, and we’ll work out the internal things later.” That kind of core value has not changed, and I think that’s the key to our success. It’s awesome and it’s refreshing.

SL: What’s the best thing that you’ve learned over the course of your time at SoftLayer?

Wisler: Be flexible. If you look at where I started with Softlayer about four years ago—myself and an empty data center—at that time, we weren’t yet a part of IBM, one of the largest technology companies in the world. With where we were then and where we are today in terms of scale, focus, and what we need to do to close deals and fill up data centers, I’ve had to be flexible. Stay flexible, stay fast. And be adaptable, because you have different customer cultures and different internal cultures. SoftLayer has a very strong culture. So you need to be able to work across those.

SL: What’s the best prank you’ve ever pulled on a fellow SLayer?

Wisler: We started small and scaled fast, so pranks were luxurious. We’ve played some jokes on each other and we’ve had a lot of fun, but I don’t know if they’re pranks that would go in a blog [laughs].

SL: You don’t want your coworkers to anticipate your next move. We get that.

Wisler: Exactly. But it’s actually a good idea. When we first started in the SoftLayer office, we had Disco Fridays, which were always quite good. We’d have a sound system there, and the music would go on. As we got more crowded, that was harder to do. But we’re setting up some new office space in the IBM office, so I’m going to invest in a bigger sound system. And lights. Disco Fridays are back on again.

But now you’ve got me thinking about what kind of prank to pull.

SL: Why do tennis balls have fuzz?

Wisler: So when you smack them, they make a funny sound; that “oomph” sound. I don’t know. Is this a prank I should be expecting?

SL: [Laughing] It would be a little difficult to organize an international prank of…tennis balls.

Wisler: If I get a package in the post from you, I’m going to be a little leery.

SL: You should be.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to make a quick trip to Academy for, uh, not tennis balls. Definitely not tennis balls.


September 11, 2015

Under the Infrastructure: Customer support technician Steve Nolin is on your side

There are over 1,500 employees at SoftLayer. Can you believe it? That’s over 1,500 brains, 3,000 eyeballs, and over 6,000 workstations, devices, and gadgets all working toward a common goal: doing our best by our clients. (That’s you.)

Customer support technician Steve Nolin knows a thing or two about prioritizing the most important part of our business. He’s been at SoftLayer for about a year, and he’s based in our Houston office.

Let’s meet him.

SoftLayer: Tell us something no one knows about being a customer support technician at what some would argue is the most awesome cloud company ever.

Steve Nolin: We don't know everything you are doing on your server, but we will see if we can point you in the right direction. Given the range of services and different hardware and software combinations we offer that interact with each other, it can be a challenge to make sure everything communicates properly. With computers, you can do things in various ways with varying degrees of success or failure.

SL: How has SoftLayer changed (or stayed the same) since you began working here?

Nolin: I have only been here a year, so it hasn't changed that much, other than offering some new products like endurance storage. We have had some changes with how back-end issues are addressed by the developer and information systems teams. This helps get issues resolved faster and makes it more integrated with the ticketing system. That is always a good thing.

SL: What’s your favorite thing about being a SLayer?

Nolin: Although it would make things a lot easier to only have to deal with one platform, we support various software and hardware, so there is always something new to learn. I also like the IBM Think Academy and other learning tools offered so I can increase my skill set.

SL: What’s the best prank you ever pulled on a fellow SLayer?

Nolin: I usually try to stay busy working the phones, chat, or tickets, so I don't really do pranks. But we do have NERF wars when it is slow. I had to throw the darts by hand when I first started, but my Secret Santa gave me a gift card, so I have my own NERF gun to do battle with now.

SL: What did you have for breakfast?

Nolin: Since the doctor said I had to watch my blood sugar and get more exercise, I had to cut out my #22 from Whataburger. I have found the sausage and pancake on a stick along with a banana, 2 percent milk, and coffee to be a good alternative. Other days I will have bacon, egg, and cheese Toaster Scrambles instead of the sausage and pancake on a stick.

Now you know the real secret to our smashing success: a hearty breakfast to start the morning. So what’ll you uncover in next week’s Under the Infrastructure? You’ll have to tune it right here to find out.


September 4, 2015

Under the Infrastructure: Solving real problems with software engineer Neetu Jain

Do you love getting to know us in our Under the Infrastructure series? We certainly hope so, because we’re having a blast lifting the veil on our cloud layer.

Lest you think only male employees work at our fine company, this week we’re introducing you to software engineer Neetu Jain. She’s been with us a little over a year and a half, and she calls our Dallas headquarters home base.

SoftLayer: Why did you choose to become a software engineer?

Neetu Jain: When I was first introduced to programming, I felt it was pretty empowering (like, “You had me at “Hello!”). I could make the computer do whatever I wanted if done properly with a reasonable goal in mind. So that I guess lured me into it, and after that, it was a natural progression. I did my bachelor’s in electronics because I was fascinated by embedded electronics all around me, but computer science was instant gratification. You don’t have to wait at all to see the results of your creation—just run the code!

SL: You can manipulate computers. You’re like the Wizard of Oz.

Jain: In many other fields (such as construction), you must depend on people, resources, and waiting, for things to happen. Due to long turnaround cycles, sometimes it can take years before you see you see the fruits of your work. But if you can just sit down at your computer and make it happen, you have a much shorter turnaround time!

SL: Absolutely.

Jain: So, you know, it was like, “This is pretty cool.”

SL: We agree. So what’s your favorite thing about working at SoftLayer?

Jain: It’s about getting to learn new technologies. There’s a tremendous scope for learning in this domain, and you get opportunities to learn because Softlayer is growing so much.

SL: What advice would you give to someone who’s starting out in software engineering?

Jain: Ask questions. In the first year I joined the cloud domain, I was like, “OK, I’ll learn.” I wasn’t asking around too much. I wasn’t asking for feedback. I realized after a year that I had to make myself more visible. I had to ask more questions. If I had questions, I couldn’t just sit around and wait for the answers to come. I needed to ping people and be more proactive. The first year, I didn’t do that enough.

SL: People are really receptive when you’re asking questions, and they’re willing to help?

Jain: You’ll find some people who are and some people who are not. [Laughs] At least you get that information. Initially, I was working at my desk, doing and learning my stuff and waiting to prove myself. There’s nobody coming to you and asking what you’re doing, and you don’t have any visibility as a result. But if you’re proactive, people know about you, you can tell them what you’re working on, and you can ask questions about what’s going on in their world, and thus, you get to make a connection—which makes the workplace more enjoyable.

SL: We think a lot of people view software engineering as an antisocial profession.

Jain: Yeah, it is, because you can sit on your computer all day, and not talk to anybody.

SL: But you’re saying that asking questions and actually interacting is going to help you.

Jain: It does a lot. In my case, I joined the product innovation team, which was a small team. Then I was moved to another team, and they had absolutely no idea what I was working on. So, if I would’ve been more proactive and connected with them, then I could have eliminated that scenario.

SL: What do you predict or hope for the future of software engineering?

Jain: I’m the oracle now! [Laughs] I want software engineering—or, basically, any engineering—to solve real problems. I went to a hackathon, and most of the ideas were like, “Share your playlist on the road” or an Internet of Things kind of thing, like, “Take periodic pictures with geographically separated friends on the go,” and this and that. What struck me was that we had so many resources, so many amazing brains there—maybe we could have worked on more realistic issues?

There are so many things we can solve. I volunteer at a lot of organizations, especially ones that work in India: Vibha, Association for India’s Development (AID), Systers, etc. Many of the issues they face can probably be better solved through a meaningful use of technology.

For example, Annakshetra basically takes leftover food and provides it to the poor. But there’s one basic problem: how does it test the food to know if it’s fit for consumption? There needs to be a low-cost, easy-to-use solution, because if somebody gets sick, nobody’s ever going to come again. How about a low-cost litmus test where you can test and say, “OK, it’s germ-free”? I thought this should be an easily solvable problem. Why don’t we solve these kinds of problems in a hackathon rather than somebody going on a road trip sharing playlists?

SL: That’s a really good point.

Jain: Even though it was a great experience, I was a tad disappointed with the fact that there were so many of these ideas. I ended up there by accident with a friend, totally unprepared, and it was my first. I started asking questions like, “What can a smart car do? Can a smart car detect if there’s a baby inside?” (There are a lot of babies dying in locked cars due to exposure to extreme temperatures.) So if a smart car can detect whether there’s a baby inside, whether the car is locked, and whether the temperature is rising, it can send push notifications.

That’s the idea I pitched, but [the attendees] were all young grad students; none of them found it interesting—only the handful of parents and pet owners did. But in my view, that’s a real problem.

SL: It makes sense. Why don’t we figure out how to solve real problems for real people?

Jain: You could say that “real” is subjective, but I wish there was somebody who’d say, “We have limited resources; we are going to solve these problems rather than those.”

SL: Now you make us want to be software engineers.

Jain: In any field, we can all solve these problems. It’s about directing someone to think that way—you know, “While you’re thinking about this, think about that, too.”

SL: If you could have one superpower, what would it be? Any superpower at all.

Jain: To read people’s minds. [Laughs] I don’t like when people say one thing and mean something else. I am like, “I want to read your mind. What exactly do you mean?”

SL: That’s a very software engineer stance. “Now let me get behind that to understand why you said that.” That would be ours too.

Saving the world through software? Don’t say SoftLayer never taught you anything.


September 3, 2015

Cloud, Interrupted: The Official SoftLayer Podcast

Have you ever wondered what happens when you put three cloud guys in a room to talk cloud? Our curiosity was insatiable, so doggone it, we went and did it. We hereby officially present to you our brand new podcast: Cloud, Interrupted.

Join Kevin Hazard, director of digital content, Phil Jackson, lead technology evangelist, and Teddy Vandenberg, manager of network provisioning, as they wreak havoc interrupting the world of cloud.

In case you’re a skimmer, here’s the highlight reel:

  • [00:00:05] Phil isn't a Stanley, but he is a germophobe.
  • [00:01:44] Are we interrupted by the cloud or are we interrupting the cloud?
  • [00:03:22] We have goals with this podcast, we swear.
  • [00:04:34] Teddy drops the bass.
  • [00:05:58] What's a better word for "cloud" than "cloud"?
  • [00:08:12] Where social interaction influences the real world: Meet "passive computing" and the trifecta.
  • [00:10:44] Who cares what Phil has to say?
  • [00:11:51] Phil reminisces about that time he explained web hosting to the Harris County Tax Office.
  • [00:16:02] Then Teddy's analogy was used against Phil.
  • [00:19:21] IBM to the rescue!
  • [00:20:45] Oops. He had to do it again.
  • [00:23:11] New and old technologies get lost in translation. "To the cloud!"
  • [00:25:54] You exist in the cloud more and you will start to understand the cloud more.
  • [00:30:31] Now this is a podcast about Costco.
  • [00:31:03] Wait a second. Who's Kevin? And why isn't SoftLayer on Snapchat?
  • [00:32:56] Teddy's relationship with IBM is complicated, but the cat is fine.
  • [00:33:45] Hot tip: Unplug both ends of your telephone cable and reverse it.

We hope you dig it.


September 2, 2015

Backup and Restore in a Cloud and DevOps World

Virtualization has brought many improvements to the compute infrastructure, including snapshots and live migration1. When an infrastructure moves to the cloud, these options often become a client’s primary backup strategy. While snapshots and live migration are also part of a successful strategy, backing up on the cloud may need additional tools.

First, a basic question: Why do we take backups? They’re taken to recover from

  • The loss of an entire machine
  • Partially corrupted files
  • A complete data loss (either through hardware or human error)

While losing an entire machine is frightening, corrupted files or data loss are the more common reasons for data backups.

Snapshots are useful when the snapshot and restore occur in close proximity to each other, e.g., when you’re migrating middleware or an operating system and want to fall back quickly if something goes wrong. If you need to restore after extensive changes (hardware or data), a snapshot isn’t an adequate resource. The restore may require restoring to a new machine, selecting files to be restored, and moving data back to the original machine.

So if a snapshot isn’t the silver bullet for backing up in the cloud, what are the effective backup alternatives? The solution needs to handle a full system loss, partial data loss, or corruption, and ideally work for both virtualized and non-virtualized environments.

What to back up

There are three types of files that you’ll want to consider when backing up an active machine’s disks:

  • Binary files: Changed by operating system and middleware updates; can be easily stored and recovered.
  • Configuration files: Defined by how the binary files are connected, configured, and what data is accessible to them.
  • Data files: Generated by users and unrecoverable if not backed up. Data files are the most precious part of the disk content and losing them may result in a financial impact on the client’s business.

Keep in mind when determining your backup strategy that each file type has a different change rate—data files change faster than configuration files, which are more fluid than binary files. So, what are your options for backing up and restoring each type of file?

Binary files
In the case of a system failure, DevOps advocates (see Phoenix Servers from Martin Fowler) propose getting a new machine, which all cloud providers can automatically provision, including middleware. Automated provisioning processes are available for both bare metal and virtual machines.

Note that most Open Source products only require an Internet connection and a single command line for installation, while commercial products can be provisioned through automation.

Configuration files
Cloud-centric operations have a distinct advantage over traditional operations when it comes to backing up configuration files. With traditional operations, each element is configured manually, which has several drawbacks such as being time-consuming and error-prone. Cloud-centric operations, or DevOps, treat each configuration as code, which allows an environment to be built from a source configuration via automated tools and procedures. Tools such as Chef, Puppet, Ansible, and SaltStack show their power with central configuration repositories that are used to drive the composition of an environment. A central repository works well with another component of automated provisioning—changing the IP address and hostname.

You have limited control of how the cloud will allocate resources, so you need an automated method to collect the information and apply it to all the machines being provisioned.

In a cloud context, it’s suboptimal to manage machines individually; instead, the machines have to be seen as part of a cluster of servers, managed via automation. Cluster automation is one the core tenants of solutions like CoreOS’ Fleet and Apache Mesos. Resources are allocated and managed as a single entity via API, configuration repositories, and automation.

You can attain automation in small steps. Start by choosing an automation tool and begin converting your existing environment one file at a time. Soon, your entire configuration is centrally available and recovering a machine or deploying a full environment is possible with a single automated process.

In addition to being able to quickly provision new machines with your binary and configuration files, you are also able to create parallel environments, such as disaster recovery, test and development, and quality assurance. Using the same provisioning process for all of your environments assures consistent environments and early detection of potential production problems. Packages, binaries, and configuration files can be treated as data and stored in something similar to object stores, which are available in some form with all cloud solutions.

Data files
The final files to be backed up and restored are the data files. These files are the most important part of a backup and restore and the hardest ones to replace. Part of the challenge is the volume of data as well as access to it. Data files are relatively easy to back up; the exception being files that are in transition, e.g., files being uploaded. Data file backups can be done with several tools, including synchronization tools or a full file backup solution. Another option is object stores, which is the natural repository for relatively static files, and allows for a pay–as-you-go model.

Database content is a bit harder to back up. Even with instant snapshots on storage, backing up databases can be challenging. A snapshot at the storage level is an option, but it doesn’t allow for a partial database restore. Also, a snapshot can capture inflight transactions that can cause issues during a restore; which is why most database systems provide a mechanism for online backups. The online backups should be leveraged in combination with tools for file backups.

Something to remember about databases: many solutions end up accumulating data even after the data is no longer used by users. The data within an active database includes data currently being used and historical data. Having current and historical data allows for data analytics on the same database, it also increases the size of the database, making database-related operations harder. It may make sense to archive older data in either other databases or flat files, which makes the database volumes manageable.


To recap, because cloud provides rapid deployment of your operating system and convenient places to store data (such as object stores), it’s easy to factor cloud into your backup and recovery strategy. By leveraging the containerization approach, you should split the content of your machines—binary, configuration, and data. Focus on automating the deployment of binaries and configuration; it allows easier delivery of an environment, including quality assurance, test, and disaster recovery. Finally, use traditional backup tools for backing up data files. These tools make it possible to rapidly and repeatedly recover complete environments while controlling the amount of backed up data that has to be managed.


1 Snapshots are not available on bare metal servers that have no virtualization capability.

August 31, 2015

Data Ingestion and Access Using Object Storage

The massive growth in unstructured data (documents, images, videos, and so on) is one of the greatest problems facing today’s IT personnel. The challenge is storing all the data so that it and its storage solution can grow exponentially. Object storage is an ideal, cost-effective, scale-out solution for storing extensive amounts of unstructured data.

SoftLayer offers object storage based on the OpenStack Swift platform. Object storage provides a fully distributed, scalable, API-accessible storage platform that can be integrated directly into applications. It can be used for storing static data, such as virtual machine (VM) images, photos, emails, and so on. Click here for more information on object storage.

There are two important use cases when working with object storage: data ingestion and data access.

Data ingestion use case
A large medical research company needs to upload a large amount of data into their SoftLayer compute instance. The requirement is for a multi-hundred terabyte image repository that contains hundreds of millions of images. Researchers will then upload code to run on bare metal servers with GPUs to process the images in the repository. The images range from 512KB CT images to 30MB to 50 MB mammograms and are logically grouped into 12 million “studies.” The client wants to onboard the data as quickly as possible.


  • Evenly distribute the objects into approximately 1,000 containers for the initial upload. For the amount of objects the client needs to store, our tests have shown that having a much larger number of containers, or too few objects per container, would incur significant performance penalties. The proposed 1,000 containers allow for a good balance for parallelism in object creation and keeps the container sizes manageable.
  • Concurrently add new objects to all containers using 400 worker threads for small objects (e.g., 512KB CT images) and 40 worker threads for large objects (e.g., 30MB to 50MB mammograms). The ideal number of worker threads is dependent on the workload size. Using a minimal amount of threads results in better response but lower throughput. Using significantly more threads may lower both latency and throughput because the threads start competing for resources.

Data access use case
A large technology company has a mix of GET, PUT, and DELETE operations for which it needs object storage capable of holding billions of small objects (15KB or less). They also want consistent latencies for their operation mix (GET 54%, PUT 33%, and DELETE 13%), which requires optimal tuning for consistent performance. The client’s benchmarking calls for 1,400 operations per second.


  • Use multiple containers (at least 40) to improve the latency for PUT and DELETE objects. As long as the objects are distributed over at least 40 containers with a sufficient number of worker threads, the average latencies for PUT and DELETE objects was well below 100ms in our tests. There may be occasional latency spikes, which are not surprising on shared storage systems, but overall, the latencies should be relatively consistent.
    • The read latency for a GET is very fast—less than 20ms on average for small objects.
  • Use multiple containers if very high throughput is needed. In our tests, we could drive more than 6,000 transactions per second on the production cluster with at least 40 containers.

-Naeem Altaf & Khoa Huynh



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