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October 20, 2008

Can I Touch Your Meatball, Please?

A few years ago I injured my arm. I won’t go into details about the stupid things some of us do when we are off work, but the long and the short of it was that I ended up with a broken elbow. The surgery to repair the damage left me with a knot near my elbow. Hardly noticeable, in my opinion, but there if you know what you are looking for.

Not too long after the accident, my son, who was 5 going on 6, asked if he could have a friend spend the night. Sure. I picked the two of them up, loaded them in the back seat, and headed for my house. When we reached the first red light between the school and my house, I snatched my Diet Mountain Dew from the console and took a big swig. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned my head. It was my son’s friend.

“Mr. Francis,” he said shyly. I thought I knew what was coming. His mom had been very specific. No caffeine.

“Yes,” I replied quickly tilting the bottle to my lips operating on the premise the best defense was a good offense and if I just drained the soda entirely my problem would be solved.

“Can I touch your meatball, please?”

About then is when the carbonated soda came spewing forth from both nostrils.

“What?” I sputtered, my eyes watering and my nose burning. I checked the rearview mirror certain Chris Hansen from Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” was going to smiling at me from the backseat along with an entire NBC camera crew. There was no Chris Hansen. Just my son and his school buddy giggling.

“Your meatball,” the kid said, pointing to the bump near my elbow. My own child nodded enthusiastically.

Ah, now I understood. There had simply been a miscommunication.

Certain the last thing I needed was some kid going home telling his parents Mr. Francis let him touch his meatball, I politely told him not only could he not touch my meatball but it would be best if we didn't talk about my meatball at all. Both boys seemed mildly disappointed but quickly got over it when I suggested we make a detour for the nearest McDonald’s.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago when we had our monthly development meeting here in the SoftLayer headquarters facility. Our VP of Development, Matt Chilek, gave us a talk about the importance of clear and concise communications. Specifically error messages in the portal.

The SoftLayer customer portal is probably the most sophisticated tool of its kind for remote management of servers. So no matter how much testing we do internally, now and again an error will pop up. Sometimes, these errors are legitimate bugs. Other times, they are runtime issues, such as a temporary outage of a database or some support hardware. In either case, how we present the error to the customer is of the utmost importance.

I’ll give you an example. The first time I worked on the WSUS update page in the portal, if my application failed to get a response from the MS Windows Update Server I threw up an error message: “fatal error”. Which is accurate. Sort of. The error is fatal to the application at that particular time. But that doesn’t really give the customer or our datacenter technicians a lot to go on. A better error message is “No response from WSUS server @192.100.12.1. This server could be temporarily offline for maintenance or updates. Please try again in a few minutes. If the problem persists contact technical support.”

While both error messages alert us that something went wrong, the second lets us know what the error was. Exactly which hardware was the culprit. And that the issue might only be temporary so give it a few minutes before crying that the sky is falling. Clear. Concise. To the point. That is the only way to keep a tool as complex and feature rich as the SoftLayer portal from overwhelming our customers and employees alike.

So the SoftLayer development team is making a concerted effort to do just that. And we could really use the help of SoftLayer employees from other departments as well as our customers who use the portal on a regular basis, in pointing out any areas where the language used or information presented is not as clear as it could be. It only takes a minute to fill out a ticket with a note to the dev team, and, in the end, it is you who will benefit.

Alright, I suppose I should get back to writing code instead of writing about writing code. But first I think I’ll make a quick trip to the employee break room to grab some caffeine. And if by chance you run into me in the hallway, no you can’t touch my meatball—so don’t even ask.

-William

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October 16, 2008

X-Ray Technology

Some of you who have known me for a while know my uncanny ability to get seriously injured during my time away from work. For the others, I’ll give some background:

1.A few years ago while racing SamF on ATVs, I managed to nearly destroy my wrist in a pretty nasty crash. My wrist was dislocated along with some of the bone being crushed as well; here is the X-ray before the put me back together. Luckily after a couple of months of “external fixation” they were able to put everything back in place. Yes, I wore that around the office and typed one handed for quite some time.

2.Last year I had another accident were ironically SamF was involved again. We were removing a trailer from the hitch of his truck before another ATV ride when the trailer slipped, landing on my leg leaving a significant cut in the back of my leg. Luckily I missed the tendon and quite a few stitches I was good as new (except the nasty scar left over).

3.Despite no ATVs trips and no longer hanging around SamF, I still managed to injure myself again recently. This time I broke my elbow (into 3 different pieces). While I wish I had a great story for this injury, this time I was just clumsy…. I slipped and fell on the dock at a marina. This time they fixed me up with “internal fixation” this time. Here is the X-ray of what my elbow looks like currently.

What I found most interesting during my last hospital visit was the advancement in X-ray technology over the past few years. Notice the wrist X-ray is the old standard film, while the elbow X-ray is digital. X-rays now are real time so the doctor can instantly see the picture as its being taken with no waiting for film development. The results were so instantaneous, I could see the grimacing look on the doctor’s face and knew it was bad before he could even get out the words “do you have an orthopedic surgeon you would like us to call?”

My only disappointment was that upon leaving the hospital after surgery the next day, they gave me a CD with the x-rays to bring to the doctor’s office. Why can’t they have a server at SoftLayer which stores the X-ray and allows the doctor’s office to download the files as necessary? I guess for now I’ll be happy with digital X-Rays finally, but somebody needs to work on this.

-Steven

P.S. If you see a ticket update from me in the next couple of weeks with a typo, go easy on me. Typing one handed isn’t very easy.

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October 14, 2008

The Great Debate: SLayers

SLayers!

Welcome to The Great Debate: Part Deux. The SLayer blog. It is really going to be hard for me to complete this one as I am a SLacker by heart. After my previous blog I found that there might be more SLayers than I thought or so I have been told. All the SLales folks seem to be SLayers. I think they like to believe with their mad skills they can SLay the competition, quite like SoftLayer does as a whole. Some people just don’t want to be associated with the term SLacker because of the unbeknownst to me negative connotation. Who would have thought being a SLacker could be a bad thing. All this SLacking we do around here is great but this blog is about the darn SLayers we have around here.

The SLayers are an interesting bunch; take Doug Jackson in SLales for instance, he is your typical college educated frat boy jock. The bad part is I am not sure if we was in a frat or not, but I would put my money on it that he was. He is a SLayer to the core. He likes getting customers the best deal for their money and the technology they need to succeed. He also has a deep SLayer desire to succeed himself and is the master at the VFB and other moves. Would you expect anything less from a “Type A” super SLales guy who I am guessing spends at least 24 minutes a day on his hair style alone? I wouldn’t.

In our new STAT (SoftLayer Technical Assurance Team) group we have Justin Scott, he is also a SLayer. Ok, I pressed him a little on this and he claims he is a SLacker striving to be s SLayer. Not sure why he would want to switch his stance but it could be that he thinks it makes him tougher to be a SLayer. I just don’t see the thought process there but he is always thinking way outside of the box I tend to live in. I mean, who takes a perfectly good truck and guts it and puts all electric stuff in it to make it go. I guess you could say he is SLaying those gas prices with his electric dreams. Justin’s outside the box thinking is what makes him great for STAT and our customers. If you have a tricky technological nightmare in need of a solution, he can get it SLayed!

We really do have SLayers in every group in Development, Accounting, etc. In the NOC we have SLayers that are Slayer fans and then others that are Slayers fans! That is a quite a range if you ask me.

The great thing about SoftLayer is that be you a SLacker, SLayer, or even a SLoser (like Don) :-) everyone is a team and welcome to come here and show off their smarts! If you are interested in finding out more about our opportunities send your resume to us, but be sure to tell us up front if you are a SLacker or a SLayer!

I am Skinman, and I approve this message.

-Skinman

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October 11, 2008

Maps - A Geographic Look at our Customer Base

I've always been a sucker for geography and statistics. That's why I was immediately interested in seeing how our customer-base was spread out when I started using Google Maps last week. For the first map I'm releasing here, I wanted to pin a point on the map for every city represented by a customer, but after making the map I realized there was a problem - The United States.

There were over 2,000 cities represented by customers in the US alone, and it was just too slow. For that reason, The United States have only one point for each state. Those pins each have a popup which will tell you how many cities were represented by that state. For all other countries, there is a point on the map for each city for which we have a customer. Click on the image to launch the map.


My initial Observations:

  • There are more than 111 countries covered by our customers
  • At least one customer lists a residence somewhere in the Amazon Rainforest
  • We have at least 1 customer for every state in the USA
  • The southernmost city is Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand
  • The Northernmost city is Lakselv, Norway
  • We don't have a customer who lists a residence in Antarctica yet.

Consider this one a warm-up. My next map will show this same data, but broken out by our data center locations. (Dallas, Seattle and Washington D.C.)

-Jason

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October 10, 2008

I Fell in Love With the Country

Eight years ago I was blind-sided by a horse, or at least my wife's out-of-the-blue love for one.

Ginger and I were like most young Dallas couples, our sights set on the typical American dream of budding careers, a small starter home, and if we were lucky, 2.3 children to complete the picture of the modern American, dual-income, go-getter lifestyle we all look forward to growing up.

Then something unexpected happened.

We ventured out of our little bubble in the city for a day in the country with a few friends, one of whom happened to hold down a career about as far from my imagination as possible - farrier. Or in less exotic terms, a horseshoer. Depending on your perspective, things went either uphill or downhill from there.

Before the day was done, my young wife had convinced me she needed a horse. More specifically, she needed Buster - the horse she'd met and rode that day.

Apparently it was love at first sight.

Love between a girl who'd never been on a horse in her life, and a horse who obviously didn't care much for the primary human benefit of horse ownership - horseback riding.

Before long we were horse people - after surrendering an end-of-year bonus that in my mind was better devoted to the always popular big screen TV and surround sound system. To this day the World Series is still somewhat less than exceptional on our single speaker 27-inch, 12 year-old Sony. With rabbit ears.

But man, does Ginger love that horse.

And I've grown to love him as well, along with life in the country. We now have three horses, down from five after the recent sale of Prima and her young colt Cinco, and I find an amazing sense of comfort and solitude associated with life on a small ranch, and the responsibilities that come with it.

There's something to be said for the smell of a horse after a day pushing pixels around a screen. Or the taste of fresh eggs for breakfast - pulled straight from the coop - instead of a McDonald's breakfast burrito, wolfed down behind the wheel on the way to the office.

You might think life in the country, filled with the care and feeding of animals, the mending of old fences, the drinking of too much beer on a trail ride; and life at SoftLayer dealing with the ever evolving world of technology and its impact are mutually exclusive. A situation designed to create a constant state of angst - of questioning one's place in the world. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Regardless of how much those of us at SoftLayer enjoy our work, and the satisfaction we take from tackling the challenges presented by the constant cry for innovation, we all need our hideaways - our place of refuge from the ever increasing pace of modern life. To my surprise, I found that refuge in a horse, and the life that came with him. Hopefully those of you reading this blog will be lucky enough to find your refuge. Life today moves amazingly fast. If you don't slow it down once in a while, you just might miss the best part.

Here's to finding your horse, wherever or whatever it may be.

-Ed

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October 8, 2008

Mulch Ado About Nothing

A couple of weekends ago, I decided to enjoy some of the cooler temperatures (yes 90 degrees in Dallas is considered a cold front in September) and take care of a little yard work. One of my tasks was cleaning up the flower beds and installing a fresh batch of mulch. At my side was my trusty, eager, and willing sidekick “Deuce”, my three year old son. When I grabbed my shiny new shovel, he ran to the garage to grab his shiny blue (plastic) shovel. There was a question for every move and every object that was foreign to him “What’s that?”, “That’s yours?”, “Where’s mine?” Is there any thing called child physics, because with my kid, for every action, there is an equal and opposite question.

Anyway, with the weeds all pulled and the shrubs all trimmed, it was time to pull out that big bag of cedar mulch. As soon as I opened the bag, Deuce opened his mouth, “What’s that?” “Mulch” I replied. He looked at the bag; looked at me; back to the bag; then back at me… He gave me a confused look of disbelief and said almost disappointedly, “That’s wood sips!” (He has a little trouble with “ch” sounds sometimes). “That’s wood sips daddy!” he said again this time raising a palm full of chips above his head to make sure I got a good look of the stuff that I had mistakenly referred to as mulch. At that point, I was reminded by my three year old of a lesson that was taught and repeated to me many times before; “Call it like you see it!”

I think a lot of individuals, organizations and companies get in their own way by trying to characterize $2 tasks with $10 words. I’ve been as guilty as everyone else, more so in my experiences as a project manager than anything else. I’ve asked for an estimate on the release of the agreed upon deliverables that I and other stakeholders have a vested interest in before when I could have easily just asked “When will you have that done for us?” There’s no room for misinterpretation there? There’s irony in the thought that part of the purpose of the project management “discipline” is to promote a common language to make it easier to engage with others involved in the project. I’m not making that up.

At SoftLayer, we have an assortment of people from various professional, geographical and personal backgrounds. Though we do have “projects” that we “manage” we try not to get caught up in volleying high dollar “project management” verbiage over cubicle walls. We can’t afford to get things lost in communication so we tend to “call it like we see it”. I encourage you to try it for yourself. The next time you’re tempted to request the outputs from the user validation activities on your project, simply ask for the test results. The next time you’re tempted to order a “Grande Drip” from Starbucks, ask for a medium coffee. And, the next time you head to your local hardware store for a day of gardening on a “not so hot” hot day, be sure to get a big bag of “wood sips!”

-DJ

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October 6, 2008

My Take on the Financial Crisis

The Congressional debate over the infamous $700 billion bailout plan this week reminds me of what two guys down the hall in my college dorm once did. They both wanted something that they couldn’t afford – a Domino’s Pizza.

These guys colluded and ordered a large pizza – about $7.50 back in the Dark Ages of my college years. One of them presented the Domino’s driver with a check (tip included) for $8. It was a hot check and both guys knew that they didn’t have enough in both their accounts combined to pay for the pizza.

Back then, banks did not immediately process checks electronically and you could play the “float”. It took 3 or 4 days for your account to have funds disappear after you wrote a check, but when you deposited a check, the bank would immediately allow those funds to be drawn against other checks coming in. Don’t try this today, boys and girls. It’s not the same nowadays.

So, the second guy wrote a check for $8 to the first guy who waited two days and then deposited the check. Consequently, the check to Domino’s got paid to Domino’s. Then, the first guy (who wrote the check to Domino’s) had to write another check for $8 to the second guy so that his hot check to the first guy would be covered. Two days later, the second guy has to write another hot check to the first guy to cover his prior hot check to the second guy.

These guys kept covering each other’s hot checks for a couple of weeks until they got another paycheck from their part time jobs. Then one of them finally convinced the other to cough up $4 cash. At that point an $8 check was allowed to clear successfully and the original cost of the $8 pizza was effectively split between the two.

There are a lot of parallels between this story and the current credit market mess that we face. Let’s say that “Joe Homebuyer” wants a house that he can’t afford. “Bob the Broker” finds the money for Joe to buy the house and signs Joe up to a payment plan where the payments jack up to an unbearable level in three years. Then Bob the Broker sells the loan to “Riskmanager Randy” who hedges his risk and buys credit default swaps from “Issuer #1” to cover himself in case the homeowner can’t handle the unbearable payments that are coming. Then Issuer #1 buys credit default swaps from “Issuer #2“ to cover himself in case he ever has to pay Riskmanager Randy for the credit default swaps that Riskmanager Randy bought. Issuer #2 covers himself by buying credit default swaps from “Issuer #3”. Issuer #3 buys credit default swaps from “Issuer #4”. And the chain continues. And what’s worse is that all these Issuers sell far more credit default swaps than they can pay for should they all come due.

All in all, it’s like a bunch of folks getting together to cover each other’s hot checks. But rather than $8, the credit default swaps amount to something like $62 trillion. And now that Joe Homebuyer can’t make the unbearable payments, Riskmanager Randy has found that Issuer #1 can’t pay out on the credit default swaps. This has started $62 trillion worth of dominos (no pun intended) toppling and now we’re betting that $700 billion taxpayer dollars can work like the paychecks that came to the guys in the pizza scam above and stop the collapse.

I’m really glad that the hosting business model is pretty simple at its core. Provide gear, connectivity and services to customers who pay you monthly to use it. If the customers don’t pay, simply turn them off and sell it to someone who will pay. There is no need for hedging. No credit default swaps. No dominos ready to collapse.

The hosting business is certainly not without risk. We hedge electricity risk with UPS units and generators. We hedge bandwidth risk by using a portfolio of providers. But these hedges are tangible, not some nebulous financial market derivative outlined on a sheet of paper.

Bottom line: don’t stretch to get something that you know you can’t afford. Even if it’s a pizza.

-Gary

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October 1, 2008

An Investor. A Mentor. A Friend.

In the passing of Rick Gardner, SoftLayer has lost all in one man.
He breathed life into our company and shared in our dream.
He saw opportunity where others assumed failure.
He brought clarity when we couldn’t see past ourselves.
He brought wisdom, experience and humor to the SoftLayer family.
With his wit, charm and intelligence he was an inspiration to us all.

Even in the short time that I knew him, he invoked in me a sense of passion and drive that few have been able to create.

Rick, we are devastated by your passing. But we will never lose your presence. You continue to guide us, as we fulfill every promise we made.

-@gkdog

September 30, 2008

Servers. Services. Support.

IT is a very fast paced industry where you always need to fight just to keep up. Some companies go that extra mile in an attempt to stay ahead of the curve. In my time here at SoftLayer, I can say I have never once been bored. There is always something to keep your interest, some new innovation that needs to be looked at. Three of the aspects of this that have a drastic effect on the industry as a whole are the servers that we can provide, services to use on those servers and finally support for both.

We are always looking to provide the best possible hardware to our customers. Every time we evaluate a new piece of hardware, we run it through the gauntlet. “Will this hardware work with our system, what kind of driver support does it have, and most important is it going to be an improvement for customers?” Once it’s decided that a new piece of hardware would be an improvement the real testing begins. Everything is thrown at the hardware to ensure it meet our high standards. The latest and greatest isn’t rushed into production; we want to be sure that it really does perform to our standards in the real world and not just on paper.

Having all this hardware is great, but you need to have some innovative services for the customer to go along with it. SoftLayer really has shined in this area. There are so many different services available, there is no way I could even start to list them all. The portal alone offers more server control than anyone else in the industry. Our provisioning system can provide a server in a matter of hours and not days and with tools such as StorageLayer, RescueLayer and the Portal you can perform complete disaster recovery remotely! You can even reboot your server remotely via a cell phone while you’re on vacation without having to open a single ticket or talking to a single person.

When you have all these great services, you need to back them up with great support. Here at SoftLayer we have just that. On top of our ever growing KnowledgeLayer, we have fast and efficient ticket and phone support. Within minutes of opening a ticket, a technician has already read it and is already looking into your issue. We don’t have those pesky call queues you sit in for hours just to get a human voice, you call support and the phone is immediately picked up by a skilled technician ready to address your every issue. Unlike many places I have worked, the NOC is not a dead quiet room with people staring at computers screens. The NOC is constantly active. Our support team is just that, a team. They are constantly working together to find solutions to any number of problems.

I can’t even express how much of an honor it is to work at SoftLayer. Every day you come into the office wondering what great innovation we have next for our customers. At the end of the day, I can go home knowing that we are providing the best hardware, the best services and the best support to our customers.

-Mathew

September 28, 2008

The Great Debate: SLackers

At SoftLayer we have long been calling each other names (TRUST ME!). There are two that we tend to greet each other with as we walk the halls. You can either throw out “SLacker” or “SLayer”. Why you ask?

If you are an avid fan of all things SoftLayer, the Facebook page, the forums, and The Innerlayer, then by now you have heard the term SLales. We have lots of “SL” terminology here. There is the SLiki, the support wiki, there is the fantasy football league run by operations called SLoperations and the not as popular SLupport team (SLupport is a tongue twister it seems). So along those lines both terms seem to fit nicely.

When I started this blog I decided that I would ask around to see what everyone preferred and you would be amazed, it is about 50/50. The most interesting part is the loud and proud way you receive the response and it is often accompanied by the VFB, an elbow or maybe by the person “throwing three bars”!

Three Bars

I do have to point out that HR gave the canned “no comment” answer, so I will leave it at that, HR is always so professional. So let’s begin the debate and dive into the differences in a two part series. Today we will discuss the SLackers.

Every company has their fair share of Slackers but at SoftLayer we have SLackers! The difference you ask? SLackers are everything SoftLayer. They eat and breathe SoftLayer. They are SLackers to the core. They love to work hard, drink caffeine, work a little more, and play around at the office quite a bit. I would dare say that if you visited our offices or our data centers today you would see more smiles than you have in a while. They crack jokes, and make fun of each other, they blog about each other and the goofiness that they get themselves into and it makes work seem like play. They do that and at the same time respect each other and understand that they are surrounded by some of the best and brightest in this industry and in each individual department as well. They do all of this SLacking for you, the customer!

If you have seen the movie Slackers then take the passion those characters had for slacking off and their passion for beating the system, reverse it, and then apply it to 100% customer satisfaction and you will begin to understand how much they love to SLack! Everything they do is for the customer. If you ever feel like they have done something in error please let any one of them know however you can and they will do their best to take care of you with the utmost SLack.

Our culture might be the coolest around and the best part is we don’t have to talk about it, have endless meetings about it, advertise it, and beg people to drink the SLacker punch like some companies, it just happens. We have fun. We work hard. And we SLack off as much as we can for every customer. You can tell by my blogs that I am one of them; a Red and Black blooded SLacker and I am very proud of that fact.

It is now time for me to quit goofing off writing blogs and get back to SLackin! Next up, The SLayers!

-Skinman

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