cloud

October 9, 2009

Facebook games, the datacenter, and you – film at 11

Ok, I admit it. I am addicted to Facebook games. For those of you who are a bit “long in the tooth” you might remember a series of games from a certain era where all you did was walk around and try to figure “it” out, but you really didn’t know what “it” was. Zork for instance was my favorite. In Zork you simply walked around and talked to people, touched walls and things rumbled, and picked up and dropped items. etc. Now don’t misunderstand, you didn’t see this happen, it was all in your head because the only thing on the screen was text. Think of it like the hit TV show LOST in text and you were John Locke. Are you LOST yet? Here is an example:

Facebook has taken us back to the world of Zork but now you can almost see what is going on. Let’s use the early on Mobster style games as example number one. They were sleek and simple; do a job, fight someone, whack someone on the hitlist, write a script, find a bot to do it all for you and become a “made man”. Now, the main idea in these games is ad generation and page views, so when the techies of the world figured out how to cheat, um I mean make the game more efficient, it was time to add some new ideas to the games to keep you more in tune to your monitor and the ads on the page instead of your bot! Enter the flash games, they are shiny and I like shiny things! Maybe the word should be polished. There are a few farm simulation games that are very popular. A couple of them have over 18 million monthly active users. Who would have thought that everyone in the world wanted to move to Texas and become a veggie farmer, or berries, or raise animals and fruit trees? I have to say that the new games are to carpel tunnel as Krispy Kreme is to clogged arteries. You have to click and then click a little more and then even a little more. You have to do tasks, so you can do jobs, so you can move up in levels so you can do more tasks to do even more jobs to make more money and it just keeps getting more involved. Maybe there is a flash automation system out there I can find to do it for me!

I am going back to the farm idea for a minute. When I started out I had a couple of small plots and I would plant different crops. I had a few animals walking around and a fruit tree or two, some fences, some green space in between and flowers. I began to notice that some of the extra shiny things got in the way and made my farm very inefficient. I began to streamline, one crop, no green space because that is just wasted, no animals, just plant the whole screen, harvest and plow, rinse and repeat. It is now very profitable, easy to manage and I don’t have to worry about this crop will be ready in 2 hours, that crop will be ready in 2 days, etc. It just works!

So I have just described SoftLayer to you in a nutshell. At first we tried many things, streamlined it, got it down to a very efficient science automated “it” and then wrapped products around “it”. Our products are shiny, we don’t waste space, we have one crop, and it just works!

October 7, 2009

GAHAP Revisited. Otherwise titled “Credit Analysts, Statistics, and Common Sense”

From time to time, I have posted about my frustration with GAAP accounting and traditional credit analysis and how it is not friendly to the hosting business model. For a refresher, click here, here, here, here, and here. By GAHAP, I jokingly mean “generally accepted hosting accounting principles.”

Mike Jones came in my office after a frustrating phone call with a credit analyst. They were trying to talk through collateral possibilities. He told me that the credit analyst has a problem because we carry hardly any accounts receivable. The credit analyst wants something that he can collect in case of default. In GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles), accounts receivable is the total amount that you have billed your customers but have not yet collected from them. Common sense hint: the accounts receivable balance won’t pay your bills – they won’t get paid until you collect the cash.

SoftLayer includes this common sense in its business model. Rather than send out invoices and bug people to pay us later, we choose to have our customers pay us in advance of their use of products and services. Many other hosting companies do the same. There are many advantages to this: we save costs that we would incur collecting the cash, we reduce the amount of abusive accounts that would sign up for a few days of malicious activity and never pay us, and it helps facilitate the on-demand billing side of the cloud computing model.
Again, the disadvantage of this practice comes about when trying to educate a set-in-his-ways credit analyst about our business model. Here is the basic gist of a mythical conversation between a credit analyst and a hosting company:

Credit Analyst: “I see you don’t have any accounts receivable to speak of.”

Hosting Company: “I know! Isn’t that great?”

Credit Analyst: “But if you default, what can I collect?”

Hosting Company: “You’d simply continue to bill the customers for their continued business. Because our customer agreement is month-to-month, you just collect for their next month of service over the next 30 days and you’ve essentially done the same as collect receivables. In fact, that is far easier than collecting past due receivables. We’d be happy place the anticipated next month billing to our customers on the balance sheet in an accounts receivable type of account, but GAAP does not allow this.”

Credit Analyst: “Oh my…you don’t have long term contracts? So all of your customers could leave at once? Isn’t that risky?”

Hosting Company: “We have several thousand customers who trust us with mission critical needs. They will not all leave at once. Our statistics show only a very low percentage of customers terminate services each month. Even through the depths of the recession, we had more new customers joining us than we had customers leaving.”

Credit Analyst: “But conceptually, they could all leave at once since they have no contracts.”

Hosting Company: “That is statistically impossible. The odds of that event are so low that it’s immeasurable. As I said, we provide mission critical services to our customers. To think that they will all no longer need these services simultaneously is paranoid. And if they did, would a contract keep them paying us? That’s doubtful. Let me ask you – do you lend to the electric company or the phone company?”

Credit Analyst: “Of course.”

Hosting Company: “Do their customers sign long term contracts?”

Credit Analyst: “Some do for special promotions. But for the most part – no.”

Hosting Company: “So why do you lend to them?”

Credit Analyst: “Why, the customers can’t live without electricity or phones. That’s a no brainer.”

Hosting Company: “It is exactly the same with our business. In this information age economy, our customers cannot live without the hosting services that we provide. You should look at us in a similar way that you look at a utility company.”

Credit Analyst: “But we classify your business as a technology company. Can’t you just have your customers sign contracts?”

Hosting Company: “Well, wouldn’t that conflict with the on-demand, measured billing aspects of cloud computing?”

Credit Analyst: “I guess there’s not much hope of you building up a sizeable accounts receivable balance then.”

Hosting Company: “It really makes no sense for us to do that.”

Credit Analyst: “We may not be able to do business with you. Do you have any real estate?”

Conclusion: Most credit analysts are so wrapped up in GAAP that they’ve forgotten the laws of statistics and many have even lost touch with common sense. Is it any wonder we’ve had a big banking crisis over the past couple of years?

October 5, 2009

Outstanding Tech Recognition: Droid Awards

Here at SoftLayer, we keep the culture fun, entertaining, challenging, and sometimes a bit left of center! In the same vein as the Star Wars motif (http://theinnerlayer.softlayer.com/2008/softlayer-the-empire/) we have started awarding techs that go way above and beyond. Techs at SoftLayer are already some of the best in the industry, so this is a way to keep it fun and challenging- and nerdy! Let me tell you, I had a realization when getting the Star Ware figures, that I am now an adult and could just buy everything!

Here is how the awards went down..

(in the voice of General Grievous)

SLayers!

For those droids not destroyed in the line of duty or beheaded for undisclosed reasons (cough cough) rewards are in order!

Droid Awards are presented to a tech for outstanding work in the line of duty.

The awards are Star Wars "Droids."

But in our universe, SoftLayer is the ruling entity, of course! And all Droids have the SoftLayer logo.
Right now, there are 3 Droid Awards:

Super Battle Droid Award
The Super Battle Droid Award is given to a tech who, like the Super Battle Droid,
does his job better than average all the time. Techs with this award are considered a workhorse,
and respected by their peers for always taking care of business no questions asked.
Assassin Droid Award
The Assassin Droid Award is given to a tech who,
like the Assassin Droid, knocks one specific project or task out of the park, or "assassinates" it.
Techs with this award take control of one specific high profile issue, own the problem, and see it through to the end.
Destroyer Droid Award
The Destroyer Droid Award is given to a tech who, like the Destroyer Droid,
consistently rolls into situations, takes control, and "destroys" them.
Techs with this award look at the bigger picture, and go outside their realm of job description,
making sure projects and tasks are completed with proper prioritization, no matter how many.
Awardees frequently think like a manager and are quick to help coordinate workload among fellow employees.

Techs that receive an award should be respected- these awards are not given out lightly. So be proud if you receive one, strive to get one if you have not, and congratulate all who are adorned with them!

Scott Minyard, a Dallas Server Build Engineer was the first to receive an award, the Super Battle Droid Award!

Congratulations, Scott, for being one of the great employees of SoftLayer!

Categories: 
October 2, 2009

Is That a Real Computer?

Some mornings after work when the weather is nice I'll go to a local coffee shop on the way home to read or study for the CCNA exams. Sometimes I'll just end up pulling out the netbook and browse around online. There are times during these outings when I'll get asked the title question of this blog: is that a real computer? I guess the size that throws people but the answer is yes.

For those who are not familiar with the netbook class of systems here are the specs for mine:

  • 10.2 inch screen
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor
  • 160GB SATA hard drive
  • 3 USB ports
  • Card reader
  • Built-in Wifi
  • Built-in webcam
  • Windows XP (I've got plans for Windows 7)
  • 5 hour battery life
  • Light weight (I've got books that weigh more)

Netbooks are great for when you're just knocking around town and might want to do some light web work. This morning while at Starbucks I've checked e-mail several times, caught up on the daily news, and reviewed the game statistics from the Cowboys game I missed last night. Other mornings I've fired up a VPN connection into the office and been able to remotely help with tickets, work on documentation for our SSL product and tinker around with a NetScaler VPX Express virtual machine (an interesting bit of tech for a later article).

So how does this tie into server hosting?

You've probably had a time when your monitoring has indicated a service ceasing to respond on a server. If all you have is a cell phone the options are somewhat limited. With a fancy enough phone you might have an SSH or RDP client but do you really want to do anything on a PDA sized screen? I didn't think so. You can put in a ticket from your phone and our support can help out but the person best able to fix a service failure is still going to be you, the server administrator who knows where all the bodies are buried and how the bits tie together.

A small netbook can be a lightweight (and inexpensive) administration terminal for your servers hosted with us. Just find an Internet connection, connect up to the SoftLayer VPN and now you have complete access to work on your servers via a secure connection.

Through the wonders of the IPMI KVM this access even includes the console which opens up the possibility of doing a custom kernel build and install safely, while sitting under the stars, drinking a hot chocolate and watching the local nightlife.

Sounds like a pretty nice reality to me.

September 30, 2009

See You in Houston!

Next week a crowd of SoftLayer peeps are making the H-Town connection at cPanel Conference 2009. Representatives from the support, operations, sales, development, and management teams will be out in full force meeting, greeting, and learning. The conference is from Monday Oct 5 to Wednesday Oct 7 at the Hilton Americas Houston Hotel. Stop by our booth if you'd like to chat. We're throwing a reception for our awesome customers and partners at the lobby bar on Monday at 9pm. If that's not enough, yours truly will be giving a talk on Tuesday about how to extend cPanel and WHM through a 3rd party API. Y'all get three guesses as to whose API we're showing off. :) Bring your ripest fruits and vegetables and ready your air horns. It's been a while since I've had a good, old-fashioned heckling.

Come on out if you can make it. We love getting to know the folks who pay our salaries. ;) See you there!

Categories: 
September 28, 2009

Game Time

It’s Sunday morning and I’m leaving the NOC to make my morning rounds of the Washington, D.C. datacenter. Grumpy and tired I walk through the double doors into the fluorescent glare of the server room. In 30 paces the colorful eth bundles of our servers come into view and then I realize. I love the sound of server fans in the morning.

The past year and a half at SoftLayer’s newest datacenter have been incredibly stressful and rewarding. Those who endured have gained my respect. Personal differences have subsided and camaraderie has formed. Of course anyone would wonder how many tech nuts does it take to make a clan? And from the glue of hardship was born Team Orange DOW2.

You might wonder why people who work together so much (sometimes for 12+ hr shifts) want to spend more time with each other. I mean, haven’t you had enough already? The answer is that we already have so much in common and finding a few extra hours to hang out together online is a joy we can’t get enough of. Of course, the entertainment value of an innovative RTS like DOW2 is multiplied immensely when played with friends. Of the other SoftLayer members of Team Orange DOW2 I am the newest to multiplayer gaming and am impressed by how much tech goes into it. Numerous options for in-game chatting (Team Orange uses Mumble, which has the least lag and cleanest interface), hi-powered video cards (1.5GB onboard ram!), dual core procs running on Win7 RC, live-streamed replays with on-demand libraries, and much more.

Everyone has heard the theory that gaming has pushed the boundaries of computing, but I believe it is more likely that datacenters like SoftLayer have pushed the boundaries of networking and helped make advanced tech more affordable to the ravenous mass of online gamers. The number of mega-powered game servers hosted by SoftLayer is a testament to the unholy integration of gaming and networking, and to that all of us closet gamers must say, “moar please!”[sic]

September 25, 2009

How a great NOC team is just like a great F1 Team.

Those of you who follow auto sports understand that it’s not just a sport of physical endurance and skill. Those two traits are definitely part of it but a large part of a team’s performance in a race also comes down to the tools and devices the team interacts with to achieve their results. If the driver is as strong as an ox, skillful and able to endure 12hrs of in the seat driving it still won’t guarantee him the race unless his car and crew are up to the task and able to perform at that same level. Likewise if the driver is not up to task but the car and team are you will have a similar inability to achieve. This sets auto sports aside from many of the other team sports we have come to love over time like football, baseball, soccer, etc. These sports all involve teammates however their reliance on tools and other devices to achieve their results is much less than in racing. Because of this it is incredibly important that all members of a Formula One team, from the car designers to the pit crew and driver, be performing at 100% at all times. This is not entirely unlike how a great operations team works in a datacenter. All members of that team must be able to fulfill their role to the best of their ability and then some. An ops team that has the best hardware and tools along with the best technicians and knowledge is an unstoppable force comparable to the Ferrari’s and Brawn GP’s of F1.

A driver can only do so much with the equipment they are handed on race day. If Sebastian Vettel is given a car with a bad engine for example it makes his job much more difficult, if not impossible, to succeed. The same goes with datacenter equipment. That is why SoftLayer prides itself on using high quality components from high quality manufactures for all networking and server applications. Of course being the best requires more than just high end equipment and tools. It requires people of an equal caliber. That is why SoftLayer goes above and beyond to ensure that their staff is well informed, capable and happy. This creates an environment where people not only want to personally succeed but also want to share in the successes and failures that the company experiences, much like any well developed team would. This also creates a feeling of investment by those who are on the team which in turn pushes each member to do their absolute best at all times. SoftLayer’s involvement in recent large media events was a huge undertaking that the company turned in to successful ventures. Just like how Ferrari is always pushing for the win and to be the best, so is SoftLayer.

Innovation is another competitive trait that you see often in F1. BrawnGP and RedBull Racing (both relatively fledgling teams in Formula 1) took an alternate interpretation of the design guidelines this season which, after much ado, was found to be a perfectly legal interpretation that many of the other teams didn’t see or use. These innovations helped BrawnGP, a new comer to the sport (technically they are the defunct Honda team but that is for a different discussion), lead the championship standings this season and has handed them a number of victories. Here again the kinds of innovation you see in the top tier or racing you also see with SoftLayer. No, we didn’t add wings to our servers but our network within a network topography and CloudLayer services are great examples of how SoftLayer is taking the old rule book and innovating new ideas, products and services utilizing a different yet valid interpretation. The success yielded from these experiences continues to motivate the SoftLayer team and is proof that following to the beat of a new drum can, in many aspects of business and sport, be a good idea.

September 23, 2009

Who Are Our Customers?

When talking to a wide variety of outsiders about SoftLayer, one question inevitably comes up. “Who are your customers?” It always takes a bit of explaining – it’s a bit like asking the power company the same question. In the power company’s case, the answer is “anyone who needs electricity.” SoftLayer’s customers run the gamut. There is no one particular industry vertical that dominates our customer base. Pretty much anyone who needs dependable, robust, hosted IT services is our customer, or potential customer.

Now, if we look outside of the silos of industry verticals, there is one type of customer that stands out more than others. That is the entrepreneurial small business. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and the engine of economic growth, and thus I need to keep up with what is going on with things that affect small businesses.

So I ran across a study worth passing along via a blog post. It is produced by Kauffman: The Foundation of Entrepreneurship and is entitled “The Anatomy of an Entrepreneur: Family Background and Motivation.” It contains some valuable insights into some traits of the majority of our customers. These traits below are taken straight from the report:

Company founders tend to be middle-aged and well-educated, and did better in high school than in college

  • The average and median age of company founders
    in our sample when they started their current
    companies was 40. (This is consistent with our
    previous research, which found the average and
    median age of technology company founders to
    be 39).
  • 95.1 percent of respondents themselves had earned
    bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent had more
    advanced degrees.

These entrepreneurs tend to come from middle-class or upper-lower-class backgrounds, and were better educated and more entrepreneurial than their parents

  • 71.5 percent of respondents came from middle-class
    backgrounds (34.6 percent upper-middle class and
    36.9 percent lower-middle class). Additionally, 21.8
    percent said they came from upper-lower-class
    families (blue-collar workers in some form of
    manual labor).
  • Less than 1 percent came from extremely rich or
    extremely poor backgrounds

Most entrepreneurs are married and have children

  • 69.9 percent of respondents indicated they were
    married when they launched their first business. An
    additional 5.2 percent were divorced, separated, or
    widowed.
  • 59.7 percent of respondents indicated they had at
    least one child when they launched their first
    business, and 43.5 percent had two or more
    children.

Early interest and propensity to start companies

  • Of the 24.5 percent who indicated that they were
    “extremely interested” in becoming entrepreneurs
    during college, 47.1 percent went on to start more
    than two companies (as compared to 32.9 percent
    of the overall sample).
  • The majority of the entrepreneurs in our sample
    were serial entrepreneurs. The average number of
    businesses launched by respondents was
    approximately 2.3; 41.4 percent were starting their
    first businesses.

Motivations for becoming entrepreneurs: building wealth, owning a company, startup culture, and capitalizing on a business idea

  • 74.8 percent of respondents indicated desire to
    build wealth as an important motivation in
    becoming an entrepreneur. This factor was rated as
    important by 82.1 percent of respondents who
    grew up in “lower-upper-class” families.
  • 68.1 percent of respondents indicated that
    capitalizing on a business idea was an important
    motivation in becoming an entrepreneur.
  • 66.2 percent said the appeal of a startup culture
    was an important motivation.
  • 60.3 percent said that working for others did not
    appeal to them. Responses to this question were
    relatively evenly distributed in a rough bell curve,
    with 16 percent of respondents citing this as an
    extremely important factor and 16.8 percent of
    respondents citing it as not at all a factor.

Not only do the traits above describe a big chunk of SoftLayer’s customers – they also describe the people of SoftLayer.

If you are an entrepreneurial small business and you need a hosted IT service provider who understands your needs, you will find a likeminded partner in SoftLayer. Many of the small businesses who joined with us two or three years ago aren’t so small anymore, and that’s fine! When our customers succeed, we succeed. We get that.

September 21, 2009

Hardwhere? - Part Deux: Softwhere (as in soft, fluffy clouds)

I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the cloud software we use (okay, maybe a little :),) but I know the gist of it as far as hardware is concerned- redundancy. Entire servers were the last piece of the puzzle needed to complete entire hardware redundancy. In my original article, Hardwhere?, (http://theinnerlayer.softlayer.com/2008/hardwhere/) I talked about using load balancers to spread the load to multiple servers (a service we already had at the time) and eluded to cloud computing.

Now cloud services are a reality.

This is a dream come true for me as the hardware manager. Hardware will always have failures and living in the cloud eliminates customer impact. Words cannot describe what it means to the customer. Never again will a downed server impact service.

Simply put, when you use a SoftLayer CloudLayer Computing Instance, your software is running on one or more servers. If one of these should fail, the load of your software is shifted to another server in the “cloud” seamlessly. We call this HA or High Availability.

If there is a sad part to all of this, it would be that I have spent considerable effort optimizing the hardware department to minimize customer downtime in the even on hardware failures. But I have a rather odd way of looking at my job. I believe the end game of any job I do is complete automation and/or elimination of the task altogether. (Can you say the opposite of job security?) I have a going joke where I say: “Until I have automated and/or proceduralized everything down to perfection with one big red button, there is still work to be done!”

Cloud computing eliminates the customer impact of hardware failures. Bam! Even though this has nothing to do with my hardware department planning, policies and procedures, I have no ego in the matter. If it solves the problem, I don’t care who did the work and was the genius behind it all, as long as it moves us forward with the best products and optimal customer satisfaction!

We have taken the worry out of hosting- no more deciding what RAID is best. No more worrying about how to keep your data available in the event of a hardware failure. CloudLayer does it for you and has all the same service options as a dedicated server and more! One more step to a big red button for the customer!

Now back to working on the DC patrol sharks (they keep eating the techs!) New project- tech redundancy!

September 18, 2009

Ninjas in the Datacenter

We tecchies are a weird bunch.  We equate everything to mythical figures and mysterious characters.  All around at SoftLayer, you can see and hear references to nerdy and mysterious things.  From Brad's incessant General Grievous-ish throat clearing, to FreeBSD's 'beastie' daemon:

Beastie
Copyright 1988 by Marshall Kirk McKusick.

Mythical figures surround us all the time.  IT guys tend to have a reputation for being a little, well, different, than the rest of the world.  Now that you're shaking your head, wondering what I'm rabbling about, allow me to introduce the one mythical figure that reigns supreme, especially here at SoftLayer.  That's right, it's the Ninja.

That's right, we've taken one of the most ridiculously awesome figures in modern mythology, and verbed it.  Not sure what verbing is?  Allow me to utilize one of my personal favorite comic strips as a visual:

Calvin
by Bill Watterson.

The ninja has a couple of meanings here at SoftLayer.  Allow me to give a few examples:

nin-ja [nin-juh]
-verb

  1. To Steal, as in a ticket that looked interesting or challenging: "Dude, you totally ninja'd that Network Question ticket from me!  I'm interested to know what you did to diagnose and fix it!"
  2. To fix an issue, against all probability that it is even fixable: "Wow, I thought that database was hosed.  He totally ninja'd that, and now it works like a charm."

The above are just two of the many examples of ninjas in our datacenter.  It's just one of the many ways we separate ourselves from the pack.  Our responsibilities are not only demanding, but unrelenting.  While we take these many responsibilities quite seriously (such as our commitment to the best support in the industry), we are always quick to lighten each other up.  As our big boss would say it:  "We are defining new standards and setting the tone for others to follow. Leading by example, pushing our luck, and having fun every step of the way."  Working at (and hosting at) SoftLayer is about kicking butt, leaving others in the dust, and relishing in every minute of it.

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