executive-blog

February 18, 2010

Tools for the Job

Back in my younger days I had taken on a few new hobbies that strike fear into the hearts of most mortals; Auto Mechanics. While working on vehicles, especially your own, can be terrifying imagine placing a necessary part on incorrectly that would eventually lead to failure and possibly serious injury to yourself or others. Luckily I had some backup while working on my truck. The individuals at the auto shop, that I did most of my work at, were knowledgeable and always willing to help (when they could get to you).

One specific experience rings loudly in my head to this day (for more than one reason, as you will soon find out). While driving around San Diego, I noticed a rather unnerving grinding/squeaking noise emanating from one off my wheels. I quickly headed to the local parts store to pick up a new ball joint and proceeded to take on the attempt to fix it.

Long story short, after some nuts, bolts, cuts, and bruises, I finally got to where I needed to remove the part. One of the techs there suggested using a hammer to bang it out of the coupling (or whatever it's seated in). Thirty minutes later, I was tired, frustrated, sore, and deaf. Come to find out there was a perfect tool at my disposal, which cut the job down to approximately five minutes. One of the individuals at the shop told me that "no one had been able to make it work". Needless to say, I made a liar out of him.

Similarly, we provide the resources that allow our customers to quickly and effectively attack a possible situation and fix the problem. Our technicians are the best in the industry and our primary focus is to ensure that customer satisfaction is at its highest. We have several tools at our disposal and offer those tools, and guidance on using them. Also, much like the staff at the auto shop, we try and point our customers to the 'tricks of the trade'. We have an extensive knowledge base that can assist with day to day problems.

Quite on the contrary, though, we never discourage using certain tools because we don't think that they'll work. As anyone in IT can attest to, just because something doesn't work the first time doesn't necessarily mean that it's a lost cause. With the right instructions and a little bit of patience, a little can go a long way. The trick is to use the correct tools for the job. While an ICMP request will tell you that the server's online, it won't give you the reason for outages like output from /var/log/messages or event viewer would.

Luckily, I don't think I'll be changing a ball joint on my car any time soon but I'm always learning new tricks and tools that I can use to further enhance my proficiency and I'll always be happy to share those tricks to you; our loyal customers!

February 15, 2010

Automation + Innovation = Success

In the beginning butter was churned by hand and water was fetched from a well. However, as we humans take a step forward, we acknowledge that time is of great value and we quickly redefine a process or function to allow for more precious time. Here at SoftLayer, our evolution hasn’t been much different. With each passing day new ideas are brought to the table, discussed and executed; later giving fruit to more success. As part of this fast growing company our Accounting Department has gone through its share of growth and discovery. In the beginning everyone from our Controller to our CFO helped in answering tickets and billed for upgrades. Now that our department has grown larger in size they can tend to more important tasks while we take care of our customers.

It is while executing every day responsibilities that we find new alternatives to simplifying our customer’s experience with us. Alternatives such as automation of Ram and Port Speed upgrades give our customers easier access to business expansion. Bandwidth upgrades no longer take a series of steps to complete. With a few clicks of our mouse we not only upgrade a server’s bandwidth capacity but we have the ability to choose the time in which this upgrade will take effect. In a matter of minutes a customer can move one or several of their servers into their Virtual Dedicated Rack. While this is all taking place their invoice is automatically being updated to show the recent changes and hence bandwidth allotment is immediately brought up to date.

Nevertheless we could not brag about our awesome tools if it weren’t for the genius minds of our friendly neighbors; our Development Department. Every single department within SoftLayer has their share of gratitude towards this great group of people. Here in the Accounting realm, many of our ideas have come to pass because of the effort of these developers. When something happens to go wrong as naturally things do, we turn to a developer for help. Within a matter of minutes a piece of code is revised and our world is back to normal once more. Automation continues to simplify not only our daily jobs but our customer’s path to business success. There is always a better way to do things and you can bet that there is more than one person coming up with the next “big” idea as I write this. Whether it’s redefining a process or writing the code that will make it all happen, innovation is in the hands of all of us here at SoftLayer.

February 9, 2010

Get with it!

I heard a story over the weekend, and somehow I translated it into a blog about SoftLayer. The story went something like this. “A horse walks into a bar…” Oops, wrong story.

A little background, as you may know it was really cold here last week in Texas terms and a sunny day here is usually not 20 degrees for the high. Now for the story, the person told me that he is not really adept at checking his gas gauge on a regular basis and for certain he would not think far enough ahead to get gas on the last warm day before the cold air hit. So he jumps in his car and takes off down the freeway. About 20 minutes into the drive he notices his low fuel light is on and he can’t remember the last time he filled up or approximately how many miles he has driven. He has run dry on fuel a couple of times in the past and doesn’t want to risk it in the cold weather. He has no choice but to pull into the first station he sees and fill up the tank. As he is filling up he starts to think about how much cheaper the gas is closer to his house and how much extra he will be paying for his lack of attention. He makes a mental note that in 2010 he is going to pay more attention to detail and be a little more on top of things going forward.

Has this ever happened to you? Not just with fuel, but how about in technology? How many times have you “jumped” in to a new provider and not checked the gauges? How many times has your hosting provider run out of fuel on you? How much did that down time cost you? Was it more expensive because you just had to do whatever it took to get back up and running? What if you had planned ahead and had better disaster recovery scenarios in place? Could you have same time, money and effort?

Did you know that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again the same way expecting different results? How can you stay with a failing provider if they are insane? How can you keep using CAPEX for equipment that is obsolete the minute you take it out of the box? How can you keep running your site, application or database without a good backup policy? You still haven’t added that next piece of redundancy, why not? All these bad habits that you continue to carry from year to year have to go! These are no different than eating too much chocolate! That is the habit I am giving up in 2010, what is yours?

Make 2010 different. Give us a call.

February 8, 2010

Droid Power!

After purchasing my new Droid phone, I started to dive further into its uses. I initially liked the open source operating system (Google’s Android OS) and the features available. Now I have found that I can do almost anything with this ‘pocket computer’, from work to play.

I’m sure the iPhone fans are saying ‘yeah my phone does that’, but I didn’t buy an iPhone for a reason. I can do all the regular stuff, find a restaurant or movie without even opening Google. I can play games, update facebook, take pictures and post them online or email, etc. etc. etc.

Can you talk to your phone? Let’s say I need to find a product for my home computer:

Me: Droid, locate ‘firewire card Dallas’.

Droid: Micro Warehouse, Phone Number, Address – Would you like to call? Do you need driving directions with GPS tracking?

Me: Dial for me please. ‘Do you guys carry firewire cards for…..blahblah.’

When I get into the store, the guy doesn’t know if the firewire card has windows 7 drivers. Hmm… Droid scans the barcode and takes me to the manufacturer’s product page where I can see that drivers are downloadable. Thanks Droid!

I can connect to a VPN, RDP to my workstation or SSH to my server! I can write text messages with my voice, read emails while talking on the phone, even translate by voice into other languages (never getting lost in Spain again)! I still have so much to learn about the abilities of this device, but it does point to our ‘futuristic’ intentions in having a computer in our palm that allows us to interact with the world.

Oops, did I forget to turn off the coffee pot at home? ‘Droid….?’ I don’t think they are on speaking terms yet. I’ll have to get the coffee maker control application. Droid says no results…

Categories: 
February 3, 2010

Custom Server Solutions

The other day I was at a well known coffee shop (take a wild guess) and was steamrolled by all of the marketing hype. Try this! Take one of these home! Only for a limited time! Often the presentation of too many options makes the decision a lot more difficult. I know it’s just coffee or tea but now I have the sudden urge to collect them all! And despite years of caffeine conditioning I don’t think my heart, stomach, or my bank account could take a collecting and consuming of all. I’m looking for something different this time, but again, too many options. The next logical step is asking the Barista what their favorite is. I figure they spend their entire workday around the stuff; they MUST have a good recommendation. All I was really looking for here was a “get this” and call it good. Only after I asked, did I remember that most people who frequent this caliber of coffee joint are really particular about their coffee. I, however, am not one of the ¼ soy milk, ¼ cream, no froth, low-fat, exactly 1723 crystals of sugar type of people, so I’m not really prepared for what comes next. Instead of a one-size-fits-all answer, I’m getting a barrage of questions about my preferences. While this was not really what I was after, it hit me that this Barista is building me a solution. I did, in fact, leave with a tasty seasonal coffee, custom tailored to my needs. Servers are a lot like coffee, they rely on gratuitous amounts of caffeine to be any good; that and, there is usually never a generic solution that is going to suit your needs. The sales team at SoftLayer is not there solely to assist you in placing an order for you; they are there to ask you questions about your intentions with the server so they can recommend the best possible solution. You can have your low-fat CentOS with a double-shot of 5570’s with “venti” gigs of ram. Just ask our sales team to brew you up a solution.

February 1, 2010

Fuel!

Fuel!

Ask anyone here on our staff, and they’ll tell you a few things about their position:

  1. It’s never boring
  2. It can be quite demanding
  3. We’re never technically “off duty”

That being said, we all need our fuel to keep us going at warp speed. Luckily at the NOC we’re lucky enough to have a fully stocked break room with all sorts of odds and ends to keep us going when the energy levels get low. Allow me to show a few of my personal favorites:

  1. Chocolate Covered Raisins
    These little buggers are great when you’re running like mad and just need a quick snack. You can scoop up a good cupful and keep them at the desk for the remainder of your shift. You can take a little detour to grab a couple while en route to your destination. You can also trick yourself into thinking that they’re healthy since they have raisins in them.
  2. Doritos
    These have made a reliable meal substitute on multiple occasions. A few bags of these can trick your hunger pains and quiet the ache for a few until you can grab an actual meal (not always a guarantee).
  3. Coffee
    Any fan of caffeine knows why I’m adding this. It’s often the first thing ingested at the start of the day, and is famous for its energy-inducing properties. Love it or hate it, you cannot deny the eye-opening effects of this one.
  4. Dr Pepper
    My second favorite carbonated beverage provided here. A quick drink and a quick pick me up.

And for my favorite:

RedBull!

Much like many of the techs here, I have a clinical addiction to caffeine. Caffeine is the lifeblood of the NOC and keeps us working at top speed and form. To date, I have found no quicker delivery of this than through the 8.2 ounce can of this elixir.

And there you have it. These are the snacks and beverages provided that keep me going. And while it’s no health food store, it certainly spikes the blood sugar or caffeine levels enough to sustain a happy and proficient technician through the long night hours.

January 29, 2010

Security and Plan B

Security is not a thing to be taken lightly. Think about the information that is stored on your server; think about how many months or years worth of data is stored in your databases. Your account information holds a master key to all of this data on your server. This is the very reason this information is protected so closely by the SoftLayer staff.

All companies work very hard to make sure that their products and services are as easy to use as possible. While on the other hand, security works as hard as possible to, seemingly, make the product or service difficult to use. While it is never our intention to make any service difficult to use, it is our intention to make them secure. This is the very reason why, when we are presented with any questions via phone that are sensitive to the operation of your server or account we ask the inconvenient questions to make sure the person on the other end of the phone line is authorized to make the requested changes to the account or the server.

Up to this point this article has not been as light hearted as I had originally intended, but it’s all about being prepared. The point is, everyone deserves a vacation at some point or another (or believes they do), and according to Murphy’s Law, something will inevitably occur that requires immediate attention. When you’re enjoying that time on the beach, your mind a million miles from bits and bytes, and you miles from anything that can be used to properly manage your server or your account an issue can occur.

While you are out, have you made proper provisions to ensure someone can manage your hardware in your place? Your staff may have the passwords for the servers, IP addresses, and may be able to drop your name; but, I assure you this is not enough information for the SoftLayer support staff to submit a ticket, reboot, or log into your server on your behalf. Have you made sure that in a panic situation someone will be able to provide us with the answers to the security questions on the phone? Are you sure whoever is left in charge has been given the proper permissions in our management portal? Making sure these points have been thoroughly covered prior to your vacation, or even leaving for the day, will help you minimize risk while maximizing your beach vacation.

January 25, 2010

Convenience Kills?

Have you seen the new Brita commercials that have the girl running on the treadmill? The tag line says something like, “1 hour on the treadmill.” Then a new tagline appears right above a store bought water bottle and says, “in the landfill for life.” That is a telling commercial. Convenience kills our planet. Before bottled water we grabbed a glass or plastic cup, filled it up and drank it, washed it, then rinsed and repeated it. Nothing went to the landfill. Even further back, and I barely remember this one, my grandfather would walk my brother and I over to a tiny little drug store close to his house; and, we could get a Dr. Pepper from a soda fountain in a glass soda cup and drink it and leave the glass behind for the next customer. You got it—nothing in the landfill. The same goes for coffee now. Cup after cup from a drive through window and where do the cups go? The landfill. In the past, you had a mug to use again and again. Cell phones? Why, yes! They are culprits too. We used to simply use a wall phone and not have to worry about upgrading it every 2 years and getting a new battery once a year. We now fill landfills with phones, chargers, and wasted batteries. If you look closely at everything I have mentioned so far, they are all designed to make our lives more and more convenient.

 

With so many people using convenient things today, we at SoftLayer do the best we can to make things very convenient but also do our part for the globe. We only print things on paper when absolutely necessary. Not only do we save a tree, but it is much more secure. Everyone recently received a plastic cup with the SoftLayer logo on it for water or tea. We can use these instead of using so many disposable plastic cups. We have recycle bins in each break room for the recyclables; and, as we have stated in many blogs, we have contracts in place with recycling shops for the extra server packaging we receive with new shipments. We do our best to stick to the 3 R’s—reduce, reuse, and recycle.

So how does SoftLayer continue making our service so convenient without being wasteful? I am glad you asked! Instead of going out and buying home servers, or desktop servers—which seems to be the newest craze—and then having to throw away all the unused documentation and un-used packing materials, we simply choose to team up with Supermicro. They are a server manufacturer that listens to their customers needs and provides solutions as well as design flexibility, rapid order fulfillment, and superior quality. We are no longer relegated to do what the other server manufacturers force on other customers. This gives us the freedom of convenience while still being green. Does it make our competitors green with envy? Sure it does. That is why there are lower price points offered in the hosting market by our competitors still using workstations, desktop and home servers instead of enterprise class, high efficiency, and low power consuming servers. The efficiency of our servers allows us to have very dense server rooms with a smaller footprint, which saves on power consumption for cooling as well. Last but not least, by using rack mount servers instead of towers, Supermicro has worked with us to reduce the packing materials by 80%—resulting in an eight pound reduction in the total weight of each server.

At SoftLayer we take pride in making convenient, green IT; and with Supermicro as a great partner, we continue to do just that.

January 22, 2010

A Little History Lesson and Reflection

In this industry, it seems very easy to get in the rut of looking forward without stopping to take the time and look back. Whether it is a project deadline or just planning for the future, past accomplishments sometimes get lost in the day to day workload. I remember back on January 23rd of 2006—exactly four years ago tomorrow—when we opened the doors. We had 17 employees and around 1,000 servers in our one and only Dallas server room. With just 17 employees you can imagine we wore many hats, and I will not miss or take for granted prepping racks such as putting cage nuts or rails in ever again.
From our humble beginnings, things grew at a rapid pace to say the least. Over the last four years, we have grown to 175 employees, 25,000+ servers spanning facilities in Dallas, Seattle, and Washington D.C. and just recently passed $100 million annualized run rate mark. Not too shabby for four years, if I do say so myself.
The product and service offering have grown at an astounding pace as well. Thanks in part, I think, to our API—launched publicly in May of 2007. Was that over two years ago? It seems like yesterday. On top of that, there have been too many individual products to list here. Some highlights would fall into the areas of: CloudLayer, StorageLayer, backup solutions, and security solutions—just to name a few!
Looking forward I think 2010 is going to be a big year for SoftLayer, not that the past years haven’t been. I cannot get into any details; but, as usual there are big plans on the horizon, and you know we aren’t planning on slowing down anytime soon. Looking back, it has been a packed and crazy four years, but I would not trade it for anything.

January 21, 2010

2010 PCI Compliance and You

I know you already know everything about PCI compliance, especially the if’s, and’s, and but’s that go along with it. But, just in case you forgot, here it is in a nutshell.
Is PCI compliance a Federal law? Nope! Not yet anyway. Some states do make it a crime to let credit card data “be” stolen.
What is PCI? It is actually PCI DSS and it stands for Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard.
Who needs it? Anyone that accepts, transmits, or stores ANY credit card data.
Are there different levels? Yes, I am glad you asked.

  • Level 4 – Any merchant processing fewer than 20,000 credit card e-commerce transactions in a 12 month period
  • Level 3 – 20,000 up to 1 Million transactions
  • Level 2 – 1 Million up to 6 Million
  • Level 1 – 6 million + (or any merchant that Visa feels should meet level 1 to minimize risks) This is what we are all striving for, right?

Who cares if you are PCI compliant? For starters, YOU should! And secondly, your merchant bank will care. They will care more the larger you get. See minimize risks statement above.
Since it isn’t a federal law should I risk it, because I know my security and I am impenetrable? I wouldn’t take that risk because you can still pay fines, card replacement costs, and pay for forensic audits, etc if someone were to get in and steal data.
How can SoftLayer help? For starters and a quick level 4 fix you can go here and get free scanning on a single IP. Combine that with a “quick” questionnaire about your physical and data security policies and voila, no onsite visit needed and you are now PCI Level 4. Mcafee can help you with you higher level compliance if you would like. Don’t take the questionnaire too lightly because remember you do care about PCI!
Ok so if you have made it this far then you must like boring reading. Go read this. It might come in handy someday. It is the “do this if you get hacked” cheat sheet.
On to 2010! MasterCard stepped up in 2009 and stated that even their Level 2 merchants had to have an onsite QSA assessment by December 31, 2010. That has now been pushed to June 30, 2011. There seems to be some confusion from the other Credit Card companies and they didn’t all jump on board. One thing that they did all agree on is that you can’t put credit card info on WEP secured wireless at all after July 2010. Just don’t do it! And don’t use old un-patched payment applications because they are insecure and will not be allowed after July as well.
This could all change just like Texas weather. If you don’t like the new rules, then just wait a couple of days and they may change it more to your liking. There are still a few things they are looking at going forward that I will let you in on and then I assure you I will stop typing. PCI 1.2 is still about stopping hackers from getting in, there is a new interest in the community on addressing “internal” hackers. The current focus of PCI is aimed at card data “after” authorization but doesn’t say much about card data that is kept prior to authorization, so you can bet that will be added soon too and of course cloud infrastructure and card data has to be on everyone’s radar screen soon.

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