executive-blog

November 3, 2008

Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

-Daniel

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October 29, 2008

SoftLayer Thinks “Outside the Box”

Now, before a worldwide game of MBA buzz-word bingo breaks out, hear me out. Here at SoftLayer, we really do think “outside the box.” And when I say “box” – I really mean “server.” Since our inception, we have been focused an all things “outside the box.” To say it another way, we have focused on building automation systems that drive the collective datacenter environment that surrounds the server. In its simplest terms – a datacenter operating system. We call it IMS internally – IMS is short for infrastructure management system (yip – techies are ripe with creativity).

For the first couple of years, IMS development has revolved around automating all things in the datacenter including network, inventory, asset tracking, provisioning, monitoring, security, and of course all things directly living on the servers themselves. I mean, if you think about all the capabilities – it’s pretty clear. Add servers on the fly (check), add firewalls on the fly (check), add load balancing on the fly (check), interconnect all servers on the fly (check), interconnect servers in different datacenters (check), add, delete and tag IP addresses on the fly (check), reload, repair, and re-provision servers (check, check and check). We can do anything you can possibly imagine “outside the box” via our control panel or API.

Now, SoftLayer has moved to thinking “Inside the box.” That’s where virtualization is rapidly gaining ground. The entire industry understands the value of virtualization and the paradigm shift it will bring to computing. It’s quickly maturing and it’s rapidly becoming a common standard across the industry. We shifted gears about six months ago and starting incorporating virtualization technologies into Softlayer. To date, we have implemented Hyper-V and Xen with tremendous success. We have Virtuozzo from Parallels slated to go live in a couple weeks, VMWare will be available soon and then of course – our much anticipated cloud computing offering (it’s a secret). All of these technologies are virtualization and automation at the server and storage layer.

So, here at SoftLayer – we are thinking “inside and outside the box.” We are very excited about continuing to integrate virtualization technologies into our highly automated datacenter environment. It’s the perfect storm – the alignment of all technologies into a single unified backplane that can morph on the fly into any type of compute environment one needs. The question I have is – it’s easy to think inside the box – has the industry also been thinking “outside the box?”

-@lavosby

October 27, 2008

Happy Hosting to All!

‘Twas the month of Halloween, and all thru the halls,
Tech support and sales took all of the calls.
The servers were sitting safe in their racks,
Knowing that Hardware had their backs.

The developers were all snug at their desks,
Struggling with code that was behaving like pesks.
The workers were all decked out in SL black,
Just daring competitors to give them some flack.

When all of a sudden, there was a great THUD!
And everyone thought, “Uh-oh, we landed a dud.”
But alas, it was only another attorney,
To help and to aid in Softlayer’s journey.

“Now Trademark! And Patents!
And Copyrights, too!
Don’t worry, I’ll let you know
Just what to do!
Let’s litigate and obfuscate,
And watch Jonesie count beans!
Just kidding! I’m kidding-that’s not what I mean!”

With the economy diving, sputtering and tanking
She’ll help figure how to give competitors a spanking.
With caffeine in the morning, she’s happy as can be,
Ask her about “Dance, Dance Revolution” on the Wii.

As with all good things, this poem must end.
“Thank God!” you say, “It’s setting a bad trend.
So off to my contracts I will git.
But I’ll leave you with this last little bit:

“Happy hosting to all and to all a good day!”

-Suzy

October 25, 2008

A Battle Worthy of the Coliseum: SoftLayer Technical Support

SoftLayer Technical Support technicians train continuously for the challenges that are inherent in supporting the vast array of products that SoftLayer offers. Besides training individually in their time away from the NOC, technicians are always talking about issues they have seen, and the resolutions they implemented.

Knowledge gained by one tech in tackling and conquering a specific issue is shared with all for the betterment of the team. Like a gladiator in the bowels of the Roman Coliseum of old preparing for his fight, the SoftLayer Support technician must be ready to do battle. Disciplined cross-training is the order of the day; mental and physical preparation is key. A technician must enter the halls of a SoftLayer datacenter ready to conquer whatever comes through the gates! It is truly a battle worthy of the Coliseum.

You might ask how a day in the SoftLayer NOC resolving technical issues compares to a battle fought in the Roman Coliseum. Well, if you measure a “battle” by the excitement and tension in the air ... the blood, the sweat, and yes, at times, the tears, the pain of defeat, and the celebration of victory, then SoftLayer Technical Support technicians are definitely involved in a true battle worthy of the Roman Coliseum on a daily basis.

Picture, if you will, a well-trained, focused individual walking into the Dallas Infomart with his security badge in hand. He is not there to pass the time or participate in some mind-numbing repetitive task. He is there to do battle with a beast named Technology. With a strategic plan in mind, he enters the elevator preparing himself mentally for what surely awaits upon entering his cubicle. As he opens the door to the NOC, he is greeted by his fellow “warriors”. Some are weary from battle, yet have a sense of satisfaction about them as a Roman Soldier of old looking across the battlefield at his conquered foe.

The stories of a multitude of battles won, and maybe even a few lost, are recounted. The technical warrior packs some sustenance from the chow line (the loaded NOC break room refrigerator), and settles into his chariot he likes to call a cubicle, pulling out his weapons, a keyboard and mouse, and bringing up the battlefield onscreen. He begins with the speed of a cheetah typing more and more furiously as each ticket darts to and fro trying to elude him. The warrior is undaunted. He will not be defeated today. Yes, he may need to look to his comrades in arms for assistance in flanking the enemy, but in the end, as a team of highly trained warriors, they will prevail.

This day will not be without its casualties, but the warrior must always repeat to himself, “I will not let our customer’s down. The enemy (technical issues) will not prevail…not on my watch.”

As did the citizens of Rome, I take great pride in our warriors and the superior way in which they continue to win battles for the glory of our customers. The inspiration for this writing came from a recent victory in which a warrior named Stefanus (Steve) stood in victory after wrestling with a beast of an issue, which he finally destroyed while the customer rejoiced and his wealth increased. All the warriors: Krishenus, Jamesus, and Samuel gathered around Stefanus to congratulate him on his victory. Of course, they all knew that the ultimate victory was enjoyed by the SoftLayer customer.

-David

October 24, 2008

Pushing the Microsoft Kool-Aid

Recently on one of our technical forums I contributed to a discussion about the Windows operating system. One of our director’s saw the post and thought it might be of interest to readers of the InnerLayer as well. The post focused on the pros and cons of Windows 2008 from the viewpoint of a systems / driver engineer (aka me). If you have no technical background, or interest in Microsoft operating system offerings, what follows probably will not be of interest to you—just the same, here is my two cents.

Microsoft is no different than any other developer when it comes to writing software--they get better with each iteration. There is not a person out there who would argue that the world of home computers would have been better off if none of us ever progressed beyond MS-DOS 1.0. Not to say there is anything wrong with MS-DOS. I love it. And still use it occasionally doing embedded work. But my point is that while there have certainly been some false starts along the way (can you say BOB), Microsoft's operating systems generally get better with each release.

So why not go out and update everything the day the latest and greatest OS hits the shelves? Because as most of you know, there are bugs that have to get worked out. To add to that, the more complex the OS gets, the more bugs there are and the more time it takes to shake those bugs out. Windows Server 2008 is no different. In my experience there are still a number of troublesome issues with W2K8 that need to be addressed. Just to name a few:

  • UAC (user access control) - these are the security features that give us so much headache. I'm not saying we don't need the added security. I'm just saying this is a new arena for MS and they still have a lot to learn. After clicking YES, I REALLY REALLY REALLY WANT TO INSTALL SAID APPLICATION for the 40th time in a day, most administrators will opt to disable UAC, thereby thwarting the added security benefits entirely. If I were running this team at MS I'd require all my developers to take a good hard look at LINUX.
  • UMD (user mode drivers) - the idea of running a device driver, or a portion of a device driver, in the restricted and therefore safe user memory of the kernel is a great idea in terms of improving OS reliability. I've seen numbers suggesting that as many as 90% of hard OS failures are caused by faulty third-party drivers mucking around in kernel mode. However implementing user mode drivers adds some new complexities if hardware manufacturers don't want to take a performance hit and from my experience not all hardware vendors are up to speed yet.
  • Driver Verification - this to me is the most troublesome and annoying issue right now with the 64-bit only version of W2K8. Only kernel mode software that has been certified in the MS lab is allowed to execute on a production boot of the OS. Period. Since I am writing this on the SoftLayer blog, I am assuming most of you are not selecting hardware and drivers to run on your boxes. We are handling that for you. But let me tell you it’s a pain in the butt to only run third party drivers that have been through the MS quality lab. Besides not being able to run drivers we have developed in house it is impossible for us to apply a patch from even the largest of hardware vendors without waiting on that patch to get submitted to MS and then cleared for the OS. A good example was a problem we ran into with an Intel Enet driver. Here at SoftLayer we found a bug in the driver and after a lot of back and forth with Intel's Engineers we had a fix in hand. But that fix could not be applied to the W2K8 64-bit boxes until weeks later when the fix finally made it from Intel to MS and back to Intel and us again. Very frustrating.

Okay, so now that you see some of the reasons NOT to use MS Windows Server 2008 what are some of the reasons it’s at least worth taking a look at? Well here are just a few that I know of from some of the work I have done keeping up to speed with the latest driver model.

  • Improved Memory Management – W2K8 issues fewer and larger disk I/O's than its 2003 predecessor. This applies to standard disk fetching, but also paging and even read-aheads. On Windows 2003 it is not uncommon for disk writes to happen in blocks
  • Improved Data Reliability - Everyone knows how painful disk corruption can be. And everyone knows taking a server offline on a regular basis to run chkdsk and repair disk corruption is slow. One of the ideal improvements in terms of administering a websever is that W2K8 employs a technology called NTFS self-healing. This new feature built into the file system detects disk corruption on the fly and quarantines that sector, allowing system worker-threads to execute chkdsk like repairs on the corrupted area without taking the rest of the volume offline.
  • Scalability - The W2K8 kernel introduces a number of streamlining factors that greatly enhance system wide performance. A minor but significant change to the operating system's low level timer code, combined with new I/O completion handling, and more efficient thread pool, offer marked improvement on load-heavy server applications. I have read documentation supporting claims that the minimization in CPU synchronization alone results directly in a 30% gain on the number of concurrent Windows 2008 users over 2003. That's not to say once you throw in all the added security and take the user mode driver hit you won't be looking at 2003 speeds. I'm just pointing out hard kernel-level improvements that can be directly quantified by multiplying your resources against the number of saved CPU cycles.

Alright, no need to beat a dead horse. My hope was if nothing else to muddy the waters a bit. The majority of posts I read on our internal forums seemed to recommend avoiding W2K8 like the plague. I'm only suggesting while it is certainly not perfect, there are some benefits to at least taking it for a test drive. Besides, with SoftLayer's handy dandy portal driven OS deployment, in the amount of time it took you to read all my rambling you might have already installed Windows Server 2008 and tried it out for yourself. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. But still...you get the idea!

-William

Categories: 
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

Categories: 
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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