executive-blog

April 27, 2009

Into the Cloud

You'll see the word "cloud" bouncing around quite a bit in IT nowadays. If you have been following The Inner Layer you'll have seen it a few times here as well. A cloud service is just something that is hosted on the Internet. Typically in a cloud scenario you are not actually doing the hosting but rather using hosted resources someone else is providing. Usually you'll hear it in terms of computing and storage.

This is going to be a brief article on a cloud storage product we are doing here at SoftLayer called CloudLayer™ Storage.

CloudLayer™ Storage is a WebDAV based system which uses client software on the local machine in order to redirect filesystem operations to the storage repository here at SoftLayer. In Windows you end up with a drive letter; on a Unix system you end up with a mount point. In both cases when you create folders and save files on those locations the actions actually happen on our storage repository here. Because the files are located with us you are able to access them wherever you are. Through the CloudLayer™ web UI you're able to also set up files for sharing with others so even if where you are never changes there is still value to using the cloud storage.

Even using a cloud storage system you must maintain proper backups. Hardware, software and human error all happens. Tied in with that concept of "errors happen" ... if you have files on CloudLayer™ that you need for a presentation, download them ahead of time. You don't want to be caught without files simply because the Internet connection at your hotel decided to take a nap the morning of your event.

Now what of security? Well, the connection to the CloudLayer™ endpoint here at SoftLayer is done via an encrypted session so people cannot snoop on your transmissions. This does mean you need to allow 443/tcp outbound communications via your firewall but since that is the normal HTTPS port I'd imagine you already have it open. Within CloudLayer™ you can control with whom you share your files.

Since CloudLayer™ is a filesystem redirected over the Internet the performance you get will be dependent on your local connection speed. Its best to treat CloudLayer™ Storage as simply a file repository. If you find you need some kind of off-machine storage for running applications on your server you could look into our iSCSI product.

So, dear readers, go forth and have a cloudy day.

April 25, 2009

Facebook and Geezers

Last week, more rumors about the valuation of Facebook were flowing. So, is Facebook the real deal? Or will it go the way of the CB radio “social networking” experiment in the 1970’s?

Last weekend, I attended an event that indicates that Facebook has more staying power than those old CB radios. It was a quasi high school reunion. Since a lot of graduates of Brownwood High School (my alma mater) wind up in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, a 2-3 hour drive away from Brownwood, we had a get-together in Grapevine, TX for Brownwood High grads living in the area.

At the event, the oldest grad I bumped into was from the Class of ’81 and the youngest I saw was from the Class of ’90. Yes, there’s a “19” in front of those graduation years, making the age range of people I saw between ages 37 and 46 years of age. I won’t disclose where I fit in that group, but in the world of Facebook, we’re all pretty much “geezers” I imagine.

I wish I had counted the number of times I heard Facebook mentioned at the party on Saturday night. Many times people told of who they had found on Facebook that couldn’t make it to the party. Some of the comments I overheard went like this:

“I saw those pictures of your kids on Facebook. Man they’ve grown!”

Q: “So, is that crawfish boil you posted on Facebook an annual event?”
A: “Yeah, it got kinda wild this year.”

“You said in your Facebook status a while back that your daughter got hurt. How’s she doing now?”

You get the drift, I’m sure. Most everybody there in this age range was active on Facebook and was already connected to several in attendance on Facebook. Since the event, I’ve received friend requests from folks I saw, and I’ve also sent out a few friend requests.

After we all made it home early Sunday morning (hey we’re not THAT old – at least we think we’re not), the Facebook fun continued. My email account pinged all day letting me know I’d been tagged in a photo here, someone commented on a photo there, etc. Yes the cameras were out Saturday night, and the contents of those cameras got uploaded, tagged, and commented upon all day Sunday. In fact, I was tagged in one photo that had the caption “Brownwood High School geezers from class of __.”

As far as Facebook goes, I’ll bet stories like this occur all over the country by the thousands. Provided that Facebook keeps its financial house in order, they’re here for the long haul I think.

So, what’s the connection to SoftLayer here? Easy. We have a lot of customers who provide apps on Facebook. The infrastructure for those apps is hosted at SoftLayer. Consequently, we’re big cheerleaders for Facebook and the apps that run upon it. Go go go!

April 23, 2009

Dress To Impress

I’ve recently discovered the TV show Mad Men, which is well into its second or third season now, and is just an awesomely good time. If you haven’t seen it or heard about it, the basic premise is this:

“Late 1950’s advertising agents in NYC drink, smoke and fool around too much.“

That’s about it. There are a lot of layers on top of that, but the heart of the show is a Lucky Strike and a whiskey neat. The main character is Don Draper, the coolest cat who ever cooled. He wakes up with perfectly combed hair, knows all the right things to say and owns more suits than Men’s Warehouse.

The scene (or line, actually) that got me writing was one where Don Draper is hanging out with some beatniks listening to Miles Davis and ends up getting into an argument with one of them about “Conformity VS Rebellion”. Don represents the suit wearing, 9-to-5’ers and the beatnik represents the free-spirited bohemian lifestyle. An unrelated incident brings the police to the building and the beatniks are all scared to go outside because of them. Eventually Don gets tired of arguing (I can’t imagine he’s tired of the Miles Davis. Everyone loves Miles Davis), and decides to leave. The following exchange takes place:

Beatnik: Hey man, you can’t go out there.. there are cops outside.

Don Draper: “….You can’t”

And then he leaves. Of course, the cop outside gives him no hassle at all, and the audience yells “Oh Snap!” Well, I did anyway.

This illustrates a personal philosophy of mine that I’m happy to say we use in a lot of aspects at SoftLayer, and that is “Dress to impress”. Whether you want to think about it or not, your wardrobe is going to tell people a lot about you before you ever get a chance to. This goes for a lot of other areas as well, not just your pants and jacket.

If your desk is cluttered up with papers, I’m going to assume you’ve got too much work. Or you are sloppy.

If your passenger seat is full of stuff, I’m going to assume that you never have passengers, which means you probably live alone.

Conversely if your car is uncluttered in any way I’m going to assume you never drive it.

The same goes for your web page, your order forms, your forums. All of these things sway the needle of the “Good/Bad” scale one way or another, and most of the time it’s really, really subtle.

At SoftLayer we spend a LOT of time on attention to detail. Our datacenter is so clean you can eat off the floor, and it doesn’t happen by accident. When people walk into the room I want them to say “wow!” and I’m happy to say that it happens every time.

What does your look say about you?

-Jeaves

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April 22, 2009

The Tao of the Slayer

In the ever-changing world of IT, there are few times when a technician gets to relax. There are always new issues, new products/services, and long hours of investigation. However, once in awhile you find a moment of Zen in all the commotion: Rack Prep.

Recently, I had assigned myself to Rack Prep to allow my teammates to focus on their other duties. During this time, I was able to complete a large portion of the rack assembly process and release myself from the direct stresses of the IT environment in a busy NOC (network operations center).

The preparation of new racks in the datacenter is an arduous (and sometimes monotonous) task, but gives a technician time to reflect on his accomplishments and direction for his career. There are no distractions, other than the occasional dropped cage nut or screw. This allows the free mind to ponder the inner workings of itself and the body it inhabits.

I thought about the first time I had installed a rack rail. I had only been working in IT for a few months and was assigned to the task due to my lack of knowledge on the other portions of the project. I learned a lot that summer about architecture of hardware, networks, and even business.

I had time to think about how I had arrived at one of the fastest-growing host providers in the world. All the different places I had worked. I remembered the people who shared information – technical or otherwise – which had furthered my ability to solve issues – in servers and myself.

I remembered the managers and supervisors that I looked up to and hope to emulate in my current position in management. I was trying to remember all the wisdom which had been passed to me, leading me to reevaluate my approach and initiatives.

In short, the Rack Prep allowed me to reflect on all the things in my life. I was able to forget the current project while mindlessly pushing in cage nuts and look at my career from a wider perspective. Luckily, I can say that I am proud of how far I have come. Now, I have to install the cables which require much more thought. I better leave the Zen and continue with the task at hand.

.IIIi

April 14, 2009

EVA, Cloud Computing, and the Capex vs. Opex Debate

So far in 2009, there’s been a fair amount of discussion pro and con regarding the financial benefits (or lack thereof) of cloud computing. It’s very reminiscent of the whole “do-it-yourself” or “outsource it” debate. Blog posts like this and articles like this are samples of the recent debate.

One thing I have not yet seen or heard discussed regarding cloud computing is the concept of EVA, or Economic Value Added. Let me add at this point that EVA is a registered service mark of EVA Dimensions LLC and of Stern Stewart & Co. It is the concept of economic income instead of accounting income. SoftLayer subscribes to software from EVA Dimensions LLC. Get more info here.

For you to buy into the premise of this post, you’ll have to be sold on EVA as a valuable metric. Bottom line, EVA cleans up the distortions of GAAP and aligns all areas of the business so that more EVA is always better than less EVA. Most other metrics when pushed to extremes can actually harm a business, but not EVA. Yes, even bottom line GAAP net income when pushed to an extreme can harm a business. (How that can happen is fodder for another blog post.) Several books have been written about EVA and its benefits, so that’s too much to write about in this post. This is a good summary link, and for more info you can Google it on your own. And if you do Google it on your own, be warned that you may have to wade through links regarding Eva Longoria and/or Eva Mendes .

Part of the Cloud computing debate revolves around “capex vs. opex.” Specifically, this involves paying for IT infrastructure yourself using capital expenditures (“capex”) or employing Cloud computing and buying IT infrastructure with operating expenditures (“opex”). Geva Perry recently said, “There is no reason to think that there is a financial benefit to making an OpEx expense vs. CapEx expense. Period.” I disagree. When you look at this in terms of EVA, whether you use capex or opex can make a big difference in creating value for your business.

Let’s look at the effect of switching capex to opex on EVA. Coca-Cola is a company that employs EVA. Years ago, they decided to ship their beverage concentrate in single-use cardboard containers instead of reusable stainless steel. This made GAAP measures worse – profit and profit margins actually went down. But EVA went up by making the move from capex to opex. How can this be? Grab something caffeinated and check out some numbers here if you dare.

OK, that’s all fine. But how would shifting IT spending from capex to opex affect EVA? Glad you asked. Last summer, I modeled some full-fledged financials to illustrate financial benefits of outsourcing IT vs. doing it yourself. I’ve taken those and added the EVA calcs to them. Take another swig of caffeine and check them out here and here.

Assuming that EVA is a worthwhile metric (and I think it is), moving capex to opex is possibly a very good financial decision. Any questions? As always, your mileage may vary. Model carefully!

April 8, 2009

More “SLingo”: SLanket vs. Snuggie

I am not ashamed to say that I own both the Slanket and the Snuggie. I got the Snuggie as a gift last year, and I purchased the Slanket for myself a couple of months ago (only partly because of the cool SL name). The Slanket turned out to be a WAY better product. As I sat on the couch with my Slanket and my kitten Linux, I started drawing these hilarious and uncanny parallels between the Slanket and my company, SoftLayer. Once I got started, I just couldn’t stop:

  1. The Slanket is bigger, and thicker. The fabric of the Slanket is far more robust, and doesn’t start “pilling” immediately. It’s designed for constant and vigorous use, and will last me a very long time before wearing out.
  2. There are more buying options with the Slanket – they come in different sizes and many more colors (including a shade that’s *almost* SoftLayer Red), so there’s a Slanket for every need.
  3. The Slanket has a better name – Sleeves + Blanket = Slanket. I’m not likely to talk about my “Snuggie” to my peers, because … well, I’m not a 4-year old.
  4. While the Slanket is a bit more expensive, it is a far superior product. In the Blankets-With-Sleeves industry, you seem to get what you pay for.
  5. I used the Contact Us form on the Slanket website to talk to their SLales team, and got great, personalized service, and a discount! Btw, the owner’s email address is also available online, which shows that he is involved in the day to day operations, and wants to hear from you.

Does any of this sound familiar? These are the same things people love about SoftLayer. I am a very proud SLanket customer. A++ would buy again.

SLanket

April 6, 2009

Solid State Drives – In House Performance Stats

I love working at SoftLayer. I get to play with the newest hardware before anyone else. Intel, Adaptec, Supermicro… The list goes on. If they are going to release something new, we get to play with it first. I also like progression. Speed, size, performance, reliability; I like new products and technologies that make big jumps in these areas. I am always looking to push components and complete systems to the limits.

But alas, Thomas Norris stole my thunder! Check out his article “SSD: A Peek into the Future” for the complete skinny on the SSD’s we use. I seem to be a bit to concise for a nice long blog anyways. But not to worry, I’ve got some nifty numbers that will blow the jam out of your toes!

Solid State Drives (SSD) represent a large jump in drive performance. Not to mention smaller physical size, lower power consumption, and lower heat emissions. The majority of drive activity is random read/write. SSD drives have drastically improved in this area compared to mechanical drives. This results in a drastic overall performance increase for SSD drives.

This is a comparison of the Intel 32GB X25-E Extreme drive vs. other drives we carry. Note the massive jump in the random read/write speed of the SSD drive.

No more waiting on physical R/W heads to move around. How archaic!

Chart

Please note that no performance utility should be used to definitively judge a component or system. In the end, only real time usage is the final judge. But performance tests can give you a good idea of how a component or system compares to others.

Single drive performance increases directly translate into big improvements for RAID configurations as well. I have compared two of our fastest SATA and SAS four drive RAID 10 setups to a four drive SSD RAID 10 using an Adaptec 5405 Controller.

Chart

The Adaptec 5405 RAID controller certainly plays a part in the performance increase, on top on the simple speed doubling due to 2 drives being read simultaneously. (See my future blog on the basics or RAID levels, or check Wikipedia) .

Propeller heads read on:

The numbers indicate a multiplied increase if you take the base drive speed (Cheetah – 11.7mbps / X25-E – 64.8mbps) and double it (the theoretical increase a RAID 10 would give): 23.4mbps and 129.6mbps respectively. Actually performance tests show 27.3mbps and 208.1mbps. That means the Cheetahs are getting a 15% performance boost on random read/write and the X25-E a whopping 37% due to the RAID card. Hooray for math!

Once again, this is all performance tests and a bit of math speculation. The only real measure of performance, IMO, is how it performs the job you need it to do.

April 2, 2009

We Need New Small Businesses

It is often said that small business is the backbone of our economy. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small business employs half of all private sector employees. Over the past decade, small business has produced between 60 and 80 percent of net new jobs. We need small businesses to prosper and lead us out of the economic mess in which we find ourselves.

I track growth in domain names every week. I think it indicates how quickly new small businesses are being formed. After all, what business can you think of today (large or small) that does not have some sort of web site? I can’t think of any. One of the things on any small business start up checklist today is the web site. Hence, most all of them register a domain name.

So what’s been happening with growth in domain names? Lately, it’s not too pretty.

Chart

With all the talk lately about stimulating the economy, one of the best ways to do this would be to encourage the formation of new businesses.

Some would argue that we need to fix the credit market mess to help banks be able to lend to small business startups. This couldn’t be further from the truth. How many small businesses do you know that started with a commercial loan from a bank? I cynically say that banks do not want to loan to businesses until the business can survive without need of a bank, and that was true even before the credit crisis. This was certainly true in SoftLayer’s case – when the founders were preparing for launch in late 2005, there wasn’t a bank anywhere that would touch the SoftLayer business plan. What I’m saying is that the credit crisis isn’t that much of a barrier to small business startups. Passionate entrepreneurs will find a way to get going.

But all the passion to start one’s own business doesn’t go very far in the face of the real barriers to starting a business. One of the real barriers that an entrepreneur must overcome is tax issues. Do they begin as a sole proprietor? A partnership? An LLC? An “S” Corp? Should they incorporate? All of them have different tax implications. All of them have to deal with either income taxes at the personal level or corporate level. Some have to deal with self-employment taxes. Others must deal with 941 taxes. Then there are state and local tax issues, such as the margin tax if you’re in Texas. And don’t forget sales taxes and property taxes either.

One of the strategies that allowed the Internet to cement itself in our society during the 1990’s was this: just let it develop without taxing it. Without that burden, the Internet took off like wildfire.

Ergo, if we’d like a bunch of new small businesses to get going, let’s ease up on the tax burden on new startups. This would cost the government hardly any money at all. Think about it – businesses that don’t yet exist do not pay any taxes. Workers that are not yet employed do not pay any taxes. Currently unemployed workers do not pay income taxes, except for a pittance on unemployment benefits. So allowing new businesses to form and employ workers and transact business “tax-free” for a defined start-up period would produce an EXPLOSION of small business startups.

How long should this tax free period be? Per the SBA, if a new business survives 4 years, they have a great shot at surviving long term. So why not give all new business startups a tax holiday for four years as they establish themselves? Can you imagine how big the tax base would grow as these healthy, strong 4-year- old businesses begin paying taxes?

It seems that the biggest issue facing our new President and his administration is how to pay for all the things they’d like to do. Let me suggest that expanding the tax base is the best way to grow government revenues, as opposed to increasing the rates on the current tax base. Allowing a flood of new businesses to take root and grow our tax base may be the best way to fund our growing public budgets.

Naturally, SoftLayer would be more than happy to assist these new businesses with our enterprise class data center outsourcing services so that the new businesses focus on their business plan – not their IT overhead.

March 26, 2009

Use Caution when Outsourcing!

Outsource IT! I have been saying that for years now. But now I say; outsourcer beware!?!?! Really? How do you know if the company you are calling upon to keep your business up and running is safe and sound? Do they have certifications? Are they registered with the Better Business Bureau? Do they have scary fine print in the Terms of Service or User Agreement? Do you actually read those and understand them? How do you find out about all the questions above? Do you go to trade shows? Do you read about companies on the Hosting forum sites? Do you hear it from your friends? There are lots of ways to get that kind of information in today’s social internet jungle. Do you follow the company on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Linked-In, or all of the above? Should you? So many questions…

I am going to assume that you think this blog is going to be about how SoftLayer is a reputable, certified PCI compliant and SAS 70 datacenter, with competent and caring employees that can put themselves in the customer’s shoes and understand the frustrations that can go along with outsourcing your datacenter needs. Nah, that would be too easy and not very much fun.

This blog is about mud. Yes, I said mud. I was driving down a county road in Texas recently and we had a bit of rain in the days leading up to my trip. If you aren’t from Texas then you need a quick definition of “County Road”. A county can be paved, gravel or dirt topped and can be a great road or a horrible road, it just depends on the county that it is in, the tax base, and the abilities of the crews hired by the county to maintain them. I was travelling down a very wet gravel top county road, following along on my cell with GPS and Google maps and was about a mile from my destination. In what seemed the blink of an eye the road surface went from wet gravel to dirt and within about 10 feet my truck simply slid off the road into a nice 4 foot ditch filled with rain water. Looks harmless in the picture below doesn’t it?

Mud

It was a nice soft splash landing but my city slicker tires had no chance of getting me out of that ditch even with 4X4 engaged. So when water started coming under the door into the cab of the truck, I knew it was going to be a bad hour or so. It was time to outsource. I called the ranch to see if they had anything that could pull me out but they said that I was in a pretty tough spot and didn’t think they could help. So what would any techie do, I googled mud towing in the closet town. Of course I picked the first place on the list and gave them a call. They said they had a mud recovery truck and they would be out in about 45 minutes. Awesome, just 45 minutes! This was at 4:30PM and it was pretty cold and still raining and the ditch was filling up even further with water. Outsourcer beware, I was expecting a “Mud Recovery Truck!” I had visions of monster trucks dancing in my head. Fail!

Mud

Now I have to say that there weren’t ten forums about mud towing in Navarro county that I could visit, or customer references readily available so I just had to take that leap of faith and trust in the skills of my saviors. And I have to give credit where credit is due, that truck really is a monster! It did things a Transformer would love to be able to do. It got stuck at least 30 times in the 5 hours it took them to get me out of the ditch. Yes, I said 5 hours. Did I mention that monster trucks can do very bad things to city 4X4’s? Thank goodness I have an Echo to drive back and forth to work.

So I don’t want to leave you hanging but my truck is in the shop now and I am still waiting on an estimate. Things I know are wrong; front right A-arm damage from forcibly pulling the truck over a stump in the ditch, alignment issues, check engine light on, cruise control doesn’t work anymore, passenger side back door pushed up about half an inch including damage at bottom from the same stump, muffler caved in and exhaust pipe dragging the ground, front bumper air damn ripped off and metal bumper bent outward, yea you guessed it the pesky stump again and last but not least I need an entire new jack assembly because it is either broken or lost in the mud or both I should say (attempting to jack the truck over the stump).

The moral of this blog, if you have the tools available to research the company you are going to outsource to and they have references be sure to use them. They might save you a $300 mud recovery bill and a $1000 deductible somewhere down the road.

March 23, 2009

Naked Servers

So, Fat Tuesday rolls around and all of the datacenter employees are treated to King cake. Little do I know that we are starting a new tradition up here at SoftLayer: blogs for the baby.

So, the day goes by and everything is normal when I decide to break myself off a chunk of this King cake… Eat a little, work a little, eat a little, work a little and BAM! There is this baby just hiding in my next bite. At that point I have to just jump up and proclaim my victory! YES! I’m the lucky one that found the baby! But wait, why is everyone asking me about some unknown blog? What is this that they speak of? Some sort of mixture of baby and log?, that just does not sound right. This whole thing is too confusing for a guy that just buries his head in a server all day long.

So here I am; just wondering “What do I,” of all people, “write in a blog?” I do not read blogs, follow micro-blogs, or even really participate in these new fangled social world wide web sites. Sure, I am on the mighty book of faces, but not really to do anything other than have an account after everyone bugged me for months. Am I just that out of date with this internet fad (which I think may just catch on)?

Oh well, I go on with my day of wondering and bewilderment. I work a few more tickets and make some customers happy and overhear my boss talking about finally getting Cable. Wow, I thought that I was out of date, but, just, WOW. He is complaining that you have to get everything as a bundle; no hand picking the channels that you want. He doesn’t need the extra 900 channels of fluff. I’ve heard this story so many times, but I then begin to wonder the same.

Most industries have either catered to their customers exact needs or are moving in that direction, but not cable. What other industries are forcing you to bundle? For the most part, in order to get any type of deal, you must order your servers as part of some special bundle with most hosting providers. You want a cost efficient server that you can use to host your home business with, you have to get the whole kit and kaboodle, but not here at SoftLayer! I know that we have many customers that use other Managed Hosting providers that bundle their services with the cost of the server, which on the surface appears to be a great deal, but once they are up and going they do not need any further off-site management of the server to be done. The server is up, customized and should anybody aside from their admin login it could cause major issues with their “Optimization” techniques. These same people will often get a server with us, for their dev work, and find that we provide hardware on par with or better than their Managed Hosting provider, but are not going to bundle in some “Management” fee. We also offer iSCSI, NAS, EVault, CDN, Transcoding, Gigabit, Bandwidth Pooling, Vulnerability Assessment, PCI Scans, IPS (NIPS and HIPS), AntiVirus, Virtualization, OOB IPMI (SOL and KVM) , an API for EVERY method in our Portal(ohh, what some of our customers have been able to accomplish), Automated OS Reloads, Anycast DNS, Hardware Firewalls, Load Balancing, Global Load Balancing, Tipping Point, FREE Cross Connects, private vlan’s, local mirrors/repositories for operating systems and other software, Customer to Customer Cross Connects... do I need to keep going? We have a ton of new offerings on the horizon!

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