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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!

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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.

September 15, 2009

Managing Your Traffic in the Modern Era

Over the past 10 years, I’ve run or helped run all sizes of web sites and internet applications. I’ve seen everything from single-page brochure web sites to horizontally scaled interactive portals. And what I’ve learned is that it is all about the end-user experience.

I’m not a graphics specialist or a GUI designer. I just don’t have that in my DNA. I focus more on the technical side of things working on better ways to deliver content to the user. And in the purely technical area, the best thing to do to improve the user experience is to improve the delivery speed to the user.

There are a lot of tools out there that can be used to speed up delivery. CDN, for example, is an awesome way to get static content to an end user and is very scalable. But what about scaling out the application itself?

Traditionally, a simple Layer-4 Load Balancer has been a staple component of scalable applications. This type of Load Balancing can provide capacity during traffic peaks as well as increase availability. The application runs on several servers and the load balancer uses some simple methods (least connections, round robin, etc) to distribute the load. For a lot of applications this is sufficient to get content reliably and quickly to the end user. SoftLayer offers a relatively inexpensive load-balancing service for our customers that can provide this functionality.

There is another, more sophisticated, tool that can be used to manage internet application traffic. That is the “Application Delivery Controller” (obligatory Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Application_Delivery_Controller) or “Load Balancer on Steroids”. This class of traffic manager can act in Layer-7, the data layer. These devices can make decisions based on the actual content of the data packets, not just the source and destination.

And an ADC can do more than load balance. It can act as a Web Application Firewall to protect your data. It can speed up your application using SSL Offloading, Content Caching, TCP Optimization, and more. This type of device is very smart and very configurable and will help in the delivering the application to the end user.

At SoftLayer we have seen our customers achieve a lot of success with our Layer-4 Load Balancer product. But we are always looking for other tools to help our customers. We always have admired the advanced functionality in the appliance-based Application Delivery Controllers on the market. Finding a way to get this enterprise-grade technology to our customers in an affordable manner was problematic. When Citrix announced that they were going to create a version of their NetScaler product that didn’t require an appliance we were thrilled. With the announcement of the NetScaler VPX we finally thought we had found the right product that we could use to affordably provision this advanced technology on-demand to our customers.

SoftLayer is VERY excited to partner with Citrix to provide the NetScaler VPX Application Delivery Controller to our customers. Our customers can order a NetScaler VPX, and in a matter of minutes be managing the delivery of their online applications using one of the most sophisticated tools on the market. Citrix does a better job of promoting the product than I do, so here is the link to their site: http://citrix.com/English/ps2/products/product.asp?contentID=21679&ntref=hp_nav_US.

Remember, it’s all about the experience of the user at the other end of the wire. Find the right tools to manage that experience and you are most of the way there. Oh yeah, and find a good graphics designer too. That helps. So does good content.

-@nday91

September 9, 2009

Taking the Chance

I started working at the ripe’ole age of 16 and since then I’ve had 5 jobs including SoftLayer. I started off at “bullseye” which consisted of straightening merchandise shelves and onto being a cashier. For my second job, I moved on to harassing customers into purchasing leather from a well known mall leather supplier, but for some reason I was having extra-long chili cheese conies and bacon, egg and cheese toasters on my mind, so I made the move to “rollerskates” for job number three. These jobs gave me a decent income (for being 16-18 yrs old), but I knew I didn’t want to be hopping from job to job for the rest of my life… I needed to find a place to grow roots, a place that paid me what I was worth, and finally a place where growth within the company was available. So, I moved to the world of retail digital imaging (large format printing) with a local Dallas company. I started in the shipping and receiving department, slowly learning the whole production side of the company as I knew that is where I could grow. Four long years passed, roots in the company were set fairly deep, or so I thought and the opportunity was “kinda” there, but ultimately I was not happy.

The opportunity for me to work at SL came thru a friend and former colleague at the printing company, Shawna (thanks Shawna!) who left because she also saw the huge potential with SL. At the time I was so ready for something new, but I’ll have to admit, I was a bit reluctant to take the chance because of the four years I had invested, and my lack of knowledge in IT, and particularly SL, knowing that they were doing things that had never been done before (I did my homework). Needless to say I took the chance, and was hired on as an Infrastructure Engineer.

As an Infrastructure Engineer at SL responsibilities range from installing cage nuts, rails, filler panels all the way to installing Cisco switches and Ethernet cables. Basically making sure that the racks are ready to be populated with servers and sold to new or existing customers wanting to expand their business. I can only speak for myself, but there is a great sense of pride when you step back and look at all the live racks you just painstakingly set up, knowing the hard work you had invested was not only helping SL grow but knowing that I had taken a bigger step into starting a solid career.

Yes, I was hired on as an Infrastructure Engineer, but was not just limited to that position. I have been here for over 2 years already and having some of the best times of my life, the opportunities to advance are there, they look for it in their staff, they want me to succeed, knowing it only helps them to succeed as well. What’s next you ask? To be continued…

September 7, 2009

Local Phone for (Darn Near Almost) Free

I keep my ears perked for businesses that leverage Internet infrastructure – mainly because such businesses are potential customers for SoftLayer. Occasionally, I become a customer of the businesses that I hear about.

I took the plunge with one such company after loosely watching it for a year. In the summer of 2007, a friend of mine moved his home phone service to Ooma. Basically, it is local phone service with no monthly bill. Zip. Nada. $0.00 per month. To top that off, the quality of service is very high.

Now, it’s not totally free phone service because you have to have a high speed internet connection to run it. I suspect that if you are reading this, you do. By the way, I have fiber going to my house, and I have 20 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload speed. I can get 50 down and 20 up should I ever need that much bandwidth. If I wanted local phone service from my local phone company, they would provide it through this fiber (not copper) at a price of about $45 per month plus taxes and fees. That means the monthly bill would be about $60 when it’s all said and done.

We yanked our landline when the fiber arrived 4 years ago since each family member at that point had a cell phone. Going all cellular has been pretty much fine except for a few minor hiccups. Sometimes, one of us has been unreachable at the house because of either a dead battery, phone set to silent mode, cellular network congestion, or the fact that the ringer just can’t be heard throughout the whole house, even at full volume. None of these, however, was worth an additional $60 per month to solve.

OK, back to Ooma. My friend has had it for a year with no problem. He loves it. It works perfectly with high quality. On top of that, Ooma is now sold at Costco for one-third lower than what he paid for it. You buy the device for a one-time fee up front and never have a phone bill. After three months (usually), you’ve made your money back in savings.

So a month ago, I bought it. It took 20 minutes to set up, and I’m a finance guy. If you’re a techie, I’ll bet you’re running in 10 minutes or less. It has worked flawlessly since. The sound quality is fantastic. There are more features and add-ons than I can mention here – go browse their website for more. The snarky ad video is worth the 45 seconds to watch it. In short, I highly recommend Ooma.

To keep things balanced, the ONLY advantage I see to a copper line is if there is a power outage and your broadband modem/router is down, the local phone is down. But if your home phone is cordless with a powered base unit, the copper line is down in that case too. And if the aliens from District 9 show up, the copper lines will be flooded too I’ll bet.

Ooma is just another example of how the Internet and its supporting infrastructure is not only here to stay, but to keep growing as traditional telecom infrastructure slowly dies. At SoftLayer, we’re here to make sure our innovation supports businesses that grow by leveraging Internet infrastructure.

September 4, 2009

First Grade

Some of you know that it is now “back to school” time. Those of you who don’t know are the ones who are still probably able to attend happy hours. (Our esteemed CFO may not know, but only because he’s had lots of birthdays. I’m not saying he’s addled. I’m just saying.) Nearly everyone has heard of, if not read, the book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum. This blog is kind of a take on that, but since The Boy just started First Grade, these are things of relevance we’ve learned about the rules and such for First Grade and that can be applied to things here at the ‘Layer.

So The Boy has tickets in First Grade, and if he’s bad – he’s got to pull a ticket and put it in a jar. Sounds like, the fewer tickets, the better. Kind of like here at SoftLayer, from our standpoint you don’t want to have to have a bunch of tickets to plow through. From a client standpoint, you certainly don’t want to have a bunch of tickets, especially from abuse, or you might get your server pulled. The lesson to be learned is to do what you can to keep those tickets at a minimum.

This year in First Grade, there are a bunch of boys, including The Boy. At the parent meeting after the second day of school, the two first grade teachers were explaining that because of the more than 2:1 ratio of boys to girls, the restroom breaks could be a potential nightmare. The uniforms have belts and shorts with buttons and zippers. The teachers said it takes forever for them to go, and they wanted the parents to tell their Boy that he needs to be able to, ah, how do we say it? Well, he needs to be able to whip it out, put it away and go. No smacking other bottoms and goofing off and giggling. Here at SoftLayer, we often have crazy deadlines, for example in development, which requires us to whip out some new technology on an expeditious basis. Just like First Grade, whip it out, put it away, and go on to the next project. (Unlike First Grade, there is lots of goofing off here at SoftLayer, such as with 10,000 bouncy balls and such. Since I’m in legal, if there is any smacking of bottoms, neither I nor HR want to hear about it. Lalalalala, Lalalala…)

One of the guys wrote a blog earlier this summer pondering if the things you learned in college are applicable to the “real world.” His conclusion was yes. My blog further confirms that the things you learn in First Grade are applicable to the “real world.” Here’s hoping The Boy can go 15 days without getting his ticket pulled, because if he does he gets some Krispy Kreme “football” donuts. And if The Boy gets some “football” donuts, that means The Mommy gets some, too.

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