infrastructure

July 30, 2007

Being in Sales

Being in SLales (SL + Sales = SLales - we're so clever), I talk to around 200 people or so a day via email/tickets/telephone/chat/etc. I like to think of our SLales team as the "A" team in the industry. Going along with Jason's “we wear many hats”, we must have detailed knowledge of every single product and service that we offer -- networking capabilities, what program/software/application works with what hardware all the while fitting what each particular clients unique needs are into their budget.

A typical day for the SLales team involves getting to work and going straight for the Monster or coffee (or both) depending on your preference. Get to our cubes and login to our side of the customer portal, chat and check our email. This is when the fun begins. Immediately we are engaging people on chat, catching up our shared SLales and personal email inboxes, talking to clients or potential clients on the telephone, verifying orders, IMing with different divisions, putting through payments, credit card changes and grabbing tickets from existing clients looking to cut a deal for upgrading and/or adding servers and services – all at the same time. We take multitasking seriously here!

On top of all of that we have to make sure that customer billing is accurate when ordering these services depending on the deals we have available, which are always going to be inventory-based. Also, we are making sure that everything is working correctly on each customer's server and if not, coordinating a game-plan to make sure that the client is satisfied and running along smoothly, as quickly as possible.

At the end of the day we want all of our clients to be comfortable, happy, making money and enjoying themselves – because if you are, we are too!

-Michael

July 27, 2007

Remote Access Success Story

In previous posts, there have been mentions of the datacenter of the future, kvm over IP and a reference to an elevator. Then, just the other day, someone in the office pointed out this article: "How remote management saved me an emergency flight overseas"

The article discusses the successful deployment of servers from a remote location. The author talks about being able to remotely configure and deploy some new servers from the confines of a ski lodge. Of course, they had to have someone at their offices to receive the server shipment, unbox the servers, rack them up, get them all cabled, make sure space, power and cooling would all be sufficient and then put in a CD. Things that weren't mentioned probably included throwing away all of the packaging material, doing QA on the hardware to verify it was all correct and changing any BIOS settings.

Beyond all of that, there are many things that are just inherent to the process that they didn’t refer to, including having to find the right server vendor, negotiating pricing for the servers, making sure all of the pieces and parts were going to be shipped, tracking the shipment dates, contacting the vendor multiple times to try to find out why the shipment wasn't going to be on time, having available datacenter space and infrastructure, putting those dang cage nuts in the server racks, having available switch ports, making sure the network was configured correctly, providing network security, making sure all of the software licenses were up to date, etc, etc, etc.

Or, as so many of you already know - they could have gotten their servers from a dedicated hosting provider such as SoftLayer (hint, hint) and had the servers purchased, configured, QA’d and online within just a couple of hours and with no more effort than just filling out a signup form. It’s hard to imagine there are still so many people out there doing things the hard way.

-SamF

July 25, 2007

The OSI Model - Reworked

The Open Systems Interconnection Basic Reference Model (OSI Model) or 7-layer model has been around for decades. It was actually developed in 1977 by the ISO as an abstract model of networking protocols which is divided into seven layers. Each layer interacts with the layer beneath it or above it depending in the directionality of the conversion. The 7-layer model was written from a broader point of view and in today's world is not really used as it was intended. The most common protocol and the one most of us have heard of is the Internet protocol know as TCP/IP. The TCP/IP model only uses four of the layers to more simplify the architecture making it streamlined and easier for most to understand. Here are both models and a brief description and example of each.

OSI Model (7 layer)

  1. Physical – The electrical and physical connections for devices (example: wires, electrical signals, hubs, network cards)
  2. Data Link – Functional means of transferring data between network devices via switches and protocols (example: Ethernet, Token-Ring and switches)
  3. Network – This layer is responsible for transferring data between multiple networks via routing protocols (example: Internet Protocol (or IP), ARP, and RIP)
  4. Transport – this layer provides a reliable transparent transfer control of data between hosts (example: TCP and UDP)
  5. Session – This layer controls the connections between hosts. Establishes, maintains, and terminates connections between hosts. (example: NetBIOS and DNS)
  6. Presentation – This is the layer the data is transformed and formatted to provide a standard interface for the Application layer (example: ASCII to XML conversion)
  7. Application – Provides services and data to user defined applications (example: RPC, FTP, HTTP)

 
TCP/IP Model (4 layer)

  1. Network Access – This is the physical layer like cables, hubs, switches, and routers necessary for communications
  2. Internetworking – This is the IP address and layer that allows hosts to be able to find one another on the Internet
  3. Transport – Connection protocols like TCP and UDP operate here. This layer deal with the opening, maintaining, and closing connections between hosts
  4. Process/Application – High level protocols like HTTP, FTP, SMTP, POP3 operate

Back in the day when I got started in the networking field for a small ISP in Dallas, I had to study the OSI model for Cisco exams. I had to use anagrams to remember the different layers such as (P-D-N-T-S-P-A) "Please Do Not Throw Sausage Pizza Away" or in reverse (A-P-S-T-N-D-P) "All People Seem To Need Domino's Pizza" so I could keep them all straight. Once I was actually starting to get my hands wet in the field, I found the OSI model to come in handy when trying to troubleshoot networking issues. I had to morph the definitions of the layers to fit my needs, and used them as a daily reference on how to isolate issues and come to a resolution by stepping up and down the layers. Here is what I used to simplify my life when troubleshooting a dial-up connection (analog, ISDN and sometimes a T1).

Network Troubleshooting (7 layer/step)

  1. Physical layer – Is there good working cable between point A and point B? (the router and switch let's say). Have you tested the cable to make sure it works?
  2. Data link layer – Is there a link light on the router or switch? Is it plugged into the correct ports on both ends? Are the port speeds and duplex settings on either end matched up? (10/full, 100/full or 1000/full)
  3. Network layer – Can I ping across the link from the router to the switch? Am I using the correct IP address information?
  4. Transport – Am I able to get out of the local network? Is there a firewall that might be blocking something? Is the default gateway setup correctly?
  5. Session – Am I able to reach (ping) the end host I are trying to reach? (the web server in this case)
  6. Presentation – Is the service I am trying to reach installed and running? (like IIS or Apache) Is there a firewall blocking inbound requests? (hardware or software)
  7. Application – Is there actually content on the server to present? (HTML pages) Does the web server config have the appropriate permissions applied and pointed to the correct directory for content?

I know this might seem a little simplistic, but sometimes getting back to the basics is the best way to solve problems. It is also an effective way to teach people interested in networking how to troubleshoot issues that come up in our industry on a daily basis. I hope you find this approach useful and apply it in your environment.

A funny little known factoid is that when we started this company a couple years ago, the OSI model actually came up when designing our logo. When brainstorming and jotting down ideas one of our founders (guess who?) used the 7 Layer theme to design our current logo. Shows you how influential the OSI model has been in today's Internet driven world.

Let's see what anagrams you can come up with for "P-D-N-T-S-P-A" or "A-P-S-T-N-D-P" Give me your best shot. (keep it clean though!)

-Ric

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July 23, 2007

The User Experience – SoftLayer 101

One of the broadest and most challenging topics in any company is capturing a customer's full attention at all times. In its simplest form, this seems pretty easy. First, you address the market that you are vertically aligned with, such as finance, technology, manufacturing, etc. and then you establish what you want your user experience to be leveraging your knowledge of these markets and dedicated your full resources to marketing to that niche. As the internet changes the traditional marketing principles into this new "never never land" of instant feedback through forums, blogs, RSS feeds, etc. the landscape of the user experience is definitely changing.

So what happens when your markets cross all boundaries, have no verticals and can range from an individual to a fortune 10 company? How do you create an environment that captures a unique experience for the single man consulting shop, while maintaining a completely different, yet equally impressive, environment for a company outsourcing their internal IT infrastructure needs completely to you? Obviously, this is extremely challenging and it’s the position that we sit in daily here at SoftLayer.

The user experience really seems to be a philosophy that has to be adopted from top down in any organization. I found an older article that really seems to capture the essence of the user experience. In the article it talks about companies such as Dell, Amazon, Nordstrom’s, Jet Blue, etc. and it breaks down the user experience into 4 simple categories:

  1. Comfortable
  2. Intuitive
  3. Consistent
  4. Trustworthy

With these 4 categories in mind it has me thinking and challenging the entire SoftLayer team internally to think about how we fit into these. SoftLayer is largely comprised of engineering talent and, to no fault of theirs, they often keep there heads down for hrs/days/weeks at a time and look up time of project completion and forget that there is anything else going. It’s the nature of the business and our engineers and developers are world class, so I tread lightly on my ‘rock the boat’ comments, but it’s definitely a topic of conversation internally as we are constantly focused on enhancing the experience of SoftLayer for our customers.

The SoftLayer team has many stated goals when it comes to cutting edge technologies, changing the landscape of the dedicated hosting market, and really adapting and evolving our products and services to ensure that we meet the needs of all of our customers. Our customers are the driving force for enhancement here and we listen very clearly. We have been fortunate to have built such a tight knit community here which is something that we believe drives a difference between us and others in the marketplace.

As a continuous exercise I would like to reach out to you, the customer, and ask for feedback on items that you think could enhance the 'user experience' here. Much like the cliché about the CEO having an open door policy at work, I want to let everyone know that our doors are open and we want to hear what you have to say. Are we doing a good job in the four characteristics listed above? Do you have ideas/thoughts that you think can be globally impacting to us?

As always, bizdev@softlayer.com is an open line to share thoughts with me directly and the great part about my job is I am cross functional throughout the organization, so my lines goes from the top (Lance) through all of the groups be-it development, operations, sales, finance/accounting, etc. We are here to listen, so speak up!

-Sean

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July 20, 2007

Your Hosting Dollar

During some recent weekend R&R, my family and I saw a "human statue" street performer. He looked as if he'd been spray-painted gold – clothes, skin and all. He had a bucket out for "donations" and there was a healthy crowd watching. Parents would give dollar bills for their kids to put in the bucket. For each dollar, he'd do robotic movements and noise for 5 to 10 seconds and then return to statue status. After a few seconds, another dollar would go in the bucket and the cycle would repeat.

My son, a budding numbers-geek, said "Wow Dad, he makes pretty good money. I'll bet it’s $50 an hour." Being a full-fledged numbers geek, I said "By my calculations, it's more like $70 per hour".

This got me to thinking. What do we provide our customers for $1 of hosting fees? So I figured it out for our most popularly sold hosting offering. This is not $1 per line item below; it’s $1 for the whole package below.

  • 272,232,402,234,637 operations performed by the CPU at 50% utilization
  • 12 megabytes of RAM
  • 1.4 gigabytes of hard drive space
  • An Operating System to make it all happen
  • 45 seconds of technical support
  • 5,538,770,949,720,670,000,000,000 electrons (in the form of electricity)
  • 10,909 average sized packets of public transfer
  • Up to 37,973,200 average sized packets of private network transfer
  • All numbers are approximate. Nonetheless, be sure to make use of your hosting dollars here at SoftLayer!

    -Gary

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July 18, 2007

There is no "I" in "Sales"

I've been working with Amanda, Daniel, Miller and Laude for a long time in a shared sales team environment. Until recently, it had never occurred to me how bizarre it is that five such independent and competitive sales people are able to drive the SoftLayer Sales Machine almost 24x7x365 as a single seamless entity.

How do we do this?

First and foremost, we get along with each other - The value of this statement only really hits home if you understand how much time we spend with one another. Splitting an almost 24x7 work-week between 5 people means that we all work a *lot* of hours. Overlapping schedules, late nights, the almost constant blackberry messaging back and forth. If I didn't love these guys, this job would be impossible.

Great management - (Clearly, a shameless effort to suck up to the boss ^_^) Lance and Steven both have very hands-off management styles. They both give us "Just enough rope to hang [our]selves", meaning that we get to do a whole lot on our own. This is why SL Sales is the most technically savvy and aware in the dedi server industry. It also means that we trust and lean heavily on one another to make sure we stay that way, and of course, don't hang ourselves.

We share everything, good and bad - Think: commission checks as well as schedules. Sharing EVERYTHING drives us in a couple of different ways. Since our paychecks depend on how well we do as a whole, each of us is sure to give 110% at all times, because what's better than a 110% paycheck if you can get it, right? Along the same lines, none of us wants to be singled out as the weakest link in the chain – competition holds us up and keeps us on our toes.

Finally, we all have different strengths and weaknesses - If you combine us all together, you have the perfect mixture of unfailing politeness & cool (Amanda), masterful jocularity (Daniel), world-renowned strength under pressure (Miller), finely-tuned professionalism (Laude), and my own studied protocol & firmness. So there's not a customer in the world who can't get along with at least one of us.

SL Sales (or “SLales” as Lance likes to call us) really works here – I can't imagine it any other way.

-Mary

July 16, 2007

Collocation? Que Loco!

In most project management and system development circles, collocation refers to the centralization of resources, human and otherwise, for the purpose of creating greater efficiencies in a development cycle. In most cases, this involves pulling a developer from here, an analyst from there, and so on, for the life of the effort that they have been designated to participate in. In this day and age, with stakeholders spanning the globe, collocating for the sake of one project is not quite feasible. Now, imagine collocating for every project. Some might say, “That’s crazy!” Here at SoftLayer, we are just that… collocated that is. Sales, Finance, Development, and Support all share the same roof, breathe the same air, and drink the same coffee!

Outside of the obvious efficiencies gained from being in each other’s reach, such as information sharing and truly real-time communication, we reap other benefits that quickly cascade out to you, our customers. A major benefit that we have realized is the speed of going from suggestion or conception, to the delivery of a valued and usable solution. A good example of this resulted in one of the latest API method releases that I was recently involved in.

While working on a solution to parallel the monitoring feature of the Customer Portal, one of our forum moderators noticed a request from a customer that involved exposing the monitoring data to the API as well as including a few other bells and whistles. By the end of the day, the new API monitoring method, along with the customer’s requested additions, was approved, designed, developed, and tested! How crazy is that? Let me run that by you again, the customer made a request, the company responded… quickly. No web conferences, conference calls, misinterpreted emails or IMs, just a quick and correct response.

Another benefit of being collocated is visibility. Good ideas are never overlooked. While we like to think of ourselves as innovators that are constantly ahead of the curve, we are always looking for ways of serving our customers better. Whether you are engaged in a phone call or chat with one of our Sales Representatives, touching bases with Support, or volleying an idea through the SoftLayer Forum, your input is channeled directly to the hub where a dedicated and connected team is staged for top performance. Our disposition affords us the ability to nimbly address your position, resulting in gains that can reach crazy proportions!

-DJ

Categories: 
July 13, 2007

Movin' on Up!

SoftLayer really is movin' on up! We can prove this fact in many different ways (growth in customer base, growth in server numbers, growth in annual revenue, growth in datacenter space/facilities, and more...). However, one other way to look at growth is by taking into account our business offices: previous working conditions, current working conditions, and future working conditions.

Office # 1:

Our first business office was quite interesting. It was basically one, medium-sized room, with a kitchenette and a conference room smack-dab in the middle. Mary Hall and I pulled double-duty as Sales Account Executive & Receptionists. Everyone sat back to back with their boss (within arm reach). There were no offices, no partitions, no privacy - for anyone. It is a bit intimidating to have the weight of the world on your shoulders (the pressure of making our startup company a complete success) and have your managers right beside you watching your every move. Then, there were the creative ring tones on some desk telephones. A few of the "higher-ups" decided to torture the rest of us. Here were a few:

Lance Crosby: "Respect my authority!!!" (Southpark's Cartman repeating this phrase over and over)
Steven Canale: "Quack Quack!" (The sound a ducky makes, obviously)
Mike Jones: Mike had a risqué, swanky music ring tone. I still wonder about that one!
Sean Charnock: "RRRRRRRRRRRING! RRRRRRRRRRRING!" (And kid you not, the yelling human voice recording sounded exactly like Sean)
Sam Fleitman: Sam's ring tone sounded exactly like our sales chat ring, so if we even thought about day dreaming - which of course we NEVER did - that one sure brought us back to reality quickly!

Office #2 (current office):

We have never even thought we would be as excited as we were when we received our own cubicles. The privacy! The extra space! No longer did we have to hear silly ring tones. No longer did everyone in the office have to listen to others' phone conversations. Most normal people sit in their cubicles wishing they were anywhere but there, however we sure do appreciate them. There are still a few employees who must endure sitting close to the microwave, which can be distracting. However, we are about to make the big move upstairs...

Office #3:

I have not been up there, but I have seen the layout. I have also heard the construction going on upstairs for the past month, and I know something good is in store. Some more of our VPs and directors will get their own offices. Everyone else will have their own cubicle, comfortably placed away from the annoyances of a microwave or ice maker. We will have more than one conference room, more space for new employees to join, and an all-around nicer facility. All will be peaceful and good with the world, and we can focus even more on making our customers happy.

-Amanda

July 11, 2007

Truck Day Operations

How do you unload 1,000 servers and have them ready to go live in a datacenter in five hours? With lots and lots of planning. Every month we take in a shipment of servers to accommodate the next 30 days of sales. Preparation for each delivery starts several months in advance with forecasting models. You have to look far enough ahead in your models to continually adjust forecasts for sales, facilities and available resources. Some vendors need more lead time than others so you have to constantly update your forecasts, all the way up to final order placement.

Also, you don't just walk into a datacenter with a server and set it down. There's a lot of work that goes into physical prep for the datacenter as well. You have to plan the datacenter layout, order and assemble racks, add rails, power strips, switches, power cord bundles, network cable bundles, etc. Every rack we deploy has almost 400 cage nuts and just under 200 cables in it. We don't just string a bunch of cables up and call it a day. Every cable bundle is meticulously routed, combed and hung to make them look professional. With that much cabling, you have to make it right or you'll never be able to work around it.

With one week to go before the trucks arrive, all of the datacenter prep starts wrapping up. And with just a few days left, we have our last manager meeting to review server placement, personnel, timing and other delivery details.

Next is Truck Day - this is when the fun begins.

On Truck Day, we leave plenty of people behind to handle sales, support and accounting, but everyone else is expected at the loading dock. After all the pallets are pulled off the truck and accounted for, the team gets busy un-boxing. As servers are unboxed, all of the spare parts in the boxes - spare screws, riser cards, SATA cables, and various other pieces - are sorted into bins on the dock. The servers themselves are then placed in custom transport carts and moved to the datacenter.

From there, the teams inside the datacenter sort the servers according to type and perform a strict QA process that includes verifying the hardware configurations and verifying that the components are all seated properly.

Once sorted, the servers get scanned into the system and racked up. As all of the cables are plugged in, another QA process is completed to verify that all of the ports are correct. At that point, it's just a matter of turning each server on and watching them check in, get their bios flashed with the latest and greatest release and having the system update any component firmware that is needed. As the systems check themselves into inventory, they go through two more QA processes that include an inventory check and a burn-in process.

By the time the truck is empty, the last box is stashed and the final server is racked up, everyone is ready to get back to their day jobs. Months worth of planning - all wiped out in a matter of hours.

Mary is working on a great post about what Truck Day looks like from a Salesperson's perspective. It explains why we have everyone get involved in the process.

-SamF

July 9, 2007

Profit: A "Win-Win" Arrangement

Remember the "low-carb" diet craze a few years back? Some members of my family jumped on the bandwagon and I can remember seeing a lot of low-carb items in stores; low-carb milk, pasta, bread, chocolate, etc. Today you just don’t see as many of these products anymore. Look at the dates of the articles above and try finding some of the products in the links above – they’re long gone.

Why? Assuming these products really worked as advertised, when the low-carb craze was over, the cost of producing these products became higher than the revenue that the market was willing to pay for them. Maybe the market rejected them because they didn’t work. Whatever the case, mathematically, when costs are higher than revenue, there is no profit. Consequently, companies stopped offering these money-losing products. No profit is a "lose-lose" situation. Neither the companies nor the consumers who want the discontinued products benefit when there’s no profit.

The same goes for the hosting industry. If the cost of providing hardware, software, power, cooling, and bandwidth ever rises higher than what the market demand will pay, this offering will exit the marketplace. Personally I don’t think that will ever happen. Because there is an opportunity for profit in the hosting business, we and other providers will continue to inject our offerings into the marketplace. And due to the cost of these offerings, we won’t be offering dozens of processing cores, unlimited RAM, unlimited bandwidth and multiple terabytes of storage capacity for ten bucks a month.

Thankfully, SoftLayer doesn’t have to deliver all of that to achieve a top notch customer experience (as of yet anyway). But simply providing the list above is only part of the equation. As I mentioned in my last post, treating your customers "right" and building long-term relationships is critical to maximizing profit. Therefore, we do our best to price our offerings at value points that make both our customers and our investors happy. The resulting profit ensures that we continue in business and that we keep our server fleet refreshed. Profit keeps us around and motivates us to provide our customers with an excellent customer experience.

Thus, for SoftLayer and our customers, profit is a "win-win" situation.

-Gary

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