serverchallenge

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

Categories: 
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

Categories: 
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

Categories: 
June 29, 2007

Business Ethics Simplified

In this day and age of Sarbanes-Oxley internal controls, SAS 70 certifications, and myriad other regulatory, compliance, and audit issues that I won't get into , business ethics might seem to be a lengthy and complex topic.

In reality, it isn't. Back in the dark ages when I strolled the halls of SMU, a crusty Econ 101 professor named Jack Stieber proclaimed that there is only one ethical mandate in business: "Within the bounds of the law, maximize profit." There are no more ethical rules necessary to follow in business.

I have heard others phrase a similar thought as "maximizing shareholder value". I disagree with that approach because there are things that management can do to influence the stock price that aren't necessarily tied to maximizing profit. Basically, if you can maximize profit, the stock price will take care of itself.

In response to Prof Strieber's proclamation, there were a few students who responded, "But sir, what about ?" and Prof. Stieber shot them all down. Here is one of the more interesting objections:

"But sir, what about a business owner who hikes the price of bottled water to a ridiculous level in a disaster-stricken area that has lost its water supply? Are you saying he's being ethical by maximizing his profit from price gouging?" Prof. Stieber responded something like this:

Assuming that his pricing policy is legal, he's still being unethical because he's actually not maximizing his profit. Sure, he may reap a short-term gain but when the water supply is back on, those forced to buy his extortion-priced water will take their business elsewhere. So in the long term, he hasn't maximized his profit and thus has behaved unethically. An ethical decision during that time might have been to keep selling water at the pre-disaster price or maybe even donating some to build goodwill among his customer base. This could have cemented a long term relationship with the customers who would provide repeat business again and again and thus maximize his profit over time.

That being said, when a business maximizes it's profit within the bounds of the law, it's a "win-win" for the customers, stakeholders, and shareholders. In my next post, I'll explain how SoftLayer earning profit is a win-win for both the customers and the company.

-Gary

Categories: 
June 27, 2007

Spammers Beware: We're on Guard

Something happened today that we feel everyone should be aware of: We currently have no SBL listings for our IP space and we were recognized by the Spamhaus Team as a proactive no-spam-tolerance network.

Our hard work here at keeping spammers off of the network, and our reaction when they do make it on has been recognized. If you visit the Spamhaus ISP page, type in softlayer.com. You will find something that is very rare and something we are very proud of. To be recognized in this manner means a great deal to us.

Abuse is something that happens, there is no way around it. What does matter is how we are perceived to handle the situation, and working day in and day out with other abuse desks and networks does indeed pay off.

-Jacob

Categories: 
June 26, 2007

TTL and propagation

Every DNS record is equipped with a TTL. The TTL (Time To Live) is basically the expiration date on that record. Long story short, it's a countdown from when it was initially received until when it is marked as invalid and discarded for a replacement record. This is a very important piece of information that I've run into often as being either outright ignored or misunderstood.

Let's say you have a domain-something awesome like awesomedomain.wow--and awesomedomain.wow has a TTL of 24 hours. When I go to visit awesomedomain.wow as a new visitor (and you know I would, because it sounds awesome) I'm going to receive a record translating awesomedomain.wow to an IP address that will be valid for 24 hours. Any other time I visit that domain in the next 24 hours, I'm going to use that cached address because the record hasn't expired yet. In 24 hours regardless of if awesomedomain.wow has moved IPs, I'm going to trash that old DNS record I've cached locally and go look it up again. The new record will then be referred to by me for the next 24 hours, at which time I'll do it all over again.

But what happens when you have to change your IP, but you want your visitors to see the smallest amount of downtime possible? My first suggestion is to mirror your sites on both IPs, but that is a different discussion entirely. The second is to manipulate your TTL. First lower it to something smaller-from a day to an hour perhaps. Then give that new record with that new TTL at least 24 hours to propagate. Now you can be certain that at the 25th hour, all of your visitors now have a record that will expire in one hour. Next, change your IP for awesomedomain.wow, the record that your visitors have cached locally will expire in an hour, and then they will have your new record with your new IP. Feel free to bump your TTL back up to what it was originally in this step, since they have the new IP. Now your visitors have only had an old record for an hour rather than 24, and they probably missed that hour it was inaccessible while they were posing for a painting or having their top hats heightened. Because all of your visitors are terribly classy.

-Joshua

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