technology

November 20, 2008

SLadies' Night

There are many ways to turn regular, every day lingo into "SLingo" (or SoftLayer lingo). SLance Crosby and Steven Canale constantly encourage their SLales team to keep the momentum going and SLell, SLell, SLell! Shawna Furr is constantly encouraging the SLayers and SLackers to write a blog and keep our InnerLayer interesting! In the employee side of our customer portal, we don't have your regular Wiki, we have a SLiki.

But my personal favorite SL word would be "SLadies!" Us SLadies on the SLales team work very hard and try our best to make SoftLayer the best in the industry. I have been extremely proud of the newest SLadies to join the group. Arielle Eaton, Laura Gardner, and Giselle Manning sure hold their own in closing the big deals and thoroughly taking care of customers. Hopefully Mary Hall and I are teaching them well, and sharing our experience with them during the learning process. They have really shown true SLoyalty since each of their tenures have begun. Now, I cannot leave out Brad Swick, another new member on my team. Although he is not a SLady, he sure does have the SLove for his job (and his proving himself quite well indeed) - that goes for all of our hardworking men out there!

Not only do we work hard, but we like to have fun! Every two weeks to a month, we have a "SLadies’ Night" and get together for drinks, food, and fun to get away from the trials and tribulations of our very exciting, rewarding, but sometimes stressful job. So here is an open invitation to all the SLadies for a big, combined SLadies’ night (that's you Accounting, HR, technical support, Marketing, etc.).

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November 18, 2008

Twenty Reasons Why Linux Is Great

I often get asked why I started using Linux as my core desktop OS and server OS over 10 years ago. And why I continue to use it today. Linux has come a long way since its early days as a free OS and I am thankful for that. Here are a few reasons that I choose Linux:

  1. It is free - no license fee or maintenance associated with it
  2. Spyware / Viruses are very rare
  3. Requires few reboots
  4. It can read most any file system that has been made
  5. Open source, so you can see what you’re running!
  6. It’ll run on just about anything (WiiLi.org)
  7. Built in virtualization that is also free
  8. The shell environment is much better than any type of DOS
  9. Lack of a registry, most configurations is stored in standard text files
  10. It has more documentation than any other open source O/S
  11. It will still run fine as a proxy on my Pentium II
  12. Most distributions now come bundled with an awesome desktop environment
  13. Saves on bandwidth due to not having to update virus dat files and windows updates every night
  14. The Linux kernel comes shipped with an enormous load of hardware drivers, already installed, making most PNP friendly things available after you plug them into the machine
  15. Easy to build into a home media center
  16. Most server distributions come bundled with a database program, so you don’t need to purchase an expensive database service
  17. It can scale to 1024 processors on a single computer
  18. Easy to setup in a dual boot configuration
  19. Linux is easy to updated, most distributions make it quick and easy to upgrade from on version to the next
  20. The Linux community is very helpful out here on the internet
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November 13, 2008

Size Isn't Everything

A couple days ago, I took my daughter to her favorite store. We picked up a fair amount and on the way to the car she asked a simple question, or so I thought. “Why did they only fill these bags half way”. Confused I looked at the bags and realized she was holding a bag which had a large stuffed bear in it and was looking at a bag less than half full of canned food.

Being the person I am, rather than attempt to explain this to her I wanted to let her try and figure it out for herself so she would understand it better. When we got home, I filled the rest of the bag with cans and had her try and pick it up, as I expected the bag broke in her hands. I explained to her that the cans were much heavier then the bag. She still doesn’t quite understand the concept that the bag has 2 limits, size and weight but she is starting to understand this concept.

I thought about this story this morning when I started working on a project of determining how many containers a Virtuozzo server could handle based on its system requirements. Just like the bag, a Virtuozzo system has multiple limitations that need to be observed, the size of the containers as well as their “weight”. In this situation “weight” would be the drain on overall system resources. When attempting to determine how many containers a system can handle, you need to take into account not only how many will fit size wise, but also how much of the overall system resources each container will require.

It turns out this question is much easier to ask then to answer. You can take a small server such as a dual core with 4GB of RAM and put 20 or even 30 containers onto the server and have it run flawlessly when those containers are small and do not require much in the way of system recourses. At the same time however I can take a quad proc quad core with 64GB of RAM and grind it to a halt with 1 or 2 containers.

At the end of the day, I have found that you can make just about anything work, but before you attempt to determine what hardware you will need to run a Virtuozzo server, it’s a good idea to have an estimate of what you expect the containers to be doing. What could be worse than spending hours configuring a server and getting it online only to watch it grind to a halt because there are just too many containers completely saturating your system resources?

-Mathew

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November 7, 2008

Tax Policy as Pricing Strategy

One of the big items up for “spin” and a little debate in this Presidential election is the tax policy proposed by each candidate. We’ve heard accusations ranging from tax breaks for wealthy CEOs to socialist welfare where money is taken from the rich CEOs and given to the non-taxpaying poor under the guise of a “tax cut”. The word “fairness” gets thrown around a lot and now Joe the Plumber may get a record deal out of all this.

Absent any fiscal discipline by the government (and I have never seen this from either political party), it’s clear that the government needs more money or else it will run deficit spending until we’re all bankrupt. Therefore, tax policy should be nothing more than a pricing strategy to maximize government revenues. Taxes are essentially the government’s pricing structure for their offerings of goods and services (roads, law enforcement, subsidized student loans, etc.)

The problem is, if cutting a particular tax or tax rate will actually bring more revenue to the government, it will be criticized for whatever group “benefits” from the lower rates, regardless of how much better off the government treasury will be.

Yes, it is possible to bring in more revenue and profit by reducing prices. It is a very, very common practice in the business world and we employ this practice at SoftLayer. Consider this scenario:

You sell a product that cost you $50 to build.

At $100, you can sell 1 unit per month. Here is your revenue and profit calculation:

$100 x 1 sale = $100 revenue – $50 costs = $50 profit

Now, if you cut the price 20% to $80, you can sell 2 units per month. In this case, here is your revenue and profit calculation:

$80 x 2 sales = $160 – $100 total costs for 2 units = $60 profit

So, most people would think that $60 in your pocket is better than $50. By cutting the price, you have made more money.

What if you could sell 3 units if you drop the price to $60? Let’s take a look:

$60 x 3 sales = $180 – $150 total costs for 3 units = $30 profit

Because you only keep $30 profit, in this case the BEST price for your product is $80 because at that price you maximize the profit that you keep.

Likewise there are ways to increase government revenue by cutting tax rates. Let’s say we want to tax more dollars from the rich and give to the poor – fine. The paradox is that the way to get more tax dollars from the rich is to cut their tax rates. Really, I’m not crazy – Congress itself has reported this fact.

Business people know that if you raise your prices, people’s behavior will change and they will buy lower volume of what you sell. Even with must have items like gasoline, as the price rises, people find ways to use less of it, even if using less is inconvenient because you have to get up earlier to carpool.

By the same token, if taxes go up, those who are exposed to those taxes will change their behavior and reduce their exposure to those taxes. As a result, the government can actually collect less money by raising taxes.

Every time we set a price or run a special deal here at SoftLayer, we are well aware of this fundamental law of supply and demand. When we need to move units on a particular item, we will reduce the price.

I only wish our government would apply the same principle when pricing its products and services with tax policy – not because I want to pay less in tax but because I want the government to maximize its profit and avoid burdening our children and grandchildren with unmanageable government debt.

-Gary

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November 5, 2008

Can I Get an Update?

I recently signed up for a Twitter account, to add to my ever growing list of email, chat, and social networking groups—maybe just to give myself a new user name to forget. I wasn’t really familiar with Twitter and was surprised to learn that its sole function is to provide status updates. This got me thinking about our ever growing need as a society to share, broadcast, and receive information about ourselves. From Google alerts to Facebook and MySpace status updates I receive untold daily emails that are for the most part irrelevant.

But, I subject myself to this ever-growing, streaming feed of information in the hopes that I won’t miss anything and that at some point I might learn something useful. At SoftLayer we have streamlined this process through our industry leading customer portal, where monthly, daily, and even real-time reports are filed, sorted and posted to customers' login accounts. Our portal provides a single interface to manage and monitor customers’ servers and IT infrastructure. If only my life were as simple as having a single, manageable interface, maybe I wouldn’t have already forgotten the password I set up 20 minutes ago.

-James

November 3, 2008

Simplicity

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

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

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

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

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

-Daniel

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October 29, 2008

SoftLayer Thinks “Outside the Box”

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

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

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

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

-@lavosby

October 27, 2008

Happy Hosting to All!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Suzy

October 25, 2008

A Battle Worthy of the Coliseum: SoftLayer Technical Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-David

October 24, 2008

Pushing the Microsoft Kool-Aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-William

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