technology

March 24, 2008

I Want to Be Your Agent!

Professional athletes have them. Doctors have them. Lawyers have them. Chefs have them. Movie Directors have them. Writers have them. NASCAR drivers have them too.

Are you lost yet? Wondering what this has to do with hosting or small businesses? It's really very simple. Let's dig into a few of them.

Athletes - most are very good at what they do, hit the ball, kick the ball, throw the ball, shoot the ball, swing the club, etc. They are so busy learning to be the best at their trade that they don't have time for the business side of their business. What do they do? They outsource that to an agent. Jerry Maguire might be the SoftLayer of agents. The best, the top of the line, the cutting edge, like us. He gets what the players want and more and was a master at customer service. The players don't mind giving part of their hard earned cash to him because of the benefit they get from him. It is a very symbiotic relationship.

Doctors - they are paid to fix people. They have to keep up with the latest threats to our health and the ways to fix us. They have almost continuous education to worry about and don't have time to worry about the office, and the bills, and whether they are getting timely insurance payments, etc. They are there to do whatever they can to help their patients. What do they do? They outsource to an office manager who takes care of the day-to-day tasks that a doctor just doesn't have time for and frankly shouldn't have to worry about. It's really just another form of outsourcing.

Chefs - this one is interesting because I am going to make the assumption that the chef owns the restaurant. I agree that many times there are restaurants that hire chefs, but the argument goes both ways. Let's say you want to open a restaurant but you can't cook. You outsource to a chef. To turn it around, a chef can cook but wants his own restaurant. He is a master at cooking and has studied in culinary schools for years to become a great chef. What does he do about running the place? He outsources to a restaurant manager. The manager takes care of HR, and guest services, and the chef does what he loves - cooks.

So where does this leave you? Are you an individual who knows (insert what you know here) and have studied it for years and you are the worlds expert on it? Are you a small business owner who is looking for ways to make the hours of the day last longer and find that competitive edge? Are you that IT manager who has hit the technology roadblock and your company doesn't have the large capital for the things you need to continue to scale your infrastructure? If you are then you need to consider hiring an agent of your very own. SoftLayer can be your technology agent and allow you to focus on what you do best!

-Skinman

P.S. Lance is the greatest CEO EVER! Now pay up! (Worth a shot, right?)

Categories: 
March 18, 2008

The Children Speak

My name is Jonathan. I’m 10 years old and I play hockey.

My dad is the CFO for SoftLayer. At first I had no idea what my dad did. Now I think it’s cool how he works for a company that sells servers to people who can use them all over the world.

I have been to the datacenter in Dallas and my dad took me to see the one in Seattle on our way back from a hockey tournament. I think it’s cool how people get the Internet on a server that’s 2 feet long. All the power in it is amazing!

One day I am going to be a mechanical engineer. I’ll design server racks and datacenters for SoftLayer that will be more efficient and eco-friendly to help the environment. They will hold more servers so they can sell more and make more money.

One day I hope SoftLayer will grow so big that everyone will have access to a SoftLayer server.

Lance said if I wrote in my blog that he was the greatest CEO ever, he would give me $50. Lance, you are the greatest CEO ever. Fork over the dough.

-Jonathan Jones

Categories: 
March 14, 2008

From the Outside Looking In

Recently, as you know, SoftLayer released the new API version 3. We have all been working very hard on it, and we've been completely immersed in it for weeks (months, for some of us). This means that, for the developers, we've been living and breathing API code for quite some time now. The time came to release the API, and as many of you know, it was a smashing success. However, we were lacking in examples for its use. Sure, we all had examples coming out our ears since the customer portal itself uses the API, but those were written by the same developers that developed the API itself, and therefore were still written from an insider's perspective.

So a call went out for examples. Many people jumped on the list, offering to write examples in a variety of languages. I thought I would tackle writing an API usage example in Perl. Perl, for those of you unfamiliar, is an infamous programming language. Flexible, confusing, fantastic and horrifying, it is the very embodiment of both "quick and dirty" and "elegance." It is well loved and well loathed in equal measure by the programming community. Nevertheless, I have some experience with Perl, and I decided to give it a try.

I will attempt to describe my thought process as I developed the small applications (which you should be able to locate shortly in the SLDN documentation wiki) throughout the work day.

9am: "Wow, I really don't remember as much Perl as I thought. This may be difficult."
10am: "I need to install SOAP::Lite, that shouldn't be hard."
11am: "Where the heck are they hiding SOAP::Lite? There are articles about it everywhere, but I can't actually find it or get it installed!"
12pm: "Ok, got SOAP::Lite installed, and my first test application works perfectly! Things are going to be ok! Wait…what's all this about authentication headers?"
1pm: "What have I done to deserve this? Why can't I pass my user information through to the API?"
2pm: "Aha! Another developer just wandered by and pointed out that I've been misspelling 'authentication' for 2 hours! Back on track, baby!" (Side note: another "feature" of Perl is how it never complains when you use variables that don't exist, it just assumes you never meant to type that. Of course, you could tell it to complain, but I forgot about that feature because I haven't used Perl in 4 years.)
3pm: I finally get example #1 working. It queries the API and shows a list of the hardware on your account.
3:30pm: Example #2 working, this shows the details for a single server, including datacenter and operating system
4pm: Combining examples #1 and #2, the third example shows all hardware on your account, plus the installed OS and datacenter, in a handy grid right on the command line. Success! I put Perl away, hopefully for another 4 years.

The whole experience, though, really gave me an insight into how fantastically awesome the API is. I was looking at it from an outsider's perspective. I was confused as to how everything worked, I was working with an unfamiliar language, and I was browsing through the API looking for anything that looked "cool and/or useful." Getting a list of all my account's hardware to show up in a custom built application that I wrote as if I knew nothing about the API was a great feeling. It showed that not only was the API perfectly suited to the tasks we expected of it, but even a novice developer could, with a little effort, make an API application like mine. Expanding on it to show more and more information, and all the possibilities that it opened up in my mind made me realize how useful this API is that we made. It's not just something that a small percentage of our customers will be using. It's something that is truly revolutionary, and that all clients can take advantage of. I'm assuming, of course, that all clients have at least rudimentary skill in at least one programming language, but given the level of success everyone has had with our other offerings, I can assume that assumption is accurate.

If you have been thinking recently "look at all the noise they've been making about this 'API' nonsense," I highly recommend dusting off an old programming book and at least looking at it once. Think of all the possibilities, all the custom reports that you can make for yourself, all the data that we have provided right at your fingertips to assemble in any way you wish. We try our best to make the portal useful to every customer, but we know that you can't please all the people all the time. But with the API, we may do just that. If you're the kind of customer that is only interested in outbound bandwidth by domain, write an API script that displays just that! If you want to know the current number of connections and CPU temperature of your load balanced servers, get that data and show it! The possibilities are endless, and we're improving the API all the time.

-Daniel

March 13, 2008

Marketing 101: Defining the Customer

As I have started to settle into my new role with SoftLayer, we have spent a lot of time meeting with various vendors and partners to discuss our overall vision and plan for 2008. In almost every one of those meetings we get to the same question: "What does a typical SoftLayer customer look like?" Or, the other version of that: "What is SoftLayer’s target customer?"

You would think this should be an easy question to answer. After all, we have over 4,500 loyal customers that rely on us each and every day to deliver on-demand, world class IT infrastructure. Surely, there must be some common thread among these customers. Being responsible for "Strategy & Marketing" I decided to look into this to come up with a standard reply to that question. The standard ways to do this from a marketing text book (i.e. "in theory") perspective include:

  • Industry – financial, manufacturing, retail, distribution, etc.
  • Geography – typically regions within a country, or countries themselves
  • Customer Size – normally based on revenue or employees
  • "Retail" or "Wholesale" – are we selling to the final consumer of our products or to a reseller

The next step -- look at our customer database and start to build up a profile based on those criteria. A relatively simple process, but the problem we found was that the four metrics above did not adequately define any of our customers. Some examples:

  • Industry -- we serve all possible combinations of traditional and new industry classifications; from large manufacturing, to Web 2.0 start ups and no single segment is more than 5% of our business
  • Geography – we have customers in over 100 countries. Even in the US our customers come from every corner and every state in the country
  • Customer Size – 1 employee to 50,000+ employees and everything in between; $0 in revenue to $10 billion and more
  • Retail and Wholesale – almost an even split between the two groups

Being inquisitive by nature, I could not let this end with an answer like: "we have a very diverse set of customers that represent all industries, all geographies, and all customer size categories." It did lead me down a path to start asking customers some questions like:

  • Is IT infrastructure a critical component of your business?
  • Do you need highly scalable IT to adjust for seasonality or growth in your business?
  • Do you want a simple and flexible management tool to allow complete control of your data center infrastructure?
  • Are enterprise grade solutions of value to your business, but something you cannot afford?
  • Are you looking for innovative solutions to help drive your business forward?
  • Do you value standards based processes and controls?

To steal a quote from a very, very distant relative... Eureka! While this might not be as significant a discovery as the wheel, fire, or the Archimedes' screw, it did finally bring some clarity to our little customer debate. The vast majority of our customers answered "yes" to many or all of those questions. It also led me to understand what our customers do not want from us:

  • Specialized application support
  • Highly custom solutions that scale poorly
  • Up-front fees and long term contract commitments

The net result is that our customers are segmented very differently than traditional methods would suggest. They are clustered around a common need that spans across all demographics. The customers that come to us are looking for a very special thing – the SoftLayer approach to IT management. If you belong to a company that can resonate with the questions above, you have come to the right place.

-@gkdog

March 12, 2008

Things I Learned at the Post Office

I send exactly one letter a year: a signature form to the IRS to say that yes, indeed, I have eFiled my taxes. Other than that, I use the Internet, and to a smaller part mobile phones, for all of my communications. It's faster, easier, and significantly cheaper.

Walking into the post office, I felt as my Mom must feel when she comes with me to Fry's Electronics. A million options, and not a single clue where to go. All I knew was that, using the US Postal Service, I had to convey this sheet of paper to another post office in Austin.

Some lessons I learned:

The IRS requires a signature. On paper. For filing your taxes online. Or a "super secure five digit pin number" (which I used, once, a year ago and cannot remember). Or my return amount from last year (which is currently stored on hard cellulose media in a backup (box) somewhere in my garage). So signature it is.

Letters require an envelope. Email does not. However, being a post office, this was easy to rectify. For $.25

Letters require postage. Not only did they charge me for the paper sleeve, but they also charged me for "postage." The postal worker handed me the envelope and the stamp. I put the stamp on the envelope and handed it back. He took a rubber stamp and defaced that $.41 square of paper. Why didn't he just save me the extra step?

The post office doesn't automatically affix a "FROM" field to the envelope. He then handed the letter back, gesturing to the top left corner. Apparently, I needed to write MY address there, in case they couldn't find the recipient. Right!

First-Class Mail doesn't actually mean First. In fact, Priority mail goes out before first class. And so does Express mail. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a "Class" of standard mail below first class, making it "Last Class" mail (there is Parcel Post and Media Mail and Bulk Mail, but these aren't standard on-the-price-board listed services). This is like the old joke about the Soviet Union reporting that their car made second place, and the American car made second-to-last, without mentioning that it was a two car race.

Surliness is one of the few free services provided by the Post Office. Along with dinginess and long lines. Then again the guy behind the counter didn't have to make such a show of his open disdain for my inability to "properly" affix postage.

Unlike Internet forms, real world forms have two sides. With a barely restrained sigh, the federal agent behind the counter handed back my form, and made a twirling motion with his finger, requesting that I put my return address on the back of that form. Didn't I already give them my return address on the letter?

After filling out the envelope (twice) AND a certificate (both sides), the federal agent then proceeded to place stickers and stamps all over my envelope. When he was done it had no less than 3 stickers and writing over the entire surface. He then handed me a paper with a convenient 20 digit number I could use to check on the progress of the letter. By calling a "1-800" number. With a phone. It cost me $7 to send a single sheet of paper with my signature on it a mere 200 miles.

As I walked out with the civil servant's stare burning into my back, I thought to myself...

...why couldn't I just have encrypted my tax forms with my private key? Wouldn't that have been easier? And more secure.

Apparently the Post Office, headed originally by Benjamin Franklin (also known for the glass harmonica and a carriage odometer, along with other trifling achievements) used to be the fastest, and dare I say sole way to communicate over long distances. How did they ever get anything done? Seems like an incredible hassle to me.

-Zoey

Categories: 
March 11, 2008

How I Got to SoftLayer as Fast as I Could

When I was 14 I got my first tech job as a tech support guy for a local "mom and pop" internet service provider, from there on out I have been in many data centers in the North West working with multiple companies of all caliber. From National Dial-up Internet Service Providers to small webhosting companies that have had their stuff collocated in many of the area's datacenters.

When I was about 20 I decided I was burnt out on the internet and wanted to try Central Office build outs for a national telecommunications company installing their fiber and DSL network in Washington and Oregon. The one thing that I learned in the Telco industry is to do nice and neat work. Work that you could trace a single cable in a bundle and follow it from point A to point B.

After a few years of doing the same thing over and over, I figured it was time for me to get back into the Internet as it was way more challenging for my ever-thinking mind.

So I took my nice and neat skills and worked on a contract for Microsoft building out a data center in a top secret location in the Puget Sound. This was by far one of the nicest and cleanest datacenters I had ever seen. After that I went to work for some other area datacenters doing systems administration work. I helped them do a migration of two datacenters into one. I helped build out a datacenter, and I helped by trying to make the datacenter as nice as Microsoft's along with as neat as the Telephone companies COs.

During this time I really noticed SoftLayer Technologies was Ahead of the Rest when it came to the internet utility hosting Industry. I quickly wanted to learn everything about this company, and being the nerd that I am, figured I should buy a server from this company. I Bought one and went to lunch thinking I might have a call or e-mail saying that my server will be done here within the day. Wow! 45 minutes later? "These guys are on top of it", I thought.

Then one day I was browsing Webhostingtalk.com (this is my equivalent to your teenager's myspace.com addiction) and noticed that SoftLayer just released a P.R. about signing a deal with InterNAP for a 10,000 server datacenter in Tukwila so I figured this company's features are so freaking amazing and cool. "I just need to try to get a job at this location with this really cool company", I said to myself. I sent off a Resume and a little info about myself. I did not hear back from them for a while. I figured my quick-witted humor may have rubbed the HR department the wrong way, or maybe I wasn't qualified, or too qualified.

SoftLayer finally called me back. I was as happy as a 10 year old getting a dirt bike for his birthday -- they wanted an interview.

So I go in and tour the facility and do my interview with the interviewing committee, I have to say it was one of the most intense interviews I have ever had with the technical questions that was asked along with just a hard interview process, though I left that day knowing I would be getting a call from SoftLayer as I felt I sold myself to them on my skillset.

I have to say it is really relaxing and challenging working for a world-class company in a world-class datacenter. There is a great deal of stress that comes with our job in this industry, and when the datacenter and management have everything in order from the get go and it hasn't been patched together it makes your job as a Systems Administrator a little less stressful. I do my daily walks of the datacenter in Seattle looking at thousands and thousands of racked servers that are set to standards which is weird when I've worked for places that use motorcycle tie-downs and zip ties to secure your rack to make them ‘Earthquake' ready.

I now sleep at night knowing if there is an earthquake we will be prepared and your data and machines will be safe in SoftLayer's Seattle N+1 datacenter. We have a wonderful team of build engineers and systems administrators that work around the clock to keep your virtual datacenter up and running. I wouldn't want to be at any other place for 40+ hours a week!

3 bars for life!

-Bill

March 10, 2008

Everyone is so Helpful Around Here!

Here at SoftLayer, all the developers stay on Jabber all day so we’re all accessible. As you know, we’ve recently been doing a major piece of software development: the new API. During development, we all were trying to get things finished as well as continue our day to day operations.

No fewer than 4 times during the last 3 weeks I have had the following conversation with a fellow developer.

Me: Hey, I need you to do something on this API class you wrote.
Other developer: Ok, no problem.
Me: Wait, you didn’t write this, did you?
Other developer: No, I didn’t.

Each time, when faced with a request to understand and modify something that they didn’t write, in addition to their already overwhelming workload, my fellow developers were more than happy to accept the new task.

It just goes to show what kind of environment we all work in here. Everyone is always willing to help, and it’s this attitude that allowed us to develop the API so quickly with such robust features. Each developer was willing to help the others, and that resulted in a tightly integrated product that we’re all very proud of.

The same sort of attitude pervades all of SoftLayer. I have had help on tasks from Networking, Accounting, and Sales since I got here, and each time everyone is more than happy to help out. The end result is, of course, that the customer gets their problems solved faster, and gets higher quality services out it the deal.

But really, fellow developers, if you’re reading this also, it’s acceptable to say “I didn’t write that” when I ask you to change it. I won’t be offended. Half the problem is that we have 5 developers with names starting with J, I just clicked the wrong guy!

-Daniel

March 5, 2008

Outsource IT: Part III

Third in a series of three! In other words you won't have to read this stuff anymore after this one. I will get back to the fun ones. I might try to make this one fun along the way. So I left off on the last one discussing some of the financial reasons and technical reasons to outsource your servers. This blog will be geared towards some ideas floating around in my head on what would be some good examples of outsourcing.

You have to step back and look at it from a different angle. If you aren't ready to outsource the whole farm just yet, then you can go about it in a couple of different ways. One, you can outsource your sandbox, development, and/or test environment. We all know that with SAS 70 and SOX you have to have all of these (or most of them anyway). And outsourcing might be a good way of getting them in place. The cool thing about outsourcing any or all of those are you have a pristine environment and if it does get polluted somehow you can just reload the OS quickly and painlessly and try to tear it up again. Outsourced servers are great for this type of scenario. You can even get a few servers and carve them up virtually and have even more toys to play with. Now, you can just go buy new servers and have this in house but when they break or they are obsolete then you get to buy more. With an outsource model you can buy 1 or 100 and have them for 1 month or 2 years, it's up to you, your needs, and your budget. You can add hardware, memory, change the OS daily, and only buy the License for a month instead of having to buy it outright when you buy your own servers. I personally believe this is a really good way to get acclimated to outsourcing and test the waters both with yourself and your boss. You always have to make sure they are ok with the way you are doing things. Well, sometimes anyway.

Another option with outsourcing is outsourcing production. Some bosses out in the world aren't ready for this yet, but they will be. They like keeping their data close by and having multiple copies and instances and USB keys with copies on it, etc. That's just the nature of data. Now we all know that you can have the same if not more redundancy in the outsourced model too, it is just hard to explain to them sometimes. I have to give them credit. Think about all the data in the world and how much of it we need to use every day. If folks like them didn't demand that we techies keep it safe the world might have a bad day, I know I would. I use tons of data everyday (might be a fun blog).

If you decide to outsource dev/test or production you have the ability to scale quickly and accordingly when dealing with technology. Not having to be bogged down by worrying about hardware lead times, dealing with accounts payable, the receiving dock, and all the other worries you have when buying hardware is a liberating feeling. I know what you are thinking; I have been over this side of it a few times so I will just leave it at that but the numbers and today's technology make it all come together and make good business sense.

Outsource IT!

-Skinman

March 4, 2008

What’s it like to work at Seattle Softlayer?

I am one of the new guys in the Seattle datacenter. Since I started, people often ask me that question or some variation of it. The short answer: It's wonderful, I love it.

The long answer is...well, long.

First some background! I'm a recent addition to the IT industry. Since I joined the workforce, I've worked in fast food, security, retail, and even a call center. After my call center job, I decided to take my computer hobby and turn it into a career. I received my associates degree and found that I really needed employment. Luckily, my school helped me search.

For almost three months, I received calls from IT recruiters. I interviewed with 4 companies. I finally had a position lined up that was very promising.

Then my Career Services recruiter called, asking if I wanted to come in for an on-site interview, as SoftLayer was interested in recruiting students. I was hesitant, as I already had a position lined up. She convinced me to interview anyway. The day before the interview, she sent me tons of information about SoftLayer. After poking around, I found the InnerLayer. (Has this come full circle or what?)

After reading a few blogs, I realized that SoftLayer had the perfect corporate culture for me.

The next day I interviewed. Joshua Rushe, VP of Operations conducted the interview. He was warm, friendly, and very down to earth. In some ways it was the strangest interview I've ever had. Josh appeared to be more interested in me as a person, than my qualifications. (Of course, he had already seen my résumé.) I was more than a little shocked when he ignored my prepared portfolio. We spent most of the interview time talking about the work, what SoftLayer expected out of an employee, and SoftLayer's corporate culture.

Here I am, 2.5 months later, and I love my position.

So enough of background! What's it like to work at SoftLayer?

We work hard, and we play hard. In the few moments between working hard, when we have the time, we joke around and have fun. SoftLayer recently flew myself and a co-worker down to Dallas to work alongside the great people down there. I learned a great deal. For instance, I learned at the cable labeling party in Dallas that we can work hard and have fun at the same time!

The people are helpful and friendly. The work is challenging and rewarding. It's nice to know at the end of the day that I've done my part to help the internet grow.

Categories: 
March 3, 2008

I'm NOC Gonna Get Sick!

**Cough, cough, sniffle, sniffle, hack hack**

These are the famous noises that come from the NOC every so often. I swore and swore that I wouldn't get sick. To be honest, there was something going around about four months ago, and I was just about the only one that didn't get sick, and I was King-of-the-NOC!

Not this time.

Emails were sent out -- "Clean your workstations -- wash your hands -- don't throw your used Kleenex tissues at other NOC personnel -- and for the love of God, don't get sick". Oops. So, one by one, each NOC technician started getting sick. One down, two down, three down…

Then it hit me.

You know how it starts, don't act dumb. It all starts with that sore throat, that isn't that sore, but makes you wonder if you're getting sick, and everything ends up becoming a psychological battle of "do's and don'ts" to get better, before you get any worse. It never works. You start feeling that sore throat, which gets worse as every hour goes by, as you start overdosing on Vitamin C drops/pills. Then you think, "I don't just need Vitamin C, right!?" So, then you did around the infamous Softlayer NOC Pharmacy, and start overdosing on off-brand multivitamin, Centrum wanna-be's**.

Things get worse.

So, by the end of the shift, your throat feels like it's on fire. You have to make a Wal-Mart run at 12am in the morning (depending on your shift), and you buy every little piece of medicine you think you might need to make life better while you are…Sick.

So, for a few days, you end up chugging cough syrup, feeding on Centrum wanna-be's, Vitamin C pills/drops, Halls Mentho-lyptus "Mountain Menthol" cough drops, Airborne Formula (more on this later)...and VITAMIN GUMBALLS!!

That's right, folks. We have vitamin gumballs, and they are GROSS! The pink one is okay, probably the best out of them all, but it still taste like rubber. Ugh. Now, as for the Airborne Formula, I just don't trust it. I mean, people say it's GREAT, however, I need proof. I mean, come on, it was created by a second grade teacher. Was this teacher a doctor before he/she decided to actually teach kids multiplication? Think people. Think.

Overall, most of us in the NOC got sick, including me. I'm just now getting over this, while I still fight off a tickle cough, but I’m sure this will never be the end. So folks, keep taking that Vitamin C and that Centrum wanna-be, and don’t get sick. I’m sure next time I’m NOC gonna get sick!

** Centrum Wanna-be is what I call Off-Brand (Equate) Multivitamin Tablets.

-Drew

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