technology

October 31, 2007

Backups

"ah - I don't need backups."
"Too busy to do backups - I'll get to that later."
"Backups? It costs too much."
"I don't need backups - MTBF of a Raptor is 1.2 Million hours."
"Oops - I forgot about doing backups."

Backups are one of the most commonly forgotten tasks of a system administrator. In some cases, they are never implemented. In other cases, they are implemented but not maintained. In other cases, they are implemented with a great backup and recovery plan - but the system usage or requirements change and the backups are not altered to compensate.

A hard drive really is a fairly reliable piece of IT equipment. The WD 150GB Raptor has a rating of 1.2 Million hours MTBF. With that kind of mean time between failures, you would think that you would never have to worry about a hard drive failing. How willing are you to take that chance? What if you double your odds by setting up two drives in a RAID 1 configuration? Now can you afford to take that chance? How willing are you to gamble with your data?

What if one of your system administrators accidentally deletes the wrong file? Maybe it's your apache config file. Maybe it's a piece of code you have been working on all day. Or, maybe your server gets compromised and you now have unknown trojans and back doors on your server. Now what do you do?

Working in a datacenter with thousands of servers, there are thousands and thousands of hard drives. When you see that many hard drives in production, you are naturally going to see some of them fail. I have seen small drives fail, large drives fail, and I have even seen RAID 1 mirrors completely fail beyond recovery. Is it bad hardware? Nope. Is it Murphy's Law? Nope. It's the laws of physics. Moving parts create heat and friction. Heat and friction cause failures. No piece of IT equipment is immune to failure.

That 1.2 million hours MTBF looks pretty impressive. For a round number, let's say there are 15,000 drives in the SL datacenter. 1,200,000 hours / 15,000 drives = 80 hours. That means that every 80 hours, one hard drive in the SL datacenter could potentially fail. Now how impressive is that number?

Ultimately, regardless of the levels of redundancy you implement, there is always a chance of a failure - hardware or human - that results in data loss. The question is - how important is that data to you? In the event of a catastrophic failure, are you willing to just perform an OS reload and start from scratch? Or, if a file is deleted and unrecoverable, are you willing to start over on your project? And lastly, how much downtime can you afford to endure?

Regardless of how much redundancy you can build into your infrastructure with the likes of load balancers, RAID arrays, active/passive servers, hot spares, etc, you should always have a good plan for doing backups as well as checking and maintaining those backups.

Have you checked your backups lately?

-SamF

October 19, 2007

A Well Designed Infrastructure Makes Everyone Green

As we all know there is an incredible amount of attention being paid to the “greening” of IT. Most people in the hosting industry regard this as the responsibility of the datacenter, as they can make the largest impact with their large-scale deployments of energy-efficient power supplies and processors, efficient physical layouts, cooling practices, and recycling.

Outside of the hosting industry the options become more varied—namely the ability to save massive amounts of power by turning off unneeded infrastructure during non-peak times. A great example would be a call center that operates 9-5 and shuts their workstations down when not in use, or an accounting firm that turns off their billing servers when they go home for the day. This is far from a common practice currently, but it is a very logical and easy step to conserving power. The gotcha here is that unless you can physically walk over to the infrastructure and power it back on, you are going to have to call someone to do it for you. Then wait for them to do it for you. Then hope that they don't forget. This leaves many businesses with infrastructure in an outsourced datacenter throwing their hands in the air, because it's frankly just too risky to not have their resources available at 9:00am when their day starts—might as well just leave everything on.

The story is a little different here at SoftLayer. Using our innovative network design and remote power control, our customers are redefining the way that IT is deployed in an outsourced datacenter. They run their web and mail servers here, pretty normal stuff. But utilizing the SSL to private backend network feature (allowing them to completely disable connectivity to the public network), they are also deploying their domain controllers here. And their office file servers. And their central servers to which their local thin clients connect. They are getting them out of the closet in the back of the office and into a datacenter on enterprise-grade hardware. And you know what they do at the end of the day? They turn them off. The next morning, a click on the power control in the SoftLayer Portal brings them instantly back online anytime, day or night. No phone call to support needed, no waiting for someone else to do it for you. The impact of technology designed to give you optimal control of your IT environment is staggering, especially when you see so many companies utilizing it.

So not only can you choose to deploy your operations in a datacenter that is making enormous strides in green infrastructure, but you can also deploy in one that provides you with the ability to control your own impact as well.

And just like that, everyone gets to be green. And sorry, envy doesn't count.

-Joshua

October 17, 2007

ISPCON Update: Blogging/Social Marketing Impact

ISPCON Update: Blogging/Social Marketing Impact – Do ya Digg?

With ISPCON starting today I thought it would be interesting to hear what companies and individuals in the ISP space are talking about when it comes to social medias, blogging and any other real user experience methods that are taken to attain and retain a customer base in the ISP world. After all, Softlayer is a cousin (be it distant cousin) of the ISP world and most of our executive management team has all lived the ISP experience at one time in our careers.

The session "using social networking and Web 2.0 to market your business" started off with an extremely interesting video that can be seen here:


Since it was voted one of the more famous YouTube videos, I might be one of the only ones that had not seen it yet, but nevertheless it is a cool look at Web 2.0 (and much more).

There are a few key themes that were driven home during the discussion.

Web 2.0 in its simplest form is user-generated and manipulated content. In technical terms its AJAX, Feeds and Simplicity. The Myspace, Facebook and Youtube phenomenon are drivers of this and we are seeing a huge influx of follow-on companies that are utilizing the common theme of user-generated content to monetize applications throughout the internet. An example of this would be the Facebook open API being used to build gadgets. One gadget cited is a whiteboard application allowing multiple users to collaborate in Facebook and through ad-generated monetization, an obscene number of nearly $100,000USD per month was being attributed to the creator.

Blogging is the real Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Living in the world of Buzz words, it's hard to read any tech publications these days without stumbling across SEO. What is it? Well, no one really knows, but it's some magic that companies are buying into which get them to the front of the search line, so to speak. The concept that blogging is the real SEO is because blogging is very close and very niche to the topics that are being blogged about. If I am a used car dealership in Dallas and I blog about my weekend sale in Dallas, it would make sense that when someone searches for used cars in Dallas, that you cannot get more directly connected. It all makes sense, now it's just how the information is dispersed which leads me to the last point that was driven home.

Tagging is critical to all socialization, blogging, and web 2.0 applications that you may be trying to publish for mass consumption. Since the eyeballs are critical it is key that the use of tagging and linking are used to increase the reach of your user generated-content. For example, the use of Digg, Reddit, and Del.icio.us are key drivers of eyeballs to your content. Tag it all, Tag it often and the eyeballs will follow.

So, when I publish this blog I am sure to Tag it with; Softlayer, Webhosting, Web 2.0, etc. Let's see if my social experiment will pay off and someone out there will Digg this!

-Sean

October 16, 2007

The Miracle of Email

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

-- Albert Einstein, explaining radio.

Email, like Telephones, the Internet, Power Lines, Credit Card Terminals, ATMs, etc. have become so much part of our daily lives that we just accept it without really thinking about it. You click "New," put some data into a form, then click "Send." In a couple of seconds (minutes if your mail servers are suffering a spam blizzard), your LOLCAT Email has zipped from one end of the Internet to the other (This proves that, unlike radio, Email does have a cat). Do we marvel at this paragon of technology? Not really. I generally grumble at the mixed blessing that has brought me spam.

A while back, I made the mistake of reading the Wikipedia article on the Power Grid. I was amazed at the mechanics of the system that allows a handful of uranium melting itself into slag in Glen Rose, Texas to shove electrons across a couple hundred miles of copper, through a handful of coils... all to be stopped by a little switch in my wall before they could excite the gasses in my Compact Fluorescent light bulbs. For two weeks after that, I was a road hazard. In the middle of my commute, I'd glance at my right hand mirror, gaze out my side window, and think "Hey! I didn't know they were running two phase power out here!" I must say that I couldn't have been a more dangerous driver during those two weeks if I was dryping.

My latest project at SoftLayer (WHOIS management for ARIN... look in the portal under SWIP) had me doing research on Email (as all transactions are conducted through Email).

Like David Bowman staring into the black monolith at the end of 2001, I was struck by the simplicity and beauty of the Email system!

Let’s tag along with an Email message, so you can see just how cool this is.

Bob is currently taking a vacation in Glen Rose, Texas (taking the tour of the Nuclear Power Plant). Sitting in the lobby of the Visitor's Center (thinking about this giant reactor being at the beck and call of his little switch), he has a firm wish that Alice could come see this. He's a cheapskate, though, (that’s why he’s at a local power plant instead of, say, Disneyworld) so he's not going to waste money on a Power Plant Postcard and stamp at the gift shop. No sir, he opens up his blackberry and sends a short Email to Alice ("Wish you were here!"). A few seconds later, Alice's Email client pops up an alert that she's received an Email from Bob. The Email itself is simply a block of text… really! No magic going on here! Here's what the Email looks like:

From: bob@example.net
To: alice@example.com
Date: Wed, 10 Oct 2007 12:54:08 -0400 (EDT)
Received: From EXAMPLE.NET
 by EXAMPLE.COM with SMTP
 Wed 10 Oct 2007,
 12:55:00 -0400 (EDT)
 
Wish you were here!
 
---
Bob
Sending to Alice for over 30 years.

Simple, huh? To help visualize this transaction, Figure 1 shows a “RFC 2822 Compliant Post Card:”

Bob opens up his Email client, and writes "Wish you were here!" in the message area. He then adds his signature, and writes in the subject. The Email client adds headers to the address area of the Email (From, To, and Date), then drops the Email into Bob's local Email server (EXAMPLE.NET).

The Email server at EXAMPLE.NET looks at the address section of the Email and notices where it is to be sent to Alice (who has an Email box at EXAMPLE.COM), and opens up a SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) connection to Alice's mail server. It then sends the message and moves on.

Alice's Email server puts a “postmark” header on the Email (the Received header) and drops a copy of the entire text block into Alice’s Email box.

Alice opens up her Email client, which then downloads all the text files from her Email box. It reads the From header and tells Alice that she has an Email from bob@example.com

That’s it! Simple, huh?!?

If Bob's Email server can't send the mail directly to Alice Email server, it can send the Email through a relay server. This server adds its own "Received header" to the Email. If you look at the headers of any Email you've received (spam is not only a good source of vitamin Sodium Nitrate, but also an excellent resource for Email headers), you can see every single server your Email passed through. It’s like those neat stickers customs officials stick to your luggage as an apology for cracking your locks when you fly internationally.

That's all there is to it! A simple block of text, passed off to an Email server. And the actual protocol is just as simple. Here's what the communication between Bob's Email server and Alice's Email server looks like (modified from the example on Wikipedia's SMTP article):

Bob’s server connects to Alice’s and identifies itself:

ALICE: 220 smtp.example.com ESMTP Postfix
BOB:   HELO example.net
ALICE: 250 Hello example.net

Bob's server then tells the receiving server about the Email:

BOB:   MAIL FROM:<bob@example.net>
ALICE: 250 Ok
BOB:   RCPT TO:<alice@example.com>
ALICE: 250 Ok

Bob's server then tells Alice's that it's ready to send the real message:

BOB:   DATA
ALICE: 354 End data with <CR><LF>.<CR><LF>

Next follows the RFC Compliant Email message from above, ending the data with a ".", which tells Alice's server that Bob’s message is complete:

BOB:   From: bob@example.net
BOB:   To: alice@example.com
BOB:   Date: Wed, 10 Oct 2007 12:54:08 -0400 (EDT)
BOB:   Received: From EXAMPLE.NET
BOB:    by EXAMPLE.COM with SMTP
BOB:    Wed 10 Oct 2007,
BOB:    12:55:00 -0400 (EDT)
BOB:   
BOB:   Wish you were here!
BOB:   
BOB:   ---
BOB:   Bob
BOB:   Sending to Alice for over
BOB:   30 years.
BOB:   .

Alice's server lets Bob's know that the message is queued to go, and Bob's server signs off:

ALICE: 250 Ok: queued as 12345
BOB:   QUIT
ALICE: 221 Bye

I marvel at this technology. Every Email in the world is transmitted by this simple protocol. The whole of electronic communication takes place by handing small blocks of text from one Email server to another, until it finally makes its way to the recipient's inbox. That's all! No magic potions, no hocus pocus, no tying messages to carrier pigeons or pulling cat tails.

Not only this, but your message is flying through a blizzard of spam. Because the protocol is so simple, people build simple tools that blast out millions of messages at a time, flying all over the Internet. But the awesomeness of this just makes Email that much more awe inspiring. Email has been running, nearly uninterrupted (as a whole) for DECADES under the most concerted distributed denial of service attack of all time.

And STILL your Email gets to its destination. Benjamin Franklin would be proud.

Think of this the next time you forward the latest list of funny jokes to everyone on your Email list. This incredibly simple protocol will make sure that your vital Email gets to every recipient listed! "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds..."

-Zoey

Categories: 
October 12, 2007

The True Value of a Hosted Server

Now that I've ranted on a few accounting shortfalls for the hosting industry I'm going to rant once more. I think that the way hosting companies must book the value of their assets per accounting rules shortchanges hosting companies. Some basic rules of finance clearly show the likelihood that significant value is missing on the financial statements.

Let's consider a mythical server that costs the company $10,000 to buy and the company depreciates it evenly over 3 years. After year one, the value on the financials is $6,667. After year two, its book value is $3,333 and finally $0 after three years. Suppose that the company deploys the server for five years. In reality, after three years, the server's true value is certainly above $0, and the hosting company is shortchanged by not being able to reflect this value on its financial statements. Multiply this effect by thousands of deployed servers and you can see that there is significant value in hosting companies that just isn't found on the financial statements.

So how should we reflect the value of a server? I would propose the use of a "capitalization rate" or "cap rate". This is a common method of appraising real estate and the formula is simple: take the projected net cash flow over the next 12 months and divide by the cap rate, and that's the value. So, what would happen if we applied this to a server?

Looking at our mythical $10,000 server above, for simplicity's sake, let's ignore any allocations of the switches, routers, generators, HVAC, etc., needed to operate it. Let's also assume it produces net cash flow of $100 per month and will do so for 60 months. Its 12 month projected net cash flow is $1,200. We would divide this by the cap rate to find its value.

Naturally, the next question is "what do we use for the cap rate?" For a given investment, the cap rate is the lowest return that an investor will accept for the given risk of that investment. In our server's case, the $10,000 investment produces a return of $1,200 per year. How much would an investor need to invest in lower risk alternatives to get the same return? For a risk-free investment of the same 5 year duration such as a 5 year Treasury Note at 4.25%, you would have to invest $28,235.29 to get $1,200 per year in return. If we use 4.25% as the cap rate in our scenario, the value of the server becomes $28,235.29. However, investors in hosting companies generally look for returns far above 4.25% and these returns are not without risk, so this is not the appropriate cap rate. For simplicity's sake, let's assume that the hosting company investor's minimum acceptable rate for the investment is 10%. In other words, if his investment in the hosting company was expected to return less than 10%, the investor has other lower risk options to invest and get a 10% return and he would not invest in the hosting company.

So if we use 10% for the cap rate in our mythical server scenario, the true value of the server is $12,000 ($1,200 / 10% = $12,000). As long as the 12 month projected net cash flow stays above $1,200 then that value holds constant. Check out the graph below to compare the value of this server from both the cap rate perspective and the accounting rules perspective over the five year life.

From month 36 to month 49, there’s a $12,000 difference in value between the two methods. If a hosting company has a thousand servers like this, that’s $12 million in value that isn’t reflected in the company’s financial statements. That’s huge.

-Gary

Categories: 
October 11, 2007

The Three P's are Changing

The three P's in the hosting world have always been Ping, Power and Pipe. Salespeople regurgitated them relentlessly and operations personnel just shortened them to the P's because we talked about them all the time. The three P's of hosting have changed in the recent years and those not aware of the changing landscape are doomed for failure. I propose a new three P standard (described below).

1) Power -- I list this one first because it is by far the most important. Power is the single greatest limiting factor to technology. If you don't understand the importance of power on future technology, you should exit the industry now. If you are not concerned with power, don't meter power and not fixated with power, you will be in serious trouble in the next 12 to 24 months. The entire industry has shifted to being "green" and large scale datacenter operators are so focused on power utilization, they are building and designing systems completely based on power usage and/or location. It's one of the most critical operating costs and must be understood to maximize long term success and profitability. Here at SoftLayer, we are obsessed with power utilization and efficiency and focus on mitigating power and heat (byproduct of power) to a bare minimum. We know the power usage of every server and network device located in the datacenter and track it real time. We are continuously seeking new low power technologies, engaged in industry consortiums looking for new alternatives, and actively planning our power needs through the end of 2010.

2) Packets -- Five years ago, the internet backbones were full of big fat packets that were easily passed by backbone and edge routers without issue. In the recent years, small packet technologies have greatly reduced the size of the average packet transversing the internet. For those of n00bs out there, smaller packets reduce the overall throughput of the routers processing the packets. The smaller the packets, the greater the reduction in horsepower of those routers. The fast rise in gaming, VOIP and other small packet intense applications has cut the average packet size in half in the last two years and I would expect that to occur again the next two years. Packet size can take the aggregate throughput of a router from several hundred gigs at large packet sizes to potentially single digits of gigabit throughput due to the processing required. Here at SoftLayer, we have installed and upgraded to the fastest routing technologies by Cisco to ensure the greatest network performance, but there are many legacy carrier, broadband, and enterprise routers out there that have limited capacity due to changing packet size. Hosting providers that were built on eBay surplus network equipment from the late 90's will soon begin to implode.

3) IP's (IP Addresses) -- Ok…not really a "P" but I take a little creative leeway here. IPv4 addresses are disappearing faster than norm's plate at the Hungry Heifer. ARIN has publically announced the need to shift to IPv6 and numerous articles have outlined the D-Day for IPv4 space. Most experts agree, its coming fast and that it will occur sometime in 2010 at the current pace (that's about two years for those counting). IPv6 brings enough IP space for an infinite number of users along with improved security features and several other operational efficiencies that will make it very popular. The problem lies between getting from IPv4 to IPv6. We are caught in this "chicken and egg" scenario where we can't leave one without the other being completely reliable. Although I think we will get to IPv6 without too much of a headache, I do think the IPv4 space will become extinct prior to a full scale transition and there will be a time where the cost of IPv4 IP's will skyrocket because of supply/demand. This should be at the top of your list as a hosting provider because additional IP space typically means new customer and/or expansion of existing customers. If you don't have a conservation plan for IPv4, migration plan for IPv6, and transition plan between the two – you may already be too late. Here at SoftLayer, we have been planning for over a year and 2008 will include a rollout of IPv6 to all those customers who seek to run dual stacks and will include incentives to customers who are able to shift to IPv6 completely.

The Three P's will likely change again in a few years as the industry continues to evolve and we find a way to solve the current challenges facing the industry. For now, focus and plan on these three and you should have a long successful existence.

-@lavosby

October 4, 2007

Office Politics

Back in Computer Science 101 I was promoted to Assistant for the Networking Staff at Kemp High School, in the tiny town where I grew up. The networking staff consisted of exactly two people: a brilliant Pascal programmer with a penchant for networks and a veteran of the mainframe days, who would happily lean back and tell old war stories about 130 column chain printers and tape drives.

One thing I noticed upon entering their office was the strong smell of coffee in the air. Indeed, they had a large pot of coffee on perpetual brew. And these two techies would drink it down as if it were water from the river of life.

Fast forward 5 years. I'm now one of those techies, but I never got quite a taste for coffee. My coworkers, however, live off the stuff. That's when disaster struck.

Now, if you've not been in an office environment for a while, or you haven't worked in IT, the enormity of this disaster might be lost on you.

The office supply company has stopped producing SoftLayer's preferred blend!

Shockwaves rolled through the company, as the news was blasted from email to email. A democratic process was set up to choose a new blend from those that are left.

Votes have been cast left and right. Active campaigns for specific coffee blends can be heard in the aisles of the company. Some are moved to poetry on one blend or another. One vote for a specific blend reads like this:

How does this affect me?
Will this make me a better person? These and other such questions must be asked when sampling a new coffee.As the day goes by a fall back onto a sure thing is essential. Sipping this flavour of coffee is not unlike slipping into a pair of your most favourite and comfortable slippers after a long day af the office. It does indeed lift the spirit.

Dare I say that Kenya AA gives us another reason to love life and love living it. The spirit soars until it becomes unbeatable. We cannot combat this or even hope to understand this cosmic handshake. This coffee is a reflection on a productive lifestyle.

It has a hallowed place in our break room. It also smells better than the other coffees.
- Klaude

It looks like the leadup to the 2007 SoftLayer Office Coffee Blend Election will be quite the hot topic for weeks to come.

A consensus is starting to build, and soon these harsh days will be behind us, and work will proceed as usual.

However, there are some (and I am in this camp), who see this as a bigger issue. Yes, we have successfully saved the day by switching blends of coffee. And like some hard changes, it looks like this change might be for the better. But as everyone knows in IT, the cycle of obsolescence is a fact of life. Some fear that this is just the start of a long, trying cycle of acceptance and rejection; there's a low level tension that the choice being made right now must be made right, lest the coffee industry decide that our newly selected blend should also fade away into the night. Is there no solution? No solid ground? Some demand that we get approval of a blend from a standards body, such as the IEEE, to make sure that various vendor's competing blends are compatible with our tastes. Is this the solution to our problems?

This has caused me to worry about the future of IT. Will technology be dictated by the whims of the coffee industry?

Here are the originals. [1, and 2 (ghost writer?)]

-Zoey

Categories: 
September 28, 2007

Big Tex

If I could be anyone in the world, I would want to be Big Tex. I can't think of anything that says – larger than life – than Big Tex. For those n00bs out there, Big Tex is that iconic Texan that welcomes one and all to the State Fair of Texas every year. His two-story boots, size BIG denim jeans and 100-XL Dickies shirt are far from the norm. As Big Tex stands tall above the crowds at the state fair - he is often used for navigation, bellows out words of wisdom, poses for millions of pictures and captures the attention of everyone young and old. His size, stature, and presence lets everyone know – this isn't your typical cowboy.

It's the "different" part that I like about Big Tex. When we started SoftLayer, I challenged my team to think differently. I wanted to do something that had never been done before. What's the point in being like everyone else? I want SoftLayer to be the Big Tex of hosting. Something so different, so unique, so functional – it will be used by one and all. The challenge lies with creating something that is unlike its predecessors - improving upon the status quo and being innovative enough to spring forward into the future.

To be truly different - one has to rely upon experience, knowledge, education, intestinal fortitude and take a calculated risk. Can you imagine the person who recommended building a 52 foot tall cowboy in 1951 to attract visitors to a relatively small state fair? In contrast, can you imagine visiting the Texas State Fair and not seeing Big Tex? The greatest companies in the world all have one thing in common – they dared to be different. They invested in the uncommon, unknown, and non-existent in an attempt to become the next household name. While Softlayer is still young and far from "Forest Gump" status – we are anything but average. This isn't your typical hosting company.

-@lavosby

September 27, 2007

Who Counts Your Beans?

Just like any company, the search for ways to increase revenues and lower costs to make more money never ends. In the increasingly competitive hosting environment, raising prices is rarely an option but finding ways to cut costs while making the experience better for the customer can and must be done on an ongoing basis.

We have achieved some success to date with the provisioning of nearly 10,000 servers; however, the end game is far greater as the ultimate goal is to become a multi-national corporation serving markets all around the world. In the hosting space, you don't really have a choice, you either innovate and get bigger or you get out. The complexities are just too great to have the luxury of maintaining the status quo. The technology landscape is littered with companies that started reading their own press clippings and got fat, dumb and lazy. And keep in mind that copying your competitors only delays the inevitable; the "me-too" companies eventually go away. In the technology world, you must innovate and push the envelope to survive.

While we are constantly looking for new and better ways to serve the customer, a great deal of time is spent improving internal reporting systems. I work with a management team that understands the importance of budgeting and tracking various financial and operational metrics. To that end, we have made a substantial commitment in systems and people to gather data to help make the best decisions for us and most importantly, for our customers.

I would love to reveal all the data we have at our fingertips but for competitive reasons, I don't want to give away too much but let me leave you with this tidbit: I wonder how many of our competitors' CEOs can, from his/her desktop, drill down to any one of 10,000 servers in multiple data centers and know exactly how profitable each individual server is with the click of a mouse.

The best companies in the world are all supported by world-class accounting and finance departments providing pertinent financial and operational data to all its stakeholders. The right information gives you a tremendous advantage over your competition.

Find someone good to count and analyze your beans. Wal-Mart did and turned the world of retail on its head. With a little luck, we might be able to do the same to hosting.

-Mike

September 26, 2007

I Hear Voices...

Running the fastest growing hosting company in the world takes its toll on me sometimes. Other entrepreneurs often ask me how I continually seem to be ahead of the game and I tell them "it's easy, I hear voices".

Before the staff carries me off to an insane asylum, let me explain a bit further. A very bright man once told me to shut up and listen to those around me. As I sat in his office trying to figure out how to schedule next semester’s classes – he showered me with a ton of invaluable knowledge that I was lucky enough to absorb along the way. His words resonate in my head to this day – "If you REALLY want to know what's wrong or right with your company – ask your employees and your customers!" I remember thinking at the time, uh yea – I paid for this? But as I progressed down the executive tracks – this notion seems to elude a lot of the top brass that I come across on a daily basis.

So just when and where do I hear these voices? Well, I hear voices at work sometimes (obviously) – but I am more likely to hear them at dinner, over drinks, chatting, texting, IMing, at a party or simply spending time with my cohorts. After spending years building relationships with both my team and my customers – I have found that nothing is harder to do and nothing provides more insight into how to improve the company and build for the future. I'm somewhat amazed at times what both sides will share with me (good, bad and ugly), but I have learned to "shut up and listen."

My advice to other business owners out there is to parlay on my secret. It won't happen overnight and it certainly takes a lot of time and effort on your part. My customer stable (Vik, Eric, Mark, Joe, Chris, Nick, Peter, Kevin, ….et al) has grown over the years and some I talk to almost on a daily basis. Without their input, SoftLayer would not be the company it is today. I am not saying everything they say or want is feasible (sorry guys), but for the most part their voices help shape the current and long-term vision of the company. If you manage a company and can't pick up the phone and call dozens of customers for real feedback, I would suggest that you are severely out of touch with your customer base.

Equally important is your own employees. Your people are your greatest assets -- they ARE the company. Throwing my two cents in here: hire bright motivated people, give them authority and responsibility, share your direction and vision, let them flourish and most important – "shut up and listen!!" My standing personal goal is to surround myself with brilliant people – it makes me look like a genius!!

-@lavosby

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