Executive Blog Posts

July 19, 2013

Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Transcending Borders

At Cloud World Forum in London, I did an interview with Rachel Downie of CloudMovesTV, and she asked some fantastic questions (full interview embedded a the bottom of this post). One that particularly jumped out to me was, "Does North America have a technology and talent advantage over Europe?" I've posted some thoughts on this topic on the SoftLayer Blog in the past, but I thought I'd reflect on the topic again after six months of traveling across Europe and the Middle East talking with customers, partners and prospects.

I was born just north of Silicon Valley in a little bohemian village called San Francisco. I earned a couple of trophies (and even more battle scars) during the original dot-com boom, so much of my early career was spent in an environment bursting at the seams with entrepreneurs and big ideas. The Valley tends to get most of the press (and all of the movie contracts), so it's easy to assume that the majority of the world's innovation is happening around there. I have first-hand experience that proves that assumption wrong. The talent level, motivation, innovation, technology and desire to make a difference is just as strong, if not stronger, in Europe and the Middle East as it is in the high-profile startup scenes in New York City or San Francisco. And given the level of complexity due to the cultural and language differences, I would argue the innovation that happens in the Middle East and Europe tends to incorporate more flexibility and global scalability earlier than its North American counterparts.

A perfect example of this type of innovation is the ad personalization platform that London-based Struq created. Earlier this year, I presented with Struq CTO Aaron McKee during the TFM&A (Technology For Marketing and Advertising) show in London about how cloud computing helps their product improve online customer dialogue, and I was stunned by how uniquely and efficiently they were able to leverage the cloud to deliver meaningful, accurate results to their customers. Their technology profiles customers, matches them to desired brands, checks media relevance and submits an ad unit target price to auction. If there is a match, Struq then serves a hyper-relevant message to that customer. And all of that in about 25 milliseconds and is happening at scale (over two billion transactions per day). Add in the fact that they serve several different cultures and languages, and you start to understand the work that went into creating this kind of platform. Watch out Valley Boyz and Girlz, they're expanding into the US.

One data point of innovation and success doesn't mean a whole lot, but Struq's success isn't unique. I just got back from Istanbul where I spent some time with Peak Games to learn more about how they became the 3rd largest social gaming company in the world and what SoftLayer could to to help support their growth moving forward. Peak Games, headquartered in Turkey, is on an enviable growth trajectory, and much of their success has come from their lean, focused operations model and clear goals. With more than 30 million customers, it's clear that the team at Peak Games built a phenomenal platform (and some really fun games). Ten years ago, a development team from Turkey may have had to move into a cramped, expensive house in Palo Alto to get the resources and exposure they needed to reach a broader audience, but with the global nature of cloud computing, the need to relocate to succeed is antiquated.

I met a wild-eyed entrepreneur at another meeting in Istanbul who sees exactly what I saw. The region is full of brilliant developers and creative entrepreneurs, so he's on a mission to build out a more robust startup ecosystem to help foster the innovation potential of the region. I've met several people in different countries doing the same thing, but one thing that struck me as unusual about this vision was that he did not say anything about being like Silicon Valley. He almost laughed at me when I asked him about that, and he explained that he wanted his region to be better than Silicon Valley and that his market has unique needs and challenges that being "like Silicon Valley" wouldn't answer. North America is a big market, but it's one of many!

The startups and gaming companies I mentioned get a lot of the attention because they're fun and visible, but the unsung heroes of innovation, the intraprenuers (people who behave like entrepreneurs within large organizations), are the clear and powerful heartbeat of the talent in markets outside of North America. These people are not driven by fame and fortune ... They just want to build innovative products because they can. A mad scientist from one of the largest consumer products firms in the world, based in the EU, just deployed a couple of servers to build an imaging ecosystem that is pushing the limits of technology to improve human health. Another entrepreneur at a large global media company is taking a Mobile First methodology to develop a new way to distribute and consume media in the emerging cross-platform marketplace. These intrapreneurs might not live in Palo Alto or Santa Clara, but they're just as capable to change the world.

Silicon Valley still produces inspiring products and groundbreaking technology, but the skills and expertise that went into those developments aren't confined by borders. To all you innovators across the globe building the future, respect. Working with you is my favorite part of the job.

-@jpwisler

The full interview that inspired this blog post:

July 9, 2013

When to Consider Riak for Your Big Data Architecture

In my Breaking Down 'Big Data' – Database Models, I briefly covered the most common database models, their strengths, and how they handle the CAP theorem — how a distributed storage system balances demands of consistency and availability while maintaining partition tolerance. Here's what I said about Dynamo-inspired databases:

What They Do: Distributed key/value stores inspired by Amazon's Dynamo paper. A key written to a dynamo ring is persisted in several nodes at once before a successful write is reported. Riak also provides a native MapReduce implementation.
Horizontal Scaling: Dynamo-inspired databases usually provide for the best scale and extremely strong data durability.
CAP Balance: Prefer availability over consistency
When to Use: When the system must always be available for writes and effectively cannot lose data.
Example Products: Cassandra, Riak, BigCouch

This type of key/value store architecture is very unique from the document-oriented MongoDB solutions we launched at the end of last year, so we worked with Basho to prioritize development of high-performance Riak solutions on our global platform. Since you already know about MongoDB, let's take a few minutes to meet the new kid on the block.

Riak is a distributed database architected for availability, fault tolerance, operational simplicity and scalability. Riak is masterless, so each node in a Riak cluster is the same and contains a complete, independent copy of the Riak package. This design makes the Riak environment highly fault tolerant and scalable, and it also aids in replication — if a node goes down, you can still read, write and update data.

As you approach the daunting prospect of choosing a big data architecture, there are a few simple questions you need to answer:

  1. How much data do/will I have?
  2. In what format am I storing my data?
  3. How important is my data?

Riak may be the choice for you if [1] you're working with more than three terabytes of data, [2] your data is stored in multiple data formats, and [3] your data must always be available. What does that kind of need look like in real life, though? Luckily, we've had a number of customers kick Riak's tires on SoftLayer bare metal servers, so I can share a few of the use cases we've seen that have benefited significantly from Riak's unique architecture.

Use Case 1 – Digital Media
An advertising company that serves over 10 billion ads per month must be able to quickly deliver its content to millions of end users around the world. Meeting that demand with relational databases would require a complex configuration of expensive, vertically scaled hardware, but it can be scaled out horizontally much easier with Riak. In a matter of only a few hours, the company is up and running with an ad-serving infrastructure that includes a back-end Riak cluster in Dallas with a replication cluster in Singapore along with an application tier on the front end with Web servers, load balancers and CDN.

Use Case 2 – E-commerce
An e-commerce company needs 100-percent availability. If any part of a customer's experience fails, whether it be on the website or in the shopping cart, sales are lost. Riak's fault tolerance is a big draw for this kind of use case: Even if one node or component fails, the company's data is still accessible, and the customer's user experience is uninterrupted. The shopping cart structure is critical, and Riak is built to be available ... It's a perfect match.

As an additional safeguard, the company can take advantage of simple multi-datacenter replication in their Riak Enterprise environment to geographically disperse content closer to its customers (while also serving as an important tool for disaster recovery and backup).

Use Case 3 – Gaming
With customers like Broken Bulb and Peak Games, SoftLayer is no stranger to the gaming industry, so it should come as no surprise that we've seen interesting use cases for Riak from some of our gaming customers. When a game developer incorporated Riak into a new game to store player data like user profiles, statistics and rankings, the performance of the bare metal infrastructure blew him away. As a result, the game's infrastructure was redesigned to also pull gaming content like images, videos and sounds from the Riak database cluster. Since the environment is so easy to scale horizontally, the process on the infrastructure side took no time at all, and the multimedia content in the game is getting served as quickly as the player data.

Databases are common bottlenecks for many applications, but they don't have to be. Making the transition from scaling vertically (upgrading hardware, adding RAM, etc.) to scaling horizontally (spreading the work intelligently across multiple nodes) alleviates many of the pain points for a quickly growing database environment. Have you made that transition? If not, what's holding you back? Have you considered implementing Riak?

-@marcalanjones

June 4, 2013

IBM to Acquire SoftLayer

As most have seen by now, this morning we announced IBM's intent to acquire SoftLayer. It's not just big news, it's great news for SoftLayer and our customers. I'd like to take a moment and share a little background on the deal and pass along a few resources to answer questions you may have.

We founded SoftLayer in 2005 with the vision of becoming the de facto platform for the Internet. We committed ourselves to automation and innovation. We could have taken shortcuts to make a quick buck by creating manual processes or providing one-off services, but we invested in processes that would enable us to build the strongest, most scalable, most controllable foundation on which customers can build whatever they want. We created a network-within-a-network topology of three physical networks to every SoftLayer server, and all of our services live within a unified API. "Can it be automated?" was not the easiest question to ask, but it's the question that enabled us to grow at Internet scale.

As part of the newly created IBM Cloud Services division, customers and clients from both companies will benefit from a higher level of choice and a higher level of service from a single partner. More important, the real significance will come as we merge technology that we developed within the SoftLayer platform with the power and vision that drives SmartCloud and pioneer next-generation cloud services. It might seem like everyone is "in the cloud" now, but the reality is that we're still in the early days in this technology revolution. What the cloud looks like and what businesses are doing with it will change even more in the next two years than it has in the last five.

You might have questions in the midst of the buzz around this acquisition, and I want you to get answers. A great place to learn more about the deal is the SoftLayer page on IBM.com. From there, you can access a FAQ with more information, and you'll also learn more about the IBM SmartCloud portfolio that SoftLayer will compliment.

A few questions that may be top of mind for the customers reading this blog:

How does this affect my SoftLayer services?
Between now and when the deal closes (expected in the third quarter of this year), SoftLayer will continue to operate as an independent company with no changes to SoftLayer services or delivery. Nothing will change for you in the foreseeable future.

Your SoftLayer account relationships and support infrastructure will remain unchanged, and your existing sales and technical representatives will continue to provide the support you need. At any time, please don't hesitate to reach out to your SoftLayer team members.

Over time as any changes occur, information will be communicated to customers and partners with ample time to allow for planning and a smooth transition. Our customers will benefit from the combined technologies and skills of both companies, including increased investment, global reach, industry expertise and support available from IBM, along with IBM and SoftLayer's joint commitment to innovation.

Once the acquisition has been completed, we will be able to provide more details.

What does it mean for me?
We entered this agreement because it will enable us to continue doing what we've done since 2005, but on an even bigger scale and with greater opportunities. We believe in its success and the opportunity it brings customers.

It's going to be a smooth integration. The executive leadership of both IBM and SoftLayer are committed to the long-term success of this acquisition. The SoftLayer management team will remain part of the integrated leadership team to drive the broader IBM SmartCloud strategy into the marketplace. And IBM is best-in-class at integration and has a significant track record of 26 successful acquisitions over the past three years.

IBM will continue to support and enhance SoftLayer's technologies while enabling clients to take advantage of the broader IBM portfolio, including SmartCloud Foundation, SmartCloud Services and SmartCloud Solutions.

-@lavosby

UPDATE: On July 8, 2013, IBM completed its acquisition of SoftLayer: http://sftlyr.com/30z

May 23, 2013

The Power of the Internet: Breaking into Global Markets

The widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets has dramatically changed the way the world accesses the Internet recent years. Continued declines in smartphone cost will drive penetration even further into economies that have not had the buying power to join the Internet revolution. Over the next decade we'll see this market opportunity explode as these new users come on line. We are seeing the emergence of a new "middle class" being empowered by technology with the latest mobile applications and breakthroughs.

The power of the Internet resides in its ability to transcend borders. Application developers in Indonesia or Vietnam can happily find a virtual home selling into markets in North America without leaving the comfort of their sofas. Economic activity has been westward facing, serving the growing markets in developed nations with near universality of broadband access. Most consumers in developed countries have access to wireline broadband access (DSL, fiber, cable, etc.), while developing nations have suffered from under investment on this front. Much of this access has been driven by an economic imperative: Households in these markets demand fast connections, and they have the disposable income to pay for those connections. Conditions have not been the same in developing nations, but the world is changing.

According to the ITU, there were 4,000 broadband Internet users in Indonesia in 2000. In 2011, there are 2.7 million. The picture starts to get interesting when you consider smartphone penetration. An adsmobi report shows that Indonesia had an estimated 30.7-million smartphone users at the end of 2012, and that number is expected to nearly triple to 81.5 million by 2015. In the eleven-year span between 2000 to 2011, the number of smartphone users in Turkey went from zero to over 7 million. A year later in 2012, that number more than doubled to around 15 million — nearly 20% population penetration. This trend is playing itself out globally, the digital divide is getting smaller and the opportunity to provide service in these markets is getting larger.

What does that mean for you and your business online? You want to capitalize on these burgeoning markets and build your service or application to easily reach a global audience and scale to meet that audience's demand, but that's a pretty daunting task. You need to deliver a seamless experience to millions of users who live thousands of miles away and who may be accessing a completely different Internet than your users down the street.

The idea that large groups of users are accessing a "completely different Internet" may seem like an overly dramatic way to talk about their unique preferences and cultural/language differences, but I use that phrase very literally. As the global allocation of IPv4 addresses dwindles, Internet Service Providers will bring new users online via IPv6 addresses, and those users will only be able to access sites and applications that have IPv6 addresses. IPv6 addresses can run dual-stack with IPv4 addresses — the same content can be delivered via either protocol from the same server — but many legacy hosting providers haven't made the necessary upgrades to make every piece of network hardware IPv6-compatible.

As you consider the challenge of preparing for a global boom in users, keep these suggestions in mind:

  • Leverage a global infrastructure. You might not have the capital to build infrastructure around the world, so look for an IaaS partner that can provide resources in your targeted geographic markets. You need to be able to easily spin up IT resources where and when you need them to meet regional demand.
  • Get close to your end users. Proximity to customers and new markets is vital. You might not be able to host a server next door to every one of your users, but if you can get those users on your network quickly, they'll have the same kind of high-speed access to the content in your closest data center.
  • Don't pay too much. A simple pay-as-you-go service model helps the process of planning and growing strategically. You're able to focus on what you do best while avoiding the pitfalls of managing IT hardware.
  • Prepare for the future. Overarching technology concerns like the one I mentioned about IPv6 might not be very high on your list of priorities because they're just theoretical ... until they're not. By preparing for those future challenges, you'll save yourself a lot of grief when those "future" challenges eventually become "present" challenges.

SoftLayer has 13 data centers strategically located around the world, and we offer the same on-demand provisioning and month-to-month contracts in all of our facilities. We're continuing to build our network infrastructure to bring users onto our network via one of our network Points of Presence (PoPs) within 40 milliseconds from anywhere in the world. Our platform is IPv6-capable, and we have a team of people focused on finding and addressing future technological concerns before they impact our customers.

SoftLayer Global Network Map

To find out more about how your business can go global with SoftLayer, check out our network overview and learn more about what differentiates SoftLayer's data centers from the competition's.

-@quigleymar

April 30, 2013

Big Data at SoftLayer: Riak

Big data is only getting bigger. Late last year, SoftLayer teamed up with 10Gen to launch a high-performance MongoDB solution, and since then, many of our customers have been clamoring for us to support other big data platforms in the same way. By automating the provisioning process of a complex big data environment on bare metal infrastructure, we made life a lot easier for developers who demanded performance and on-demand scalability for their big data applications, and it's clear that our simple formula produced amazing results. As Marc mentioned when he started breaking down big data database models, document-oriented databases like MongoDB are phenomenal for certain use-cases, and in other situations, a key-value store might be a better fit. With that in mind, we called up our friends at Basho and started building a high-performance architecture specifically for Riak ... And I'm excited to announce that we're launching it today!

Riak is an open source, distributed database platform based on the principles enumerated in the DynamoDB paper. It uses a simple key/value model for object storage, and it was architected for high availability, fault tolerance, operational simplicity and scalability. A Riak cluster is composed of multiple nodes that are all connected, all communicating and sharing data automatically. If one node were to fail, the other nodes would automatically share the data that the failed node was storing and processing until the node is back up and running or a new node is added. See the diagram below for a simple illustration of how adding a node to a cluster works within Riak.

Riak Nodes

We will support both the open source and the Enterprise versions of Riak. The open source version is a great place to start. It has all of the database functionality of Riak Enterprise, but it is limited to a single cluster. The Enterprise version supports replication between clusters across data centers, giving you lots of architectural options. You can use replication to build highly available, live-live failover applications. You can also use it to distribute your application's data across regions, giving you a global platform that you can update anywhere in the world and know that those modifications will be available anywhere else. Riak Enterprise customers also receive 24×7 coverage, both from SoftLayer and Basho. This includes SoftLayer's one-hour guaranteed response for Severity 1 hardware issues and unlimited support available via our secure web portal, email and phone.

The business use-case for this flexibility is that if you need to scale up or down, nodes can be easily added or taken down as your requirements change. You can opt for a single-data center environment with a few nodes or you can broaden your architecture to a multi-data center deployment with a 40-node cluster. While these capabilities are inherent in Riak, they can be complicated to build and configure, so we spent countless hours working with Basho to streamline Riak deployment on the SoftLayer platform. The fruit of that labor can be found in our Riak Solution Designer:

Riak Solution Designer

The server configurations and packages in the Riak Solution Designer have been selected to deliver the performance, availability and stability that our customers expect from their bare metal and virtual cloud infrastructure at SoftLayer. With a few quick clicks, you can order a fully configured Riak environment, and it'll be provisioned and online for you in two to four hours. And everything you order is on a month-to-month contract.

Thanks to the hard work done by the SoftLayer development group and Basho's team, we're proud to be the first in the marketplace to offer a turn-key Riak solution on bare metal infrastructure. You don't need to sacrifice performance and agility for simplicity.

For more information, visit SoftLayer.com/Riak or contact our sales team.

-Duke

April 22, 2013

Going Global: How to Approach Expansion into Asia

Asia is an amazing place for business, but companies from outside the region often consider it mysterious and prohibitive. I find myself discussing Asian business customs and practices with business owners from other regions on an almost daily basis, so I feel like I've become an informal resource when it comes to helping SoftLayer customers better understand and enter the Asian markets. As the general manager for SoftLayer's APAC operations, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about what companies outside of Asia should consider when approaching new business in the region.

Before we get too far into the weeds, it's important to take a step back and understand the Asian culture and how it differs from the business cultures in the West. The Asian market is much more relational than the market in the United States or Europe; significant value is placed on the time you spend in the region building new networks and interacting with other your prospective customers and suppliers. Even for small purchases, businesses in Asia are much more comfortable with face-to-face agreements than they are with phone calls or emails. Many of the executives I speak to about entering Asia argue they don't have time to spend weeks and months in the region, and they make whistle-stop trips in various countries to get a snapshot of what they need to know to make informed decisions. Their businesses often fail at breaching the market because they don't invest the time and resources they need to create the relationships required to succeed. Books, blogs (even this one), consultants and occasional visits aren't nearly as important to your success as investing yourself in the culture. Even if you can't physically travel to your target market for some reason, find ways to plug into the community online and become a resource.

Asia is not homogenous. There are 20 distinct countries and cultures, dozens of languages and hundreds of dialects. There are distinct legal systems, currencies, regulatory frameworks and cultural norms. From a business perspective, that means that what you do to appeal to an audience in Singapore won't be as effective for an audience in Japan ... This is not the United States of Asia nor is there an Asian Union. Having partners in Hong Kong does not get you into China; if you want to access markets in China, you need to build relationships with partners and customers in China. One of the biggest reasons for this in-country presence to understand and avoid a "death by a thousand cuts" situation where minor, seemingly insignificant questions and problems cumulatively prevent a business from successfully entering the market. Take these questions from customers as an example:

  • When I buy from your office in Bangkok, where is the contract jurisdiction?
  • I'm in Hong Kong. Can I pay in Hong Kong Dollars? Who takes the currency risk?
  • Corporate credit cards aren't common in Vietnam. Can I pay for my online purchase in cash?
  • If I sign up for a webinar, is it at a time convenient for me (i.e. repeated for other time zones), or do I have to be at my PC at 3am?
  • If you invite me to a meeting on 12/4, is that April 12th, or December 4th?
  • When I print whitepapers from your website, do I need to resize to a different paper size?

The way you handle currencies, time zones and how you present information are barometers of how approachable your business is for users and businesses in a particular market. Most users won't reach out to you to ask those kinds of questions; they'll just move on to a competitor who answers their questions without them asking. You learn about these sticking points by having people on the ground and talking to potential customers and partners. Since globalization is "flattening" the World Wide Web, the mechanics of hosting a site, application or game in a data center in Singapore are identical to hosting the same content in Dallas. It's easy to make your data locally available and have infrastructure available in your target market, but that's only a start. You need to approach Asian countries as unique opportunities to redefine your business in a way that fits the culture of your potential customers and partners.

In my next blog, I plan to share a few best practices about management, responsiveness and responsibility, positioning, operations and marketing in Asia. These posts are intended to get you thinking about how your business can approach expanding into Asia smartly, and if you have any questions or want any advice about your business in particular, please feel free to email me directly: dwebb@softlayer.com.

-@darylwebb

March 26, 2013

Should My Startup Join an Accelerator/Incubator Program?

As part of my role at SoftLayer, I have the opportunity and privilege to mentor numerous entrepreneurs and startup teams when they partner with us through our Catalyst program. One question I hear often is, "Should I join an accelerator?" My answer: "That all depends." Let's look at the five lessons entrepreneurs should learn before they decide to join a startup accelerator or incubator program.

Lesson 1: The founders must be committed to the success of their venture.
Joining an accelerator or incubator comes with some strings attached — startups give up between 6 to 10 percent of their equity in exchange for some cash and structured program that usually lasts around three months. Obviously, this kind of commitment should not be taken lightly.

Too often, startups join accelerator programs before they are ready or mature enough as a team. Sometimes, a company's idea isn't fully baked, so they end up spending as much time "creating" their business as they do "accelerating" it. As a result, that company isn't able to leverage an accelerator's resources efficiently throughout the entire program ... The founders need to establish a vision for the business, begin laying the groundwork for the company's products and services, and be 100% committed to the accelerator program before joining. If you can't say with confidence that your startup meets all three of those requirements, don't do it. Take care of those three points and proceed to the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Be prepared to leverage what you are given.
Many startups join accelerator and incubator programs with unrealistic expectations. Participation in these programs — even the most exclusive and well-known ones — by no means guarantees that you'll raise additional money or have a successful exit. These programs provide startups with office space, free cloud services, and access to mentors, investors, recruiters and media ... Those outstanding services provide participating startups with a distinct competitive advantage, but they don't serve up success on a silver platter. If you aren't ready work tirelessly to leverage the benefits of a startup program, don't bother.

Lesson 3: Take advice and criticism well; mentors are trying to help.
"Mentorship" is very tough to qualify, and criticism is difficult to take ... Especially if you're 100% committed to your business and you don't want to be told that you've done something wrong. Mentors in these startup programs have "been there and done that," and they wouldn't be in a mentorship position if they weren't looking out for your best interest and the ultimate success of your company.

Look programs that take mentorship seriously and can provide a broad range of expertise from strategy to marketing and business development to software architecture to building and scaling IT infrastructure. Then be intentional about listening to the people around you.

Lesson 4: Do your research and make an informed decision.
With the proliferation of startups globally, we're also seeing an evolution in the accelerator ecosystem. There are a number accelerators being positioned to help support founders with ideas on a global, regional and local basis, but it's important to evaluate a program's vision with its execution of that vision. Not all startup programs are created equal, and some might not offer the right set of resources and opportunities for your team. When you're giving up equity in your company, you should have complete confidence that the accelerator or incubator you join will deliver on its side of the deal.

Lesson 5: Leverage the network and community you will meet.
When you've done your homework, applied and been accepted to the perfect startup program, meet everyone you can and learn from them. One of the most tangible benefits of joining an accelerator is the way you can fast track a business idea while boosting network contacts. Much in the way someone chooses a prestigious college or joins a fraternity, some of the most valuable resources you'll come across in these programs are the people you meet. In this way, accelerators and incubators are becoming a proxy for undergrad and graduate school ... The appeal for promising entrepreneurs is simple: Why wait to make a dent in the universe? Today, more people are going to college and fewer are landing well-paying jobs after graduation, so some of the world's best and brightest are turning to these communities and foregoing the more structured "higher education" process.

Even if your startup is plugging along smoothly, a startup accelerator or incubator program might be worth a look. Venture capitalists often trust programs like TechStars and 500 Startups to filter or vet early stage companies. If your business has the stamp of approval from one of these organizations, it's decidedly less risky than a business idea pitched by a random entrepreneur.

If you understand each of these lessons and you take advantage of the resources and opportunities provided by startup accelerators and incubators, the sky is the limit for your business. Now get to work.

Class dismissed.

-@gkdog

March 8, 2013

India: Using Global Technology to Go Hyper-Local

Bill Gates once told a journalist that everyone should care about developments in India because the world's largest democracy (of 1.2 billion people) and tenth-largest economy is quickly catching up with us. I recently had the opportunity to see those developments first-hand, and I wholeheartedly agree with Bill's sentiment. Innovation and technology breakthroughs are not owned by or limited to the United States, and as international markets mature, we're going to see more and more entrepreneurship and startup activity overseas. Now I don't mean to imply that the demise of Silicon Valley is imminent, but its influence will be greatly diminished in the future, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I just returned from a round-the-world trip that included nearly two weeks in India as part of a 500 Startups-sponsored market exploration tour called Geeks on a Plane. The tour stopped through Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi, with meetups for local entrepreneurs, startups, investors and some of the most influential companies in India's technology ecosystem. While in India, I had the chance to meet several SoftLayer customers — including Zoomin, PowerWeave, and Vidya Mantra — and their insight into the growing technology culture in the region was eye-opening.

India

One of the most interesting characteristics shared by many of the entrepreneurs I spoke with was that they were building businesses with a "hyper-local" focus: Unique business models that are specifically geared toward serving local communities while leveraging the latest technologies in mobility and e-commerce. This distinction is particularly noteworthy because they didn't assume that they'd need to succeed in the US market or compete with companies in the US to build their businesses ... And they're absolutely right. The opportunities that exist for hyper-local entrepreneurs in these emerging markets are staggering.

FlipKart is known as "The Amazon of India." It's very similar to the online shopping giant most of us know and use regularly, but with some unique regional twists. For example, because credit card and electronic payments in India are not as prevalent or reliable as they are in much of the world, orders are taken via both an online ordering system and through FlipKart call centers. Once processed, a highly developed network of "scooters" delivers about 50 percent of FlipKart's orders, and the payment is provided at the customer's door — IN CASH. While that might seem simplistic, each courier has a smartphone that allows them to become a geo-located, connected, data sharing entity. Hundreds of millions of dollars in FlipKart orders are delivered each year with very few issues, despite the fact that most of us can't even imagine how the company could operate that way in the US.

Another great example of how innovators are using technology to redefine businesses is redBus, India's largest bus ticketing company. A huge percentage of travel in India is done very inexpensively by bus, and before redBus came on the scene, travelers took their chances by buying tickets through middlemen and ticket brokers, often getting ripped off or becoming victims of double-booking. By centralizing the ticketing process, redBus is able to provide a reliable way to book a seat on any of India's vast system of buses via phone, online or in person. redBus offers the largest selection of bus seats in the country with over 350 bus operators and a flexible network of boarding points, timing and bus types. It's an incredibly simple service that meets a clear need for a hyper-local audience by leveraging the technologies being built and improved around the world.

If my two weeks in India taught me one thing, it was that the startups don't need to conquer international markets ... They can strive to service their local communities and interests, and they'll be just as successful (if not more). Our Catalyst program has just begun its international expansion into India, and the future certainly looks bright. In fact, I'm proud to announce that we've already signed up our first Catalyst program member in India with many more to come!

As we continue working with startup communities around the globe, I learn more and more about how the world is changing, and I get a stronger appreciation for the cultural and economic ties that bind us all together.

Stay tuned!

-@gkdog

February 8, 2013

Data Center Power-Up: Installing a 2-Megawatt Generator

When I was a kid, my living room often served as a "job site" where I managed a fleet of construction vehicles. Scaled-down versions of cranes, dump trucks, bulldozers and tractor-trailers littered the floor, and I oversaw the construction (and subsequent destruction) of some pretty monumental projects. Fast-forward a few years (or decades), and not much has changed except that the "heavy machinery" has gotten a lot heavier, and I'm a lot less inclined to "destruct." As SoftLayer's vice president of facilities, part of my job is to coordinate the early logistics of our data center expansions, and as it turns out, that responsibility often involves overseeing some of the big rigs that my parents tripped over in my youth.

The video below documents the installation of a new Cummins two-megawatt diesel generator for a pod in our DAL05 data center. You see the crane prepare for the work by installing counter-balance weights, and work starts with the team placing a utility transformer on its pad outside our generator yard. A truck pulls up with the generator base in tow, and you watch the base get positioned and lowered into place. The base looks so large because it also serves as the generator's 4,000 gallon "belly" fuel tank. After the base is installed, the generator is trucked in, and it is delicately picked up, moved, lined up and lowered onto its base. The last step you see is the generator housing being installed over the generator to protect it from the elements. At this point, the actual "installation" is far from over — we need to hook everything up and test it — but those steps don't involve the nostalgia-inducing heavy machinery you probably came to this post to see:

When we talk about the "megawatt" capacity of a generator, we're talking about the bandwidth of power available for use when the generator is operating at full capacity. One megawatt is one million watts, so a two-megawatts generator could power 20,000 100-watt light bulbs at the same time. This power can be sustained for as long as the generator has fuel, and we have service level agreements to keep us at the front of the line to get more fuel when we need it. Here are a few other interesting use-cases that could be powered by a two-megawatt generator:

  • 1,000 Average Homes During Mild Weather
  • 400 Homes During Extreme Weather
  • 20 Fast Food Restaurants
  • 3 Large Retail Stores
  • 2.5 Grocery Stores
  • A SoftLayer Data Center Pod Full of Servers (Most Important Example!)

Every SoftLayer facility has an n+1 power architecture. If we need three generators to provide power for three data center pods in one location, we'll install four. This additional capacity allows us to balance the load on generators when they're in use, and we can take individual generators offline for maintenance without jeopardizing our ability to support the power load for all of the facility's data center pods.

Those of you who are in the fondly remember Tonka trucks and CAT crane toys are the true target audience for this post, but even if you weren't big into construction toys when you were growing up, you'll probably still appreciate the work we put into safeguarding our facilities from a power perspective. You don't often see the "outside the data center" work that goes into putting a new SoftLayer data center pod online, so I thought it'd give you a glimpse. Are there an topics from an operations or facilities perspectives that you also want to see?

-Robert

December 5, 2012

Breaking Down 'Big Data' - Database Models

Forester defines big data as "techniques and technologies that make capturing value from data at an extreme scale economical." Gartner says, "Big data is the term adopted by the market to describe extreme information management and processing issues which exceed the capability of traditional information technology along one or multiple dimensions to support the use of the information assets." Big data demands extreme horizontal scale that traditional IT management can't handle, and it's not a challenge exclusive to the Facebooks, Twitters and Tumblrs of the world ... Just look at the Google search volume for "big data" over the past eight years:

Big Data Search Interest

Developers are collectively facing information overload. As storage has become more and more affordable, it's easier to justify collecting and saving more data. Users are more comfortable with creating and sharing content, and we're able to track, log and index metrics and activity that previously would have been deleted in consideration of space restraints or cost. As the information age progresses, we are collecting more and more data at an ever-accelerating pace, and we're sharing that data at an incredible rate.

To understand the different facets of this increased usage and demand, Gartner came up with the three V's of big data that vary significantly from traditional data requirements: Volume, Velocity and Variety. Larger, more abundant pieces of data ("Volume") are coming at a much faster speed ("Velocity") in formats like media and walls of text that don't easily fit into a column-and-row database structure ("Variety"). Given those equally important factors, many of the biggest players in the IT world have been hard at work to create solutions that provide the scale and speed developers need when they build social, analytics, gaming, financial or medical apps with large data sets.

When we talk about scaling databases here, we're talking about scaling horizontally across multiple servers rather than scaling vertically by upgrading a single server — adding more RAM, increasing HDD capacity, etc. It's important to make that distinction because it leads to a unique challenge shared by all distributed computer systems: The CAP Theorem. According to the CAP theorem, a distributed storage system must choose to sacrifice either consistency (that everyone sees the same data) or availability (that you can always read/write) while having partition tolerance (where the system continues to operate despite arbitrary message loss or failure of part of the system occurs).

Let's take a look at a few of the most common database models, what their strengths are, and how they handle the CAP theorem compromise of consistency v. availability:

Relational Databases

What They Do: Stores data in rows/columns. Parent-child records can be joined remotely on the server. Provides speed over scale. Some capacity for vertical scaling, poor capacity for horizontal scaling. This type of database is where most people start.
Horizontal Scaling: In a relational database system, horizontal scaling is possible via replication — dharing data between redundant nodes to ensure consistency — and some people have success sharding — horizontal partitioning of data — but those techniques add a lot of complexity.
CAP Balance: Prefer consistency over availability.
When to use: When you have highly structured data, and you know what you'll be storing. Great when production queries will be predictable.
Example Products: Oracle, SQLite, PostgreSQL, MySQL

Document-Oriented Databases

What They Do: Stores data in documents. Parent-child records can be stored in the same document and returned in a single fetch operation with no join. The server is aware of the fields stored within a document, can query on them, and return their properties selectively.
Horizontal Scaling: Horizontal scaling is provided via replication, or replication + sharding. Document-oriented databases also usually support relatively low-performance MapReduce for ad-hoc querying.
CAP Balance: Generally prefer consistency over availability
When to Use: When your concept of a "record" has relatively bounded growth, and can store all of its related properties in a single doc.
Example Products: MongoDB, CouchDB, BigCouch, Cloudant

Key-Value Stores

What They Do: Stores an arbitrary value at a key. Most can perform simple operations on a single value. Typically, each property of a record must be fetched in multiple trips, with Redis being an exception. Very simple, and very fast.
Horizontal Scaling: Horizontal scale is provided via sharding.
CAP Balance: Generally prefer consistency over availability.
When to Use: Very simple schemas, caching of upstream query results, or extreme speed scenarios (like real-time counters)
Example Products: CouchBase, Redis, PostgreSQL HStore, LevelDB

BigTable-Inspired Databases

What They Do: Data put into column-oriented stores inspired by Google's BigTable paper. It has tunable CAP parameters, and can be adjusted to prefer either consistency or availability. Both are sort of operationally intensive.
Horizontal Scaling: Good speed and very wide horizontal scale capabilities.
CAP Balance: Prefer consistency over availability
When to Use: When you need consistency and write performance that scales past the capabilities of a single machine. Hbase in particular has been used with around 1,000 nodes in production.
Example Products: Hbase, Cassandra (inspired by both BigTable and Dynamo)

Dynamo-Inspired Databases

What They Do: Distributed key/value stores inspired by Amazon's Dynamo paper. A key written to a dynamo ring is persisted in several nodes at once before a successful write is reported. Riak also provides a native MapReduce implementation.
Horizontal Scaling: Dynamo-inspired databases usually provide for the best scale and extremely strong data durability.
CAP Balance: Prefer availability over consistency,
When to Use: When the system must always be available for writes and effectively cannot lose data.
Example Products: Cassandra, Riak, BigCouch

Each of the database models has strengths and weaknesses, and there are huge communities that support each of the open source examples I gave in each model. If your database is a bottleneck or you're not getting the flexibility and scalability you need to handle your application's volume, velocity and variety of data, start looking at some of these "big data" solutions.

Tried any of the above models and have feedback that differs from ours? Leave a comment below and tell us about it!

-@marcalanjones

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