Posts Tagged 'Improvements'

January 10, 2014

Platform Improvements: VLAN Management

As director of product development, I'm tasked with providing SoftLayer customers greater usability and self-service tools on our platform. Often, that challenge involves finding, testing, and introducing new products, but a significant amount of my attention focuses on internal projects to tweak and improve our existing products and services. To give you an idea of what that kind of "behind the scenes" project looks like, I'll fill you in on a few of the updates we recently rolled out to improve the way customers interact with and manage their Virtual LANs (VLANs).

VLANs play a significant role in SoftLayer's platform. In the most basic sense, VLANs fool servers into thinking they're behind the same network switch. If you have multiple servers in the same data center and behind the same router, you could have them all on the same VLAN, and all traffic between the servers would be handled at the layer-2 network level. For customers with multi-tier applications, zones can be created to isolate specific servers into separate VLANs — database servers, app servers, and Web servers can all be isolated in their own security partitions to meet specific security and/or compliance requirements.

In the past, VLANs were all issued distinct numbers so that we could logically and consistently differentiate them from each other. That utilitarian approach has proven to be functional, but we noticed an opportunity to make the naming and management of VLANs more customer-friendly without losing that functionality. Because many of our customers operate large environments with multiple VLANs, they've had the challenge of remembering which servers live behind which VLAN number, and the process of organizing all of that information was pretty daunting. Imagine an old telephone switchboard with criss-crossing wires connecting several numbered jacks (and not connecting others). This is where our new improvements come in.

Customers now have the ability to name their VLANs, and we've made updates that increase visibility into the resources (servers, firewalls, gateways, and subnets) that reside inside specific VLANs. In practice, that means you can name your VLAN that houses database servers "DB" or label it to pinpoint a specific department inside your organization. When you need to find one of those VLANs, you can easily search for it by name and make changes to it easily.

VLAN List View

VLAN Naming

VLAN Detail Page

VLAN Naming

While these little improvements may seem simple, they make life much easier for IT departments and sysadmins with large, complex environments. If you don't need this kind of functionality, we don't throw it in your face, but if you do need it, we make it clear and easily accessible.

If you ever come across quirks in the portal that you'd like us to address, please let us know. We love making big waves by announcing new products and services, but we get as much (or more) joy from finding subtle ways to streamline and improve the way our customers interact with our platform.

-Bryce

March 28, 2012

SoftLayer Mobile on WP7 - Live Tiles and Notifications

In the past couple of months we've added some really cool Windows Phone 7.1 (Mango) features to the Softlayer Mobile application, including Lives Tiles and Notifications. While a basic Live Tile implementation is relatively easy, there's a fair amount of coding and architecture requirements to facilitate cooler Live Tile functionality and Notifications ... And we're all about doing things cooler.

Live Tiles is a such great feature of Windows Phone 7 largely because it gives the developer much more control over the device's user experience when compared to other mobile OSes. Live Tile functionality in its simplest form can be just 'Pinning' the Tile to the Start Menu with a deep link to a specific location within the application so that when clicked the user is taken to that location within the app. This can save the user a lot of time in having to navigate deep into an app if they know where they want to go. More advanced features of Live Tiles include programmatically giving the Tile a custom background image and displaying a notification message on the background when the Tile flips.

Adding a Live Tile

To add a Live Tile, a user simply clicks and holds the module they'd like to pin to the start menu. When the context menu appears, the user can select 'pin as tile,' and he or she will be taken to the Start page where the new Tile is displayed:

SoftLayer on Windows Phone 7

The Magic Behind Sending Notifications

We really wanted to be able to notify a user when a notable event happens on his or her account (new ticket is created/updated, when a bill is overdue, etc.), and Windows Phone 7 provides some pretty phenomenal functionality in that area ... I wouldn't be surprised if other big mobile OSes copy Windows Phone 7's notifications in the future. When it comes to implementing notifications in SoftLayer Mobile, we needed to handle a few things:

  1. Get a Unique App+User Channel URI from Windows Push Notification Server
  2. Register URI & Channel Name with the Softlayer Registration Service (WCF we created)
  3. Store this URI, Channel Name and the user's Account in a DB
  4. Periodically poll for new tickets or updates (since we don't have a mechanism yet that can 'push' this alert when any notification event is triggered)
  5. Send Notification (whether it's a Toast or Tile notification) to device via the unique URI & Channel name.

I was going to include the architecture diagram here showing this relationship and process, but the designer sitting next to me told that nobody wants to see that.

What do the Numbers on the Tiles Mean?

We wanted to make our Tiles show information that the user would find useful, so we send the account's total unread ticket count to the main app's Tile, and we display the account's unread ticket update count on the "Ticket" Tile we pinned to the Start screen:

SoftLayer on Windows Phone 7

Why is the Tile Flipping?

We also have the ability to have the Tiles flip over and show an image or text on the TileBack, so we use that to explain the number shown on the Tile (so you don't have to remember):

SoftLayer on Windows Phone 7

What is a Toast Notification?

A Toast Notification is a message that pops up on the screen for 10 seconds. If the user clicks on it, he or she is taken to the application, but if the notification is not clicked, it will disappear. Here is the Toast Notification that is sent to a user when a ticket is updated if they subscribe to Toast Notifications:

SoftLayer on Windows Phone 7

How do I Enable Notifications in SoftLayer Mobile?

To enable Live Tiles, all you have to do is turn on the 'Use Push Notifications' option on the Settings view.

SoftLayer on Windows Phone 7

You'll be asked if you'd like to receive Toast Notifications, and if you click 'OK,' you'll start getting them:

SoftLayer on Windows Phone 7

We Love Feedback and Requests!

Now that you have Live Tiles & Notifications in Softlayer Mobile for WP7 (and coming soon for iPhone & Android), what else would you like to see in the mobile clients?

-Erik

January 3, 2012

Hosting Resolutions for the New Year

It's a new year, and though only real change between on January 1 is the last digit in the year, that change presents a blank canvas for the year. In the past, I haven't really made New Year's resolutions, but because some old Mayan calendar says this is my last chance, I thought I'd take advantage of it. In reality, being inspired to do anything that promotes positive change is great, so in the spirit of New Year's improvements, I thought I'd take a look at what hosting customers might want to make resolutions to do in 2012.

What in your work/hosting life would you like to change? It's easy to ignore or look past small goals and improvements we can make on a daily basis, so let's take advantage of the "clean slate" 2012 provides us to be intentional about making life easier. A few small changes can mean the difference between a great day in the office or a frantic overnight coffee binge (which we all know is so great for your health). Because these changes are relatively insignificant, you might not recognize anything in particular that needs to change right off the bat. You might want to answer a daunting question like, "What should you do to improve your work flow or reduce work related stress?" Luckily, any large goals like that can be broken down into smaller pieces that are much easier to manage.

Enough with the theoretical ... let's talk practical. In 2012, your hosting-related New Year's resolutions should revolve around innovation, conservation, security and redundancy.

Innovation

When it comes to hosting, a customer's experience and satisfaction is the most important focus of a successful business. There's an old cliche that says, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten," and that's absolutely correct when it comes to building your business in the new year. What can you change or automate to make your business better? Are you intentionally "thinking outside the box?"

Conservation

The idea of "conservation" and "green hosting" has been written off as a marketing gimmick in the world of hosting, but there's something to be said for looking at your utilization from that perspective. We could talk about the environmental impact of hosting, and finding a host that is intentional about finding greener ways to do business, but if you're renting a server, you might feel a little disconnected from that process. When you're looking at your infrastructure in the New Year, determine whether your infrastructure is being used efficiently by your workload. Are there tools you can take advantage of to track your infrastructure's performance? Are you able to make changes quickly if/when you find inefficiencies?

Security

Another huge IT-related resolution you should make would be around security. Keeping your system tight and locked up can get forgotten when you're pushing development changes or optimizing your networking, so the beginning of the year is a great time to address any possible flaws in your security. Try to start with simple changes in your normal security practices ... Make sure your operating systems and software packages are regularly patched. Keep a strict password policy that requires regular password updates. Run system log checks regularly. Reevaluate your system firewall or ACL lists.

All of these safety nets may be set up, but they may not be functioning at their best. Even precautions as simple as locking your client or workstation when not in use can help stop attacks from local risks and prying eyes ... And this practice is very important if you keep system backups on the same workstations that you use. Imagine if someone local to your workstation or client was able to retrieve your backup file and restore it ... Your security measures would effectively be completely nullified.

Redundancy

Speaking of backups, when was your most recent backup? When is your next backup? How long would it take you to restore your site and/or data if your current server(s) were to disappear from the face of the Earth? These questions are easy to shrug off when you don't need to answer them, but by the time you do need to answer them, it's already too late. Create a backup and disaster recovery plan. Today. And automate it so you won't have the ability to forget to execute on it.

Make your objectives clear, and set calendar reminders throughout the year to confirm that you're executing on your goals. If some of these tasks are very daunting or difficult to implement in your current setup, don't get discouraged ... Set small goals and chip away at the bigger objective. Progress over time will speak for itself. Doing nothing won't get you anywhere

Happy New Year!

-Jonathan

September 20, 2011

SoftLayer.com Website Refresh

Recently, the SoftLayer Marketing team refreshed our corporate website. You may have already seen one of the most obvious changes: an updated homepage.

While minor updates to the look and feel of the site have been made over the last two years (adding solid colors to the main tabs, increasing the use of text inside buttons, etc.), the essential layout of the homepage hasn't changed since December of 2008! We were due for a refresh.

Our updated homepage features a simplified layout with new graphics. Special offers and new products get a large-format banner, which clearly introduces visitors to what we are offering in a way that is more eye-catching than before. Check out the difference between the old-style banners and the new-style banners:

BEFORE
SoftLayer.com Homepage

NOW
SoftLayer.com Homepage

Below the main banner, we replaced the solid red banner shapes with ones that incorporate photos and colorful graphical elements. Here's the new design for our Dedicated Server and CloudLayer Computing banners:

SoftLayer.com Homepage

Our primary navigation layout has also changed. We now highlight our three main product offerings – Dedicated Severs, CloudLayer Computing, and Managed Hosting – with red tabs that contrast with our other grey tabs, as shown below:

SoftLayer.com Homepage

We have also re-organized many of our information pages to make our offerings more clear and to make content easier to find.

The list of changes goes on -- enhanced contact buttons on the right of each page to make it easier for website visitors to get ahold of us, a new approach to links at the top and bottom of every page, and so on.

And while the changes we added in this recent site update add a refreshing look and feel, we are by no means finished. You'll find a lot more going on at www.softlayer.com in the weeks and months to come.

-Brad

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