Posts Tagged 'Internet'

June 16, 2011

An Exercise in Innovation

Some of the best ideas come from people who think "outside of the box." SoftLayer was born in a living room six years ago when we decided to look at the staid hosting industry from a new perspective. We said, "We don't want to build a company to meet customers' current needs. We want to build a company to meet the needs our customers don't even know they have yet," and that's one of the biggest reasons the SoftLayer platform has IPv6, KVM over IP, private network, out-of-band management and standardized pod-based data centers.

Only people with a certain level of "crazy" can recognize opportunities for innovation, and because SoftLayer's motto is "Innovate or Die," to incubate innovation, we have to create an environment that enables employees to take their "crazy" and run with it. Speaking of "crazy," meet Phil.

Phil plays guitar, tests software in non-standard ways, and has a bobble-head of himself. Some would say he marches to the beat of a different drummer – a drummer that may or may not be overdosing on caffeine.

Phil was tasked with a 12-week project: If SoftLayer is built for what our customers are going to need tomorrow, figure out what customers will need after "tomorrow." He'd have access to people and resources up and down the organization to build his idea, and the experiment is set up to incubate his innovation:

  1. Because there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, anyone helping Phil should do so without questioning the logic or "sanity" of what he asking for help with.
  2. Phil can spend up to 20% of his work hours building his idea.
  3. Anyone who helps Phil can spend up to 10% of his/her work hours to build his idea.
  4. Phil can have space in H2 to build his idea.
  5. Regardless of apparent success or failure, the project will conclude at the end of 12 weeks. From there, we'll evaluate the "good" and "not as good" ideas from the experiment.

It'd be impossible to guarantee the success of any kind of project like this because it's a little like catching lightning in a bottle, but I was interested to see what kinds of operational changes he came up with over the course of the three months. We might see the evolution of the next brilliant idea in hosting, or we'd see a lot of hilariously terrible ideas.

Then I saw his first installment:

By the time I got to "circumstantiate," I had the phone in my hand to call off the project. What I didn't expect was Phil's tearful pleading to take the idea down a different path. They say you don't get a second chance to make a first impression, and despite the fact that this first impression was pretty awful, I decided to give him another shot (with a much more limited scope):

  1. Apparently there are bad ideas in brainstorming, but anyone who helps Phil on his "new path" should try to be supportive.
  2. Phil can spend up to 5% of his work hours building his idea.
  3. Phil can't take anyone else from SoftLayer away from their jobs during work hours.
  4. Phil can have space in the Houston office to build his idea.
  5. The project is scheduled to run for 12 weeks. There's no guarantee that it'll make it through next week.

If you have ideas for Phil, feel free to contribute. He'd probably appreciate the help.

-@lavosby

December 18, 2009

Peek-a-Boo!

It’s no hidden secret that a lot of older generation individuals are always struggling with technology. From sending an email to signing in to Facebook, most of our parents have struggled keeping up. One reason my parents have struggled with the internet is due to all the horror stories they hear. From viruses, to hackers, to identity theft they’ve almost been scared from logging into the monster that is called the Internet. I honestly never thought I would be able to convince them otherwise until last weekend when my son and I were playing peek-a-boo.

What better way to convince my parents, who live 965 miles away, to give technology and the internet another try then to play peek-a-boo with my son? I immediately gave my Dad a call and asked him to download Skype. He asked me the first question he always seems to ask which was, “How much is it?” To which, I replied free (This got his attention). After a brief argument on how he heard a co-worker’s computer crashed after downloading something on the internet, my Dad reluctantly downloaded Skype and we were on our way (this was about a 45 minute long ordeal, well worth it though).

Nowadays people in my generation thrive on technology, and we crave the latest and greatest gadgets and software we can get our hands on. With the internet becoming more accessible than ever before companies like Softlayer are able to provide the tools for anyone to claim a spot on the web all their own. Companies like Skype for instance have their servers housed somewhere in a datacenter just like Softlayer’s. I will probably never get my Dad to admit technology is his friend, but at least it’s beginning to become less of an enemy in his eyes. Especially since on any given Saturday morning he can login to Skype and within minutes be playing peek-a-boo with his first grandson.

October 9, 2009

Facebook games, the datacenter, and you – film at 11

Ok, I admit it. I am addicted to Facebook games. For those of you who are a bit “long in the tooth” you might remember a series of games from a certain era where all you did was walk around and try to figure “it” out, but you really didn’t know what “it” was. Zork for instance was my favorite. In Zork you simply walked around and talked to people, touched walls and things rumbled, and picked up and dropped items. etc. Now don’t misunderstand, you didn’t see this happen, it was all in your head because the only thing on the screen was text. Think of it like the hit TV show LOST in text and you were John Locke. Are you LOST yet? Here is an example:

Facebook has taken us back to the world of Zork but now you can almost see what is going on. Let’s use the early on Mobster style games as example number one. They were sleek and simple; do a job, fight someone, whack someone on the hitlist, write a script, find a bot to do it all for you and become a “made man”. Now, the main idea in these games is ad generation and page views, so when the techies of the world figured out how to cheat, um I mean make the game more efficient, it was time to add some new ideas to the games to keep you more in tune to your monitor and the ads on the page instead of your bot! Enter the flash games, they are shiny and I like shiny things! Maybe the word should be polished. There are a few farm simulation games that are very popular. A couple of them have over 18 million monthly active users. Who would have thought that everyone in the world wanted to move to Texas and become a veggie farmer, or berries, or raise animals and fruit trees? I have to say that the new games are to carpel tunnel as Krispy Kreme is to clogged arteries. You have to click and then click a little more and then even a little more. You have to do tasks, so you can do jobs, so you can move up in levels so you can do more tasks to do even more jobs to make more money and it just keeps getting more involved. Maybe there is a flash automation system out there I can find to do it for me!

I am going back to the farm idea for a minute. When I started out I had a couple of small plots and I would plant different crops. I had a few animals walking around and a fruit tree or two, some fences, some green space in between and flowers. I began to notice that some of the extra shiny things got in the way and made my farm very inefficient. I began to streamline, one crop, no green space because that is just wasted, no animals, just plant the whole screen, harvest and plow, rinse and repeat. It is now very profitable, easy to manage and I don’t have to worry about this crop will be ready in 2 hours, that crop will be ready in 2 days, etc. It just works!

So I have just described SoftLayer to you in a nutshell. At first we tried many things, streamlined it, got it down to a very efficient science automated “it” and then wrapped products around “it”. Our products are shiny, we don’t waste space, we have one crop, and it just works!

September 7, 2009

Local Phone for (Darn Near Almost) Free

I keep my ears perked for businesses that leverage Internet infrastructure – mainly because such businesses are potential customers for SoftLayer. Occasionally, I become a customer of the businesses that I hear about.

I took the plunge with one such company after loosely watching it for a year. In the summer of 2007, a friend of mine moved his home phone service to Ooma. Basically, it is local phone service with no monthly bill. Zip. Nada. $0.00 per month. To top that off, the quality of service is very high.

Now, it’s not totally free phone service because you have to have a high speed internet connection to run it. I suspect that if you are reading this, you do. By the way, I have fiber going to my house, and I have 20 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload speed. I can get 50 down and 20 up should I ever need that much bandwidth. If I wanted local phone service from my local phone company, they would provide it through this fiber (not copper) at a price of about $45 per month plus taxes and fees. That means the monthly bill would be about $60 when it’s all said and done.

We yanked our landline when the fiber arrived 4 years ago since each family member at that point had a cell phone. Going all cellular has been pretty much fine except for a few minor hiccups. Sometimes, one of us has been unreachable at the house because of either a dead battery, phone set to silent mode, cellular network congestion, or the fact that the ringer just can’t be heard throughout the whole house, even at full volume. None of these, however, was worth an additional $60 per month to solve.

OK, back to Ooma. My friend has had it for a year with no problem. He loves it. It works perfectly with high quality. On top of that, Ooma is now sold at Costco for one-third lower than what he paid for it. You buy the device for a one-time fee up front and never have a phone bill. After three months (usually), you’ve made your money back in savings.

So a month ago, I bought it. It took 20 minutes to set up, and I’m a finance guy. If you’re a techie, I’ll bet you’re running in 10 minutes or less. It has worked flawlessly since. The sound quality is fantastic. There are more features and add-ons than I can mention here – go browse their website for more. The snarky ad video is worth the 45 seconds to watch it. In short, I highly recommend Ooma.

To keep things balanced, the ONLY advantage I see to a copper line is if there is a power outage and your broadband modem/router is down, the local phone is down. But if your home phone is cordless with a powered base unit, the copper line is down in that case too. And if the aliens from District 9 show up, the copper lines will be flooded too I’ll bet.

Ooma is just another example of how the Internet and its supporting infrastructure is not only here to stay, but to keep growing as traditional telecom infrastructure slowly dies. At SoftLayer, we’re here to make sure our innovation supports businesses that grow by leveraging Internet infrastructure.

June 19, 2009

Self Signed SSL

A customer called up concerned the other day after getting a dire looking warning in Firefox3 regarding a self-signed SSL certificate.

"The certificate is not trusted because it is self signed."

In that case, she was connecting to her Plesk Control Panel and she wondered if it was safe. I figured the explanation might make for a worthwhile blog entry, so here goes.

When you connect to an HTTPS website your browser and the server exchange certificate information which allows them to encrypt the communication session. The certificates can be signed in two ways: by a certificate authority or what is known as self-signed. Either case is just as good from an encryption point of view. Keys are exchanged and data gets encrypted.

So if they are equally good from an encryption point of view why would someone pay for a CA signed certificate? The answer to that comes from the second function of an SSL cert: identity.

A CA signed cert is considered superior because someone (the CA) has said "Yes, the people to whom we've sold this cert have convinced us they are who they say they are". This convincing is sometimes little more than presenting some money to the CA. What makes the browser trust a given CA? That would be its configured store of trusted root certificates. For example, in Firefox3, if you go to Options > Advanced > Encryption and select View Certificates you can see the pre-installed trusted certificates under the Authorities tab. Provided a certificate has a chain of signatures leading back to one of these Authorities then Firefox will accept that it is legitimately signed.

To make the browser completely happy a certificate has to pass the following tests:

1) Valid signature
2) The Common Name needs to match the hostname you're trying to hit
3) The certificate has to be within its valid time period

A self-signed cert can match all of those criteria, provided you configure the browser to accept it as an Authority certificate.

Back to the original question... is it safe to work with a certificate which your browser has flagged as problematic. The answer is yes, if the problem is expected, such as hitting the self-signed cert on a new Plesk installation. Where you should be concerned is if a certificate that SHOULD be good, such as your bank, is causing the browser to complain. In that case further investigation is definitely warranted. It could be just a glitch or misconfiguration. It could also be someone trying to impersonate the target site.

Until next time... go forth and encrypt everything!

June 3, 2009

Microsoft Still Following the Leader with Bing.com Offering

The new search engine “Bing” by the software colossus Microsoft is a sad attempt at capturing some of the search engine traffic that internet superstar Google has dominated for quite some time. Based on the preview video at bing.com, the search engine offers little in new features or innovation, instead catering to the ‘too-lazy-to-click-the-back-button” crowd with expanded link previews from the search results page. I have personally found this type of feature to be near worthless, as information of value is typically more than a few lines from the top. Then again maybe my 5 button mouse has numbed me to the indignation so many users have suffered by having to move the cursor to click the back button after discovering the web page wasn’t quite what they were after. (Google added longer previews in March.)

Microsoft representatives point out the technologic advancement of augmenting the standard fare keyword searches with some semantic based algorithms. This alone should yield significantly better results than the current Microsoft engine, “MSN Live Search.” (Google rolled out its semantic searches months ago.)

Next, Microsoft offers the “Conjecture Circle” to combat Google’s “Wonder Wheel”. OK, I’m just kidding on that one. Besides, it is only June, and Microsoft is still catching up with Google’s March features. They will not be taking on the “Wonder Wheel” until August or September.

I think I see a pattern here! This “innovation” reeks of lag. While taking the conservative copycat approach might be the safe thing for the boys from Redmond, it will never vault them to the front of the line in this market. The turbo boost for technology industries is clearly tied to new ideas and advancement. We see this time and time again as startups bring new whiz-bang tools to market and shoot right past the established giants. Time will of course tell. Fortunately in the fast paced world of the internet, we will not have to wait long it see if Bing will go bang.

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April 27, 2009

Into the Cloud

You'll see the word "cloud" bouncing around quite a bit in IT nowadays. If you have been following The Inner Layer you'll have seen it a few times here as well. A cloud service is just something that is hosted on the Internet. Typically in a cloud scenario you are not actually doing the hosting but rather using hosted resources someone else is providing. Usually you'll hear it in terms of computing and storage.

This is going to be a brief article on a cloud storage product we are doing here at SoftLayer called CloudLayer™ Storage.

CloudLayer™ Storage is a WebDAV based system which uses client software on the local machine in order to redirect filesystem operations to the storage repository here at SoftLayer. In Windows you end up with a drive letter; on a Unix system you end up with a mount point. In both cases when you create folders and save files on those locations the actions actually happen on our storage repository here. Because the files are located with us you are able to access them wherever you are. Through the CloudLayer™ web UI you're able to also set up files for sharing with others so even if where you are never changes there is still value to using the cloud storage.

Even using a cloud storage system you must maintain proper backups. Hardware, software and human error all happens. Tied in with that concept of "errors happen" ... if you have files on CloudLayer™ that you need for a presentation, download them ahead of time. You don't want to be caught without files simply because the Internet connection at your hotel decided to take a nap the morning of your event.

Now what of security? Well, the connection to the CloudLayer™ endpoint here at SoftLayer is done via an encrypted session so people cannot snoop on your transmissions. This does mean you need to allow 443/tcp outbound communications via your firewall but since that is the normal HTTPS port I'd imagine you already have it open. Within CloudLayer™ you can control with whom you share your files.

Since CloudLayer™ is a filesystem redirected over the Internet the performance you get will be dependent on your local connection speed. Its best to treat CloudLayer™ Storage as simply a file repository. If you find you need some kind of off-machine storage for running applications on your server you could look into our iSCSI product.

So, dear readers, go forth and have a cloudy day.

April 25, 2009

Facebook and Geezers

Last week, more rumors about the valuation of Facebook were flowing. So, is Facebook the real deal? Or will it go the way of the CB radio “social networking” experiment in the 1970’s?

Last weekend, I attended an event that indicates that Facebook has more staying power than those old CB radios. It was a quasi high school reunion. Since a lot of graduates of Brownwood High School (my alma mater) wind up in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, a 2-3 hour drive away from Brownwood, we had a get-together in Grapevine, TX for Brownwood High grads living in the area.

At the event, the oldest grad I bumped into was from the Class of ’81 and the youngest I saw was from the Class of ’90. Yes, there’s a “19” in front of those graduation years, making the age range of people I saw between ages 37 and 46 years of age. I won’t disclose where I fit in that group, but in the world of Facebook, we’re all pretty much “geezers” I imagine.

I wish I had counted the number of times I heard Facebook mentioned at the party on Saturday night. Many times people told of who they had found on Facebook that couldn’t make it to the party. Some of the comments I overheard went like this:

“I saw those pictures of your kids on Facebook. Man they’ve grown!”

Q: “So, is that crawfish boil you posted on Facebook an annual event?”
A: “Yeah, it got kinda wild this year.”

“You said in your Facebook status a while back that your daughter got hurt. How’s she doing now?”

You get the drift, I’m sure. Most everybody there in this age range was active on Facebook and was already connected to several in attendance on Facebook. Since the event, I’ve received friend requests from folks I saw, and I’ve also sent out a few friend requests.

After we all made it home early Sunday morning (hey we’re not THAT old – at least we think we’re not), the Facebook fun continued. My email account pinged all day letting me know I’d been tagged in a photo here, someone commented on a photo there, etc. Yes the cameras were out Saturday night, and the contents of those cameras got uploaded, tagged, and commented upon all day Sunday. In fact, I was tagged in one photo that had the caption “Brownwood High School geezers from class of __.”

As far as Facebook goes, I’ll bet stories like this occur all over the country by the thousands. Provided that Facebook keeps its financial house in order, they’re here for the long haul I think.

So, what’s the connection to SoftLayer here? Easy. We have a lot of customers who provide apps on Facebook. The infrastructure for those apps is hosted at SoftLayer. Consequently, we’re big cheerleaders for Facebook and the apps that run upon it. Go go go!

August 25, 2008

Do You Know Where Your Nameserver Is?

Today we are getting back to the basics. Really simple stuff like how content gets served up on the internet. I'm going to keep things at a fairly high level, so don't flame me if I oversimplify things. I was trying to explain this to my Mom recently (Hi Mom!) and that inspired me to write this blog.

The first thing that has to happen is for the viewer to make a request by typing in a site name or clicking on a link in a web browser. That request usually has a text-based name as part of the request (like "www.softlayer.com"). Each name has a domain ("softlayer.com") and each domain has an authoritative nameserver to translate the name into a numerical address. That numerical address is used by the internet infrastructure to make sure the request gets to the right place. Phone numbers work the same way, so just think of an IP address (and domain name) serving the same purpose as a traditional phone number which defines the location of the “owner” of the number (at least in the landline world) based on country, region, and city.

If the nameserver for a name is slow or down, then the request will be delayed, or even worse, fail because the nameserver was not available to translate the name into an address. And if the translation fails, the viewer will not get the content he or she requested.

So, if you are running a website, you want your nameservers to be highly available and service the request as quickly as possible. Here is where I get to brag about SoftLayer a little. We provide nameserver service to our customers. Our customers can use our web portal or a sophisticated programming interface (the SoftLayer API) to manage the numerical addresses for their names. We have located nameservers at several locations and we keep the data synchronized between the sites. Our nameservers themselves have the same addresses using a technology called anycast (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anycast).

What all this means is that our customers get to have their name to number translation hosted at multiple sites. This results in faster translation times and in the case of a disaster at one site, the other nameservers will still be working.

In other words, SoftLayer has very cool nameservers.

-@nday91

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