Posts Tagged 'Tools'

July 10, 2013

The Importance of Providing Startups a Sandbox

With the global economy in its current state, it's more important than ever to help inspired value-creators acquire the tools needed to realize their ideas, effect change in the world, and create impact — now. I've had the privilege of working with hundreds of young, innovative companies through Catalyst and our relationships with startup accelerators, incubators and competitions, and I've noticed that the best way for entrepreneurs to create change is to simply let them play! Stick them in a sandbox with a wide variety of free products and services that they can use however they want so that they may find the best method of transitioning from idea to action.

Any attention that entrepreneurs divert from their core business ideas is wasted attention, so the most successful startup accelerators build a bridge for entrepreneurs to the resources they need — from access to hosting service, investors, mentors, and corporate partners to recommendations about summer interns and patent attorneys. That all sounds good in theory, and while it's extremely difficult to bring to reality, startup-focused organizations like MassChallenge make it look easy.

During a recent trip to Boston, I was chatting with Kara Shurmantine and Jibran Malek about what goes on behind the scenes to truly empower startups and entrepreneurs, and they gave me some insight. Startups' needs are constantly shifting, changing and evolving, so MassChallenge prioritizes providing a sandbox chock-full of the best tools and toys to help make life easier for their participants ... and that's where SoftLayer helps. With Kara and Jibran, I got in touch with a few MassChallenge winners to get some insight into their experience from the startup side.

Tish Scolnik, the CEO of Global Research Innovation & Technology (GRIT), described the MassChallenge experience perfectly: "You walk in and you have all these amazing opportunities in front of you, and then in a pretty low pressure environment you can decide what you need at a specific moment." Tish calls it a "buffet table" — an array of delectable opportunities, some combination of which will be the building blocks of a startup's growth curve. Getting SoftLayer products and services for free (along with a plethora of other valuable resources) has helped GRIT create a cutting-edge wheelchair for disabled people in developing countries.

The team from Neumitra, a Silver Winner of MassChallenge 2012, chose to use SoftLayer as an infrastructure partner, and we asked co-founder Rob Goldberg about his experience. He explained that his team valued the ability to choose tools that fit their ever-changing and evolving needs. Neumitra set out to battle stress — the stress you feel every day — and they've garnered significant attention while doing so. With a wearable watch, Neumitra's app tells you when your stress levels are too high and you need to take a break.

Jordan Fliegal, the founder and CEO of CoachUp, another MassChallenge winner, also benefited from playing around in the sandbox. This environment, he says, is constantly "giving to you and giving to you and giving to you without asking for anything in return other than that you work hard and create a company that makes a difference." The result? CoachUp employs 20 people, has recruited thousands of judges, and has raised millions in funding — and is growing at breakneck speed.

If you give inspired individuals a chance and then give them not only the resources that they need, but also a diverse range of resources that they could need, you are guaranteed to help create global impact.

In short: Provide a sandbox. Change the world.

-@KelleyHilborn

September 21, 2011

UserVoice: Tech Partner Spotlight

This is a guest blog from UserVoice CEO Richard White. UserVoice offers a complete customer engagement solution that gives businesses a simple process for managing customer feedback and support functions all from a single, easy-to-use environment.

What NOT to Do in Support

The fact that you're reading this blog post means you probably understand social media. You probably also understand why providing great customer service is important, so I'll spare you that as well. What you may not know is that there are much better tools to provide outstanding customer service than the ones you're already using. Here are four big tips for you as you're planning your support channels:

1. Don't build a custom contact form.
Building a custom contact form on your website takes valuable time and resources away from your core business. Instead, sign up and get a widget from UserVoice (or one of our competitors) and in less than 30 seconds you'll have a contact form that supports any number of custom fields you want to add, allows you to append your own customer-specific metadata, supports attachments and, most importantly, will auto-suggest relevant FAQ articles even before the customer submits the form.

2. Don't use shared email for customer support.
It's true that you can take managing customer support via a shared email inbox pretty far. You won't really feel the pain until a couple of issues slip through the digital crack because it wasn't clear who on your team was responsible for following up with the customer. But why go through that? These days you can choose from a number of inexpensive, purpose-built tools, like UserVoice, targeted at companies that want to provide better customer service. Starting at $5/mo you can have a complete support solution that will grow with your business when you are finally ready to add that 2nd or 3rd support rep to your team.

3. Don't waste time gathering feedback on message boards.
Scanning message boards to gather user feedback sounds like a good idea, but it's really painful. Forums are both noisy and insular. Someone posts "I want you to add X" then a few people reply "+1" but then someone else says "I think X is good but only if you do Y to it." Very quickly you don't know what anyone really wants. And you especially don't have an easy way to follow-up with people directly. Worst of all, you're only hearing from a vocal minority. Casual users won't go into your forums and won't wade through 10 pages of +1's to add their voice, they'll just give up.

UserVoice Feedback gives you a better way to harness customer feedback and turn it into something useful. It starts with a simple prompt: How can we make ___insert_your_company___ better? Customers give their feedback and vote up the best ideas. It's easier for customers to get involved and give you feedback, and it's much easier for you to follow-up and keep these important customers in the loop.

4. Don't hide from your customers.
This really should be the first recommendation. The sad fact is, people still don't expect great customer service, and they certainly don't expect you to be ready and willing to listen to their feedback, especially with that small gray "contact" link buried in your footer. Show customers that their experience and their feedback is important, nay, vital to your business. Put a big link at the top of the page, or a widget on the side of it. Something that tells people you're not "business as usual." Show them you really care.

I started UserVoice because I wanted to make doing all of these things simple so that companies could focus on what really matters: building their products and communicating with their customers, not setting up all this stuff. I hope you'll find it as useful as our thousands of existing customers have in getting you back to work. :)

-Richard White, UserVoice

This guest blog series highlights companies in SoftLayer's Technology Partners Marketplace.
These Partners have built their businesses on the SoftLayer Platform, and we're excited for them to tell their stories. New Partners will be added to the Marketplace each month, so stay tuned for many more come.
November 2, 2010

Don Draper Had it Easy

I was speaking with Softlayer’s PR guy the other day. The topic of conversation was the television show ‘Mad Men’. When I returned to my desk, I couldn’t help thinking that Don Draper had it easy. The advertising and communications game has changed radically since his fictionalized time.

When Don Draper was thinking about making his clients happy in 1964, print, radio, television and billboards comprised the palate that he had to play with. The Internet has changed this in ways Don would struggle to comprehend were he to time travel to 2010. This new palate is virtually endless, essentially combining everything that Don was familiar with, putting it in one place (sort of), and then putting it on steroids.

While Don would have a hard time understanding the internet, he would appreciate the power that it brings, and not only in terms of how he can get his message across. The ability to track who goes where and what they do when they get there has enabled market segmentation far beyond what Don would have ever considered. And because the internet has a little something for everyone, companies are able to market with a greater degree of accuracy.

In theory, we ought to be able to spend less money to reach OUR audience, versus spending more money to hit a broader audience only some of whom are interested in what we do. Theory also dictates that companies ought to be able to measure a real return on this investment. Don would be amazed as this was mostly unheard of in his world - the desire was there, but no one really knew which parts of the budget were delivering results. As the old saying goes “I know that half of what I spend is wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

The advent of ‘social networking’ sites like Facebook or Twitter has made matters more challenging as they change the relationship a company has with its target audience.

First, a company first needs to be attractive enough to merit being followed or ‘friended’. This theoretically means that a captive, receptive audience has self-selected for you. The challenge is in understanding why people show up in the first place.

A Facebook page provides the audience with a profile – this gives the audience context and a reason for adding you as a friend. Twitter is not like this in that in depth profiles do not exist in the same way. On Twitter, the ‘who you are’ element plays itself out over a series of 140 character Tweets. The odd part is that people often ‘follow’ based on a single Tweet, which may or may not be related to what you do. The audience is there, but the intention is often less clear.

While I understand why I follow the people I follow, I confess that there are Tweets that I get from people that I follow for reasons I have long since forgotten. It gets tough to filter things when you are following only 186 people like me, never mind the thousands that some people do. For example, journalist Leo Laporte follows 1,427 people, while English actor / author Stephen Fry follows an astonishing 53,230 people. When you are following that many people, there is not going to be a lot of consistency regarding a decision made to follow. Indeed, the inflow of Tweets is so prodigious that filtering the noise must be next to impossible.

Does that mean that Twitter does not have value as a marketing tool? Don would probably think so, but I don’t. I think that Twitter becomes a valuable tool, but not as a standalone means to reach your customer. If you start to think about Twitter (in combination with a bunch of other stuff) as a means to build community, then I think you are on the right track… I will get to that line of thought later.

-@quigleymar

September 15, 2009

Managing Your Traffic in the Modern Era

Over the past 10 years, I’ve run or helped run all sizes of web sites and internet applications. I’ve seen everything from single-page brochure web sites to horizontally scaled interactive portals. And what I’ve learned is that it is all about the end-user experience.

I’m not a graphics specialist or a GUI designer. I just don’t have that in my DNA. I focus more on the technical side of things working on better ways to deliver content to the user. And in the purely technical area, the best thing to do to improve the user experience is to improve the delivery speed to the user.

There are a lot of tools out there that can be used to speed up delivery. CDN, for example, is an awesome way to get static content to an end user and is very scalable. But what about scaling out the application itself?

Traditionally, a simple Layer-4 Load Balancer has been a staple component of scalable applications. This type of Load Balancing can provide capacity during traffic peaks as well as increase availability. The application runs on several servers and the load balancer uses some simple methods (least connections, round robin, etc) to distribute the load. For a lot of applications this is sufficient to get content reliably and quickly to the end user. SoftLayer offers a relatively inexpensive load-balancing service for our customers that can provide this functionality.

There is another, more sophisticated, tool that can be used to manage internet application traffic. That is the “Application Delivery Controller” (obligatory Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Application_Delivery_Controller) or “Load Balancer on Steroids”. This class of traffic manager can act in Layer-7, the data layer. These devices can make decisions based on the actual content of the data packets, not just the source and destination.

And an ADC can do more than load balance. It can act as a Web Application Firewall to protect your data. It can speed up your application using SSL Offloading, Content Caching, TCP Optimization, and more. This type of device is very smart and very configurable and will help in the delivering the application to the end user.

At SoftLayer we have seen our customers achieve a lot of success with our Layer-4 Load Balancer product. But we are always looking for other tools to help our customers. We always have admired the advanced functionality in the appliance-based Application Delivery Controllers on the market. Finding a way to get this enterprise-grade technology to our customers in an affordable manner was problematic. When Citrix announced that they were going to create a version of their NetScaler product that didn’t require an appliance we were thrilled. With the announcement of the NetScaler VPX we finally thought we had found the right product that we could use to affordably provision this advanced technology on-demand to our customers.

SoftLayer is VERY excited to partner with Citrix to provide the NetScaler VPX Application Delivery Controller to our customers. Our customers can order a NetScaler VPX, and in a matter of minutes be managing the delivery of their online applications using one of the most sophisticated tools on the market. Citrix does a better job of promoting the product than I do, so here is the link to their site: http://citrix.com/English/ps2/products/product.asp?contentID=21679&ntref=hp_nav_US.

Remember, it’s all about the experience of the user at the other end of the wire. Find the right tools to manage that experience and you are most of the way there. Oh yeah, and find a good graphics designer too. That helps. So does good content.

-@nday91

August 26, 2009

Cool Tool: nslookup

If you've been around the Internet awhile you've probably heard of the Domain Name Service. DNS is what takes www.domain.com and turns it into the 1.2.3.4 IP address which your application actually uses to find the server hosting www.domain.com.

Fascinating, Michael, why do I care? Well if you ask that question you've never had DNS fail on you.

When name resolution goes on the blink one of the tools that support uses to see what is going is the command-line utility nslookup. In its most basic form nslookup is going to do an A record query for the string you supply as an argument and it'll send that query to your operating system's configured resolvers.


C:\>nslookup www.softlayer.com
Server: mydns.local
Address: 192.168.0.1

 


Non-authoritative answer:
Name: www.softlayer.com
Address: 66.228.118.51


What is the utility telling us? First off, it asked a resolver at 192.168.0.1 for the information. Non-authoritative answer means that the server which returned the answer (192.168.0.1) is not the nameserver which controls softlayer.com. It then gives the IP address or addresses which were found.



C:\>nslookup -q=mx softlayer.com ns1.softlayer.com
Server: ns1.softlayer.com
Address: 67.228.254.4


softlayer.com MX preference = 20, mail exchanger = mx02.softlayer.com
softlayer.com MX preference = 30, mail exchanger = mx03.softlayer.com
softlayer.com MX preference = 10, mail exchanger = mx01.softlayer.com
softlayer.com nameserver = ns2.softlayer.net
softlayer.com nameserver = ns1.softlayer.net

 


This is a slightly different query. Rather than asking my local resolver to do an A record query for www.softlayer.com I've sent an MX (mail exchanger) query for softlayer.com directly to the nameserver ns1.softlayer.com. Notice that the response does not have the non-authoritative tag. The server ns1.softlayer.com is one of the nameservers which is configured to respond with a definite answer to a question rather than just saying "well, this other guy said...".

One thing that both of these queries fail to do is show the TTL for the answer they give. Time to Live (TTL) is what generally controls how long a resolver will keep an answer in cache. While the TTL is valid the resolver will use that answer. Once the TTL expires, the resolver goes looking for a fresh answer. This is great for performance but it does have a dark side to it: because of TTL, changes to DNS records are not seen instantly by all clients. If ClientA hits your website often his resolver is going to have the query result cached (say www.domain.com -> 1.2.3.4). You change the record to www.domain.com -> 5.6.7.8 but ClientA's resolver is going to continue to respond with 1.2.3.4 until the TTL runs out. If ClientA controls their resolver they can flush its cache. Generally though it is controlled by their ISP and you just have to wait.

To see the TTL for an answer you can use the nslookup form below:



C:\>nslookup
Default Server: mydns.local
Address: 192.168.5.1

 


> set debug
> www.softlayer.com.
Server: mydns.local
Address: 192.168.5.1


------------
Got answer:
HEADER:
opcode = QUERY, id = 2, rcode = NOERROR
header flags: response, want recursion, recursion avail.
questions = 1, answers = 1, authority records = 2, additional = 0


QUESTIONS:
www.softlayer.com, type = A, class = IN
ANSWERS:
-> www.softlayer.com
internet address = 66.228.118.51
ttl = 86400 (1 day)
AUTHORITY RECORDS:
-> softlayer.com
nameserver = ns1.softlayer.net
ttl = 86400 (1 day)
-> softlayer.com
nameserver = ns2.softlayer.net
ttl = 86400 (1 day)


------------
Non-authoritative answer:
Name: www.softlayer.com
Address: 66.228.118.51


The key to this spew is 'set debug' which causes nslookup to display additional information about the response, including the TTL value of the answer. You'll notice that the TTL in the ANSWERS section is 86400 seconds, which is the number of seconds in one day. This is a common TTL value. If I run the query again though, I have the following answers section:



ANSWERS:
-> www.softlayer.com
internet address = 66.228.118.51
ttl = 85802 (23 hours 50 mins 2

 


Notice how the TTL is counting down. The resolver is going to continue responding with the answer 66.228.118.51 until that TTL hits zero. At zero, the resolver will go looking for a new answer. What this means for you as a domain operator is that if you know you're going to be changing a record you should adjust down the TTL for that record a couple of days in advance. For example when some friends and I moved our colo server from one provider to another we dropped the TTLs for our DNS records down to 30 minutes two days prior to the move. Once the move was complete we were able to put them back to prior values.

 

If you spend any time at all messing with DNS you should play around with nslookup.

If you're on a Unix system take a look at the command 'dig' as well.

Happy resolving.

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