Technology Posts

August 7, 2014

Deploy or Die

“Forget about being a futurist, become a now-ist.” With those words, Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, ends his most recent talk at TED. What thrills me the most is his encouragement to apply agile principles throughout any innovation process, and creating in the moment, building quickly and improving constantly is the story we’ve been advocating at SoftLayer for a long while.

Joi says that this new approach is possible thanks to the Internet. I actually want to take it further. Because the Internet has been around a lot longer than these agile principles, I argue that the real catalyst for the startups and technology disruptors we see nowadays was the widespread, affordable availability of cloud resources. The chance of deploying infrastructure on demand without long-term commitments, anywhere in the world, and with an option to scale it up and down on the fly decreased the cost of innovation dramatically. And fueling that innovation has always been raison d'être of SoftLayer.

Joi compares two innovation models: the before the Internet (I will go ahead and replace “Internet” with “cloud,” which I believe makes the case even stronger) and the new model. The world seemed to be much more structured before the cloud, governed by a certain set of rules and laws. When the cloud happened, it became very complex, low cost, and fast, with Newtonian rules being often defied.

Before, creating something new would cost millions of dollars. The process started with commercial minds, aka MBAs, who’d write a business plan, look for money to support it, and then hire designers and engineers to build the thing. Recently, this MBA-driven model has flipped: first designers and engineers build a thing, then they look for money from VCs or larger organizations, then they write a business plan, and then they move on to hiring MBAs.

A couple of months ago, I started to share this same observation more loudly. In the past, if an organization wanted to bring something new to the market, or just make iteration to the existing offering, it involved a lot of resources, from time, to people, to supporting infrastructure. Only a handful of ideas, after cumbersome fights with processes, budget restrictions, and people (and their egos), got to see the daylight. Change was a luxury.

Nowadays the creators are people who used to be in the shadows, mainly taking instructions from “management” and spinning the hamster wheel they were put on. Now, the “IT crowd” no longer sits in the basements of their offices. They are creating new revenue streams and becoming driving forces within their organizations, or they are rolling out their own businesses as startup founders. There is a whole new breed of technology entrepreneurs thriving on what the cloud offers.

Coming back to the TED talk, Joi brings great examples proving that this new designers/engineers-driven model has pushed innovation to the edges and beyond not only in software development, but also in manufacturing, medicine, and other disciplines. He describes bottom-up innovation as democratic, chaotic, and hard to control, where traditional rules don’t apply anymore. He replaces the demo-or-die motto with a new one: deploy or die, stating that you have to bring something to the real world for it to really count.

He walks us through the principles behind the new way of doing things, and for each of those, without any hesitation, I can add, “and that’s exactly what the cloud enables” as an ending to each statement:

  • Principle 1: Pull Over Push is about pulling the resources from the network as you need them, rather than stocking them in the center and controlling everything. And that’s exactly what the cloud enables.
  • Principle 2: Learning Over Education means drawing conclusions and learning on the go—not from static information, but by experimenting, testing things in real life, playing around with your idea, seeing what comes out of it, and applying the lessons moving forward. And that’s exactly what the cloud enables.
  • Principle 3: Compass Over Maps calls out the high cost of writing a plan or mapping the whole project, as it usually turns out not to be very accurate nor useful in the unpredictable world we live in. It’s better not to plan the whole thing with all the details ahead, but to know the direction you’re headed and leave yourself the freedom of flexibility, to adjust as you go, taking into account the changes resulting from each step. And that’s exactly what the cloud enables.

I dare to say that all the above is the true power of cloud without fluff, leaving you with an easy choice when facing the deploy-or-die dilemma.

- Michalina

July 16, 2014

Vyatta Gateway Appliance vs Vyatta Network OS

I hear this question almost daily: “What’s the difference between the Vyatta Network OS offered by SoftLayer and the SoftLayer Vyatta Gateway Appliance?” The honest answer is, from a software perspective, nothing. However from a deployment perspective, there are a couple fundamental differences.

Vyatta Network OS on the SoftLayer Platform

SoftLayer offers customers the ability to spin up different bare metal or virtual server configurations, and choose either the community or subscription edition of the Vyatta Network operating system. The server is deployed like any other host on the SoftLayer platform with a public and private interface placed in the VLANs selected while ordering. Once online, you can route traffic through the Vyatta Network server by changing the default gateway on your hosts to use the Vyatta Network server IP rather than the default gateway. You have the option to configure ingress and egress ACLs for your bare metal or virtual servers that route through the Vyatta Network server. The Vyatta Network server can also be configured as a VPN end point to terminate Internet Protocol Security (IPSEC), Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE), or OpenSSL VPN connections, and securely connect to the SoftLayer Private Network. Sounds great right?

So, how is a Vyatta Network OS server different from a SoftLayer Vyatta Gateway Appliance?

A True Gateway

While it’s true that the Vyatta Gateway Appliance has the same functionality as a server running the Vyatta Network operating system, one of the primary differences is that the Vyatta Gateway Appliance is delivered as a true gateway. You may be asking yourself what that means. It means that the Vyatta Gateway Appliance is the only entry and exit point for traffic on VLANs you associate with it. When you place an order for the Vyatta Gateway Appliance and select your public and private VLANs, the Vyatta Gateway Appliance comes online with its native VLAN for its public and private interfaces in a transit VLAN. The VLANs you selected are trunked to the gateway appliance’s public and private interfaces via an 802.1q trunk setup on the server’s interface switch ports. These VLANs will show up in the customer portal as associated VLANs for the Vyatta Gateway Appliance.

This configuration allows SoftLayer to create an outside, unprotected interface (in the transit VLAN) and an inside, protected interface (on your bare metal server or virtual server VLAN). As part of the configuration, we set up SoftLayer routers to static route all IP space that belongs to the associated VLANs to the Vyatta Gateway Appliance transit VLAN IP address. The servers you have in a VLAN associated with gateway appliance can no longer use the SoftLayer default gateway to route in and out of the VLAN. All traffic must be filtered through the Gateway Appliance, making it a true gateway.

This differs from a server deployed with the Vyatta Network OS because hosts behind the Vyatta Network OS server can route around it by simply changing their default gateway back to the SoftLayer default gateway.

N-Tier Architecture

Another difference is that the gateway appliance gives customers the option to route multiple public and private VLANs in the same pod (delineated by an FCR/BCR pair) through the device. This allows you to use the gateway appliance to create granular segmentation between different VLANs within your environment, and set up a traditional tiered infrastructure environment with ingress and egress rules between the tiers.

A server running Vyatta Network OS cannot be configured this way. The Vyatta Network OS server is placed in a single public and private VLAN, and there is no option to associate different VLANs with the server.

I hope this helps clear up the confusion around Vyatta on the SoftLayer platform. As always, if you have any questions or concerns about any of SoftLayer’s products or services, the sales and sales engineering teams are happy to help.

-Kelly

July 1, 2014

The Cloud in 100 Years

Today’s cloud is still in its infancy, with less than 10 years under its belt, yet it has produced some of the most advanced products and solutions known to date. Cloud, in fact, has helped change how the world connects by making information, current events, and communication available globally, at the speed of light.

The Internet itself was born in the 1960s and in just 44 years, look at what it has accomplished! Websites like Google, Bing, and Yahoo provide up-to-the-second information that is reinventing and replacing the role dictionaries and encyclopedias once played. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are revolutionizing how most of the world communicates. WordPress, Tumblr, and bloggers give voices to many journalist and writers who were once only heard by few, if any. It is truly a new landscape today. Do you think when Herman Hollerith thought he invented the punch card in the 1890s that it would evolve data processing to “the cloud” in just 100 years? IBM 100 explains:

One could argue that the information age began with the punch card, and that data processing as a transformational technology began with its 1928 redesign by IBM. This thin piece of cardboard, with 80 columns of tiny rectangular holes made the world quantifiable. It allowed data to be recorded, stored, and analyzed. For nearly 50 years, it remained the primary vehicle for processing the essential facts and figures that comprised countless industries, in every corner of the globe. (IBM 100)

What about the future?

It’s obvious that predicting 10 decades into the future is a difficult task, but one thing is for sure, this cloud thing is just getting started.

  • What will we call it? The Internet/World Wide Web is now almost synonymous with the term cloud. I predict that in the next 20 years it will take on another name. Something even more nebulous than the cloud … maybe even “The Nebula.” Or … quite possibly, Skynet!
  • How will it be accessed? In 100 years, I think the more fitting question will be, “how will you hide from it?” Today, we are voluntarily connected with our smart phones. You can be found and contacted using varying mediums from a single, handheld device. FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype, Tango … you name it. You can make video calls to people halfway around the world in seconds. If Moore’s law still applies in 100 years, our devices could potentially be 50 times smaller than what they are today.
  • Ultimate Control: Nanotechnology will have the ability to control the weather and not only determine if we will have rain but regulate it. Weather control could rid the world of drought and make uninhabitable areas of the world flourish.
  • Medicine: The term “antibiotics” will take on a whole new meaning for medicine in 100 years. Imagine instead of getting a shot of penicillin, you receive 50mL of microscopic robots that can attack the virus directly, from within. The robots then send a push notification to your ‘iPhone 47S’ notifying you that your flu bug has been located and irradiated and that you can press “OK” to send the final report to your physician. The Magic School Bus finally becomes a reality!

Without a doubt, cloud services will be everywhere in the future. The change is already taking place with early adopters and businesses. In the 10 years since the industry coined the term cloud, it’s become a birthplace for technology and industry disruptive behavior. This has caught the attention of the traditional IT organizations as a way to save capital, lower time to market, and increase research and development on their own products and services.

SoftLayer is dedicated to helping the transformation of mid-market and enterprise companies alike. We understand that the cloud is virtually making this world smaller as companies reach into markets that were once out of reach; which is why we’re in the process of doubling our data center footprint to reach those unreachable areas of the world. Don’t be surprised when we announce our first data center on the moon!

-Harold

Categories: 
May 20, 2014

The Next Next

Last month in Europe, I had a chance to participate is some interesting discussions at The Next Web (TNW) Europe and NEXT Berlin conferences. The discussions centered around where we are on the curve of technology development, what the scene looks like now, and what the future holds. TNW Europe inspired me to share my thoughts here on the topic of inevitable market evolution, in particular which aspects will be instrumental in this progress and the empowering phenomenon of embracing the possibility to fail and change.

Attending NEXT Berlin boosted my confidence about those conclusions and motivated me to write a few words of a follow up. Connected cars, or “new mobility,” Internet of Things, smart houses, e-health, and digitalized personal medicine, application of cloud and big data in various industries from automotive, to home appliances, to army, and to FMCG, all are proof that the world is changing at a stunning pace. And all that is fueled by the evolution of organizations and how they set up their IT, hosting strategies and environments.

The most invigorating talk, in my opinion, at NEXT Berlin was given by Peter Hinssen. His keynote on The New Normal gave the audience a couple solid “ah” and “ha” moments. Here are some of the highlights I took away from the talk:

  • Technology is not only relevant to (almost) every aspect of our lives; it is in fact obvious, if not commoditized. Digital is present everywhere, from grocery shopping, to stopping at traffic lights, to visiting a dentist office, to jogging, to going to the movies, to sharing holidays greetings with our friends, to drinking fresh water from our taps, and so on. Technology we use privately usually surpasses what we use at work. The moment we receive access to something new, we immediately expect that to be working seamlessly and we get irritated if it doesn’t (think: national coverage of LTE, Wi-Fi available on board of aircrafts, streamed HD on-demand television, battery life of smart devices). We take technology for granted, not because we’re arrogant, but because it is omnipresent.
  • Information and technology are becoming equally available to all, leveling the landscape and helping organizations stay ahead and constantly re-invent themselves. Access to data and new tools is no longer a privilege and luxury that only the biggest fish can afford. Nowadays, thanks to an expansive spectrum of as-a-service offerings, every organization can get an insight of their buyers’ attitudes and behaviors and change accordingly to gain competitive advantage. Those who resist to constantly remodel the way they operate and serve the market, will be quickly outrun by dozens of those who understand the value of being agile.
  • Organizations and markets run on two different clocks: one is internal, the other is external, and very often they are unsynchronized. The bigger the gap between the clocks, the less chance for that organizations survival. People learn new technologies very fast and become their users faster in private than professional space. Legacy processes, miscommunication, misperception, and sometimes ignorance overshadow the reality that the progress is on a slower lane when it comes to business. The development is unstoppable and it keeps on becoming more complex and more intense. Not to fall behind, organization need to become ‘fluid’ to respond real-time to those flux conditions.
  • Society and markets are operating as networks. In order to serve them efficiently, businesses need to reorganize their structures to operate as networks. With the dominance of social, the typical organizational hierarchy is detached from buyer’s mentality. In our private lives, we trust more of our peers, we give more credibility to influencers who have solid network of followers, and best ideas are fueled by different, unrelated sources. Applying the same principles to professional environments, restructuring the organizational chart from top-down reporting lines to more of a network topography, hence going beyond traditional divisions, silos, and clusters, will boost the internal creativity and innovation.
  • Information is not a pool with a fixed option to “read” and “write “anymore. It is actually fluid and should be seen more as a river with infinite number of branches and customers sitting at the heart of each cluster. It is not an organization who decides what and when is being said and known. The discretion belongs to users and buyers, who share widely their insights, reviews, likes, and opinions and whose recommendations—either coming from an individual or in an aggregated form—are much more powerful. At the same time that set of information is not static, but dynamic. Organizations should respect, embrace, and adapt actively to that flow.

Peter claims we’re probably not even half way down the S curve of that transformation. Being part of it, seeing those disruptive organizations grow on our platform, having a chance to talk to so many smart people from all over the world who shape the nowadays societies and redefine businesses, is one of the most thrilling aspects of working for SoftLayer. Even if my grandma still associates cloud with weather conditions, I know my kids will be all “no way” once I tell them a story of how we were changing the world.

Wondering what will be the age test for them…

- Michalina

May 1, 2014

New App Release: SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1

Today, the SoftLayer development team is launching a new platform accessibility tool for SoftLayer customers who want to easily manage their infrastructure from Windows. We've gotten a great response from the users of SoftLayer Mobile app for Windows Phone, so we turned our attention to creating an app for customers on Windows 8.1: SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1.

With a growing number of users adopting and embracing Windows 8.1 on their PCs, and the Windows Store is becoming a vibrant community of useful apps for those customers. There are more than 145,000 apps on the Windows Store, and that number is expected to increase exponentially following Microsoft’s recent introduction of "Universal Apps for Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1.” With all that goodness and an expanding market, it was imperative for our mobile development team to build an app for customers using Windows 8.1 as their default OS or carrying Windows RT tablets.

Why Windows 8.1?

Our team wants to provide simple, efficient ways for customers to connect to SoftLayer infrastructure and perform any necessary management tasks while on-the-go. Our team is inspired by the power of connected devices in Windows ecosystem. By developing an app for Windows 8.1, we will slowly bring the phone, tablet and PC onto one streamlined platform — a concept many smart devices are adopting quickly.

What’s Fresh?

New Dashboard

The SoftLayer Mobile app for Windows 8.1 is a fresh new approach to its Windows Phone sibling. The app provides a dashboard view after authentication that provides a snapshot of some of the most commonly used information and controls in the portal.

Currently, the dashboard supports four different panels: Tickets, devices, accounting and bandwidth. All display an overview of relevant information for you and your environment. The dashboard also allows you to quickly add a ticket or make a one-time payment on your account.

SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1

In-line Ticket Updates

In the new tickets module, you can update tickets without ever leaving the page. This functionality is similar to what you see on many social websites, and it's integrated to be seamless.

SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1

Search Everywhere!

One of the coolest additions to the new app is the introduction of search functionality in each module. Now, you can search a ticket, a device, or an invoice by just typing into the search box! The search capability lets you spend less time scrolling and more time working.

SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1

Bandwidth Display

Smart phones have apps that measure and report how much data you are using, and your infrastructure should be similarly transparent Bandwidth usage is an important aspect of server management, so we built the bandwidth module to show your infrastructure's public and private traffic for current and previous billing cycles. This view also helps you see when a server is about to reach its limits so that you can plan accordingly.

SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1

The module provides two ways to look at the data:

  • In a tabular form by clicking the “Show/Hide Traffic Details” button.
  • In a graphic representation by clicking the “View Graph” button.

SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1

Same Functionality. Better Experience.

Sometimes change is not always needed for a nicely crafted feature. The new app keeps the same feature richness of the Windows Phone app and arranges it in a user-friendly way. For example, in the devices module, you can navigate to between different tabs to get the information you need, from password lists and attached tickets to a specific device or monitoring alarms.

The “Remote Control” section on the module allows you to perform actions such as rebooting, power cycles, restarts and pinging servers. In addition, you can view hardware and software installed on the device along with the hardware and network components attached. In the current phone version, you can only see the root password for the device, but in the Windows 8.1 app, you see all passwords for the server.

SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1

What's Next?

During the development of this app, the team's goal was to test to adopt a framework that would be ideal for scaling. More and more developers are adopting a Model-View-Model (MVVM) approach to mobile and web app development, so our goal was to use that approach for this project. The significant challenge we faced when adopting this approach was finding a well-supported framework that met our application's needs. We weren't able to find suitable frameworks that committed regular updates in SDKs or in APIs, so we ended up using the same MVVM principles without any underlying framework. In the end, the project allowed us to create our own framework for future projects!

There are many exciting features that are lined up for the Windows 8.1 app. Download it now: SoftLayer Mobile for Windows 8.1

After you try it out, please submit your feedback ... We want to keep improving the app by providing the features and functionality that matter most to you.

-Imran

April 14, 2014

OpenSSL Heartbleed Update

On April 7th, the OpenSSL Project released an update to address a serious security flaw (CVE-2014-0160), which allows remote attackers to obtain sensitive information from process memory via crafted packets that trigger a buffer over-read, as demonstrated by reading private keys, related to d1_both.c and t1_lib.c, aka the Heartbleed bug.

SoftLayer Infrastructure

After notification of this vulnerability we began a close examination of our services to determine any that may have been affected. Both the SoftLayer customer portal and API are serviced behind hardware load balancers and neither the hardware load balancers nor the software running on the servers behind them were found to be running vulnerable versions of OpenSSL. This was confirmed by the hardware vendor and direct testing as well. During these tests it was discovered that certain nodes of our Object Storage cluster were running a vulnerable version of OpenSSL. The software was immediately patched to remediate the issue. Although there is no indication that this vulnerability was exploited, the subset of customers potentially affected has been advised of precautionary measures to ensure continued security.

Additionally, our team forced updates to all of our internal operating system update mirrors as soon as patched versions were released by their publishers. Our system automatically checks for and updates all operating system versions hosted on our mirrors, but due to the urgency of this exploit, manual updates were run as quickly as possible to have patched versions available sooner.

SoftLayer Customers

Due to the nature, surface area, and severity of this vulnerability, we recommend revoking all possibly compromised keys and reissuing new certificates for any service secured using the OpenSSL library. The rekeying process can vary depending on your Certificate Authority (CA) and you should contact them if you have questions on how to complete this process. This OpenSSL vulnerability has major security implications for a wide range of operating systems and applications and may necessitate rebooting your hardware (or restarting services) to ensure all services linking against the affected code use the updated version of the OpenSSL library. We also recommend that you patch all of your servers and change passwords as soon as possible. Take this opportunity to review your overall password strategy including password strength and password sharing across sites.

-@skinman454

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March 12, 2014

Name Servers: Don't Get Lost in (Domain) Translation

The Domain Name System (DNS) is vital to keeping the Internet in order and easily accessible. Every byte on the World Wide Web lives in (at least) one specific place on the planet, and it's mapped to that location with an IP address like 66.228.118.53 (IPv4) or 2607:f0d0:4545:3:200:f8ff:fe21:67cf (IPv6). DNS translates the domain names you know and love to the correct IP addresses, so without DNS, you would have to memorize a 32-bit or 128-bit IP address for your favorite websites. Remember the last time your cell phone died? How many phone numbers did you have memorized?

There are plenty of resources available online to explain How DNS Works, so in this post, we'll focus on the basics of how we use DNS. Here's the scenario: We want to register a domain — softlayer.com — and make it available to the masses.

1. Reserve and Register a Domain Name
The first thing we need to do is purchase and register our domain name. To do this, we need to choose a domain registrar and verify that our domain is available. Every domain registrar effectively provides the same service: It will reserve an available domain on your behalf, and it will let you dictate where that domain will live. There's not a lot of differentiation or value-add in that service, so many registrars offer cheap or free domains as loss-leaders for higher margin hosting or Web services. Be sure to check the fine print to make sure you're not committing to a year of hosting to get a $0.99 domain name. Some registrars make the process of updating and configuring where a domain resolves more difficult than others, but for the sake of this example we'll assume that your registrar allows the same easy accessibility SoftLayer provides our customers in the customer portal.

The domain name we want is softlayer.com, and in this example, that domain name is available for us to reserve. Once we go through the ordering process, we'll need to associate the domain with a set of authoritative name servers. Authoritative name servers are effectively the go-to address book for a specified domain. By default, your domain registrar will provide name servers for your domain, but they can be changed easily to meet your needs. You have four typical options when it comes to choosing your domain's name servers:

  • Use the domain registrar's default name servers.
  • Use you hosting provider’s name servers.
  • Use a third party DNS service to manage your domain names.
  • Run your own name servers on your server to manage your domain names.

Each of these options has its own pros and cons, but because we're just interested in getting our domain online, we'll use SoftLayer's DNS control panel to manage our new domain name.

2. Create DNS Records
When we access our hosting provider's DNS control panel, we see this:

DNS Management

This is an extremely high level view of DNS, so we’re just going to focus on what we must have in order to make softlayer.com reachable via browser. The first thing we'll do is add a DNS zone. This is usually our domain, but in some situations, it can be a bit different. In this example, we'll create a “softlayer.com” zone to be responsible for the whole softlayer.com domain:

DNS Management

With that zone created, we now need to add new "Address Records" (A Records) within that zone:

DNS Management
DNS Management

The terminology used in different DNS control panels may vary, so let’s breakdown what the four sections in those screenshots mean:

  • Resource Type: This is our DNS record type. In our example, we have A records which link a hostname to our IP address. There are a number of DNS record types, each serving a different purpose.
  • Host: This is the host node or owner name — the name of the node that this record applies to. Using the @ symbol in the A record allows visitors to reach our website without the leading www. If we wanted blog.softlayer.com to live at a different IP address, we'd make that happen here.
  • Points To: This is the IP address of the host node. You might see this section referred to elsewhere as content, data or value. The standard term is RDATA — resource record data. This is specific to each data type.
  • TTL (Time-to-Live): TTL dictates how long your name server should keep a particular record before refreshing for possible updates. Generally speaking, longer TTLs work well if you’re just adding new entries and or don’t anticipate frequent record changes.

Once we save these changes in our DNS control panel, we play the waiting game. Because these DNS changes have to propagate across our DNS servers to be accessible to the Internet as a whole, the process typically takes 24-48 hours, if not sooner. SoftLayer’s customer portal has DNS check built-in as one a few different network tools. If you aren't a current customer, you can use What's my DNS? This is what the SoftLayer tool looks like:

DNS Management

3. Create rDNS Records
The last step we want to take in setting up our domain is to create Reverse DNS (rDNS) records. These records do the same thing as DNS records, but (as the name suggests) they function in the opposite direction. With rDNS, we can assign an IP address to a domain name. This step isn't required, but I recommend it to help ensure better performance of online activities like email and website visitor tracking.

DNS is a central piece of the Internet as we know it, so by understanding how to use it, you'll have a much better understanding of how the Internet works. It seems challenging at first glance, but as you see from this simple walkthrough, when you break down and understand each step, you won't get overwhelmed. A wealth of DNS tools and tutorials are available for free online, and our DNS documentation might be a great resource to bookmark so you'll never get lost in domain translation.

- Landon

December 16, 2013

Xplenty: Tech Partner Spotlight

We invite each of our featured SoftLayer Tech Marketplace Partners to contribute a guest post to the SoftLayer Blog, and this week, we're happy to welcome Yaniv Mor from Xplenty. Xplenty is a cloud-based code-free Hadoop as a Service platform that allows you to easily create data workflows, provision, monitor and scale clusters. Their goal is to eliminate the complexity of Hadoop to make it accessible and cost-effective for everyone.

Simplifying Hadoop

Apache Hadoop, open source software developed by Doug Cutting, is the most popular storage and processing platform for big data. Because Hadoop can accommodate structured data, semi-structured data, and unstructured data, it is the storage architecture of choice for some of the Internet's largest and most data-rich sites. Industry giants such as Google and Facebook have been using Hadoop for years to store and deliver information while gathering insights from customer behavior and internal business processes, and their obvious success with the platform has helped drive broad adoption and popularity all the way down to small-businesses and startups.

Specific use cases vary among industries, but similarities exist. Many companies leverage Hadoop to gather information about their clientele. With Hadoop, a company can process huge amounts of data to examine past and present behaviors, and with that information, customers can be presented personally-tailored recommendations, and the business can glean deep insights from the trends and outliers in its customer base. As a result, customers are more likely to make repeat purchases, and companies are able to predict trends and possible risks, allowing them to visualize and prepare for a number of business scenarios.

Another compelling use case for Hadoop is its ability to analyze and report on multi-faceted marketing and advertising campaigns. By drilling down into the guts of a campaign, users can see exactly what worked and what didn't. Marketers and advertisers can direct their resources to the campaigns that worked and let the ineffective ones fall by the wayside.

On the internal side, businesses are using Hadoop to better understand their own information. Data systems at financial companies use it to detect fraud anomalies by comparing transaction details. If you've ever made a credit card purchase in another state or country but the purchase didn't go through, your bank's system probably flagged the transaction for a representative to investigate. Other companies analyze data collected from their networks to monitor activity and diagnose bottlenecks and other issues with a negative impact.

The challenge with leveraging Hadoop's broad potential is that a company generally needs dedicated technical resources to allocate toward building and maintaining the solution — from manpower to financial to infrastructure. Hadoop is difficult to program and requires a very specific skill set that few possess. If a company doesn't have the personnel for the job, it will need to fork over some serious cash to get a system built and maintained. This can significantly hinder the progress of the data and business intelligence teams, and by default, the progress of the company. That's why we decided to create Xplenty.

Xplenty is a coding-free Hadoop-as-a-Service platform that allows data and BI users to process their big data stored on the SoftLayer cloud without having to acquire any special skills. What Xplenty does is remove the need to divert those precious resources from anything other than the business at hand. Xplenty's Hadoop-as-a-Service platform has a graphical user interface that enables the data and BI teams to build data flows without ever having to write a line of code. The benefit of this is twofold. First, the business intelligence analysts can quickly build data flows that would typically take weeks or more to program and debug, and data users can easily insert Xplenty into their data stack to handle processing needs. The second benefit is that since the IT department doesn't have to worry about doing any programming, they are able to tackle more pressing issues, bottlenecks are avoided, and life goes on without a hitch.

Xplenty was created specifically for the cloud, and SoftLayer is a major player in this space, so it was a natural fit for us to partner up to provide a SoftLayer-specific offering that will perform even better for customers already using SoftLayer infrastructure. We only work with providers with the best and most stable infrastructure, and SoftLayer is definitely at the top of the list.

If you want to try Hadoop on Xplenty, jump over to our SoftLayer sign up page, enter your details, and test drive the platform with a free 30-day trial!

- Yaniv Mor, Xplenty

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 14, 2013

Enhancing Usability by Building User Confidence

Consider your experiences with web applications, and see if this scenario seems familiar: Your electricity bill has some incorrect charges on it. Fearing that you will have to spend 40 minutes on hold if you call in, you find that the electric company website has a support center where you can submit billing issues and questions; you are saved! You carefully fill out the form with your sixteen-digit account number and detailed description of the incorrect charges. You read it over and click the submit button. Your page goes blank for a couple of seconds, the form comes back with a note saying you typed in your phone number incorrectly, and the detailed description you spent eleven minutes meticulously writing is gone.

Web applications have gotten much better at preventing these kinds of user experiences over the past few years, and I'm sure that none of your applications have this problem (if they do, fix it right now!), but "usability" is more than just handling errors gracefully. Having a seamless process is only half the battle when it comes to giving your users a great experience with your application. The other half of the battle is a much more subjective: Your users need to feel confident in their success every step of the way. By keeping a few general guidelines in mind, you can instill confidence in your users so that they feel positive about your application from start to finish with whatever they are trying to accomplish.

1. Keep the user in a familiar context.

As the user in our electric company support application example, let's assume the process works and does not lose any of my information. I have to have faith that the application is going to do what I expect it to do when the page refreshes. Faith and unfamiliar technology do not exactly go hand in hand. Instead of having the form submit with a page refresh, the site's developers could introduce a progress wheel or other another kind of indicator that shows the data is being submitted while the content is still visible. If detailed content never goes away during the submission process, I'm confident that I still have access to my information.

Another example of the same principle is the use of modal windows. Modal windows are presented on top of a previous page, so users have a clear way of going back if they get confused or decide they navigated to the wrong place. By providing this new content on top of a familiar page, users are much less likely to feel disoriented if they get stuck or lost, and they will feel more confident when they're using the application.

2. Reassure the user with immediate feedback.

By communicating frequently and clearly, users are reassured, and they are much less likely to become anxious. Users want to see their actions get a response from your application. In our electric company support application example, imagine how much better the experience would be if a small blurb was displayed in red next to the phone number text box when I typed in my phone number in the wrong format. The immediate feedback would pinpoint the problem when it is easy to correct, and it would make me confident that when the phone number is updated, the application will continue to work as expected.

3. Provide warnings or extra information for dangerous or complicated operations.

When users are new to an application, they are not always sure which actions will have negative consequences. This is another great opportunity for communication. Providing notices or alerts for important or risky operations can offer a good dose of hesitation for new users who aren't prepared. Effective warnings or notices will tell the user when they will want to perform this action or what the negative consequences might be, so the user can make an informed decision. Users are confident with informed decisions because a lack information causes anxiety.

I learned how to implement this tip when I designed a wizard system for a previous employer that standardized how the company's application would walked users through any step-by-step process. My team decided early on to standardize a review step at the end of any implemented wizard. This was an extra step that every user had to go through for every wizard in the application, but it made all of the related processes much more usable and communicative. This extra information gave the users a chance to see the totality of the operation they were performing, and it gave them a chance to correct any mistakes. Implementing this tip resulted in users who were fully informed and confident throught the process of very complicated operations.

4. Do not assume your users know your terminology, and don't expect them to learn it.

Every organization has its own language. I have never encountered an exception to this rule. It cannot be helped! Inside your organization, you come up with a defined vocabulary for referencing the topics you have to work with every day, but your users won't necessarily understand the terminology you use internally. Some of your ardent users pick up on your language through osmosis, but the vast majority of users just get confused when they encounter terms they are not familiar with.

When interacting with users, refrain from using any of your internal language, and strictly adhere to a universally-accepted vocabulary. In many cases, you need shorthand to describe complex concepts that users will already understand. In this situation, always use universal or industry-wide vocabulary if it is available.

This practice can be challenging and will often require extra work. Let's say you have a page in your application dealing with "display devices," which could either be TVs or monitors. All of your employees talk about display devices because to your organization, they are essentially the same thing. The technology of your application handles all display devices in exactly the same way, so as good software designers you have this abstracted (or condensed for non-technical people) so that you have the least amount of code possible. The easiest route is to just have a page that talks about display devices. The challenge with that approach is that your users understand what monitors and TVs are, but they don't necessarily think of those as display devices.

If that's the case, you should use the words "monitors" and "TVs" when you're talking about display devices externally. This can be difficult, and it requires a lot of discipline, but when you provide familiar terminology, users won't be disoriented by basic terms. To make users more comfortable, speak to them in their language. Don't expect them to learn yours, because most of them won't.

When you look at usability through the subjective lens of user confidence, you'll find opportunities to enhance your user experience ... even when you aren't necessarily fixing anything that's broken. While it's difficult to quantify, confidence is at the heart of what makes people like or dislike any product or tool. Pay careful attention to the level of confidence your users have throughout your application, and your application can reach new heights.

-Tony

November 1, 2013

Paving the Way for the DevOps Revolution

The traditional approach to software development has been very linear: Your development team codes a release and sends it over to a team of quality engineers to be tested. When everything looks good, the code gets passed over to IT operations to be released into production. Each of these teams operates within its own silo and makes changes independent of the other groups, and at any point in the process, it's possible a release can get kicked back to the starting line. With the meteoric rise of agile development — a development philosophy geared toward iterative and incremental code releases — that old waterfall-type development approach is being abandoned in favor of a DevOps approach.

DevOps — a fully integrated development and operations approach — streamlines the software development process in an agile development environment by consolidating development, testing and release responsibilities into one cohesive team. This way, ideas, features and other developments can be released very quickly and iteratively to respond to changing and growing market needs, avoiding the delays of long, drawn-out and timed dev releases.

To help you visualize the difference between the traditional approach and the DevOps approach, take a look at these two pictures:

Traditional Waterfall Development
SoftLayer DevOps Blog

DevOps
SoftLayer DevOps Blog

Unfortunately, many businesses struggle to adopt the DevOps approach because they simply update their org chart by merging their traditional teams, but their development philosophy doesn't change at the same time. As a result, I've encountered a lot of companies who have been jaded by previous attempts to move to a DevOps model, and I'm not alone. There is a significant need in the marketplace for some good old fashioned DevOps expertise.

A couple months ago, my friend Raj Bhargava pinged me with a phenomenal idea to put on a DevOps "un-conference" in Boulder, Colorado, to address the obvious need he's observed for DevOps education and best practices. Raj is a serial, multiple-exit entrepreneur from Boulder, and he is the co-founder and CEO of a DevOps-focused startup there called JumpCloud. When he asked if I would like to co-chair the event and have SoftLayer as a headline sponsor alongside JumpCloud, the answer was a quick and easy "Yes!"

Sure, there have been other DevOps-related conferences around the world, but ours was designed to be different from the outset. As strange as it may sound, half of the conference intentionally occurred outside of the conference: One of our highest priorities was to strike up conversations between the participants before, during and after the event. If we're putting on a conference to encourage a collaborative development approach, it would be counterproductive for us to use a top-down, linear approach to engaging the attendees, right?

I'm happy to report that this inaugural attempt of our untested concept was an amazing success. We kept the event private for our first run at the concept, but the event was bursting at the seams with brilliant developers and tech influencers. Brad Feld and our friends from the Foundry Group invited all of their portfolio CEO's and CTO's. David Cohen, co-founder of Techstars and head honcho at Bullet Time Ventures did the same. JumpCloud and SoftLayer helped round out the attendee list with a few of our most innovative partners as well as a few of technologists from within our own organizations. It was an incredible mix of super-smart tech pros, business leaders and VC's from all over the world.

With such a diverse group of attendees, the conversations at the event were engaging, energizing and profound. We discussed everything from how startups should incorporate automation into their business plans at the outset to how the practice of DevOps evolves as companies scale quickly. At the end of the day, we brought all of those theoretical discussions back down to the ground by sharing case studies of real companies that have had unbelievable success in incorporating DevOps into their businesses. I had the honor of wrapping up the event as moderator of a panel with Jon Prall from Sendgrid, Scott Engstrom from Gnip and Richard Miller of Mocavo, and I couldn't have been happier with the response.

I'd like to send a big thanks to everyone who participated, especially our cosponsors — JumpCloud, VictorOps, Authentic8, DH Capital, SendGrid, Cooley, Pivot Desk, SVP and Pantheon.

I'm looking forward to opening this up to the world next year!

-@PaulFord

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