Pointy Elbows, Bags of Beans, and a little anthill excavation…A response to the New York Times Data Center Articles

I have been following with some interest the series of articles in the New York Times by Jim Glanz.  The series premiered on Sunday with an article entitled Power, Pollution and the Internet, which was followed up today with a deeper dive in some specific examples.  The examples today (Data  Barns in a farm town, Gobbling Power and Flexing muscle) focused on the Microsoft program, a program of which I have more than some familiarity since I ran it for many years.   After just two articles, reading the feedback in comments, and seeing some of the reaction in the blogosphere it is very clear that there is more than a significant amount of misunderstanding, over-simplification, and a lack of detail I think is probably important.   In doing so I want to be very clear that I am not representing AOL, Microsoft, or any other organization other than my own personal observations and opinions.  

As mentioned in both of the articles I was one of hundreds of people interviewed by the New York Times for this series.  In those conversations with Jim Glanz a few things became very apparent.  First – He has been on this story for a very long time, at least a year.   As far as journalists go, he was incredibly deeply engaged and armed with tons of facts.  In fact, he had a trove of internal emails, meeting minutes, and a mountain of data through government filings that must have taken him months to collect.  Secondly, he had the very hard job of turning this very complex space into a format where the uneducated masses can begin to understand it.  Therein lies much of the problem – This is an incredibly complex space to try and communicate it to those not tackling it day to day or even understand that technological, regulatory forces involved.  This is not an area or topic that can be sifted down to a sound bite.   If this were easy, there really wouldn’t be a story would there?

At issue for me is that the complexity of the powers involved seems to get scant attention aiming larger for the “Data Centers are big bad energy vampires hurting the environment” story.   Its clearly evident reading through the comments on the both of the articles so far.   Claiming that the sources and causes have everything to do from poor web page design to government or multi-national companies conspiracies to corner the market on energy. 

So I thought I would take a crack article by article to shed some light (the kind that doesn’t burn energy) on some of the topics and just call out where I disagree completely.     In full transparency  the “Data Barns” article doesn’t necessarily paint me as a “nice guy”.  Sometimes I am.  Sometimes I am not.  I am not an apologist, nor do I intend to do so in this post.  I am paid to get stuff done.  To execute. To deliver.  Quite frankly the PUD missed deadlines (the progenitor event to my email quoted in the piece) and sometimes people (even utility companies) have to live in the real world of consequences.   I think my industry reputation, work, and fundamental stances around driving energy efficiency and environmental conservancy in this industry can stand on its own both publicly and for those that have worked for me. 

There is an inherent irony here that these articles were published in both print and electronically to maximize the audience and readership.  To do that, these articles made “multiple trips” through a data center, and ultimately reside in one (or more).  They seem to denote that keeping things online is bad which seems to go against the availability and need of the articles themselves.  Doesn’t the New York times expect to make these articles available on-line for people to read?  Its posted online already.  Perhaps they expect that their micro-fiche experts would be able to serve the demand for these articles in the future?  I do not think so. 

This is a complex eco-system of users, suppliers, technology, software, platforms, content creators, data (both BIG and small), regulatory forces, utilities, governments, financials, energy consumption, people, personalities, politics, company operating tenets, community outreach to name a very few.  On top of managing through all these variables they also have to keep things running with no downtime.

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The AOL Micro-DC adds new capability

Back in July, I announced AOL’s Data Center Independence Day with the release of our new ‘Micro Data Center’ approach.   In that post we highlighted the terrific work that the teams put in to revolutionize our data center approach and align it completely to not only technology goals but business goals as well.   It was an incredible amount of engineering and work to get to that point and it would be foolish to think that the work represented a ‘One and Done’ type of effort.  

So today I am happy to announce the roll out of a new capability for our Micro-DC – An indoor version of the Micro-DC.

Aol MDC-Indoor2

While the first instantiations of our new capability were focused on outdoor environments, we were also hard at work at an indoor version with the same set of goals.   Why work on an indoor version as well?   Well you might recall in the original post I stated:

We are no longer tied to traditional data center facilities or colocation markets.   That doesn’t mean we wont use them, it means we now have a choice.  Of course this is only possible because of the internally developed cloud infrastructure but we have freed ourselves from having to be bolted onto or into existing big infrastructure.   It allows us to have an incredible amount geo-distributed capacity at a very low cost point in terms of upfront capital and ongoing operational expense.

We need to maintain a portfolio of options for our products and services.  In this case – having an indoor version of our capabilities to ensure that our solution can live absolutely anywhere.   This will allow our footprint, automation and all, to live inside any data center co-location environment or the interior of any office building anywhere around the planet, and retain the extremely low maintenance profile that we were targeting from an operational cost perspective.  In a sense you can think of it as “productizing” our infrastructure.  Could we have just deployed racks of servers, network kit, etc. like we have always done?  Sure.   But by continuing to productize our infrastructure we continue to drive down the costs relating to our short term and long term infrastructure costs.  In my mind, Productizing your infrastructure, is actually the next evolution in standardization of your infrastructure.   You can have infrastructure standards in place – Server Model, RAM, HD space, Access switches, Core switches, and the like.  But until you get to that next phase of standardizing, automating, and ‘productizing’ it into a discrete set of capabilities – you only get a partial win.

Some people have asked me, “Why didn’t you begin with the interior version to start with? It seems like it would be the easier one to accomplish.”  Indeed I cannot argue with them, it would have probably been easier as there were much less challenges to solve.  You can make basic assumptions around where this kind of indoor solution would live in, and reduce much of the complexity.   I guess it all nets out to a philosophy of solving the harder problems first.   Once you prove the more complicated use case, the easier ones come much faster.   This is definitely the situation here.  

While this new capability continues the success we are seeing in re-defining the cost and operations of our particular engineering environments, the real challenge here (as with all sorts infrastructure and cloud automation) is whether or not we can map similar success of our applications and services to work correctly in that space.   On that note, I should have more to post soon. Stay Tuned!  Smile

 

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Sites and Sounds of DataCentre2012: Thoughts and my Personal Favorite presentations Day 1

We wrapped our first full day of talks here at DataCentre2012 and I have to say the content was incredibly good.    A couple of the key highlights that really stuck out in my mind were the talk given by Christian Belady who covered some interesting bits of the Microsoft Data Center Strategy moving forward.   Of course I have a personal interest in that program having been there for Generation1 through Generation4 of the evolutions of the program.   ms-beladyChristian covered some of the technology trends that they are incorporating into their Generation 5 facilities.  It was some very interesting stuff and he went into deeper detail than I have heard so far around the concept of co-generation of power at data center locations.   While I personally have some doubts about the all-in costs and immediacy of its applicability it was great to see some deep meaningful thought and differentiation out of the Microsoft program.  He also went into a some interesting “future” visions which talked about data being the next energy source.  While he took this concept to an entirely new level  I do feel he is directionally correct.  His correlations between the delivery of “data” in a utility model rang very true to me as I have long preached about the fact that we are at the dawning of the Information Utility for over 5 years.

Another fascinating talk came from Oliver J Jones of a company called Chayora.   Few people and companies really understand the complexities and idiosyncrasies of doing business let alone dealing with the development and deployment of large scale infrastructure there.    The presentation done by Mr. Jones was incredibly well done.  Articulating the size, opportunity, and challenges of working in China through the lens of the data center market he nimbly worked in the benefits of working with a company with this kind of expertise.   It was a great way to quietly sell Chayora’s value proposition and looking around the room I could tell the room was enthralled.   His thoughts and data points had me thinking and running through scenarios all day long.  Having been to many infrastructure conferences and seeing hundreds if not thousands of presentations, anyone who can capture that much of my mindshare for the day is a clear winner. 

Tom Furlong and Jay Park of Facebook gave a great talk on OCP with a great focus on their new facility in Sweden.  They also talked  a bit about their other facilities in Prineville and North Carolina as well.   With Furlong taking the Mechanical innovations and Park going through the electrical it was a great talk to created lots of interesting questions.  fb-parkAn incredibly captivating portion of the talk was around calculating data center availability.   In all honesty it was the first time I had ever seen this topic taken head on at a data center conference. In my experience, like PUE, Availability calculations can fall under the spell of marketing departments who truly don’t understand that there SHOULD be real math behind the calculation.   There were two interesting take aways for me.  The first was just how impactful this portion of the talk had on the room in general.   There was an incredible amount of people taking notes as Jay Park went through the equation and way to think about it.   It led me to my second revelation – There are large parts of our industry who don’t know how to do this.   fb-furlongIn private conversations after their talk some people confided that had never truly understood how to calculate this.   It was an interesting wake-up call for me to ensure I covered the basics even in my own talks.

After the Facebook talk it was time for me to mount the stage for Global Thought Leadership Panel.   I was joined on stage by some great industry thinkers including Christian Belady of Microsoft, Len Bosack (founder of Cisco Systems) now CEO XKL Systems, Jack Tison-CTO of Panduit, Kfir Godrich-VP and Chief Technologist at HP, John Corcoran-Executive Chairman of Global Switch, and Paul-Francois Cattier-Global VP of Data Centers  at Schneider Electric.   That’s a lot of people and brainpower to fit on a single stage.  We really needed three times the amount of time allotted for this panel, but that is the way these things go.   Perhaps one of the most interesting recurring themes from question to question was the general agreement that at the end of the day – great technology means nothing without the will do something different.   There was an interesting debate on the differences between enterprise users and large scale users like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and AOL.  I was quite chagrined and a little proud to hear AOL named in that list of luminaries (it wasn’t me who brought it up).   But I was quick to point out that AOL is a bit different in that it has been around for 30 years and our challenges are EXACTLY like Enterprise data center environments.   More on that tomorrow in my keynote I guess.

All in all, it was a good day – there were lots of moments of brilliance in the panel discussions throughout the day.  One regret I have was on the panel regarding DCIM.   They ran out of time for questions from the audience which was unfortunate.   People continue to confuse DCIM as BMS version 2.0 and really miss capturing the work and soft costs, let alone the ongoing commitment to the effort once started.   Additionally there is the question of once you have mountains of collected data, what do you do with that.   I had a bunch of questions on this topic for the panel, including if any of the major manufacturers were thinking about building a decision engine over the data collection.  To me it’s a natural outgrowth and next phase of DCIM.  The one case study they discussed was InterXion.  It was a great effort but I think in the end maintained the confusion around a BMS with a web interface versus true Facilities and IT integration.     Another panel on Modularization got some really lively discussion on feature/functionality and differentiation, and lack of adoption.  To a real degree it highlighted an interesting gulf between manufacturers (mostly represented by the panel) who need to differentiate their products and the users who require vendor interoperability of the solution space.   It probably doesn’t help to have Microsoft or myself in the audience when it comes to discussions around modular capacity.   On to tomorrow!

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Patent Wars may Chill Data Center Innovation

Yahoo may have just sent a cold chill across the data center industry at large and begun a stifling of data center innovation.  In a May 3, 2012 article, Forbes did a quick and dirty analysis on the patent wars between Facebook and Yahoo. It’s a quick read but shines an interesting light on the potential impact something like this can have across the industry.   The article, found here,  highlights that :

In a new disclosure, Facebook added in the latest version of the filing that on April 23 Yahoo sent a letter to Facebook indicating that Yahoo believes it holds 16 patents that “may be relevant” to open source technology Yahoo asserts is being used in Facebook’s data centers and servers.

While these types of patent infringement cases happen all the time in the Corporate world, this one could have far greater ramifications on an industry that has only recently emerged into the light of sharing of ideas.    While details remain sketchy at the time of this writing, its clear that the specific call out of data center and servers is an allusion to more than just server technology or applications running in their facilities.  In fact, there is a specific call out of data centers and infrastructure. 

With this revelation one has to wonder about its impact on the Open Compute Project which is being led by Facebook.   It leads to some interesting questions. Has their effort to be more open in their designs and approaches to data center operations and design led them to a position of risk and exposure legally?  Will this open the flood gates for design firms to become more aggressive around functionality designed into their buildings?  Could companies use their patents to freeze competitors out of colocation facilities in certain markets by threatening colo providers with these types of lawsuits?  Perhaps I am reaching a bit but I never underestimate litigious fervor once the  proverbial blood gets in the water. 

In my own estimation, there is a ton of “prior art”, to use an intellectual property term, out there to settle this down long term, but the question remains – will firms go through that lengthy process to prove it out or opt to re-enter their shells of secrecy?  

After almost a decade of fighting to open up the collective industry to share technologies, designs, and techniques this is a very disheartening move.   The general Glasnost that has descended over the industry has led to real and material change for the industry.  

We have seen the mental shift of companies move from measuring facilities purely around “Up Time” measurements to one that is primarily more focused around efficiency as well.  We have seen more willingness to share best practices and find like minded firms to share in innovation.  One has to wonder, will this impact the larger “greening” of data centers in general.   Without that kind of pressure – will people move back to what is comfortable?

Time will certainly tell.   I was going to make a joke about the fact that until time proves out I may have to “lawyer” up just to be safe.  Its not really a joke however because I’m going to bet other firms do something similar and that, my dear friends, is how the innovation will start to freeze.

 

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The Cloud Cat and Mouse Papers–Site Selection Roulette and the Insurance Policies of Mobile infrastructure

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Its always hard to pick exactly where to start in a conversation like this especially since this entire process really represents a changing life-cycle.   Its more of a circular spiral that moves out (or evolves) as new data is introduced than a traditional life-cycle because new data can fundamentally shift the technology or approach.   That being said I thought I would start our conversations at a logical starting point.   Where does one place your infrastructure?  Even in its embryonic “idea phase” the intersection of government and technology begins its delicate dance to a significant degree. These decisions will ultimately have an impact on more than just where the Capital investments a company decides to make are located.  It has affects on the products and services they offer, and as I propose, an impact ultimately on the customers that use the services at those locations.

As I think back to the early days of building out a global infrastructure, the Site Selection phase started at a very interesting place.   In some ways we approached it with a level of sophistication that has still to be matched today and in other ways, we were children playing a game whose rules had not yet been defined.

I remember sitting across numerous tables with government officials talking about making an investment (largely just land purchase decisions) in their local community.  Our Site Selection methodology had brought us to these areas.  A Site Selection process which continued to evolve as we got smarter, and as we started to truly understand the dynamics of the system were being introduced to.   In these meetings we always sat stealthily behind a third party real estate partner.  We never divulged who we were, nor were they allowed to ask us that directly.  We would pepper them with questions, and they in turn would return the favor.  It was all cloak and dagger with the Real Estate entity taking all action items to follow up with both parties.

Invariably during these early days -  these locales would always walk away with the firm belief that we were a bank or financial institution.   When they delved into our financial viability (for things like power loads, commitment to capital build-out etc.) we always stated that any capital commitments and longer term operational cost commitments were not a problem.    In large part the cloak and dagger aspect was to keep land costs down (as we matured, we discovered this was quite literally the last thing we needed to worry about) as we feared that once our name became attached to the deal our costs would go up.   These were the early days of seeding global infrastructure and it was not just us.  I still laugh at the fact that one of our competitors bound a locality up so much in secrecy – that the community referred to the data center as Voldemort – He who shall not be named, in deference to the Harry Potter book series.

This of course was not the only criteria that we used.  We had over 56 by the time I left that particular effort with various levels of importance and weighting.   Some Internet companies today use less, some about the same, and some don’t use any, they ride on the backs of others who have trail-blazed a certain market or locale.   I have long called this effect Data Center Clustering.    The rewards for being first mover are big, less so if you follow them ultimately still positive. 

If you think about most of the criteria used to find a location it almost always focuses on the current conditions, with some acknowledge in some of the criteria of the look forward.  This is true for example when looking at power costs.   Power costs today are important to siting a data center, but so is understanding the generation mix of that power, the corresponding price volatility, and modeling that ahead to predict (as best as possible) longer term power costs.

What many miss is understanding the more subtle political layer that occurs once a data center has been placed or a cluster has developed. Specifically that the political and regulatory landscape can change very quickly (in relationship to the life of a data center facility which is typically measured in 20, 30, or 40 year lifetimes).  It’s a risk that places a large amount of capital assets potentially in play and vulnerable to these kinds of changes.   Its something that is very hard to plan or model against.  That being said there are indicators and clues that one can use to at least play risk factors against or as some are doing – ensuring that the technology they deploy limits their exposure.    In cloud environments the question remains open – how liable are companies using cloud infrastructure in these facilities at risk?   We will explore this a little later.

That’s not to say that this process is all downside either.  As we matured in our approach, we came to realize that the governments (local or otherwise) were strongly incented to work with us on getting us a great deal and in fact competed over this kind of business.   Soon you started to see the offers changing materially.  It was little about the land or location and quickly evolved to what types of tax incentives, power deals, and other mechanisms could be put in play.   You saw (and continue to see) deals structured around sales tax breaks, real estate and real estate tax deals, economic incentives around breaks in power rates, specialized rate structures for Internet and Cloud companies and the like.   The goal here of course was to create the public equivalent of “golden handcuffs” for the Tech companies and try to marry them to particular region, state, or country.  In many cases – all three.  The benefits here are self apparent.  But can they (or more specifically will they) be passed on in some way to small companies who make use of cloud infrastructure in these facilities? While definitely not part of the package deals done today – I could easily see site selection negotiations evolving to incent local adoption of cloud technology in these facilities or provisions being put in place tying adoption and hosting to tax breaks and other deal structures in the mid to longer timeframe for hosting and cloud companies.

There is still a learning curve out there as most governments mistakenly try and tie these investments with jobs creation.   Data Centers, Operations, and the like represents the cost of goods sold (COGS) to the cloud business.  Therefore there is a constant drive towards efficiency and reduction of the highest cost components to deliver those products and services.   Generally speaking, people, are the primary targets in these environments.   Driving automation in these environments is job one for any global infrastructure player.  One of the big drivers for us investing and developing a 100% lights-out data center at AOL was eliminating those kinds of costs.  Those governments that generally highlight job creation targets over other types typically don’t get the site selection.    After having commissioned an economic study done after a few of my previous big data center builds I can tell you that the value to a region or a state does not come from the up front jobs the data center employs.  After a local radio stationed called into question the value of having such a facility in their backyard, we used a internationally recognized university to perform a third party “neutral” assessment of the economic benefits (sans direct people) and the numbers were telling.  We had surrendered all construction costs and other related material to them, and they investigated over the course of a year through regional interviews and the like of what the direct impacts of a data center was on the local community, and the overall impacts by the addition.  The results of that study are owned by a previous employer but I  can tell you with certainty – these facilities can be beneficial to local regions.

No one likes constraints and as such you are beginning to see Technology companies use their primary weapon – technology – to mitigate their risks even in these scenarios.   One cannot argue for example, that while container-based data centers offer some interesting benefits in terms of energy and cost efficiencies, there is a certain mobility to that kind of infrastructure that has never been available before.    Historically, data centers are viewed as large capital anchors to a location.    Once in place, hundreds of millions to billions (depending on the size of the company) of dollars of capital investment are tied to that region for its lifespan.   Its as close to permanent in the Tech Industry as building a factory was during the industrial revolution. 

In some ways Modularization of the data center industry is/can/will have the same effect as the shipping container did in manufacturing.   All puns intended.  If you are unaware of how the shipping container revolutionized the world, I would highly recommend the book “The Box” by Marc Levinson, it’s a quick read and very interesting if you read it through the lens of IT infrastructure and the parallels of modularization in the Data Center Industry at large.

It gives the infrastructure companies more exit options and mobility in the future than they would have had in the past under large capital build-outs.  Its an insurance policy if you will for potential changes is legislation or regulation that might negatively impact the Technology companies over time.  Just another move in the cat and mouse games that we will see evolving here over the next decade or so in terms of the interactions between governments and global infrastructure. 

So what about the consumers of cloud services?  How much of a concern should this represent for them?  You don’t have to be a big infrastructure player to understand that there are potential risks in where your products and services live.  Whether you are building a data center or hosting inside a real estate or co-location provider – these are issues that will affect you.  Even in cases where you only use the cloud provisioning capabilities within your chosen provider – you will typically be given options of what region or area would you like you gear hosted in.  Typically this is done for performance reasons – reaching your customers – but perhaps this information might cause you to think of the larger ramifications to your business.   It might even drive requirements into the infrastructure providers to make this more transparent in the future.

These evolutions in the relationship between governments and Technology and the technology options available to them will continue to shape site selection policy for years to come.   So too will it ultimately affect the those that use this infrastructure whether directly or indirectly remains to be seen.  In the next paper we will explore the this interaction more deeply as it relates to the customers of cloud services and the risks and challenges specifically for them in this environment.

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DataCentres2012–Nice, France

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Next month I will be one of the key note speakers at the DataCentres2012 conference in Nice, France.   This event produced and put on by the BroadGroup is far and away the most pre-eminent conference for the Data Center Industry in Europe.   As an alumni of other BroadGroup events I can assure you that the quality of the presentations and training available is of the highest quality. I am also looking forward to re-connecting  with some great friends such as Christian Belady of Microsoft, Tom Furlong from Facebook and others.   If you are planning on attending please feel free to reach out and say hello.   It’s a great opportunity to network, build friendships, and discuss the issues pressing our industry today.   You can find out more by visiting the event website below.

http://www.datacentres2012.com/

 

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The Cloud Cat and Mouse Papers – The Primer

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Cat and Mouse with Multi-national infrastructure –The Participants to date

There is an ever-changing, game of cat and mouse developing in the world of cloud computing.   Its not a game that you as a consumer might see, but it is there.  An undercurrent that has been there from the beginning.   It pits Technology Companies and multi-national infrastructure against local and national governments.  For some years this game of cat and mouse has been quietly played out in backrooms, development and technology roadmap re-works, across negotiation tables, and only in the rarest of cases – have they come out for industry scrutiny or visibility.  To date the players have been limited to likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and others who have scaled their technology infrastructure across the globe and in large measure those are the players that governments have moved against in an ever intricate chess game.  I myself have played apart in the measure/counter-measure give and take of this delicate dance.

The primary issues in this game have to do with realization of revenue for taxation purposes, Safe Harbor and issues pertaining to personally identifiable information, ownership of Big Data, the nature of what is stored, how it is stored, and where it is stored, the intersection where politics and technology meet.   A place where social issues and technology collide.   You might call them storm clouds, just out of sight, but there is thunder on the horizon that you the consumer and/or potential user of global cloud infrastructure will need to be aware of because eventually the users of cloud infrastructure will become players in the game as well. 

That is not to say that the issues I tease out here are all gloom and doom.  In fact, they are great opportunities for potential business models, additional product features, and even cloud eco-system companies or niche solutions unto themselves.  A way to drive significant value for all sides.   I have been toying with more than a few of these ideas myself here over the last few months.

To date these issues have mostly manifested in the global build up of infrastructure for the big Internet platforms.  The Products and Services the big guys in the space use as their core money-making platforms or primary service delivery platforms.  Rarely if ever do these companies use this same infrastructure for their Infrastructure as a service (IAAS) or Platform as a Services (PAAS) offerings.  However, as you will see, the same challenges will and do apply to these offerings as well.  In some cases they are even more acute and problematic in a situation where there may be a multi-tenancy with the potential to put even more burden on future cloud users.

If I may be blunt about this there is an interesting lifecycle to this food chain whereby the Big Technology companies consistently have the upper hand and governmental forces through the use of their primary tools – regulation and legislation – are constantly playing catch up.  This lifecycle is unlikely to change for at least five reasons.

  • The Technology Companies will always have the lens of the big picture of multi-national infrastructure.   Individual countries, states, and locales generally only have jurisdiction or governance over that territory, or population base that is germane to their authority.
  • Technology Companies can be of near singular purpose on a very technical depth of capability or bring to bear much more concentrated “brain power” to solve for evolutions in the changing socio-political landscape to continually evolve measures and counter-measures to address these changes.
  • By and large Governments rely upon technologies and approaches to become mainstream before there is enough of a base understanding of the developments and impacts before they can act.  This generally places them in a reactionary position. 
  • Governmental forces generally rely upon “consultants” or “industry experts” to assist in understanding these technologies, but very few of these industry experts have ever really dealt with multi-national infrastructure and fewer still have had to strategize and evolve plans around these types of changes. The expertise at that level is rare and almost exclusively retained by the big infrastructure providers.
  • Technology Companies have the ability to force a complete game-change to the rules and reality by completely changing out the technology used to deliver their products and services, change development and delivery logic and/or methodology to almost affect a complete negation of the previous method of governance, making it obsolete. 

That is not to say that governments are unwilling participants in this process forced into a subservient role in the lifecycle.  In fact they are active participants in attracting, cultivating, and even subsidizing these infrastructural investments in areas of under their authority and jurisdiction.  Using tools like Tax breaks, real estate and investment incentives, and private-public partnerships do have both initial and ongoing benefits for the Governments as well.  In many ways these  are “golden handcuffs” for Technology Companies who enter into this cycle, but like any kind of constraint – positive or negative – the planning and strategy to unfetter themselves begins almost immediately.

Watson, The Game is Afoot

Governments, Social Justice, Privacy, and Environmental forces have already begun to force changes in the Technology landscape for those engaged in multi-national infrastructure.  There are tons of articles freely available on the web which articulate the kinds of impacts these forces have had and will continue to have on the Technology Companies.  The one refrain through all of the stories is the resiliency of those same Technology Companies to persevere and thrive despite what might be crucial setbacks in other industries.

In some cases the technology changes and adapts to meet the new requirements, in some cases, approaches or even vacating “un-friendly” environs across any of these spectrums becomes an option, and in some cases, there is not an insignificant bet that any regulatory or compulsory requirements will be virtually impossible or too technically complex to enforce or even audit.

Lets take a look at a couple of the examples that have been made public that highlight this kind of thing.   Back in 2009, Microsoft migrated substantial portions of their Azure Cloud Services out of Washington State to its facilities located in San Antonio Texas.  While the article specifically talks about certain aspects of tax incentives being held back, there were of course other factors involved.   One doesn’t have to look far to understand that Washington State also has an B&O Tax (Business and Occupation Tax) which is defined as a gross receipts tax. It is measured on the value of products, gross proceeds of sale, or gross income of the business.  As you can imagine, interpreting this kind of tax as it relates to online and cloud income and the like could be very tricky and regardless would be complex and technical problem  to solve.  It could have the undesired impact of placing any kind of online business at an interesting disadvantage,  or at another level place an unknown tax burden on its users.   I am not saying this was a motivating factor in Microsoft’s decision but you can begin to see the potential exposure developing.   In this case, The Technology could rapidly change and move the locale of the hosted environments to minimize the exposure, thus thwarting any governmental action.  At least for the provider, but what of the implications if you were a user of the Microsoft cloud platform and found yourself with an additional or unknown tax burden.  I can almost guarantee that back in 2009 that this level of end user impact (or revenue potential from a state tax perspective) had not even been thought about.   But as with all things, time changes and we are already seeing examples of exposure occurring across the game board that is our planet.

We are already seeing interpretations or laws getting passed in countries around the globe where for example, a server is a taxable entity.   If revenue for a business is derived from a computer or server located in that country it falls under the jurisdiction of that countries tax authority.    Imagine yourself as a company using this wonderful global cloud infrastructure selling your widgets, products or services, and finding yourself with an unknown tax burden and liability in some “far flung” corner of the earth.   The Cloud providers today mostly provide Infrastructure services.  They do not go up the stack far enough to be able to effectively manage your entire system let alone be able to determine your tax liability.  The burden of proof to a large degree today would reside on the individual business running inside that infrastructure.  

In many ways those adopting these technologies are the least capable to deal with these kinds of challenges.  They are small to mid-sized companies who admittedly don’t have the capital, or operational sophistication to build out the kind of infrastructure needed to scale that quickly.   They are unlikely to have technologies such as robust configuration management databases to be able to to track virtual instances of their products and services, to tell what application ran, where it ran, how long it ran, and how much revenue was derived during the length of its life.   And this is just one example (Server as a taxable entity) of a law or legislative effort that could impact global users.  There are literally dozens of these kinds of bills/legislative initiatives/efforts (some well thought out, most not) winding their way through legislative bodies around the world.

You might think that you may be able to circumvent some of this by limiting your product or services deployment to the country closest to home, wherever home is for you.  However there are other efforts winding their way through or in large degree passed that impact the data you store, what you store, whose data are you storing, and the like. In most cases these initiatives are unrelated to the revenue legislations developing, but balanced they can give an interesting one – two punch.   For example many countries are requiring that for Safe Harbor purposes all information for any nationals of ‘Country X’ must be stored in ‘Country X’ to ensure that its citizenry is properly protected and under the jurisdiction of the law for those users.   In a cloud environment, with customers potentially from almost anywhere how do you ensure that this is the case?  How do you ensure you are compliant?   If you balance this requirement with the ‘server as a taxable entity’ example I just gave above there is an interesting exposure and liability for companies prove where and when revenue is derived.     Similarly there are some laws that are enacted as reactions against legislation in other countries.

In the post-911 era within the United States, the US Congress enacted a series of laws called the Patriot Act.   Due to some of the information search and seizure aspects of the law, Canada forbade that Canadian citizens data be stored in the United States in response.   To the best of my knowledge only a small number of companies actually even acknowledge this requirement and have architected solutions to address it, but the fact remains they are not in compliance with Canadian law.  Imagine you are a small business owner, using a cloud environment to grow your business, and suddenly you begin to grow your business significantly in Canada.  Does your lack of knowledge of Canadian law excuse you from your responsibilities there?  No.  Is this something that your infrastructure provider is offering to you? Today, no.  

I am only highlighting certain cases here to make the point that there is a world of complexity coming to the cloud space.  Thankfully these impacts have not been completely explored or investigated by most countries of the world, but its not hard to see a day/time where this becomes a very real thing where companies and the cloud eco-system in general will have to address.  At its most base level these are areas of potential revenue streams for governments and as such increase the likelihood of their eventual day in the sun.    I am currently personally tracking over 30 different legislative initiatives around the world (read as pre-de-facto laws) that will likely shape this Technology landscape for the big providers and potential cloud adopters some time in the future.

What is to come?

This first article was really just to bring out the basic premise of the conversation and topics I will be discussing and to lay the groundwork to a very real degree.  I have not even begun to touch on the extra-governmental impacts of social and environmental impacts that will likely change the shape even further.  This interaction of Technology, “The Cloud”, Political and Social Issues, exists today and although largely masked by the fact that eco-system of the cloud is not fully developed or matured, is no less a reality.   Any predictions that are made are extensions of existing patterns I see in the market already and do not necessarily represent a forgone conclusion, but rather the most likely developments based upon my interactions in this space.  As this Technology space continues to mature, the only certainty is uncertainty modulated against the backdrop of a world where increasingly geo-political forces will continue to shape the Technology of tomorrow.

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Open Sourcing our Operational Scale Tools–Meet Trigger

Not that long ago we made a decision to begin Open Sourcing some of our internal products and tools into the community at large.   There are some really interesting benefits for open sourcing some of these internally developed tools and as a company we begun to do some very interesting work in this space.  Some of our work has gotten quite a bit of attention such as SocketStream which is a very fast, real time web framework. 

Today I am very pleased to announce that we are open-sourcing one of the tools that we use to manage and maintain our network infrastructure.   We call it Trigger.  

Trigger is a Python framework and suite of tools for interfacing with network devices and managing network configuration and security policy. Trigger was specifically internally designed to increase the speed and efficiency of network configuration management.

Trigger’s core device interaction utilizes the freely available Twisted event-driven networking engine. The libraries can connect to network devices by any available method (e.g. telnet, SSH), communicate with them in their native interface (e.g. Juniper JunoScript, Cisco IOS), and return output. Trigger is able to manage any number of jobs in parallel and handle output or errors as they return.

If you think a tool like this would be interesting for you or your company feel free to give it a try.  The Open Source repository for it can be found here at :https://github.com/aol/trigger

For the complete set of documentation is hosted at ReadtheDocs:

http://readthedocs.org/docs/trigger

This is just the first of many internal efforts and tools that we plan to Open Source.  I will announce more tools in the coming months that have helped AOL to scale over the years.  Stay tuned!

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Cloud Détente – The Cloud Cat and Mouse Papers

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Over the last decade or so I have been lucky enough to be placed into a fairly unique position to work internationally deploying global infrastructure for cloud environments.  This work has spanned across some very large companies with a very dedicated focus on building out global infrastructure and managing through those unique challenges.   Strategies may have varied but the challenges faced by them all had some very common themes.   One of the more complex interactions when going through this process is what I call the rolling Cat and Mouse interactions between governments at all levels and these global companies.  

Having been a primary player in these negotiations and the development of measures and counter measures as a result of these interactions, I have come to believe there are some interesting potential outcomes that cloud adopters should think about and understand.   The coming struggle and complexity for managing regulating and policing multi-national infrastructure will not solely impact the large global players, but in a very real way begin to shape how their users will need to think through these socio-political  and geo-political realities. The potential impacts on their business, their adoption of cloud technologies, their resulting responsibilities and measure just how aggressively they look to the cloud for the growth of their businesses.

These observations and predictions are based upon my personal experiences.  So for whatever its worth (good or bad)  this is not the perspective of an academic writing from some ivory tower, rather they are  the observations of someone who has been there and done it.  I probably have enough material to write an entire book on my personal experiences and observations, but I have committed myself to writing a series of articles highlighting what I consider the big things that are being missed in the modern conversation of cloud adoption.  

The articles will highlight (with some personal experiences mixed in) the ongoing battle between Technocrats versus Bureaucrats.  I will try to cover a different angle on many of the big topics out there today such as :

  • Big Data versus Big Government
  • Rise of Nationalism as a factor in Technology and infrastructure distribution
  • The long struggle ahead for managing, regulating, and policing clouds
  • The Business, end-users, regulation and the cloud
  • Where does the data live? How long does it live? Why Does it Matter?
  • Logic versus Reality – The real difference between Governments and Technology companies.
  • The Responsibilities of data ownership
    • … regarding taxation exposure
    • … regarding PII impacts
    • … Safe Harbor

My hope is that this series and the topics I raise, while maybe a bit raw and direct, will cause you to think a bit more about the coming impacts on Technology industry at large, the potential coming impacts to small and medium size businesses looking to adopt these technologies, and the developing friction and complexity at the intersection of technology and government.

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Attacking the Cruft

Today the Uptime Institute announced that AOL won the Server Roundup Award.  The achievement has gotten some press already (At Computerworld, PCWorld, and related sites) and I cannot begin to tell you how proud I am of my teams.   One of the more personal transitions and journeys I have made since my experience scaling the Microsoft environments from tens of thousands of servers to hundreds of thousands of servers has been truly understanding the complexity facing a problem most larger established IT departments have been dealing with for years.  In some respects, scaling infrastructure, while incredibly challenging and hard, is in large part a uni-directional problem space.   You are faced with growth and more growth followed by even more growth.  All sorts of interesting things break when you get to big scale. Processes, methodologies, technologies, all quickly fall to the wayside as you climb ever up the ladder of scale.

At AOL I faced a multi-directional problem space in that, as a company and as a technology platform we were still growing.  Added to that there was 27 years of what I call “Cruft”.   I define “Cruft” as years of build-up of technology, processes, politics, fiscal orphaning and poor operational hygiene.  This cruft can act as a huge boat anchor and barrier to an organization to drive agility in its online and IT operations.  On top of this Cruft a layer of what can best be described as lethargy or perhaps apathy can sometimes develop and add even more difficulty to the problem space.

One of the first things I encountered at AOL was the cruft.  In any organization, everyone always wants to work on the new, cool, interesting things. Mainly because they are new and interesting..out of the norm.  Essentially the fun stuff!  But the ability for the organization to really drive the adoption of new technologies and methods was always slowed, gated or in some cases altogether prevented by years interconnected systems, lost owners, servers of unknown purpose lost in the distant historical memory and the like.   This I found in healthy populations at AOL. 

We initially set about building a plan to attack this cruft.   To earnestly remove as much of the cruft  as possible and drive the organization towards agility.  Initially we called this list of properties, servers, equipment and the like the Operations $/-\!+ list. As this name was not very user-friendly it migrated into a series of initiatives grouped the name of Ops-Surdities.   These programs attacked different types of cruft and were at a high level grouped into three main categories:

The Absurdity List – A list of projects/properties/applications that had a questionable value, lack of owner, lack of direction, or the like but was still drawing load and resources from our data centers.   The plan here was to develop action plans for each of the items that appeared on this list.

Power Hog – An effort to audit our data center facilities, equipment, and the like looking for inefficient servers, installations, and /or technology and migrating them to new more efficient platforms or our AOL Cloud infrastructure.  You knew you were in trouble when you had a trophy of a bronze pig appear on your desk or office and that you were marked. 

Ops Hygiene – The sometimes tedious task of tracking down older machines and systems that may have been decomissioned in the past, marked for removal, or were fully depreciated and were never truly removed.  Pure Vampiric load.  You may or may not be surprised how much of this exists in modern data centers.  It’s a common issue I have had with most data center management professionals in the industry.

So here we are, in a timeline measured in under a year, and being told all along the way by“crufty old-timers” that we would never make any progress, my teams have de-comissioned almost 10,000 servers from our environments. (Actually this number is greater now, but the submission deadline for the award was earlier in the year).  What an amazing accomplishment.  What an amazing team!

So how did we do it?

As we will be presenting this in a lot more detail at the Uptime Symposium, I am not going to give away all of our secrets in a blog post and give you a good reason to head to the Uptime event and listen to and ask the primary leaders of this effort how they did it in person.  It may be a good use of that Travel budget your company has been sitting on this year.

What I will share is some guidelines on approach and some things to be wary of if you are facing similar challenges in your organization.

FOCUS AND ATTENTION

I cannot tell you how many I have spoken with that have tried to go after ‘cruft’ like this time and time again and failed.   One of the key drivers for success in my mind is ensuring that there is focus and attention on this kind of project at all levels, across all organizations, and most importantly from the TOP.   To often executives give out blind directives with little to no follow through and assume this kind of thing gets done.   They are generally unaware of the natural resistance to this kind of work there is in most IT organizations.    Having a motivated, engaged, and focused leadership on these types of efforts goes and extraordinarily long way to making headway here.  

BEWARE of ORGANIZATIONAL APATHY

The human factors that stack up against a project like this are impressive.  While they may not be openly in revolt over such projects there is a natural resistance to getting things done.  This work is not sexy.  This work is hard.  This work is tedious.  This likely means going back and touching equipment and kit that has not been messed with for a long time.   You may have competing organizational priorities which place this kind of work at the bottom of the workload priority list.   In addition to having Executive buy in and focus, make sure you have some really driven people running these programs.  You are looking for CAN DO people, not MAKE DO people.

TECHNOLOGY CAN HELP, BUT ITS NOT YOUR HEAVY LIFTER

Probably a bit strange for a technology blog to say, but its true.  We have an incredible CMDB and Asset System at AOL.  This was hugely helpful to the effort in really getting to the bottom of the list.   However no amount of Technology in place will be able to perform the myriad of tasks required to actually make material movement on this kind of work.   Some of it requires negotiation, some of it requires strength of will, some of it takes pure persistence in running these issues down…working with the people.  Understanding what is still required, what can be moved.  This requires people.   We had great technologies in place from the perspective of knowing where are stuff was, what it did, and what it was connected to.  We had great technologies like our Cloud to move some of these platforms to ultimately.    However, you need to make sure you don’t go to far down the people trap.  I have a saying in my organization – There is a perfect number of project managers and security people in any organization.  Where the work output and value delivered is highest.   What is that number?  Depends – but you definitely know when you have one too many of each.

MAKE IT FUN IF YOU CAN

From the brass pigs, to minor celebrations each month as we worked through the process we ensured that the attention given the effort was not negative. Sure it can be tough work, but you are at the end of the day substantially investing in the overall agility of your organization.  Its something to be celebrated.    In fact at the completion of our aggressive goals the primary project leads involved did a great video (which you can see here) to highlight and celebrate the win.   Everyone had a great laugh and a ton of fun doing what was ultimately a tough grind of work.  If you are headed to Symposium I strongly encourage you to reach out to my incredible project leads.  You will be able to recognize them from the video….without the mustaches of course!

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