To home lab or not to home lab

As I often do, I am again debating my need for a home lab.  My job is highly technical, to take technology architecture and tie it all together with the strategic goals of my customers.  Keeping my technical skills up to date is a full time job in and of itself, and begs the question, should I build out a home lab, or are my cloud based labs sufficient.

One of the perks to working at a large company is the ability to use our internal lab systems.  This can also include my laptop with VMware Workstation or Fusion product which affords some limited testing capabilities, mostly due to memory constraints.  Most of the places I have been have had great internal labs, demo gear, etc, which has been nice.  I have often maintained my own equipment as well, but to what end.  Keeping the equipment up to date becomes a full time job, and adds little value to my daily job.

With the competition in cloud providers, many providers will provide low or no cost environments for testing.  While this is not always ideal, for the most part, we are now able to run nested virtual systems, testing various hypervisors, and other solutions.  Many companies are now providing virtual appliance based products which enable us to stay fairly up to date.

Of course one of my favorites is VMware’s Hands on Labs.  In fairness I am a bit biased, working at VMware, and with the hands on labs team as often as I can.  Since a large majority of what I do centers around VMware’s technology, I will often run through the labs myself to stay sharp on the technology.

While the home lab will always have a special place in my heart, and while I am growing a rather large collection of raspberry pi devices, I think my home lab will be limited to smaller lower power devices for IoT testing for the moment.  While always subject to change, it is tough to justify the capital expenditure when there are so many good alternatives.

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To home lab or not to home lab

Who moved my VMware C# Client?

Years ago I was handed a rack of HP servers, a small EMC storage array, and a few CDs with something called ESX 2 on them. I was told I could use this software to put several virtual servers on the handful of physical servers I had available to me. There was a limited web client, available, most of my time was spent on the command line over SSH. The documentation was limited, I spent most of my time writing procedures for the company I was at, quickly earning my self a promotion, and a new role as a storage engineer.

Today VMware is announcing that the next release of the vSphere product line will deprecate the C# client in favor of the web client. As I have gone through this process, both as a vExpert and a VMware employee, there have been many questions. During our pre-announcement call with the product team at VMware, there were a number of concerns voiced about what will work on day 1 and what this does to the customers who have come to rely on performance. Rather than focus on the actual changes, most of which are still to be determined, it seemed more helpful to talk about the future of managing systems, and the future of operations.

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When I started working on server administration, the number of systems one admin might manage was pretty low, maybe less than a dozen. With the advent of virtualization and cloud native applications, devops and no-ops, administrators are managing farms of servers, most of them virtual. We often hear about pets vs. cattle, the concept that most of our servers are moving from being pets, something we care for as a part of our family, to cattle, something we use to make money, if one of our cattle have a problem, we don’t spend too much time on it, we have many others, we can just make more.

Whether it is a VMware product, Openstack, or another management tool, abstracting deployment and management of systems is becoming more mainstream, and more cost effective. In this model, a management client is far less important than APIs and the full stack management they can enable. For the few use cases where the client is needed, the web client will continue to improve, but the true value is these improvements will drive new APIs and new tools developed for managing systems. While change is never easy, a longer term view both where we came from, and where we are going with the interfaces reminds us this is a necessary change, and less impactful than it may seem at first glance.

Who moved my VMware C# Client?

The changing landscape of high-tech startups, what it means for the future of technology.

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins points out, “When used right, technology becomes an accelerator of momentum, not a creator of it” Technology, he goes on to point out, is not the reason for the success of great companies, but rather a critical component of their strategy. Technology is a means to an end, but for those outside the tech world, it is simply one tool to be exploited.

There is no doubt that the landscape is changing for technology, especially technology startups. In 2015, and indeed for several years prior, we have seen insane valuations of companies that had yet to produce an actual product. To make matters worse, those that do produce a product, produce something which is very impressive, but mostly just a little better than the competition. Usually it is a new way of compressing data, a new de-duplication algorithm, or a way to do analytics on the data at rest. All very cool, and every one thinking they are going to be the next big thing. There is an old saying which goes something like build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door, or something like that. The problem is that everyone is building a slightly better mousetrap with slightly different features when what we need is just a basic mousetrap. This is true of storage, hyper-converged, and every other technology startup in the past few years.

Generally speaking we can say that history repeats itself, especially in the high tech world. I was preparing to leave the military during the dot com bubble, just as it burst, I made the last minute decision to stay in and give myself more time to prepare. While this may not exactly be a bubble, we are trending toward a massive consolidation of these high tech startups. The reason is simple, we are overcomplicating everything. Businesses, much like consumers, don’t want complicated flashy technology, they want technology to accelerate what they are doing, they want to augment and improve their lives with technology. In the Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, Douglas Adams makes the point,”We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.” The future of technology is not one off complex cool solutions, it is abstraction, simplicity, and integration. If your product doesn’t simplify business or consumers lives, it is likely to be short lived.

The changing landscape of high-tech startups, what it means for the future of technology.

He who controls the management software controls the universe.

No one ever got fired for buying IBM.  Well…how did that work out?

When I started working in storage, it was a major portion of our capital budget.  When we made a decision on a storage platform, we had to write the proposal for the CIO to change to another brand, and we had better be sure we didn’t have issues on the new platform.  We didn’t buy on price, we bought on brand, period.

I was speaking with a customer recently, and they were talking about how they were moving to a storage startup which recently went through an IPO.  I asked them how happy they were about it, and the response was, something to the effect, it is great, but we will likely make a change in a few years when someone comes out with something new and cool.  This wasn’t an smb account, not a startup, this was a major healthcare account.  They were moving away from a major enterprise storage vendor, and they were not the first one I had spoken to who is going down this path.

I remember when virtualization really started to take off.  The concept was amazing, we thought we were going to see massive reduction in data-centers and physical servers.  Please raise your hand if you have less physical servers than you did 10 years ago.  Maybe you do, but for the most part I rarely see that anyone has significantly reduced the number of workloads.  I guess virtualization failed and was a bad idea, time to move on to something else?  Of course not, we just got more efficient and started to run more workloads on the same number of systems.  We got more efficient and better at what we do, we prevented server sprawl, and thus realized cost savings through cost avoidance.  What has changed though is moving from one server vendor to another is pretty simple.

If I were still in the business of running datacenters I would probably spread over two or more vendors with some standard builds to keep costs down, and provide better availability.  From a storage perspective I wouldn’t really care who my storage vendors were provided they could meet my requirements.  Honestly I would probably build a patchwork datacenter.  Sure it would be a bit more work with patching and such, but if there are API’s, and we can do centralized management to deploy firmware to each system, why not, why be loyal.  For that matter, why have a single switch vendor?

See what I did there?  It is all about the software.  Whether you believe VMware, Microsoft, Red Hat, or someone else will win, the reality is it is a software world.  If your hardware will play nice with my hypervisor, and my management tool, why should I use only one vendor, if it won’t, why should I use it?  It is all about applications and portability.  Hardware isn’t going away, but it is sure getting dumber, as it should, and we are pushing more value through software.  He who controls the management software controls the universe.

 

He who controls the management software controls the universe.

Getting hired into IT as a Veteran

With Veterans Day coming, this seemed like a logical time to talk about getting hired into the IT field as a Veteran.  As someone who started out with no degree and no formal training, but a strong desire to work in the tech industry, I thought it would be interesting to share my story, with the hopes that it will help others break into the field.

Don’t let anyone tell you no.  I was medically retired from the Army, and the Vocational Rehabilitation counselor from the VA told me  that he would not authorize payment for school if I chose IT as my major.  My only options were to go for a Bachelors in Business Accounting, or use my G.I. Bill to pay for school.  I opted for my G.I. Bill, I am so glad I did, I would have been a terrible accountant.  I also applied to every IT job, both entry level and not, I stretched my skills, and I clawed my way into a help desk contract job at a school district after being rejected for a lower level position at the same school district.

Read everything you can, if you don’t know something, ask, or look it up, but don’t ever stop learning.  Don’t just look for technical learning either, consider yourself a business person with technical skills.  Some of the best sources for learning are books, podcasts, and blogs.  Here are a few lists that I have used and personally recommend.  Some of these are technical, but all of these will help you develop yourself, and show that you aren’t afraid of getting outside your comfort zone.

  • Books
    • Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us – Seth Godin
    • EntreLeadership – Dave Ramsey
    • Start – Jon Acuff
    • The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win – Gene Kim
    • The juggling act bringing balance to your faith family and work – Pat Gelsinger
    • The New Kingmakers – Stephen O’Grady
    • The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google – Nicholas Carr
  • Podcasts
    • Geek Wisperers
    • In Tech We Trust
    • Speaking in Tech
    • Entreleadership Podcast
    • Chat with Champions
    • DevOps Cafe Podcast
    • The Cloudcast
  • Blogs

Get involved in every community activity, technical meetup, and usergroup you can.  When I wanted to get my name out there, I started showing up at my local VMware Users Group, and started writing this blog.  I watched some of the presenters, and I was hooked.  I started learning the materials and practicing, and pretty soon I was presenting.  I started getting more into it, looking for more opportunities to present.  Next I plan to start with Toastmasters, and taking a few classes on presenting.  I make community events a priority when they focus on IT, and the user.  Finding people who do what you want to do and asking them if they can help, offer to buy them coffee, find out their reading list, ask them how they were successful, ask them if they will mentor you, but make sure you are bringing them some value and some perspective.

There is no magic formula for success.  Veterans tend to be driven, and turn our skills from being soldiers into technical skills.  One day you will wake up and realize you are well on you way, but you never stop learning.  Focus on community and on developing your skills.  Learn everything you can, be a good team player, and you will never find yourself lacking opportunities.

Getting hired into IT as a Veteran

There can be only one…or at least less than there are now.

Since the recent announcement  of Dell acquiring EMC, there has been great speculation on the future of the storage industry.  In previous articles I have observed that small storage startups are eating the world of big storage.  I suspect that this trend had something to do with the position EMC found themselves in recently.

Watching Nimble, Pure, and a few others IPO recently, one cannot help but notice there are still far more storage vendors standing, with new ones coming out regularly, and the storage market has not consolidated as we thought it would.  During recent conversations with some of the sales teams for  a couple storage startups, we discussed what their act two was to be.  I was surprised to learn that for a number of them, it is simply more of the same, perhaps less a less expensive solution to sell down market, perhaps some new features, but nothing really new.

Looking at the landscape, there has to be a “quickening” eventually.  With EMC being acquired, HP not doing a stellar job of marketing the 3Par product they acquired, Netapp floundering, and Cisco killing their Whiptail acquisition, we are in a sea of storage vendors with no end in sight.  HP splitting into two companies bodes well for their storage division, but the biggest challenge for most of these vendors is they are focused on hardware.

For most of the storage vendors, it is likely that lack of customers will eventually drive them out of business when the finally run out of funding.  For some, they will survive, get acquired, or merge to create a larger storage company, and probably go away eventually anyway.  For a few they will continue to operate in their niche, but for the ones who intend to have long term viability, it is likely they are going to need to find a better act two, something akin to hyper converged infrastructure, or more likely simply move to a software approach.  While neither are a guarantee, they do have higher margins, and are more inline with where the industry is moving.

We are clearly at a point where hardware is becoming commoditized.  If your storage array can’t provide performance, and most of the features we now assume to be standard, then you shouldn’t even bother coming to the table.  The differentiation has to be something else, something outside the norm.  Provide some additional value with the data, turn it into software, integrate it with other software, make it standards based.  Being the best technology, the cheapest price, or simply the biggest company doesn’t matter any more.  Storage startups, watch out, your 800lb gorilla of a nemesis being acquired might make you even bigger targets.  You better come up with something now or your days are numbered.

There can be only one…or at least less than there are now.

What is Dell really buying?

Standard disclaimer, this is my personal opinions, and does not reflect those of my employer, or of any insider knowledge, take it for what it is worth.

When I heard rumors of the Dell EMC deal, I was pretty skeptical.  I am a numbers guy, and the amount of debt that would be required is a bit staggering.  Why would a company like Dell even want to acquire a company like EMC?  Especially after we all watched the pain they went through to take the company private.  Why would EMC want to go through the pain of being taken private, by a former competitor no less?  With the HP breakup, and IBM selling off a number of their product lines over the past decade or so, this almost seems counterintuitive, an attempt to recreate the big tech companies of the 90’s & 2000’s which are all but gone.

Sales and Engineering Talent

I have many friends at Dell, I was even a customer when I worked for some small startups many years ago.  In my experience, Dell is really good at putting together commodity products, and pricing them to move.  Their sales teams are good, but the compensation model makes them tough to partner with.

EMC has a world class sales and marketing organization.  EMC enterprise sales reps are all about the customer experience.  They are machines with amazing relationship skills, and they are well taken care of.  Engineering at EMC is a huge priority as well.  EMC’s higher end support offerings, while costly, are worth every penny.  I have seen them fly in engineers for some larger customers to fix problems.  EMC products are all about the customer experience.  Even though I have not been a fan of their hardware lately, they have done some amazing things around making the experience second to none.

An Enterprise Storage & Software product

Let’s be honest, Dell has not been a truly enterprise player in the storage and software arena.  If we look at the products they have acquired, a majority of them are mid market plays.  Compellent was supposed to be their big enterprise storage play, but that is mid market at best.  From a software perspective, most of the products are low end, and they don’t tend to develop them further.

EMC on the other hand has enterprise class storage.  Say what you want about the complexity of the VMAX line, it is pretty solid.  It may be a pain to manage sometimes, but it does set the standard in enterprise storage.  EMC has also done amazing things with software.  ViPR Controller and ViPR SRM are impressive technologies when implemented appropriately.  EMC has also done quite well with some of their other software products, but more so they treat software as a critical part of the stack.

VMware

Enough said, the real value for Dell is getting a good stake in VMware.  Like it or not VMware is the market leader in Hypervisors, Cloud Management, Software Defined Networking, and making incredible strides in Automation, and Software Defined Storage.  The best thing that EMC has done is allowing VMware to continue to be independant.  If Dell can stick to that plan, the rewards can be incredible.

The reality is this deal won’t change much in the short term from an IT industry perspective.  Large storage companies such as EMC and HP Storage are getting their lunch eaten by smaller more agile storage startups.  Servers are becoming more of a commodity, and software continues to be the path forward for many enterprises.  This is a good deal for both Dell and EMC, the challenge will be not to go the way of HP.  If I could give Michael Dell one piece of advice, it would be to hire smart people and listen to them.  Culture matters and the culture is what makes EMC and VMware what they are so don’t try to change it.  Culture is the true value of this acquisition.

What is Dell really buying?