Archive for March, 2012


Private Cloud Computing [Video]

By Alan Muther | March 28, 2012

I recently had the opportunity to record VISI Solutions Architect Johnny Hatch run through a few key points on Private Cloud Computing. In the short 3 minute video below, Johnny gives a quick overview on Private Cloud, including the concept of internal versus external clouds, resource allocation, managed services and cloud tenancy.  Learn more about VISI and our cloud offerings at


My So-Called Private Cloud

By Jason Baker | March 26, 2012

I was meeting with a potential customer a few weeks ago and the conversation gravitated towards the topic of cloud computing. Conversations with IT people tend to trend this direction these days. We talked about interesting cloud computing trends, VISI’s next-generation enterprise cloud and hybrid clouds. I noted that some businesses are opting to build private clouds instead of using public cloud infrastructure. “Oh,” said the customer, “we built our private cloud two years ago.”

“Really?” I replied, unsure if he was being serious. He went on to explain that his IT organization transitioned a bunch of physical servers into a new VMware-based computing environment a couple years back. Their goal was to reduce power utilization and save physical space within their small on-premise data center — two very common reasons for moving to a virtualized environment.

What surprised me the most was that he considered this basic VMware farm to be a private cloud. He absolutely revelled in the fact that his company was participating in the cloud computing revolution. Who was I to argue with him? Because when it comes to the marketing of cloud computing, the customer is always right.

Most service providers market pretty much any virtualized computing environment as a “cloud” today — regardless of whether that environment represents a true cloud computing architecture. Why? Because there’s high demand for cloud services, and one way to quickly increase market supply is to slap a cloudy label on traditional service offerings. Almost everybody plays this game.

Well, it’s time to change the game. And one way to do that is to begin educating businesses.

The VMware computing farm sitting at your office is not a private cloud anymore than a Microsoft SQL database is a full-fledged SaaS application. Virtualization is just one building block of a private cloud solution. The National Institute of Standards and Technology clearly explains what is required to build a cloud computing platform. In order to build a real private cloud platform you need several additional components, including: a cloud orchestration layer, a self-service web interface, a utility-based resource accounting engine, and a developer-friendly API.

The good news is that companies like VMware are now supplying these components, and providing the tools for businesses to turn basic VMWare farms into true private clouds. VMware calls their solution vCloud Director.

But it’s important to recognize that cloud computing is more than just a set of software tools; it represents a new way of organizing and accessing computing resources. Your business will not benefit from cloud computing until it understands how to adapt its processes to take advantage of elastic computing and storage infrastructure.

That old private cloud — the one you built a few years ago — still works just fine. But make no mistake, you haven’t joined the cloud revolution yet. No worries, there’s still time. Just give us a call when you’re ready. We’re here to help.


Spoiler Alert!

By Meagan Maue | March 25, 2012

This morning at 10am, the winner of the Nerdery’s annual Overnight Website Challenge was crowned. Two Unicorns, One Moon took home the win for their hard work improving the website of West African Medical Missions. Honorable mentions went to Twin Cities EE who was partnered with Franconia Sculpture Park, The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen who worked with Little Voyageurs Montessori School, and Team Pegacorn who improved the website of Metro CISM Team.

Great job to all 18 teams competing this year! Now get some sleep!!


Let The Games Begin

By Meagan Maue | March 24, 2012

I woke up bright and early on this rainy Saturday morning to take part in the opening ceremonies of the Overnight Website Challenge.  Over the previous five years of the #WebChallenge, over $2 million in professional services have been donated to 66 non-profits and this year will add 18 more to the list.  This great feat was commended by Senator Al Franken in a video commentary he created for 2012 Challenge participants during this morning’s festivities.


How The Cloud Can Create Happy Campers

By Jason Baker | March 22, 2012

Yesterday, I was asked to comment on the recent MN DNR website outage by a Fox News reporter. I’ve had some time to digest and learn more details about this recent incident. I learned that the DNR website was designed and managed by a 3rd-party SaaS-provider. The provider has built a campground reservation system tailored to meet the needs of government organizations. Outsourcing this capability to a provider makes an awful lot of sense to me. I can understand why the MN DNR went this route.

I was intrigued by some of the incident details published in a St. Paul Pioneer Press article yesterday. I know I run the risk of sounding like an armchair quarterback in offering my thoughts on this matter. I’m sure that the service provider and the MN DNR team did everything they could to minimize service issues. But this scenario highlights some of the challenges faced by service providers, and these technical challenges fall squarely into my domain of expertise.

The Pioneer Press article notes that the campground reservation system was designed to handle 4,500 daily visits. What does that really mean in terms of capacity planning? Let’s say that all of those visits would occur during a 12-hour daylight window. A Pareto distribution would suggest that 80% of those visitors would access the website during 20% of the time window. That means 3,600 visitors would access the site over 8,640 seconds — or roughly one visitor every 2.4 seconds.

Is this enough demand to take down a website? It depends on what those visitors are doing. Browsing a website doesn’t create much of a performance hit on website infrastructure. But more intensive database operations can generate significant website infrastructure loads. The combination of the two can be deadly.

According to the Pioneer Press, the service provider reduced the size of high-resolution images on the MN DNR site to conserve bandwidth and computing resources. That’s one way to tackle the problem. Some companies will utilize image caching systems to speed up the delivery of images and reduce the computing load on critical web application servers. However, this doesn’t solve bandwidth constraints caused by demand for high-resolution images.

I think this is a perfect use case for the cloud, and Content Delivery Networks (CDN’s) in general. A CDN allows an organization to offload the storage and distribution of static objects like high-resolution images. The CDN would deliver the image much more efficiently than any organization could deliver the image themselves. The computing resources and, more importantly, the Internet bandwidth are outsourced to a service provider which is highly optimized for this type of service. Connecting your website to a CDN is a smart move these days if you plan to launch a website, and expect to have a dynamic range of demand.

And speaking of dynamic demand, it’s now possible to leverage computing infrastructure to elastically support customer demand. The MN DNR’s provider had to add more server capacity to support the website. Provisioning new servers can oftentimes take days or even weeks depending on the data center and application requirements.

Imagine building a website which is able to sense greater demand, and automatically provision more computing and storage resources to meet that demand. This kind of technology is available today in enterprise cloud platforms. The benefit is that an organization could spin up a significant amount of computing resources for a short period of time, to handle something like a surge of camping reservations. Then, once the website demand slows down, the organization can simply return the computing resources to the cloud provider. The key is that the website has to be designed to take advantage of dynamic cloud computing resources.

I strongly believe in creating meaningful Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) with service providers. It helps providers understand the level of commitment they are making and it ensures accountability. At VISI, we use SLA’s as a way to benchmark our performance and prove our value to our customers. And if we fail, we share the pain with our customers. That’s the way it should be.


A Plan To Fail

By Jason Baker | March 20, 2012

I received a phone call from a local Fox News reporter today wanting to do a TV interview related to the recent Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website problems. The Minnesota DNR has a website that campers use every year to reserve spots at dozens of state parks. The prime camping spots at these parks are always in high demand — especially during the major work holidays. The DNR updated their park reservation system this year, and launched it to the delight of eager campers hoping to win the reservation lottery. Unfortunately, the online reservation system quickly buckled from the user demand, and thousands of Minnesota citizens were unable to reserve camping spots.

The Fox News reporter and camera man arrived at our office and setup the interview shoot in our data center. The reporter asked me some basic questions: Why do website outages like this occur? How do businesses know how much power their website needs? Are 4,500 visitors an hour enough to take down a website? (This is approximately the website demand reported by the DNR).

As I was responding to the reporter’s questions, I thought about the process of website capacity planning. Unfortunately, websites failing due to unexpected demand has been a scenario I’ve seen several times over my 16-year career. The first time was in the late 90′s when a customer called to let me know her product would be featured on the Oprah Winfrey TV Show in a few hours. She wanted to make sure her website could handle the increased demand from TV viewers. It couldn’t, and it didn’t. The website hosting platform was never designed to handle the level of demand generated by the TV show. And even if the website platform could have been redesigned to support the increased demand, there was no way to provision the new website capacity in time for the show.

When companies build out their website capacity they invest in a finite amount of resources. They perform a basic risk-benefit analysis. The risk is that they will not invest in enough website resources to meet customer demand. In this case they damage their reputation and lose business. The benefit of investing in more resources is that the business can support greater demand, and create delighted customers. But greater investment also carries a risk. The business might invest in too much website capacity and spend needless dollars on non-existent demand.

In my experience, most organizations have no clue how much demand their websites can handle. Why? One of the sad truths of IT planning is that most website resource capacity recommendations are based on gut instinct. Sure, this instinct is informed by years of experience and some relevant historical data points. But at the end of the day, website capacity planning still comes down to a best guess. Enterprise architects and consultants usually build in a large enough fudge factor in the capacity plans to cover most scenarios. Companies launch their websites into production and face an uncertain future — hoping their website is successful, but not too successful.

Scientists test the thrust generated by rockets before strapping them to the Space Shuttle. Automotive engineers perform extensive performance tests on every new car model. Apple’s quality control team carefully monitors the manufacturing of its new iPad tablets with retina displays. Why do businesses launch new websites out into the wild without rigorous testing? I’m not talking about a handful of developers clicking on random website links. I’m talking about serious website performance testing — dialing up the website requests until the website infrastructure collapses.

If I’m a website owner, I want to know when my website is going to fail. Then, I can go back and do the risk-benefit analysis to see how much risk is acceptable to my business. It’s not possible to invest in an infinite amount of resources, but it’s possible to manage risk when you have a good understanding of the risk level.

I can’t say for certain if the Minnesota DNR technology team engaged in performance testing before launching the updated DNR website. I’m not in a position to evaluate or critique their process. All I can say is that if they didn’t load test the website before launch, they are in good company.



Overnight Website Challenge Line-Up

By Meagan Maue | March 20, 2012

On March 5th, the non-profits chosen for this year’s Overnight Website Challenge were announced. The competition has grown considerably over last year, with 18 teams competing this year! Here’s a quick run-down on the 2012 challenge:

Aspergers Network Support for Well-Being Education and Research ANSWER provides Aspergers information via resources and support groups for parents, caregivers and professionals.
Bakken Museum The Bakken Museum has a variety of public programming and outreach programs, but is most known for its quirky mansion on the shores of Lake Calhoun, with over 2,200 science and technology related artifacts.
Cancer Legal Line Cancer Legal Line provides and coordinates pro bono legal services to Minnesota cancer patients and survivors at a vulnerable time in their lives.
Career Solutions Inc Career Solutions provides career transition services including career counseling, vocational testing and assessment, and work/life skill building classes and seminars to middle and low-income clients through their Displaced Homemaker, Dislocated Worker and Military Family Re-adjustment services.
Center for Homicide Research The Center for Homicide Research is a Minneapolis-based, volunteer-driven organization addressing the issue of homicide in our communities.
Community Neighborhood Housing Services Community NHS is a NeighborWorks America HomeOwnership Center and HUD approved counseling agency serving Saint Paul and the entire 7-county metropolitan area.
Franconia Sculpture Franconia Sculpture Park supports the talent and ambition of emerging and established artists, where artists are given the opportunity to live, work, and exhibit all at one site.
HOURCAR HOURCAR makes car ownership optional; members receive a personal key “fob” that opens all the vehicles in their fleet. The average HOURCAR member spends just $35 per month on shared car use.
Little Voyageurs’ Montessori School From the beginning, LVMS’s mission has been to nurture the development of each child’s unique potential.
Metro CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management) Team Metro CISM offers a continuum of volunteer lead services to address the stress management needs of emergency services personnel.
Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless MCH advocates at the state legislature for policies that prevent and end homelessness; shares best practices and training between and with member agencies; and educates the public about homelessness.
Minnesota Environmental Partnership Recently named Minnesota’s #1 high impact environmental nonprofit by Philanthropedia, MEP coordinates and convenes the state’s top environmental advocacy nonprofits to share information, plan and implement policy campaigns, educate and engage citizens, and “speak with one voice” on critical environmental issues.
North Star Therapy Animals NSTA aims to provide therapy animal services and the benefits these services bring to individuals.
Valley Friendship Club VFC provides fun, educational and social opportunities for children, teens and young adults with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities, in addition to creating an inclusive partnership and sense of belonging within the community at large.
The Windmill Project The Windmill Project connects families of children with special needs and disabilities to each other
and to appropriate resources and services.
TVbyGIRLS TVbyGIRLS is a nonprofit organization that works with girls ages 10 to 18 to build leadership, compassionate and collaborative working skills, critical thinking and engagement in social justice and the issues of their communities.
West African Medical Missions WAMM is an organization of health care minded individuals focused on aiding in the strengthening of health capacities in West Africa by providing supplies, educational aids, and volunteers to West Africa annually.
Youth Performance Company YPC is an Ivey Award honored youth theater empowering young actors, singers and dancers to reach their artistic potential and become community leaders.

Check out the above websites before they are obsolete; these non-profits will soon have new, cool websites (some hosted by VISI!) by next week! And for a blast from the past, check out the 2011 Minneapolis OWC.


Data Center Decisions: Build Versus Buy [Video]

By Alan Muther | March 19, 2012

VISI recently hosted a seminar entitled Data Center Decisions: Build Versus Buy. Jeff Gilmer of Excipio Consulting presented and made the point that the choice of whether to build your own data center or to lease space from a data center provider is one of the most critical business decisions you can make for your organization. He went on to explain that considerations such as overall ROI, operational flexibility, future growth and virtualization all have to be taken into account in order to find the solution that best meets your needs. Thanks to everyone who were able to attend. If you were not able to attend, you can view a copy of the presentation on SlideShare or view video from the seminar below.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about VISI’s Midwest data centers, feel free to call our sales team at 612-395-9090.


TwinWest to Host Third STEM Summit on March 21, 2012

By Meagan Maue | March 16, 2012

Over the past several years VISI has been a sponsor of TwinWest’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Summit at the Hopkins Center for the Arts.  We’re excited to participate again this year! The goal of this event is to encourage students to take STEM-related courses by showing them what job opportunities could be available for them in the future.

This year VISI will be offering 6th to 9th grade students from area schools the opportunity to test their knowledge on the fundamental infrastructure that powers business: that’s right, a computer server!  They will get to practice switching out components of an actual server while learning how servers are used to power everyday applications.  Of course, fun prizes will be available as well!

Past results of this event have been great.  According to TwinWest, when surveyed, 72 percent of the student participants indicated a higher likelihood to take STEM-related courses.


IT Industrialization Will Not Lead to Commoditization

By Jason Baker | March 15, 2012

I spoke with a customer this past week regarding the industrialization of IT services and he shared an opinion that industrialization would lead to the commoditization of IT services. In other words, all managed IT service providers would eventually deliver undifferentiated services at approximately the same price. I’ve heard this theory a number of times over the years, but I don’t see industrialized service providers heading down this road. Let me explain.

I’ve talked about IT industrialization in a number of previous blog articles. IT industrialization represents a new breed of IT services designed in a highly automated, repeatable, and scalable fashion.

Commoditization, according to Wikipedia, is:

“…the process by which goods…end up becoming simple commodities in the eyes of the market or consumers. It is the movement of a market from differentiated to undifferentiated price competition and from monopolistic to perfect competition.”

We can understand the potential relationship between industrialization and commoditization by looking at two different markets: farming and automotive manufacturing. Then, we can compare managed IT services to each of these markets to get a better understanding of the potential impact of IT industrialization.

Industrialization has greatly improved the efficiency of farming processes leading to fewer farms and greater economies of scale in the agricultural industry. Farmers are price takers — they have to accept the price set by the market (i.e., perfectly competitive). When you buy a potato from the grocery store you generally don’t care which farm it came from because potatoes are a commoditized product (we’re ignoring the organic and local food movement for the moment).

Automobile manufacturing is also a heavily industrialized industry. Early hand-crafted automobile manufacturers were supplanted by more efficient and scalable assembly line manufacturers. Today, the automobile industry has few participants and steep barriers to entry in the form of high labor and capital costs (basically an oligopoly). Automobiles from different manufacturers may share many common attributes, but they are still clearly differentiated products. An Audi is different than a Jeep, which is different than a Ford.

The point is that industrialization doesn’t necessarily lead to the commoditization of a product. It really depends on the product and the barriers of entry into the marketplace. Based on this thinking, the question is: will IT industrialization turn managed services into potatoes or Audi’s?

I think it’s clearly the latter, simply because IT industrialization will ultimately require large investments in skilled IT labor and infrastructure. These significant barriers to entry will ensure that industrialized service providers compete in a marketplace dominated by a smaller number of firms.  And these firms will need to compete with one another based on price and product differentiation.

Service providers will leverage customer service and operational excellence as key competitive advantages — benefiting all customers that work with managed service providers. Remember: a potato farmer doesn’t need to invest in better customer service to sell more potatoes.



IT Industrialization: How to Choose the Right Service

By Jason Baker | March 06, 2012

In previous blog articles, I discussed the adoption of industrialized managed services within IT organizations. These are services which are highly automated, repeatable, and scalable. Research firms like Gartner expect industrialized services to represent more than 30% of the IT service market by 2015. It’s obvious that industrialized managed services will play an important role in every organization’s IT strategy in the future, but how do organizations know which IT services to industrialize?

It’s not necessarily a straightforward question to answer because there are no prescribed rules. But let’s try to tackle this question by looking at IT services in two different ways.

Every IT organization delivers services to stakeholders using a variety of technologies. Some of these technologies are provided by common, industry-leading vendors while other technologies are developed in-house. Most widely adopted technologies, used by many different IT organizations, are strong candidates for industrialization.  These are technologies where service providers can create larger economies of scale through consolidation, automation, and abstraction.

Custom technologies and services built in-house are more difficult to industrialize simply because these services were never designed to scale. They were designed to support a single purpose for a single organization. While it is certainly possible to manage these types of services in an outsourcing arrangement, it will not be possible to gain the benefits of industrialization.

Another way to identify potential candidates for IT service industrialization is to place IT services into one of two categories: 1) customer value generating services, and 2) required business services.  Customer value generating services are those services which directly impact revenue generation. These are services which drive customer demand. Required business services are those IT services which are required to keep the lights on — e-mail, business collaboration, service monitoring, etc. Think about it this way: would customers buy more of your product or service if your email server could retrieve messages faster? Probably not. So e-mail service is categorized as a required business service.

Some of you are probably thinking that the customer value generating services are the best candidates to industrialize since these services offer the biggest bang for the buck. But actually, I think it’s the opposite. You hired smart IT leaders in your organization and you need them to work on services which directly impact the organization’s bottom line. The required business services do not create customer value, market differentiation, or competitive advantage. Outsourcing these services to an industrialized managed service provider like VISI allows your IT organization to focus on those activities which most benefit your customers. And at the end of the day, that’s what IT is all about.


IT Industrialization and Your People

By Jason Baker | March 02, 2012

I’ve talked about industrialized managed services in my recent blog posting, and I’ve still got more of the story to tell. If you recall, industrialized managed services are highly automated, repeatable IT services designed around multi-tenant requirements. In my last blog posting I described how organizations could determine which IT services were good candidates for industrialization. Basically, services which are industry-standard and required to run the business are strong candidates for outsourcing to an industrialized managed services provider.

The process of industrializing IT services sounds great, but it begs the question: what does IT industrialization mean for the people within the IT organization? I’ve always found that when managing IT organizations, processes are easy while people are hard. IT service industrialization may have a significant impact on your IT organization. Understanding this impact and socializing the changes will help to position your organization for a successful future.

Most IT organizations focus on two types of projects: 1) projects which are required to run the business, and 2) projects which are designed to grow and transform the business. Oftentimes senior IT leaders will follow the 80/20 rule — 80% of the IT staff resources are allocated to running IT and 20% of resources are allocated to growing and transforming IT. CIO’s have to constantly balance resources allocated to these two types of projects. Now, if it were up to the CEO, 80% of the IT resources would be devoted to growth and transformation projects. These are the kind of projects which increase revenue, create market differentiation, and add customer value — the kind of challenges that CEO’s grapple with every day. Many CIO’s don’t have the resource capacity to support 80% of the required work — much less the 20% of work that would really add value to the business. This is where IT service industrialization can play a key role.

It service industrialization allows CIO’s to shift resources away from the 80% of work required to run the business, and allocate freed resources to the 20% of work which adds customer value. The standard work ratios begin to look a little different when IT service industrialization is added to the mix. I call it the 33/33/33 rule: 1/3rd of the required business resources are provided by an industrialized managed service provider like VISI, 1/3rd of the required resources are provided by the organization, and 1/3rd of the organization’s resources are devoted to customer value generating projects. By introducing industrialized managed services, the organization is able to not only shift resources into revenue generating projects, but actually increase the percentage of resources allocated to those types of projects. That’s a win-win scenario for an organization’s IT team and its customers. Happy customers and happy IT leaders working on projects which add value to the bottom line — sounds like a winning combination to me.

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