About Thomas Lee

I am a technology entrepreneur, father of two young boys, and husband to Mari. Love technology, audio and stuff with wheels.

If you want to save money, go all the way…

The journey in building a new cloud platform has been an interesting one to say the least. When asking customers why they consider virtualization, private cloud or hybrid cloud solutions, cost saving is always part of the equation.

But, it amazes me how the technology decisions we make are influenced by vendors, and how few customers can work their way through all the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). Some of the best FUD stories I hear, concern these statements:

  • We are a vendor X shop.
  • We only buy “best-of-breed” technology.
  • We only have vendor X skills.

Right…how does tying yourself into vendor X, thus leaving you without choice, save you money? And, who defines “best-of-breed”? I have it on impeccable authority that one of South Africa’s largest service providers locally, lose money on every single VM they sell via their cloud platform. How is this possible? Given their scale, they should have immense buying power, and their purchasing volume alone should put them in a much more competitive provisioning and costing space. But in thinking that, you’d be wrong.

Their first mistake was going the “we are a vendor X shop” route. Let’s not investigate the options, let’s simply take our shopping basket, and load it full of goodies that vendor X peddles, especially since vendor X claims to be “best of breed”. Dare question the rationale, and that old faithful independent analyst report, ranking vendors in a way where no one loses, but some are more equal than others, gets yanked out. This provides “proof” and is the basis for not even evaluating other technologies. Plus, said Service Provider have a long standing relationship with vendor X, and they do not want to “burn” that relationship and their current discounts, by buying from another player.

Then “we only have vendor X skills”. People, if your techies can only configure VLAN’s and routing on vendor X’s hardware, you have a serious problem on hand. You hired the wrong people! Certain technologies become a standard over time, and networking is a great example. You can buy networking kit from any one of at least 10 vendors, and your brand X skills will translate in maybe 4 hours of playtime. All you have to learn is how the command line or GUI works, as the underlying routing, switching, VLAN’s and link aggregating protocols are all the same. Storage is the same story. A LUN is a LUN, whether implemented on vendor A or vendor B’s kit.

I could carry on for days, but I think my point is made. In cloud, cost and ease of use is king. That is why we investigated everything, including the brand X’s of networking, storage, operating systems and virtualization technology. In the end, you will not find a single vendor X in our platform, we went with choices that suit our business, and where our skillset can easily be translated. It has been tough, we have been wooed, and even ridiculed for our choices, especially by the vendor X’s losing out. In the end we stuck to our guns, made bold choices, and now we’ll see how it all plays out.

And I’ll be making money on every single VM that I sell.

If it floats, flies or is in the cloud, you are better off renting…

The above bit of sagely financial advice was offered to me by a financial professional. Certain assets and items make no financial sense when you buy them, renting is the better option in many cases. Why should technology be any different?

I strongly believe that the days of buying physical servers at Capex cost is a business model that is dead for many enterprises. Why invest all that hard earned money in a dead platform, why not just rent what you need, elastically? Need more, rent more. Need less, rent less. Not only will your expenses match your requirements, but your get better proportional use from those rented assets.  Some recent reports puts the average utilization of servers running virtualization hypervisors in the enterprise datacentre, at between 20% and 40%. This implies that even “enterprise” virtualization is not delivering the value promised.

How do we solve this utilization issue? It needs to be solved as it implies that we are spending money on resources that we do not use. But getting benefit from this model means that we have to have modern application and infrastructure management technologies, so that we can “right size” our resources. Managing tech resources need to move beyond the “is it on or is it off” mindset, coupled with technology silos. No offense, but I do have a giggle when enterprises who get tools like Microsoft’s SCOM for free in their enterprise license agreements, think that these basic tools tell them anything about how the app is performing. No, today we need technology that will map our business rules and processes across infrastructure, showing us impact on business processes if a port on a device, or process on a server misbehaves. The issue here is cost. Most of these platforms need to gather various forms of data, including SNMP, WMI and packet level data. The best systems will even run a small agent on your .Net, SQL and Java systems, instrumenting these down to code level. But, in South African terms, a project like this could be anywhere from R 5 Million to R 10 Million, even for relatively small environments, with around 20 app servers and around 100 servers in total.

Solving this issue has been my mission. It is one of the reasons why our cloud platform can be called “enterprise grade”. Let me explain. The systems used to monitor the packet level data are dedicated hardware devices, capable of some serious data collection and analysis. However, when buying this technology, companies have to not only think about their data rates today, but also try and guess what the data rates will be 3-5 years down the line. Typically these assets get “sweat” a long time, so invariably, an enterprise buys a bigger box than what they need. Secondly, the tech to instrument your code gets sold in certain license batches, so you end up having to buy another 10 licenses, even if you only want to roll out another two servers, taking your total to 12. Having a cloud platform enabled that has this tech built in, makes it super easy for enterprises and software developers to have this technology “baked in” to their infrastructure. Now we get to a point, where we can deliver the following info:

  • How fast is my application for the end user using it, with total response time in milliseconds instrumented from the end user device, right down all the tiers of my application and infrastructure.
  • If my response is below par (my SLA requires a 400ms response time, but I am delivering a 900ms time), where is the delay? Network, server, app, code etc?
  • In multi-tiered applications, where we have a web front-end connected, to an app server, which in turn talks to a database, we can see the delay and details for performance between servers. So, a slow app may be slow because the connection between the web servers and app tier is slow, as a result of a bad configuration on a load balancer.
  • A new update was pushed for a .Net or Java based app, and now, certain modules of the app is slow. We can pinpoint these, and help developers debug and fix performance issues, as we can see exactly which piece of the app and code is causing an issue.
  • We can tie memory, CPU and storage system performance together, and see how changes in resource quantities (add more RAM, add more vCPU) is positively or negatively affecting app performance. You can also see if a bigger server is needed, or if two or three smaller servers, running with a load balancer will work better.
  • The network performance can be instrumented and modelled to the n-th degree. Is adding more capacity going to improve my performance, or will switching to a lower latency fibre optic link from my ISP improve my performance? Is accessing the service via Internet ok, or do I need to think about a dedicated point-to-point link to the cloud, or can I simply extend my MPLS service?

Understanding the impact of resource and their behaviour is key. With the right tools, you can rent just what you need. The right sizing job for CIO/CTO level managers just got so much easier…

A boozy pleasure in Winter

I am not a guy that enjoys the cold weather, but being someone who tries to find the positive in every situation, I have found something to enjoy in Winter…

Once a year, my wife and I do a serious road trip down to the Eastern and Western Cape regions of South Africa. Allow me to elaborate. We hook a 6″ trailer behind my Subaru Outback, and we take a slow drive, doing around 300-400 km of leisurely driving per day, on the days that we drive. We visit “off the beaten track” towns, stay in guest houses and try and take in as much of the local culture, cuisine and produce as we can. Inevitably, the trailer gets gradually filled with preserves, jams, local wine, Method Cap Classique sparkling wine, potstill brandy, port, fortified wines and anything else that seems worthy of a trip home to be shared with friends (chocolate coated coffee beans anyone?). The kids love these trips, as they get to stay in a new place, with new things to discover, every two or three days, and Mari and I wandering around with no particular plan, apart from the pre-planned accommodation due to the fact that we do this in the peak holiday season.

As the cold descends, I take great pleasure in having a quiet night cap at home. Be it a glass of red wine, a port or muscadel, maybe a double shot of fine 10 year old pot-still brandy. Our brandies are really excellent, as South Africa’s fine showing in these past years in the International Wine and Spirits Challenge (www.iwsc.net) proves. In 2013 alone, no fewer than 8 of our brandies won “Gold Outstanding” awards. Our port is equally well regarded. Current favourites are the 8 year old Boplaas brandy, the Joseph Barry 10 year and the Ladismith 8 year old.

                            brandy        Joseph-Barry-10jr-Brandy  LadiSmith-Klein-Karoo-8jr

Part of the pleasure comes from the fact that I have learnt how to appreciate “the good stuff” over the last 20 years. My enjoyment today of a glass of South Africa’s finest is a world away from my downright unruly behaviour as a student. No, today the fine aromas, fruity flavours and velvet textures are what pleases me.

And yet, as much as I love a glass of wine, and truly enjoy a good brandy or whiskey, my all time favourite is beer. Not the chemically enhanced, brewed in a few days generic lager that we see advertised. No. My love is the amber ales, red ales, pale ales, the Belgian Lambic beers and so forth. My two intrepid brothers-in-law have now fired up a home brewery, but not just any old homebrew kit. No, proper temperature controlled systems with efficient wart boilers and gorgeous chillers. Proper bottling systems with the correct raw sugars for bottle conditioning of the beers.

Our weekend beer drinking has taken on a completely new angle. Each beer (there are about 6 types in various brewing stages at any point, around 25 litres per batch) is carefully tasted, and notes made. The brewing process is adjusted and the bottle condition periods extended. A veritable treasure trove of brewers notes are being produced, to be handed down from father to son 🙂 All of this happens while the other brother assists Mari in making gorgeous food (he’s an amateur chef) to pair with the various beers. Fancy a chocolate ale with desert? No problem, they made a pretty decent one.

Yes, all of life’s pleasures can be consumed and enjoyed in sensible quantities. It adds to the variety and spice of life, making sure that we enjoy and enhance the experience of sharing life and love with friends…cheers!!!

I have a vinyl fetish…

Not the handcuffs and boots type, the 33 1/3 rpm type.

I remember listening to records at home as a youngster, and spending my pocket money on records in the 80’s. Oh, I was so quick to jump ship to CD, and then of course to buy digital music online (my favourite sites are HDtracks.com and LinnRecords.com). My online purchases really started adding up when I bought a Maverick Audio TubeMagic D1 Plus edition standalone digital-to-analogue converter with a high-end valve powered headphone amp. Listening to music in 24 Bit, 96KHz format just took digital to the next level for me. Finally being able to drive my various sets of Sennheiser, Grado and Beyerdynamic headphones was magical. Of course, hooking the Maverick up to my Yamaha RX-A2010 amplifier and Tannoy speakers just showed how nicely a vacuum tube plays with digital formats. But, the magic of vinyl was awakened when I visited my father, and was presented with his almost brand new (but 20 years old) NAD 533 (Rega P2 OEM version) turntable. I listened to it on his Tannoy/Onkyo setup and was amazed. Not only was I given the turntable, but also around 80 great condition vinyl albums. These all made the trek back to centurion with me.

The turntable was serviced, and a new motor and belts fitted. The old unknown cartridge was dumped, and a brand new Audio Technica AT-95e fitted. The Rega RB-250 arm had its tracking and anti-skate set properly, and the table was mounted on a super heavy, isolated stand. Finally, the table was leveled and is being kept level. I marveled at the sounds from my speakers! I happen to now own the same recordings on vinyl and digital, and the difference is amazing. I own a copy of an Andres Segovia classical guitar record, and have the same recording, bought via iTunes. With the iPad connected to the Maverick for decode duties, the digital 256 kbps AAC file sounds dull and lifeless. Play the same recording from vinyl, and Andres Segovia is in my living room, playing the guitar. I was hooked!

Of course, this was only the beginning. My table is a decent entry level system, well maintained and fitted with components to bring our the best in it. But, it is far from top end. So, a purchase was made, and I bought two Lenco L75 turntables (1968 and 1969 models) to have them restored in heavy plinths, a la Jean Nantais. I bought 10 layer Birch plywood, and a brilliant Jelco SA-250ST tonearm to replace the busted standard Lenco item. During the process, I bought more vinyl, so a dedicated, 450 LP rack was designed, built and fitted by my mate Charles Theron. For the second Lenco, I have my eye on a 12″ transcriptor specification SME tonearm…drool…

I realized that a home theater amp will not do such a setup justice, so I have set out building a derivative of the now iconic 47 Labs Gaincard amplifier. Powered by LM3886 chips, it sounds wonderful. Mine is fronted by an AD815 based pre-amplifier, and finally, there is the dedicated Moving Magnet Phono Stage that I built, to augment the Rega Phono Mini USB that I use to rip my vinyls to high definition FLAC files to preserve them.

Next up is the vinyl cleaner I have to build, and following that, as set of speakers based of 12″ or 15″ tannoy dual concentric drivers…It just goes on and on… The investment in tools (Dremel etc), material and components have been substantial, but so is the fun i have been having with my records.

To say that the bug has bitten me, is a complete understatement. I am lucky, that I can be as passionate about my hobbies, as I am about my high tech business.

Peace and love.

The bravery of being out of range…

Doing OpenStack is hard. Doing it right is even harder. Doing it in a way that mimics the major functionality of competing public Infrastructure-as-a-Service providers is so tough, that I believe what we are launching will be a first in Africa, with some features a first in the Southern Hemisphere. Part of the challenge is understanding that OpenStack is not a technology, but a framework. A very complex Lego set where you slot things in and make then work in a way to suit your organisations business requirement. For the past 10 months I have done little but spend every moment possible understanding what I want to do, and how I want to do it. And I am not done…

So, is it correct for me to look down on enterprises making “easy” choices using easy to install software packages? Probably not. In truth, I do not look down on them, as much as I stare in wonder at how they manage to misuse so much of the vast resources they have at their disposal. Instead of doing the hard thing and building what is perfect for the business, they choose far simpler productized platforms, rolling out far more costly equipment and solutions, to solve problems in a “standardized” way. The reality is that they do not adapt technology to their businesses, their businesses has to adapt to their technology choice’s rules and limitations. Not ideal at all.

Now, I have to express a serious amount of ignorance on my side regarding the inner workings, descision making processes and budget allocations of enterprise IT departments. Reason is simple. I have never spent a day being employed in a end-user internal IT department. In an IT career spanning 22 years, I have only been employed 3 times, all of it working for technology resellers. I did less than a year in a fairly big business, then less than a year at a global multinational and finally 5 1/2 years in a company that grew from around 20 people to around 400 people in the time I was there. The balance of 22 years was spent being self employed with varying degrees of success. I have had roaring successes and spectacular failures. The time I have been flumoxed the worst was when I failed (in my opinion) in environments where technology descisions are taking by people who really have no business running IT departments.

But I digress…I think the biggest reason for doing things the “easy” way, is the fact that enterprise employees don’t spend their own money. Made a 150 Million blooper? No problem, wipe it under the rug and try again. Blame the vendor and then the partner. Apply the first rule of corporate politics, CYA (cover your ass) and duck for cover.

Things are different when you are spending your own money, you tend to think harder about why you spent it, and who you will be giving it too. Getting return on that hard earned cash is paramount, and in a big way, enterprise guys can easily duck financial responsibility for failures. Selecting a framework is giving me the opportunity to make technology work for my business, not make my business work the way a vendor demands.

A secret blend of herbs, spices and chemicals

Let me not pretend I am something I am not. A bunny hugger I ain’t. According to me, “vegetarian” is from the Latin root that means “bad hunter”. I believe we have dominion over the animals, and I love steak. But, being a meat lover/eater (don’t worry, the red meat animals get their revenge on me, I suffer from terrible gout!) does not mean that I turn a blind eye to the rights of animals. While you won’t find me picketing the fashion stores or butcheries, a fast food store had my stomach turning this week.

Heading back to my home office earlier this week, I realized my schedule was tight. Now, I am living a healthier lifestyle than in the past, and have lost almost 15Kg’s of weight during the last year. Meaning that I actually try and make healthier eating choices. It dawned on me that a quick, fast food bite, preferably of the drive through variety would suit my schedule best. Faced with a number of bad choices, I opted for what seemed to be the lesser of a number of evils, and opted for something chickenish. Calling it “chicken” would be an absolute travesty… Now, this particular three letter acronym chain has not seen business from me in a long time, and I opted for a burger and a drink. Imagine my shock and surprise at the “fishy” smell and flavour, with something “chemical” lingering… Can it really be, have we as consumers fallen so far of the top of the food chain that this almost toxic, smelly blend of deep fried whatchamacalit passes as food in our world? One bit was enough to leave me reeling. Did I have a singular bad experience at a bad restaurant, cathing them off guard, or is this the quality and taste consumers crave nowadays?

Reason why this brand was top of mind this week, is that one of my family members doing his articles to qualify as a Chartered Accounted recalled the vast amounts of money these businesses generate. Forget about shoving your morals aside and opting to buy a franchise for pure monetary gain. You cannot buy one even if you had the money. A few companies now control the franchise ownership and new stores are allocated to these companies using some method, about I will best not speculate, lest I find a horse’s head in my bed.

Driving past these shops around meal times, you find them stuffed to the brim with customers, cash in hand and a row of cars around the building, waiting to be served. Is their marketing really that good, or are we really that oblivious and stupid? And they are not the only brand whose food I cannot stomach. A clown themed one is right up there too. What they pass off as a burger patty in a country that rears some of the best beef in the world is unfathomable. Despite this, I have a friend who confesses an almost drug like craving for their offerings. While his wife has him on every weird diet based around hormones, pills, injections and flab busting machines, he enjoys nothing more than cheating on that diet with a sneaky double burger with “cheese”. Calling the yellow goob slab on said chemically enhanced patty “cheese” is an insult to the bacteria that make the actual process of producing cheese possible.

Reading all the horror stories about these brands on the web, for a long time I dismissed these as pure disgruntled, ex-burger flippin’ employees with a vendetta hogwash. I did not see the fire where the smoke was. After sampling their wares, heed my warning, there is a fire raging…

Undocking your cloud

In a recent post I spoke about lock-in and how I hate being locked into services. Expanding on that topic, I should note that cloud services is a lot more elastic than other products we use or services we consume…up to a point. You can easily turn services on, off or move between plans. But moving from cloud platform A to B? Nope, not so easy… until now.

Docker is going to revolutionize the way we build, run and move applications around. Referring to my previous post, Docker is the way I am going to make it easy for you to get on my platform, run your apps, scale them and finally take them with if you decide to switch platforms. And if you go out there, try the others and realize my platform as best after all, Docker is how you get back in 🙂

So, what is Docker? This page will give you a great quick overview, but allow me to summarize here. Remember the old Java promise of “build once, run anywhere”? Well Docker is that promise delivered. You can have a quick start with 13000+ Dockerized applications or build your own. By using the Docker you can build an application, run it on any environment and finally ship it to any cloud platform that supports Docker and run the app at scale.

Have a look at it, if you are a Dev or SysAdmin guy, you’ll love this tech.


A 5 minute excersize

The time has come for me to admit to a seriously receding hairline. While the loss of my hair is regrettable, the time saved on quick haircuts is useful. I am not quite at the point where I can place a call on hold and get a quick haircut, but I did reduce from a 7 minute task to a 5 minute task. Words like “short” and “style” have lost all haircut meaning for me. I now primarily worry about my hair being “neat”. How things have changed…If you have a lovely head full of hair, get yourself styled properly, because age will take that simple pleasure from you… On the flip side I now have more time on hand to enjoy other things. Such as the new limited edition Jack White – Lazaretto album that arrived as part of my Third Man Records Vault #20 package.

Who needs hair when your record player can spin awesome tunes?


Size matters…smaller is better

Time to admit it, I was hugely offended recently during a session with a potential vendor. The account manager working with us may not have disclosed our current company size as part of getting a very senior european manager to see us. During the conversation, we were quizzed as to the size of our business, and you should have seen the boss’ face when my answer was “less than 10 people”. He had that “Oh no, I just stepped in poo” look.

The reality is that I should not have been puzzled by the senior guy’s reaction. It is a sizable deal for a local company, so he may have been surprised by the fact that we are a small entity. And people seem to love the whole “bigger is better” concept, so his expectation may have been just that. Being a small company with big dreams places us in good company. Any of the following names ring familiar? Google, Cisco, Dell, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple…all started by one or two guys in a dorm room or garage. Esteemed company to keep in my opinion.

The reasons for running a small company vary, for us, it was a deliberate choice, just in the way that changing that is also one. Selling time limits your margin and revenue opportunity, as you can only flog a person and sleep deprive them so much for billable hours. Lawyers, accountants etc all know what I mean. The next level up are people who can charge for their time, but special circumstances allow them a greater revenue opportunity. Think surgeons. They charge a consulting fee at a certain rate, but performing specialized surgery allows them to take their billing to the next level. Whn you have a company that sells product, you have a “sales economy of scale” that can allow a single person to hook a big deal, by moving many widgets in one go. But then there is the game we have been in for a long time, software. To say that it scales the people/revenue number is an understatement. Allow me to illustrate. My biggest customer has 8000 network devices under management using a software platform that we supplied. A “less than 10 people” company. The end user in this case supports around 160 000 employees on that network. A 16000:1 ratio for our company. How is that possible? Simple, the same amount of configuration and work to support 100 devices goes into 8000 devices. Making our size, or lack thereof irrelevant.

Now, if a supplier is worried about our size, what about our customers? In reality, they prefer us small 😉 The reason is simple. If they use the services of a large company, they could be 0.2%-2% of their revenue. With us, they could be 5%-10% of ours at any given time, meaning that we pay much more attention to them. Our size also makes us nimble. For example, if we engage a potential customer using the exact same technology, we can arrange a proof-of-concept, scope and execute it much quicker than our competitors. That is why our internal stats show, that if we are up against a traditional big player, we have a 10x larger chance to win the deal, not because we are awesome (well, I think we are!) but because the internal bureaucracy in a large company makes them slower to react to changes in circumstances. Our sales tactic? Let’s change the circumstances and upset the apple cart a bit to stumble the giants…

What about our customer size? Are we dealing with the top 5 largest customers in South Africa? No, we simply do not have the reach to get them. Instead, in the 1000-10000 user range, our customer list reads like the who’s who of well known South African companies. We prefer dealing with them, as they are far more open minded than the big, “enterprise template” players. No tenders or public RFP’s mean that we can uncover and solve problems almost unhindered for them. They decide quick, and pay quick. The value of a buck is something they know, and they seek every advantage possible to enable them to compete and win against their bigger competitors. Their internal IT departments tend to be decently sized and skilled, allowing us to leverage our specialized skills.

All of this adds up to the following. Being smaller is a competitive advantage, one that we have been using to great effect for many years, and hopefully for many more to come.

My role models? The 55 employee company WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook in a 19 Billion Dollar deal…who’s making poo faces now?

Tactical technology thinking is killing innovation

A session with a representative from a major international research company confirmed what I have suspected for a long time…many IT players style themselves as “strategic” thinkers, but in reality, they employ tactical thinking to satisfy their own business goals.

Rodin's "The Thinker"

Rodin’s “The Thinker”

As we moved through my requirements this morning, it became clear why some obvious partnership opportunities were slow to materialize at the onset of our cloud platform R&D process. Historical vendor relationships rule the “Go to market” thinking of many large technology resellers and consultancies. Instead of thinking about “what” a problem needs to be solved with, they are thinking about the “who”. For instance, if the customer needs to solve a networking challenge, a certain vendor’s name is foremost. Now, is that a strategic or a tactical choice? I would answer tactical, as the networking market is going through a major change, and a large number of “up and coming” solutions might be better employed to solve particular problems. The reseller positions the choice as “strategic”, as they have loads of skills to support the technology. Does this mean that my gorilla in the networking space makes bad networking kit? Not at all, just they are not the answer for every problem related to networking.

This is where the disconnect happens. The customer has a specific problem that needs solving. The reseller believes the vendor’s go to market plan and strategy, in many cases simply because the technical resources that the reseller employs has no exposure to other vendor’s technology. And they do not have time to learn new skills or research the market, as they are flat out involved in either rolling out new infrastructure or busy fixing what is broken in existing environments. So, that most grave of errors are made…instead of really solving the problem, they force the customer to adapt their way of working to fit their reseller solution set. This is the origin of “architecture by evolution” and every new problem simply gets a plaster from the box we used previously. So, the sales guys get to play golf with the vendor based on their sales success, and the technical guys simply get to support more of the same infrastructure. Based on the “success” of this process, it simply repeats itself, ad infinitum to a point where I believe most enterprises run the same “template” for infrastructure.

I have reached the point where I am genuinely surprised when asking a customer about their general infrastructure and they give a “non standard” answer. It puts a huge smile on my face, giving me hope that we are trying to solve problems in a unique and customer specific way,  not in a sheepish way, following the herd rolling out the same old template.

Thinking caps on folks! Don’t be afraid to think outside the boxes provider by the well known tech vendors.