Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Rackspace and San Antonio

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

I can’t remember if Rackspace was our second or third commercial support customer (Children’s Hospitals was our first, but I can’t remember if NASA was second or third), but I do know that it is doubtful OpenNMS would still be around if it wasn’t for them. They were an early adopter of the platform and their support kept our company going until we could reach the critical mass needed to remain profitable.

Now that we are beginning to think about how we can use utility computing (sorry, “The Cloud”) to better serve our customers, I wanted to visit San Antonio to learn more about OpenStack. I also wanted to work with the team there that’s using OpenNMS to make sure their needs were being met, so my two day trip had a bit of a schizophrenic aspect in that one day I was the customer and the next day I was the vendor.

I started working with Rackspace in April of 2002, when they were about 100 times smaller than they are now. I’ve always admired them, since at their heart they are a services company and I’ve always viewed the OpenNMS Group as a services company. A lot of people think services companies can’t grow, but Rackspace is a shining example of how wrong that is.

My first contact there was with a guy named Eric Evans, who is both a friend and now a coworker. Even though he left Rackspace not that long ago, things are changing so fast that we had trouble finding the new visitor’s entrance. The Rackspace headquarters building is called “The Castle” and it is in a shopping mall that the company bought several years ago. It is amazing to watch how fast it has been built out, and while I hear that New Relic’s headquarters really hark back to the days of the first Internet bubble, The Castle is a contender for “nerdvana” (plus is it full of Level 8 Ingress Enlightenment portals).

We had a little time between my plane landing and our appointment, so Eric took me to a barbecue joint called Smokin’ Joes.

I’ve liked Texas barbecue ever since being introduced to Rudy’s in Boerne all those years ago, and every time I bring up how much I like Rudy’s it embarrasses Eric a little bit, because while good he doesn’t think it represents true Texas barbecue. He was determined to provide an authentic Texas barbecue experience.

He didn’t disappoint.

I knew when we walked up that I would like the place. Every amazing barbecue place where I’ve ever eaten has been something of a dive. The focus should be on the food and not the decor. I opted for a pulled pork plate (those of us purists from North Carolina understand the truth that “barbecue” means “pork”) and it was amazing. If I wasn’t so afraid of gaining back the 50 pounds I lost I would have had seconds.

After lunch we headed over to The Castle. For our meeting we were ushered into the new “experience” center, which is a state of the art meeting space to showcase Rackspace products (and yes, they have cookies). The meeting was lead by John Engates, who is now the CTO, as well as another “original Racker” named Tom Sands who runs the network infrastructure. Tom used to yell at me when OpenNMS reported 1.2 ms latency as his network is almost always sub-millisecond by a large margin. I was also introduced to a number of other people who demonstrated that Rackspace has done a good job in hiring top notch talent, and we had a great discussion of their services and our needs.

Rackspace, along with NASA (which is a bit ironic), created an open source cloud platform called OpenStack. I am not well versed in the subtleties of the Cloud market, but I think Amazon is still the leader with OpenStack companies in second. There is Eucalyptus, which is a fauxpensource play on Amazon’s APIs, and the CloudStack initiative from Apache. I believe VMWare has its own cloud offering and I’m sure there are hundreds more.

What I like about OpenStack is that it plays to the strengths of open source. Don’t like the service you are getting from Rackspace? Move everything over to IBM or HP, or host it yourself. You can use shared resources (the “public” cloud) or build your own on top of dedicated hardware (the “private” cloud) or mixed the two (the “hybrid” cloud).

The storage aspect of OpenStack is called “Swift” and while I don’t believe Eric worked directly on it, according to John his early work on something similar proved its viability to the company and resulted in them dedicating a team to develop it.

After the meeting, John, Tom, Eric and myself went to a place called The Boiler House for dinner. It is in a complex that used to house the Pearl Brewering Company, but is now home to a number of shops and restaurants.

While they had no draft beer, they did have Shiner in bottles and lots of good dishes to sample. While my normal diet is nominally vegan, within seven hours of landing I’d eaten pork, beef, lamb, bison and quail. I had a great time as we spend a couple of hours talking about tech, beer and firearms.

Welcome to Texas.

The next day we met with the monitoring team. While we were waiting I noticed an interesting looking car in the parking lot. It turns out it was a Fisker Karma, which is a plug-in electric sports car.

That meeting went well, and I’ll probably be back in San Antonio before the end of the year. Before heading to the airport Eric took me to a cool little coffee shop called Olmos Perk (which is impossible to get Google Now to recognize as it wants to replace it with “almost”).

This is near the Olmos basin, and in driving there I got to see the Olmos Dam. It is the weirdest damn I’ve ever seen, as there is no water near it – just this huge concrete structure. Eric was telling me that in the 1920s the city flooded, so they hired this Dutch guy to create a plan to keep that from happening.

Now the problem is that this dam is literally in the middle of some prime real estate, so calls keep coming to tear it down and sell the land around it. Luckily for San Antonio, a flood comes around every decade or so that shows how brilliant the Dutch guy was at his job.

It was a fun trip (and it wasn’t even that hot). I look forward to coming back.

Silicon Valley

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Ron and I had some meetings scheduled in Silicon Valley last week. It was an interesting trip, so I thought I’d put down a few thoughts.

The trip out was a little painful. Due to storms in Dallas they closed DFW and so our plane got re-routed to Waco. Now the Waco Regional Airport is not the largest in the world (it has two gates) and so they weren’t really set up for handling the few jets that got diverted there, and I’m sure the plan was just to refuel and head back to Dallas when the weather cleared.

Unfortunately, the MD-80 we were on experienced some sort of mechanical issue and it wasn’t getting back to DFW that night. They didn’t announce that publicly (if a delay is caused by weather, the airline isn’t held responsible, but if it is related to maintenance then American would have been responsible for hotels, etc.) and all we were told was that we’d have to take a bus back. I heard about the maintenance issue from the crew, but they wouldn’t give specifics.

We ended up exiting from the rear of the aircraft, something I had never done in years of flying.

It was a little frustrating, specifically because Ron checked a bag. On the plane they told us that he could get his bag if he requested it from the desk, but once we got there we found it wasn’t staffed. By this time we had left the secure area and couldn’t get back to talk with the original person, and later it turns out that the four American Eagle staff decided to hide in the office instead of dealing with questions from our crowd. We were finally told that we couldn’t get his bag and that it would be delivered to San Francisco with our next flight.

I have watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles enough that as soon as we landed in Waco, I called and I booked a room at the DFW Marriott. We managed to get there about 1am, and considering that we were rebooked on a 7am flight we didn’t get much sleep, but at least it wasn’t on the floor of the airport.

Upon arriving at SFO we went to the Admiral’s Club to check on the status of Ron’s bag. They said it had been scanned at DFW and should be on the next plane, which was due to arrive in about three hours time. We decided it was worth it to wait.

It wasn’t.

The bag wasn’t on that flight, the one 40 minutes after it, nor the one 10 minutes after that. American seemed incapable of locating the bag or telling us when it might arrive, and I couldn’t help but think that we could build them a better system using OpenNMS. Heck, the bar wouldn’t be all that high, as pretty much anything would have been better than what they have. That afternoon we gave up and decided to head out and just stop by Target to buy some clothes.

The rest of the trip was much better. We met a friend of Ron’s named Mark for dinner and had a really great conversation about pretty much everything, but with a focus on tech and the business of tech. We then called it a night due to having little sleep the night before.

The next morning while Ron was on the phone with American, who were still having issues locating his luggage, the hotel brought the bag to his room. Resupplied with clothes, we were ready to tackle our now completely booked two days of meetings.

It had been awhile since I was on Sand Hill Road, and it seems that things have changed for the better. Most investors seem eager to at least learn about a company like ours that has both customers and profit, and most of the meetings we took were fun.

One wasn’t. It was the same old tired “If you aren’t in Silicon Valley, you can’t be successful” spiel I used to hear every time I came here. The premise is that if you want tech talent, i.e. a talented Director of Sales, you can only find them in the Valley. This contrasted with another person I talked to this trip who said he was having trouble finding people because no one wanted to go to a Series A startup. With Facebook, Google, Twitter and others hiring, the top guns are either going there for the security and high salaries or are off starting their own companies.

I couldn’t help myself (it happens) and I had to point out that in the case of OpenNMS being focused on open source, there is more talent in RTP than in California. Red Hat’s revenue is over a billion dollars annually, and I would like to see the Valley’s equivalent. With all that talent ‘n such there should be several companies, right?

Didn’t think so.

On the flight back I was seated next to a woman who was a bit of a hired gun in business consulting and she pointed out that quite a few Valley startups take off like wildfire but then quickly plateau. Her theory is that the area is very insular so business plans tend to target companies in that area and they don’t do well outside of it. I think there is a grain of truth in what she said, although there are notable exceptions such as the companies I named above.

The one thing that is hard to recreate is the sheer density of interesting people. Perhaps it was because I’m now traveling with Ron who knows everybody, but I had some great conversations, one after another. I have had conversations of a similar level in Raleigh, but not in a row like that.

But I am willing to experience that via airplane versus living there. Spending over a million dollars for a small house and then having to deal with the traffic, parking and other issues is enough to make me appreciate my current standard of living. Plus, I would have to have a really nice job to afford the Telsa sedan which seems to be the car of choice in the area. At one point in time we were passed by two red ones on the 101 (one with a dealer tag). I did see only one coupe but the sedans were everywhere.

We’re off for meetings in other parts of the country (and world) over the next few weeks, so it will be interesting to compare that to my trip West. I’ll try to post my thoughts so that my three readers can experience the wonder that is business travel from some place that isn’t Waco.

Sweden – Part 3

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

I just got back from Sweden (my third time this year) and was given permission by the client to discuss the project we are working on there.

The client is Bonnier Digital, part of Bonnier AB. Bonnier is a huge media conglomerate based in Sweden that consists of over 175 companies with more than 10,000 employees. If you read Popular Science then you read a Bonnier media product.

With so many individual companies, Bonnier was dealing with a lot of duplication of IT infrastructure. Bonnier Digital was founded to both consolidate their IT operations as well as to build a business providing world class IT services to other companies. They are deploying thousands of kilometers of fiber around Sweden to bring together various data centers, the largest of which will house nearly [redacted] shipping containers (a lá Google) filled with servers and related equipment.

(I was asked to remove the actual total by the client, but it’s “lots”)

OpenNMS has been chosen as the application platform which will manage this huge infrastructure, and in doing so provide state of the art surveillance for IT operations in general and the media business in particular.

It was interesting to be in Sweden when it wasn’t frozen. While it wasn’t warm, the leaves were starting to emerge on the trees, and the days were very long. The first morning I was there I woke up in a panic that I’d overslept since the sun was streaming in the window, but my handy reported it was only 05:58. I liked the fact that the woods were carpeted with this plant with little white flowers.

Note that while I’m still curious, I have yet to try that other white thing one finds in Sweden:

Due to this project we spend a lot of time in country. I was there for two weeks, along with Alejandro. To make being away from home easier, we encourage our engineers to bring along their spouses, and for this trip Carolina joined her husband.

I hope she had a good time, because most days we work until late in the evening and during the week I only saw her a couple of times, but I did get to see her on the weekend. It was pretty gray where we were, so I did a Google search on “sunniest place in Sweden” and we decided to go to Karlstad.

Karlstad is a pretty neat town. There are lots of statues, and for those of you who play Ingress, that means lots of portals. Alejandro and Carolina followed me around as I played the game. I had my picture taken next to a statue honoring Sola i Karlstad (the Sun in Karlstad) a waitress known for her sunny disposition.

Karlstad is located in the province of Värmland (Bonnier Digital is nearby in Dalsland). There is a museum in Karlstad featuring the art of Värmland, which includes a replica of Viking runes. Fans of Lord of the Rings will recognize them as the inspiration for runes in those books.

Karlstad is at the top of Lake Vänern, so we drove down to see the water. Vänern is a huge fresh-water lake that is the largest in the EU, and the 26th largest in the world by area (as well as by volume).

It was a nice trip and we did see lots of sun.

My friends Lars and Linda (from the great Moose expedition) invited us out on the lake on the following Tuesday. While it was still a little cold, I can imagine how much fun it would be to be out on the water in the summer time. We saw tons of fish on the fish finder, but they just weren’t in the mood to bite.

As part of the tour we went out on Vänern proper, and you could see the waves getting choppier. Vänern is dotted with hundreds of little islands, and you could see several as we bobbed on the water. Since it was cold and the wind picked up on the open water, we turned around and headed back, doing about 27 knots.

When we got back to the dock, Lars got a call dealing with a security issue and so we sped off at high speed in his Range Rover to try and catch some bad guys. It is something to be doing 60 mph on backcountry Swedish roads, although I must admit that Lars is an excellent driver and I didn’t feel unsafe at any time. Still, when I had the chance, I did feel the need to rid myself of some extra fluids I’d been carrying around (grin).

So once again I left Sweden with a few more adventures (Lars and Linda took Alejandro and Carolina out on ATVs the next night, but I was a little too beat to make it) and I look forward to many more in the future.

It’s Friday, So This Must Be Finland

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Chris Dibona once wrote that, on a trip to China, he was “visiting the birthplace of all of my electronics”. On my first trip to Finland I feel a little like I am visiting the birthplace of OpenNMS.

OpenNMS was actually born in North Carolina, USA, but the thoughts that made it possible were the influence of a local company called Red Hat, which in turn was inspired by the work of Linus Torvalds, a Finn who was born in Helsinki.

On a modern note, the new OpenNMS GUI relies heavily on Vaadin, a software framework that was invented in Finland. Finally, my family originated in Hungary. The Hungarian language (which I do not speak) is related to few other languages, but one of those happens to be Finnish.

I came here from Sweden to visit a new client, and that makes Finland the 26th country in which The OpenNMS Group has customers (the others being, in no particular order, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Egypt, Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Japan, Australia, Israel, Denmark, France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, the UK, Italy, Trinidad, Malta, India, Honduras, Chile, Sweden, the UAE and the US.)

I got a really good vibe from Helsinki, even though it was really cold. The Germans have a term for temperatures at or below -15C, arschkalt, and I did experience that here.

The client was pretty cool. I met Jari last week at the OpenNMS Users Conference and he and his coworkers went out of their way to may sure I enjoyed my short stay. On Thursday night we went to a restaurant called Salutorget and had a wonderful meal, and on Friday we visited a place called Stone’s Beer and Burger where I had a Finnish “veggie burger” – instead of the usual attempt to make a burger patty out of vegetables, it was a bun and grilled vegetables, which was quite tasty.

The beer had to wait until after work, when we visited Teerenpeli. This was on the advice of Ville, the Vaadin employee who came to the Users Conference and suggested some places I should visit while in Helsinki.

On a somber note, there was a marble memorial to people killed in the Finnish Civil War in the office building where we were working. I thought it unusual that there was a lack of Finnish surnames starting with “B” through “F” – there were three names that started with “A” and then it jumps to “G”.

Overall, the only criticism I have of the trip is that it was too short. Next time I come I hope to take a side trip to Tallin, Estonia and/or St. Petersburg, Russia. Both are surprisingly close, and I need a few more countries to visit. I’m at 33 at the moment and I want to hit 50 before I am 50 years old.

But I think I want the next one to be a little warmer.

Note: I didn’t think of Monty Python’s song “Finland” while I was there. Not once. I swear. Really.

Hunting Moose in Sweden

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

Look, I like my job. I really do. When I’m driving around in the heat of a North Carolina summer, I am glad that my job allows me to spend the hottest part of the day inside with air conditioning.

That said, there are times I wish I could be outside more often. Much of my job involves removing obstacles so other people can do their jobs with less hassle. So I find myself in meetings, working on administrivia, and looking at e-mails and project plans way more often than actually building things. Granted, many of these things are necessary in order for things to get built in the first place, but sometimes I wish I could just say “give me some money and I’ll go build something wonderful for you”. Then again, sometimes I wish I could spend more time outside, since things seem simpler out there. There doesn’t seem to be so many things competing for my attention.

Anyway, I was in Sweden and I was a little upset. We are doing a huge project and I had flown thousands of miles to meet with a man named Lars, and he didn’t seem to have time to meet with me. I didn’t get any responses to my e-mails, etc., and I really needed to talk to him.

Well, I got my wish, but not in the way I expected. One morning he walked into the office, gave my shoulders a squeeze and said “Out front, 16:00, dress warm. We’ll be back sometime tomorrow morning” and walked off.

Note that the high temperature at this time was around -4C, with pockets in the north getting down to -20C at night.

This type of behavior in general is not unusual with Lars, but this particular behavior was a little unusual even for him. I was worried, since I didn’t bring real cold weather clothes, so after lunch Ronny and I drove into town to a sporting goods shop where I bought some thermal underwear and proper Swedish boots, gloves and a coat.

Thus armed I waited until 16:00 and then headed out to the parking lot. Lars was there in his Defender 110 along with his totally delightful fiancée Linda. Also joining us was Gollum, a slightly flatulent Boxer puppy that had a hurt paw and thus needed a little extra care, and Anders, a friend and new lieutenant of Lars.

Lars apologized for not being able to meet with me, but things had been crazy. I found out that he gets nearly 3000 e-mail messages a day, so mine got lost in the flood, and his phone pretty much rang constantly as we drove. Luckily, phone coverage was pretty spotty where we were going, so there was a chance for some peace and quiet.

We were hunting for moose.

Many years ago, Lars’ uncle started buying up land after the timber was harvested off of it. He did this over and over again until he had amassed over 42,000 hectares (103,700 acres or 162 square miles) of land and over 11,000 hectares of lakes and ponds. It is located along the Norwegian border near Bogen, which was a two hour drive away. We had a nice time talking both about life and work as we made the drive into the mountains, with occasional breaks to open the window to let it air out from the dog, and the snow getting slowly deeper and deeper as we would ascend into the hills.

Some of this property is leased, and they also have several businesses running off of it – mainly sport related such as hunting and fishing. The uncle made a rule in his will that only enough timber could be harvested in any given year to cover expenses, which while not small (they have nearly 3000 km of logging roads to maintain) insures that no relative down the line can strip the place bare. Everything is done with an eye on conservation so that the area will be available for generations to come.

As soon as we turned onto the property we startled two young moose, both about a year old. The first one ran off into the woods but Lars stopped the Rover, wound down the window and by covering his mouth and pinching his nose he made this weird sort of “mooing” sound. This caused the moose to stop and just stand there, and while he didn’t come closer he also didn’t run off. Not until we started up the car again did he leave.

We made our way up to a group of hunting lodges and got out to stretch our legs.

Lars has been known to tell the members of his executive team to come to the office prepared for a weekend retreat, and when everyone shows up expecting to spend the weekend in a luxury hotel, he has a helicopter drop down and cart everyone off to Bogen for a weekend in the woods.

Did I mention that I like Lars? (grin)

During the stop Lars cleaned off the lamps mounted along the top of the Rover, and we would need them as we drove around looking for moose and wolves. Wolves are a huge problem in the area, as they are both plentiful and cunning.

On one of the roads on the preserve it looked like every animal in the forest had come there to leave tracks. It had not snowed in a couple of days so there were tracks everywhere. Both Lars and Linda kept pointing them out: moose, wolf, hare and fox. The hares here grow really large, and sometimes it is easy to mistake the tracks for a those of a larger animal. Of course I am relying on Lars’ and Linda’s interpretation of things since both Anders and I were totally lost when it comes to tracking (Anders has lived in Stockholm since 1994).

We stopped at the spillway of a nearly frozen lake called Kivlamp to experience some of the cold first hand. While we were there another car pulled up and I got to meet one of the area’s caretakers, a man named Bosse. When he found out I was from the Southern United States he handed me his “varmint rifle” – a scoped .30 caliber – and offered to let me shoot it.

Now I don’t have much experience with shooting outside of some trap shooting with a 12-gauge shotgun, but I did my best. Bosse told me to aim for this rock out in the lake because if I hit it we could hear it. I think a lot of men believe they can shoot better than they really can, so the words of my father, a marksman in the Army, came back to me. He got his marksman’s medal, he said, just because he listened and knew how to follow directions. So I aimed, slowly squeezed the trigger, and heard a satisfying “ping” off of the rock. I was able to repeat this a second time to show it wasn’t a fluke (it was). It helped that it was a nice rifle with little kick.

I think it would be cool to hang out with Bosse for a little while and see the area through his eyes, but it isn’t an easy life so I wouldn’t want to do it for long.

After all the freezing, shootin’ and camaraderie, we got back in the cars and headed even higher. Lars found a wider than normal spot on the road, stopped the Rover, and proceeded to make a fire. When it was established, he pulled out a flat cooking plate on a tripod that would fit over the burning logs to provide a place to heat our meal. Once that was done, Linda took over and Lars and Bosse started another fire nearby, pretty much for warmth. It wasn’t extremely cold, maybe -10C (14F) but the wind had picked up. My Swedish gear was holding up pretty well with the exception of my gloves, so I would be sure to thaw them a little over the fire occasionally.

The moon was about half full and would peek out from behind the clouds from time to time (it was lightly snowing) and it was nice to look out into the woods while Linda cooked up a gourmet meal. Maybe it was the cold and maybe it was the company, but it sure tasted wonderful.

We spent a couple of hours up there before breaking camp and cleaning up (we had lots of snow to work with). Then we climbed back in the Rover to go and search for more wildlife. At one point Lars drove down the airstrip that they have up there (completely covered in snow, of course), and when he turned around all you could see was the tracks of his truck in the snow. Anders joked “oh, I can tell using my huge expertise that these tracks were made by a Land Rover Defender 110″ and I picked up on the joke, adding “and you can tell by the tread pattern that it is green”.

We didn’t see any more moose or a wolf, but that really didn’t matter to me. It was just fun to be up in some pretty, unspoiled country. Lars stopped by a river and let me get a picture of the ice, the snow and the stones – which was cool since you could see where the snow had fallen and the water had washed all but the stuff on top away.

On the way off the property we headed even higher until we were meters from the border with Norway.

Lars explained that during WWII there was concern that the Germans would drive tanks over the mountains, so we stopped to look at some stone obstacles that had been planted to prevent this from happening (I missed that picture, unfortunately). What was amazing was seeing how the terrain had changed – when we started out it was pretty flat, but now we had high mountains and deep valleys.

After midnight we headed home and then the biggest worry was that we wouldn’t hit a moose or that Lars would fall asleep (it wasn’t a big issue but he would joke about it). I told the old joke that I wanted to die in my sleep like my grandfather and not like his screaming passengers, and that got a laugh. We did see some deer and a couple fleeting glimpses of foxes on the way back, but otherwise it was uneventful.

I guess is is a bit of a Catch-22. I loved the entire evening, from the land to the company to the conversation to the food, but especially since it took my mind off work. However, without OpenNMS, I wouldn’t have had the chance to take this trip.

Kind of puts it all into perspective, doesn’t it?