Quick change of course – OK to quit?

In listening to the latest VUPaas podcast, “GS is Quitting”, I had an epiphany.  GS Khalsa was sharing his decision to drop his pursuit of VCDX to focus on other priorities in his career.  He and Chris Wahl discussed the rationale and benefit of pulling back on goals when they no longer make sense at a particular time.  This discussion was well timed for me as I’ve been putting heavy pressure on myself to knock out certain goals that are not necessarily the wildly important goals for me right now.  I actually felt like someone was giving me permission to set aside these goals to focus on the bigger picture and certainly some more pressing targets.  This was my epiphany – that it’s OK to put a looming goal on hold for awhile if it doesn’t make sense to pursue it at the moment.  So, I’m about to make a quick course change to adapt to my current situation.

In my last post I shared my goal of completing my CCNA R&S in the next few weeks and then preparing my pursuit of the CCNA Data Center track.  I’ve been talking up this year as “The Year of the Network”.  I had in mind some lofty certification goals for this year that included the CCNA certs, along with others such as my NCDA and VCAP-DCD.  The only way to stay on track with these goals was to keep knocking them out in quick succession.  The CCNA certs were especially important with my increased exposure and focus on data center networking.  However, at this point I’m going to put all of that on hold for just a little while.  I realize I have other priorities to focus on that are primarily centered on the fact that VMworld 2014 is just around the corner.  Let me explain.

VMworld is all about virtualization and the VMware ecosystem.  Sure, software defined networking and NSX were all the buzz last year and looks to be this year as well, so my bolstered  network stance will be a huge help.  But in a desire to keep up with the quickly changing landscape of virtualization and VMware’s product line, I feel the need to focus on several other specific areas over the next couple months:

  • VMware’s new products – Did you hear the latest vSphere Beta is available to the general public?  I have not had the luxury of test driving the beta of previous versions so this will be exciting.  I’m hoping to dig into it and share my own thoughts about it once VMware makes public announcements of it (maybe at VMworld?).  I also would like to make sure I’m well versed in the fundamentals of some of their other products like VSAN, vCAC and NSX to get the most out of information presented around these products.
  • VMware ecosystem – I’ve been spending a lot of time lately speaking with VMware Technology Partners.  Working for a consulting organization and VMware partner, we are always looking for ways to provide more value to our customers.  There are some excellent tools and products offered by third party companies that are truly impressive and assist in the performance and management of the virtual infrastructure.  The more I’m exposed to these offerings, the more I can bring these to the table for our customers.  This will also be a huge help as I will meet most of these companies again on the Solutions Exchange floor at VMworld.  As a partner, I am mindful that my purpose for being at VMworld is gathering information that can be translated into solutions for our customers.  The more in tune I am with the players and products in the ecosystem, the better the conversations and thus, the better information gathered.
  • vBrownbag Techtalks – I’m super excited about this.  I submitted a session topic for the vBrownbag TechTalks and hope to be selected this year.  I know competition is probably fierce since mass numbers of folks had their VMworld session submissions denied and they are likely looking at other outlets to share.  I am a quiet voice in the community so I might not make the cut amidst these much more well known names, but I at least am going to be ready to go.  I have what I believe is a neat topic integrating vCOps with vCO.  I love these products and I want to make sure I have a strong presentation ready to go if selected.

These goals along with some other bigger picture priorities around family and health have helped me reconsider and refocus my energies.  In life, we often need to make these directional changes based on our priorities and current circumstances, whether they be life events, workload, changing environment, feedback from our current direction, or simply new information.  Life moves too quickly so the faster we can make these course alterations and adapt to new circumstances, the better we can keep up and still enjoy a more balanced life.

The Year of the Network

I’ve shared a couple times in previous weeks how much I’m impressed with the Cisco Learning Network.  It was just recently that I started my own journey to beef up my networking skill set and also validate what I already knew.  I’ve been working in data center environments for over fifteen years but I’ve been primarily a “systems guy”.  Networking was in a separate silo and thus handled by network engineers.  I’ve long had two of the three classic pillars of IT infrastructure covered: compute and storage.  I just needed to complete the foundation by tackling the third pillar, the network.  So, earlier this year, I decided to dub this year, “The Year of the Network” and thus, I set out to work on my Cisco certifications.  I thought it especially important since I work for an IT consulting organization and just about every customer engagement I’ve been on has required a strong understanding of networking.  And with my company being a strong Cisco partner, it made no sense to not have the foundational skills or certifications in place.

I believe my situation is fairly similar to many others in the industry.  Even with virtualization helping to break down many of the silos in our data centers, we still find that the silos still persist and are ever prevalent.  It seems that many VMware admins know networking as far as the Standard and Distributed vSwitch in vSphere.  Sure, we’ve had to learn about VLANs and load distribution across physical NICs, but what goes on internally on the physical switch and/or router has remained behind the curtain.  We might know the OSI layers and basic TCP/IP addressing; heck we had to know that to get Microsoft certified.  But how does one configure a VLAN, troubleshoot Spanning Tree Protocol, or even provision an EtherChannel?  It seems that this understanding might be lacking, but is ever so important for today’s virtual data center engineer to grasp.  That might explain why we see industry experts helping to fill that gap.  Take for example the recent book by Chris Wahl and Steven Pantol, “Networking for VMware Administrators” or the vBrownBag crew running through the Cisco certification track on their weekly podcast.  There is a reason these resources have been popping up and have been so popular.

So, I personally have been pursing the CCNA Routing and Switching certification.  I’m just a few weeks from achieving that milestone (yes, this late in my career), at which point I’ll set a schedule to pursue the CCNA Data Center track.  I’ve actually been more involved in UCS and Nexus engagements, but I wanted to make sure I had the routing and switching fundamentals down cold before trekking down the data center path.  I’ve been primarily studying Todd Lammle’s book, “CCNA Routing and Switching Study Guide“, supplemented with the great networking courses from Pluralsight.com.  However, I also just recently came across the Cisco Learning Network and am blown away by the sheer volume of content on this site as well as access to a huge community of folks on the same path.  What an amazing site for anyone pursuing a Cisco certification or even just looking to learn some new concepts.  I’ll be doing a separate post on this, but I just wanted to give a quick shout out to these folks.  Well done!

I’ll continue to share my thoughts as I work down this path.

Because it’s there

“Because it’s there.” These were the immortal words of George Mallory made famous before his ill-fated attempt up Mt. Everest during the 1920’s. As a self-described armchair mountaineer, I’ve followed many of the Himalayan mountain expeditions, especially the more contemporary folks like Ed Viesturs, Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin. While I am no real mountaineer myself, I have a deep love for the mountains – the fresh air, the vistas, the escape, the adventure and yes, even the victory of reaching the summit! And I have the great blessing of sharing this love with my wife. Here we are enjoying a celebratory moment on the top of Mt. Washington many years ago on our honeymoon! What a high point on an already exhilarating time of our lives!

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As it turns out, this morning as I type this, I’m on vacation with my family up in the Great Smoky Mountains. I’m looking out over the lower peaks full of lush hemlocks, oak and rhododendron. Feeling the cool morning mountain air, taking in the majesty of God’s creation, and enjoying the escape of the hustle and bustle of our hectic lives – Ah, it’s so good to be up here!

So why share all of this on my blog? I just recently launched a revamped version of my old blog site, briantrainor.wordpress.com. Deciding I needed a catchier title and a site where I would be excited about posting regular content, I dubbed this one MountVirtual.com. I want this to be a site where I can document my own journey and experiences as I climb the peaks of my own profession as a data center engineer/architect. This field is changing fast. I’ve been in IT for over 16 years and to attempt to describe how the data center landscape has changed during this time would be sorely insufficient. I latched onto server virtualization almost seven years ago, a technology which single-handedly changed how we design and operate data centers these days. Information Technology has always been by nature, a realm of fast advances and progress. So with it come the challenges of keeping up and staying current with these latest advances, which makes it all the more exciting and rewarding!

In the coming weeks and months, I will be sharing my own experiences as I tackle infrastructure technology such as VMware optimization and operations, storage, UCS and Cisco networking. These are just a few of the areas that I’ve been spending a lot of my time. My goal is to get out at least one post per week to share these experiences. I’ll see how long I can keep this up.

I invite you to come along for the journey!

Back again…

Wow, the black hole has been unrelenting.  The last several months have been exciting in my new role, but I’ve shared nothing!  Time to change that.  Between engagements that have forced me to dive deeper into virtual infrastructure, to UCS deployments, to VMworld 2013, to my current pursuit of VCAP5-DCA, there has been so much to write about.  That and the fact that I just recently closed on a home in Apex, NC, and am excited to finally settle in after my relocation from the DC area.  The last four months have been a whirlwind, but I must get better about sharing the fun.

So, with that… I’ll throw together some comments about my VCAP5 pursuit (next post).

Welcome back!

Wow… I’m back from the blogging black hole.  Nothing posted since last October, but so much has happened.  It’s probably fitting for me to start afresh.  I recently relocated to Cary, NC from the DC metropolitan area and started working for consulting company in Raleigh, NC.  I was hired as a Sr. VMware Engineer, giving me the opportunity to hone my skills in the exciting world of data center virtualization.  For the last 15 years of my IT career, I’ve had the opportunity to work my way up through the ranks, spending the last six years managing a data center.  I’ve designed and implemented physical and virtual infrastructures, storage, backup and DR solutions, Windows and Linux environments, Active Directory, Exchange, Citrix,… I’ve worked closely with the network and security teams to provide the right solutions for the increasing demands of our customers.  I even had to learn the lingo and philosophy of ITIL in my attempt to better manage the day to day network operations.  I’ve touched all parts of the infrastructure stack, but have had little time or resources to dive really deep.  In this position I hope to change that.  New home, new job, new opportunities for growth, all make for an exciting adventure.  I’m ready to go!

NetApp RTP Visit

Last week I had the great pleasure of visiting the NetApp campus in Research Triangle Park.  I had previously missed out on the opportunity to take part in an EBC trip with our reseller when we became a NetApp customer.  Things came up and the trip never happened.  Since I was going to be in the Raleigh area, I decided to take advantage of the proximity and pop in to see the folks at RTP and request a tour.  I also wanted to sit down with one of their desktop virtualization experts since my company is exploring the possibility of rolling out hosted desktops.

The data center tour was quite impressive.  Building 4 holds NetApp’s highly acclaimed Energy Star Data Center where they proudly show off the innovations that allow such a high energy efficiency.  Efficiency is measured in PUE, which is the ratio of total power used by the facility over the power used by the IT equipment.  Most data centers register a PUE of 2.0 while NetApp’s facility boasts a PUE rating of 1.2.  They cut the typical power usage almost in half by using some simple yet incredibly innovative features.  As Dave Hitz wrote in his blog article, two of these notable features are big fans and hot air, which were the very things I noticed when I toured.

The first thing I observed when I walked into the data center was the heat.  There was a heat wave last week and walking into the data center provided little relief!  I was suprised that it was not cooler since data centers are by nature, chilly.  It turns out the engineers discovered that outside air up to 74 degrees was sufficient enough to cool the equipment.  They just had to get this moderate air to the servers without mixing with the hot air.  Of course they have their hot and cold aisles, but the engineers went a step further and closed off the cold aisles with doors at each end to provide access.  They call this approach cold aisle containment.  Containing these cold aisles allows the moderate outside air to reach the IT equipment without being tainted by the hot air.  Thus they do not need to constantly use the chillers to cool the air.  The only times they have to chill the air is when the outside temperatures rise above 74 degrees.  This saves power costs since the chillers are used a smaller percent of the year.

The other noticeable thing was the wind tunnel flow of air through these aisles.  Inside the cold aisle, air was rushing through.  It is this increased air flow that also helps the moderate air cool the equipment by drawing the heat off the systems faster.  Faster air means faster cooling.  When we were on the second floor and standing on the vents above the hot aisles, I was again surprised by the amount of air gushing through the vents.

There are many other “cool” features and NetApp happily welcomes visitors every day to witness the innovative design.  They built an Executive Briefing Center (EBC) to welcome their customers and showcase both the data center and the storage efficiencies of their products.

This wasn’t the end of my trip.  I also had the pleasure of meeting with Chris Gebhardt, NetApp’s desktop virtualization guru.  It was awesome meeting him and especially meaningful as the work of my organization, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, has had a very personal impact for him.  We are ramping up our efforts to pilot test desktop virtualization and I was eager to speak directly with Chris about properly assessing our environment and employing best practices in the initial stages.  It was a very insightful discussion with him!  He had great tips and tools to share.  What an incredible contact to have!

Overall, it was a fabulous time spent at the NetApp campus.  I was delighted to hear how NetApp is truly trying to make a difference in the community.  They have been running their “Technology Saves Lives” campaign and I think it was great for them to see that our organization is in the pursuit of saving lives by curing a disease (which is a whole other story unto itself!)  NetApp also encourages its own employees to get involved and volunteer their time and energy in their communities.  And of course, their energy efficiency is yet one more example of a company trying to make a difference.  Bravo guys!

Special thanks to Will Graham for facilitating the tour and meeting.

Improving the Processes – Journey

Gartner is holding their Infrastructure and Operations Management Conference this week.  As valuable as this conference would be to my career, I did not choose to go this year, but I did attend Gartner’s Data Center Conference last year in Vegas.  This was my consolation for not going to VMworld.  And it turned out being a great show.  Very eye-opening as all conferences are, but this one took me into more of the IT manager’s mind set.  Attendees were by and large managers and directors or above at their companies, most of which were large companies.  My eyes were opened to many technologies and processes that were rather foreign to our rather small shop at CFF.  There were not the usual awesome technical demo’s put together by the senior engineers and product specialists – this was more theory of how to run the IT processes and technology and even people.

Why am I writing about this now?  Since Gartner IOM is going on as I write, I happened to see some tweets from the show from an ITIL guru whom I admire, George Spafford.  George is one of the Gartner analysts whom I had the great pleasure of sitting with for a one-on-one session.  At the time, I had just read the book he co-authored with Gene Kim and Kevin Behr, Visible Ops.  Great short read and great practicable advice as the subtitle suggests.  George was very personable and encouraging of his views on how to ramp up ITIL efforts in an organization.  I had also just earned my ITIL V3 certification so I was especially excited about the topic.  We discussed the importance of finding and stopping processes that stand in the way of efficient IT, baby steps needed to start ITIL, the importance of getting management onboard and the critical nature of performing a post-mortem after each major incident to continually improve.  I also reflected on the major points of his book, the first of which cut to the heart:  “Stabilize the Patient”.  In a nutshell, the authors explained the need to get absolute control over all changes.  That means all changes must stop until a proper change management process can be implemented.  The reason was based on their statistics that 80% of systems downtime in an organization result from a change that was made.

This statistic spoke loud and clear to me as we had seen this time and again when scheduled changes created downtime extending outside of maintenance hours, unathorized changes being made with lack of coordination with the impacted department or even within IT, or lack of fully testing when changes did occur.  Last year, this problem was magnified as we moved all of our production systems to a new data center.  We endured so much business disruption in the process, certainly the majority of which was expected due to the massive amount of change required in an effort like this.  But we realized that a sometimes ineffective change management process led to some unexpected downtime – lack of fully mapping out all configurations to be changed and thus lack of testing of these components.

Obviously we had some work to do within configuration management as well.  This speaks to the second tenet of Visible Ops, “Catch and Release”: Learn what you have and document it.  Unfortunately, our environment had been built in various aspects through various stages by various individuals who have gone various ways – with limited documentation.  One of my goals within my organization has been documenting our infrastructure, from the bottom up.  How does a world-class organization get by without knowing all the nuances of the environement?  It doesn’t.  Our environment has become increasingly complex over the recent years, as most organizations have.  And the only way we can become world-class is getting a handle on all components.

Thankfully, the last year was a huge learning opportunity, both from a process standpoint and a technological one.  Today, we’re taking great strides toward solid change management and configuration management.  We’ve also welcomed a new senior-level member of our staff who among other things, has brought in real-world experience in these areas and who has guided our efforts.  We are continually tweaking the processes to make them more efficient, steadily moving forward with eyes on becoming a world-class organization.

Welcome World!

Or shall I say, “Welcome, Brian” to the world of blogging.  This is the beginning of my journey that so many others have taken before me.  I am starting a blog.  I am an IT professional in the DC area, specializing in data center operations and virtual infrastructure (and just about everything else that sys admins do!).  Many times I have thought about starting a blog focusing on the challenges and observations I come across during my days as an IT admin, especially those ideas having to do with virtual infrastructure.  I am a huge VMware fan, have used their enterprise products since Dec 2007, architected and built the current virtual infrastructure for my employer, helped them virtualize close to 70% of our environment within 3 years, achieved both VCP 3 and 4 certifications, and am now missing out on the biggest virtual event of the year and of the universe right now – VMworld 2011!  I will confess that my missing this event is acting as the catalyst that finally motivated me to start this blog.  I needed to channel my “missing VMworld blues” into something productive for myself and that maybe one day can be productive for the greater virtual and cloud community.  As for now, this will be my own little repository to let my own thoughts flow, to use as a reference and to help me articulate the concepts that I come across on a daily basis.

On a very personal and almost completely separate note, the reason I am missing VMworld this year is that my brother-in-law, my wife’s brother, died unexpectedly and very tragically one week before the conference.  This has been a terribly rough time for my family, a time for grieving and seeking comfort in each other’s presence.  My brother-in-law, Matt Griffith, was an amazing husband and father.  He left behind a strong wife, two wonderful boys, 10 and 15 years, and was so devoted to his family and raising his boys to be responsible young men.  I was so touched by all the photos that we sifted through preparing for his memorial service.  The togetherness he was so committed to in his family was very obvious.  Between family trips, birthdays, sports leagues, and just hanging around the house, he had no greater love than time spent with each of his boys and his wife. What a tremendous loss for them!  My heart weeps for each of his boys, for his wife, for his parents who have lost their oldest son, and for my wife who lost her big brother.  Everything hurts right now and will for a while.  I hope to be able to honor my brother-in-law in some special way one day.