I’ve been called certifiable before – a sysadmin’s developing thoughts on certification

I’ve been a system administrator in some form or another since, I suppose, Summer 1988 when I provided ad hoc support for the RSTS/11 system at my college. I made a few bucks doing it as a lab assistant for two years, but I was probably too much of a proto-BOFH to stay on the payroll. I still fielded more questions than most of the lab assistants, and it prepared me moderately well for the following 25 years of user, system, and platform support.

One thing I’ve rarely ever done is get formally trained, or even less often, certified in a technology. I was three classes short of a computer science undergrad major just for fun, which should tell you I’m certifiable (didn’t take RPG, COBOL, or Calculus, but I did a bit of recreational Discrete Mathematics and two doses of Machine Structures).

Around the turn of the century, I took the Legato Certified Administrator (Data Protection) class and exam, and got certified on a technology I’d been deploying and managing for a few years at the time. In 2010 I took the Cloudera Hadoop Administrator course. I almost passed the certification exam then, but didn’t have time to go back and retake it before the retake offer expired. And that’s the extent of my formal training to date.

So what’s changed now?

Having been welcomed into the communities around Cisco’s datacenter technology and VMware’s virtualization platforms, I’m feeling an unnatural desire to work toward certifications in both of those areas. I have the 200-120 box set for CCNA Routing & Switching, although I’ve been leaning toward the datacenter path. I’m still trying to figure out what path to take with VMware, but we’ll have to see.

I was reading the Cisco Learning Network post “6 Reasons Employers Value Cisco Certifications” and it made me think about my aversion to certification over the last few years. So what’s wrong with certification, and what might be right about it?

What could possibly go wrong?

For one, some people collect certifications the way I collect old computers and soho routers. The cert may be representative of being able to complete a vendor’s exam, but may not reflect feet-on-the-ground (or hands-on-the-keyboard) skills, much less big picture architectural thinking. This was common when we were searching for a full year for a network admin at one job a few years back. No matter how many network certs you have, if you can’t at least give a shot to explaining subnetting, you’re probably not ready for the real world.

Another issue is that most certifications are vendor-specific, and may impart an undue bias toward that vendor over others. I’d like to think this isn’t the case, and a truly good network administrator/architect would know a broad swath of the market and be able to fit technology to an identified and triaged problem/business need, rather than trying to squeeze the business need into a given technology.

But what’s right?

For one, there are different skill levels and foci, and tiered/niched certifications can give a hint as to what level someone is. If I come in to an interview with a CCNA R&S, for example, I probably won’t be asked to provide in-depth explanations of SS7 or 802.11ac. There will always be bad interviewers, like the guy a few years ago who wanted me to explain in depth how BGP worked, after I had said twice that I wasn’t a network engineer and had only worked on LANs. So this isn’t foolproof on either end.

More important to me, now that I’m thinking about the process, is that pursuing a certification gives you a roadmap to study and prepare, and a somewhat finite goal to achieve. I never learned Perl because I didn’t really have a scope or a fixed goal. Making a personal goal to “learn me some networking,” alas, probably won’t get me anywhere.

Having a goal to, say, “take the CCNA DC exam at Cisco Live in May” gives me a framework and a finite goal. I can set aside time every week, study some of the Cisco Learning Network materials, watch some Pluralsight programs with Chris Wahl, and have a fixed time frame for preparation for the exam.

So where do we go from here?

For one, I think that box set of the 200-120 CCNA R&S library will probably sit in the closet for a few more months. It was on sale with an extra coupon at Barnes and Noble last summer, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

I will be plotting out my Cisco Certification Written Exam at Cisco Live in May, as hinted above. I blew off the free exam last year, which was probably good considering I’d had Tech Field Day 9 the week before (Tech Field Day events are great for scrambling the brain, and the 90-100F temperatures were leaning toward poaching my brain along with it).

I’m going to get more involved with Cisco Learning Network, as I’m sure Matt Saunders won’t let me slip on this. Hopefully some of my fellow Cisco Champions will cheer, jeer, prod, or otherwise support me on the journey as well.

And I’ll be sure to share my adventure with you fine readers… feel free to poke at me here if you have suggestions or haven’t heard from me on the certification path in a while.

Do share any certification feedback, suggestions for me, or warnings for other readers… in the comments below. 

Some upcoming events worth a look

I haven’t been to my datacenter in over six months. I have a feeling the front desk folks at the Westin Casuarina are missing me by now. But I’m still on the move. Hopefully I’ll see some of you at one of the following events in the near future. 

VMworld US 2013

& Tech Field Day Roundtables at VMworld

This year’s VMworld is in San Francisco, just a 90-180 minute commute (each way) from where I live in Silicon Valley. Thanks to the gracious support of Gestalt IT’s Tech Field Day and the Tech Field Day Roundtable at VMworld sponsors, I’ll be camping in San Francisco and making the most of the opportunities during the week. 

Along with a dozen and a half other Tech Field Day delegates, I’ll be meeting with our friends from Asigra, Commvault, Infinio, and Simplivity. I’ve been to TFD sessions with all but Simplivity, but I’ve met Gabriel Chapman (@bacon_is_king) at the SV VMUG so they’re not strangers to me either (even if their “cube” is actually not cubical). 

In addition to the vExpert and VMware customer events, I’ll also be visiting friends from past Tech Field Day meetings, including Scale Computing, Nutanix, Zerto, Pure Storage, and Tintri. If I’ve missed anyone, feel free to touch base. 

Software Defined Data Center Symposium

Gestalt IT is hosting a full day SDDC symposium at Techmart in Santa Clara, a mere 10-15 minute commute for me. There’s still room to join us on Tuesday, September 10th, for a day of discussions about SDDC topics, featuring Greg Ferro, Jim Duffy, Ivan Peplnjak, and several leading vendors in the field. The event will set you back a mere $25 and that includes lunch. 

The Cloudera Sessions

This one actually has nothing to do with Gestalt IT, but if you’re deep into Hadoop, and Cloudera’s particular flavor of it, it’s definitely worth a visit. Cloudera hosts The Cloudera Sessions in cities around the United States, and I’ll be attending the San Francisco event on September 11th.

Several Cloudera technologists, from the system engineering manager to the co-founder/CTO will be talking about where the company is going and where Hadoop is going in the foreseeable future. This event will set you back $149, but if you are a current Cloudera customer, check with your account manager to see if you can get a discount. 

BayLISA At Joyent

The October 17 meeting of BayLISA, Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area’s oldest system administration group will be held in San Francisco at the headquarters of one of the most prominent Solaris technology companies, Joyent. We’re looking forward to hearing from Brendan Gregg about his new book, Systems Performance: Enterprise and the Cloud, as well as getting an update on Joyent’s Manta storage service.

Attendance is free, but space is limited. RSVP at the BayLISA Meetup site if you’re interested. 

IEEE Computer Society’s Rock Stars Of Big Data

As much as I hate the use of the term “rock stars” (since that’s not necessarily a compliment or a good thing), this event looks interesting. I’m not sure how useful it will be for technologists, but it’s worth a look. IEEE Computer Society is hosting their Rock Stars Of Big Data event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on October 29th. It will set you back $239 as an IEEECS member, or $299 without membership. Group discounts are available for registration of 3 or more people on one ticket. 

Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party

Everyone deserves a bit of a break, and big data can wear a technologist out…. If you’re planning to be at the Magic Kingdom between September 10 and November 1, you should check out the Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. I went two years ago and it was pretty enjoyable. I do work for the Mouse, but I don’t get any benefit if you go. So I highly recommend it. 

 

 

How do you download storage performance? A look at Infinio Accelerator

Many of you joined us (virtually) at Tech Field Day 9 back in June for the world premiere presentation of Infinio and their “downloadable storage performance” for VMware environments.

In the month and a half since we met Infinio, I’ve been planning to write about their presentation and their product. It’s an interesting technology, and something I can see being useful in small and large environments, but I hadn’t gotten around to piling the thoughts into the blog.

I did find that I was bringing them up in conversation more often than I do most Tech Field Day presenters (with the possible exception of Xangati). Whether I was talking to the CEO of a network optimization startup here in Silly Valley, or a sales VP for a well-established storage virtualization player at the Nth Symposium, or a couple of others, I found myself saying the same things. “Have you heard of Infinio? They just made a splash onto the scene at Tech Field Day 9. You should check them out.”

What is an Infinio?

201306 TFD9 Infinio 01 Peter Smith Model

Peter Smith, Director of Product for Infinio, introducing the “Infinio Way” of deploying the Accelerator

Infinio is a two year old, 30ish-person startup whose Accelerator product is designed to be an easy drop-in to your VMware environment. They’re focusing on making the product easy to try (including substantial engineering focus on the installation process), simple and affordable to buy, and visibly useful to your environment as soon as possible.

CEO Arun Agarwal talked up the focus on the installation process, but even more interesting was his focus on the trial and sales model. This seemed important at the time, but as time passed, I really appreciated the idea more.

Just this past week, I downloaded a “free” VM from a much larger company, only to be told in a pushy followup email that I need to provide a phone number and mailing address and get trial licenses and talk to a sales guy on the phone to do anything with the “free” VM. It was annoying enough to get to this point, and I’m disinclined to actually buy and use that product.

I want a company to provide (1) enough information on their website for me to understand the product, (2) a hands-off model for acquiring and trying out the product (even if it’s at 2am on a Saturday because I can’t sleep and I’ve got a hundred servers sitting idle in a datacenter to play with), (3) smart and non-pushy people to help me with understanding, evaluating, and maybe buying the product if I do decide to move forward–when and if I need them, and not the other way around, and (4) a product that really solves the problem.

Infinio plans to provide all these things. You can download the trial without giving a lot of information (or any, as I recall), and you can buy your licenses with a credit card on the site. This would be a refreshing model, and I’m optimistic about their being able to do it.

So what are they doing?

I was wondering that too… and seeing the phrase “downloadable storage performance” a week or so before the visit, I was dubious.

201306 TFD9 Infinio 02 Peter Smith DashboardThe Infinio Accelerator is a virtual NAS (NFS v3) accelerator for VMware. It sits between the vmkernel interface and the storage server on each host, providing a shared, deduplicated caching layer to improve performance across your systems. It also works transparently to both storage and server, so you don’t change your storage settings or ACLs (great for those of us who have siloed storage, networking, and virtualization management teams, and all the efficiencies they provide).

And possibly most impressive of all, you don’t have to reboot anything to install or remove the product.

The management console allows you to toggle acceleration on each datastore, and more importantly, monitor the performance and benefit you’re getting from the accelerator. They call out improvements in response time, request offload, and saved bandwidth to storage.

Let’s make this happen

201306 TFD9 Infinio 03 Peter Smith Improvement

It does make a difference.

Peter Smith demonstrated the Infinio Accelerator for us live, from downloading the installer from the Infinio home page (coming soon) to seeing it make a difference. The process, with questions and distractions included, came in around half an hour.

You download a ~28MB installer, and the installer will pull down about a CD’s worth of VM templates (the Accelerator and the management VM) while you go through the configuration process. (You can apparently work around this download if you need to for network/security reasons–this would be a good opportunity to enlist those smart and non-pushy people mentioned above.)

After the relatively brief installation (faster than checking for updates on a fresh Windows 7 installation, not including downloading and installing all 150 of them, mind you), Peter brought up a workload test with several parallel Linux kernel builds in 8 VMs, demonstrating a 4x speedup with the Accelerator in place even with the memory per VM halved to make room for the Accelerator.

201306 TFD9 Infinio 04 Peter Smith vTARDIS

vTARDIS, MacPro flavor

An aside about making room for Infinio: The accelerator will eat 8GB of RAM, 2 vCPUs, and 15GB of local disk space on each hypervisor host you’re accelerating. It will also use 4GB RAM, 2 vCPUs, and 20GB of storage for the management VM, on one of your hosts. So if your virtualization lab is running on your 8GB laptop, you’re gonna have a bad time, but a quad-core lab system with 32GB of RAM should be practical for testing. A typical production hypervisor host (128GB or more) will probably not notice the loss.

And a further aside about the demo system. As a big fan of Simon Gallagher’s vTARDIS concept of nesting hypervisors, I was pleased to see that the Mac Pro the Infinio folks rolled in for the demo was effectively a vTARDIS in itself. This is a pretty cool way to protect your live demo from the randomness of Internet and VPN connectivities and the very real risk that someone will turn your lab back at the home office into a demo for someone else, if your product lends itself to being demonstrated this way.

Some future-proofing considerations

The team at Infinio were very open to the suggestions that came up during the talk.

They have a “brag bar” that offers the chance to tweet your resource savings, but they understood why some companies might not want that option to be there. Some of us work (or have worked) in environments where releasing infrastructure and performance info without running the gauntlet of PR and legal teams could get us punished and/or fired.

They took suggestions of external integration and external access to the product’s information too, from being able to monitor and report on the Accelerator’s performance in another dashboard, to being able to work with the Accelerator from vCops. And they’re working on multi-hypervisor (read: Hyper-V) support and acceleration of block storage. Just takes enough beer and prioritization, we were told. 

So where do we go from here?

Infinio is releasing a more public beta of the Accelerator at VMworld in San Francisco in just a couple of weeks. Stop by and see them if you’re at VMworld, or watch their website for more details about the easy-to-use trial. You can sign up to be notified about the beta release, or just watch for more details near the end of August.

The pricing will be per-socket, with 1 year of support included[1], and hopefully it will be practical for smaller environments as well as large ones. We will see pricing when the product goes to GA later this year.

I’m planning to get the beta to try out in my new lab environment, so stay tuned for news on that when it happens.

And if you’re one of the lucky ones to get a ticket for #CXIParty, you can thank the folks from Infinio there for sponsoring this event as well. And I may see you there.

Disclosure: Infinio were among the presenters/sponsors of Tech Field Day 9, to which I was a delegate in June 2013. While they and other sponsors provided for my travel and other expenses to attend TFD9, there was no assumption or requirement that I write about them, nor was any compensation offered or received in return for this or any other coverage of TFD9 sponsors/presenters.

Some other write-ups from TFD9 Delegates (if I missed yours, let me know and I’ll be happy to add it):

[1] Update: When we talked with Infinio in June, they planned to include 3 years of support with the initial purchase. They are now planning to include 1 year with renewals beyond that being a separate item. This should make the initial purchase more economical, and make budgeting easier as well.

Upgrading my home VMware lab (part 1: Ivy Bridge) #rsts11

My most popular post on rsts11 has been my compact VMware server at home post. Thanks to Chris Wahl mentioning me on the VMware forums, and linking from his lab post, I see a dozen visits or more a day to that page.

Imitation is the sincerest form of laziness^wflattery

I have to admit that I’ve been a follower in my use of intriguing lab environments. I got the vTARDIS idea from Simon Gallagher, and built a version of it at work at my last job on a Dell Core 2 Quad workstation under my desk. Then I saw Kendrick Coleman tweet about this new SH67H3 from Shuttle that supported 32GB of non-registered RAM… bought one and put 32GB and an i7-2600S processor into it, as mentioned in the “server at home” post mentioned above.

Now as you may know, the i7-2600 series processors are now a generation behind. Sandy Bridge gave way to Ivy Bridge (the i7-3×00 processors) which are currently easily found at retail. But… SH67H3 v1.0 motherboards don’t support Ivy Bridge. And that’s what was shipping when I bought mine in early 2012.

I found an unbelievable deal on a second SH67H3 open (missing) box at Fry’s in February 2013… let’s just say I spent more on a basic Pentium chip to test it with than I did on the chassis itself. But alas, the second one also had a v1.0 motherboard.

Let’s make the ivy (bridge) grow!

I found sources on the Internets that said a v2.0 board supporting Ivy Bridge was out. I further discovered that Shuttle would trade in your v1.0 board for a v2.0 board for $40. Instructions here at Cinlor Tech’s blog if you’re interested in doing this yourself. Note that you can request the case number through Shuttle’s web-email portal if you prefer this to calling. That’s what I did.

sh67 corpsesI shipped off my two boards in a medium Priority Mail box to Shuttle on the 26th. On the 29th I got confirmation of the return shipment. They should be at my door on April 2nd. I’ll be reinstalling them, and at some point upgrading to the i7-3770s processors on both.

Waitasec, 2600 “S”? 3770 “S”? What’s this all about, then?

Yes, that’s correct. I chose to go with a low power version of the i7-2600 processor a year and change ago. The i7-2600s has a lower base speed than the 2600 or 2600k (unlocked version), 2.8ghz vs 3.4ghz. All three support turbo boost to 3.8ghz though. And the i7-2600s is 65W where the others are 95W.

(Here’s a comparison chart of the three i7-2600 and three i7-3770 processor options via Intel, if you’re curious.)

Other noteworthy differences are on the 2600k, which costs $20 more, but does not support VT-d (directed I/O), vPro management features, or Trusted Execution. VT-d is the only feature of particular concern when you’re building your virtualization lab though. (I’ll admit the VT-d was an accidental discovery–I chose the 2600s more for power savings than anything else). If you’re building a desktop, the “K” model has HD3000 graphics vs HD2000 for the other two chips, by the way.

Now that I’m building a second box, I find that my usual local retail sources don’t have the i7-2600s in stock anymore. I could order one on eBay or maybe find it at Fry’s, but for about the same price I could get the Ivy Bridge version and be slightly future-proofed. Once again, the “S” is the way to go.

The 3770 series run at 3.1ghz (“S”), 3.4ghz (3770), and 3.5ghz (“K”) base speeds, all turbo capable to 3.9ghz. The “S” processor is 65W again, vs only 77W for the other two chips. They all have Intel’s HD4000 integrated graphics and the newer PCIe 3.0 support. They support 1600mhz RAM speeds, vs 1333 top for the previous generation. The “K” processor lacks VT-d, vPro, and Trusted Execution, but does have a nearly $40 premium over the other two chips.

All six of these chips have VT-x including extended page tables (EPT/SLAT), hyperthreading, and enhanced SpeedStep. And they’re all 4 core/8 thread/32gb RAM capable processors that make a great basis for a virtualization environment.

nuc-scaleSo what’s next, Robert?

Well, with two matching machines, I’ll be basically starting from scratch. Time to upgrade the N40L Microserver NAS box to 16GB (Thanks Chris for finding this too!) and probably splitting off a distinct physical storage network for that purpose.

But now, thanks to Marco Broeken’s recent lab rebuild, I’ve been introduced to Intel’s Next Unit of Computing (NUC), so tune in soon for my experience with my first NUC system. Sneak peek of the ESXi splash screen and the actual unit here… stay tuned!

rsts11: Who makes your multi-hypervisor life easier?

BayLISAI’m working on a BayLISA (Silicon Valley, California) meeting in May that revolves around multi-hypervisor technologies. Pretty much anything that makes a virtualization life easier on the admin, and that works with (or will soon work with) non-VMware hypervisors/platforms (as well as VMware, nothing against them of course).

Do any of my readers or linkees have any suggestions?

We’d prefer a company who has a technical presence in Silicon Valley, or would be likely to be here frequently… and as I mentioned, I have nothing against VMware but would like to extend the scope. I’ve heard a lot more about XenServer/XenSource deployments in the past six months than at any time since I deployed XenServer 5.x at that real estate startup in San Francisco 4 years or so ago.

I should note (since my survey on Meetup about this produced odd results) that I know the other hypervisors… so unless HyperV actually manages Xen or VMware or kvm or Oracle’s stuff too, it doesn’t really count as a multi-hypervisor technology, even though it’s a hypervisor.