Monthly Archives: March 2007

Explaining what we do at NetApp

So Mike’s right. At the end of the day, you have at least the following four basic motivations when you pick your first job:

  1. Work on something important
  2. Work on hard problems
  3. Work with intelligent people
  4. Have your contribution matter

We assume that you are making enough money, the job is in a field you are interested in, the cultural fit is real etc.

So why work at NetApp? Because at the end of the day we work on important hard problems. The individual contributions do in fact matter. And you get to work with very intelligent people.

But what do we do?

Let me tell you a story. My wife takes lots of pictures. Our old Dell was dying and the Buffalo Link station we were storing our photos on was making ugly whirring sounds. Since I work at a storage company I am too familiar with how disks can fail. (I sometimes worry that I am like one of those people who watch too much House and think that they have contracted cancer every time they have an ache or pain). I, therefore, decided since I was tasked with the miserable job of buying a new computer that her new computer would have some form of RAID. I bought my computer from Dell because I had a reasonable amount of success with them over the years. The machine was configured with two disks that were mirrored. Now it turns out that Dell also sold (gave) us a copy of Norton Ghost, a disk-to-disk backup utility.

When the machine arrived, the RAID-1 disks were partitioned into two partitions, an active file system, and a backup partition. The active partition was 170GB and the backup partition was 50GB. I was confused, because typically you need more backup space than you need primary, but I figured that there must be some rhyme or reason. Maybe Norton Ghost was clever enough to only copy the “My Documents” folder. Maybe it did compression. Maybe it did something really cool.

Well it turns out that Norton Ghost just does a full partition copy from one partition to another. And it turns out that the minute the used space in her primary partition exceed 50GB her backup software stopped working.

After looking into the problem for several hours, it became clear that the partition scheme Dell invented was useless. Most of the time investigating the problem was spent trying to find some reasonable rationale for their division of disk space. There was none. Finally, I decided that RAID-1 was probably good enough to protect her data from hardware failures, and a USB hard drive would be good enough for backups until I bought a StoreVault.

What was a simple problem for my wife: give me some reliable storage and make it easy for me to backup my data, turned into a complex problem of finding the right technology and configuring the software and hardware appropriately.

So now imagine if I had to resolve the same problem on 10 machines, or 100 machines. What took several hours might take several days. And before you know it I am being swamped trying to figure out how to setup backup for each individual user.

So what does NetApp do? NetApp sells reliable storage, that performs well. What differentiates our storage from our competitors is our simplicity. Many of the time consuming painful tasks that people normally have to perform with other people’s reliable storage, are just simpler using NetApp. The magic in our simplicity is not just in a pretty GUI. A lot of the magic is in our core platform. Although some of our user interfaces are pretty slick.

I’ll try in another post to explain why what we do is hard.

Fixed some grammar.

Why what we do at NetApp is important.

One of the questions I ask myself on a regular basis, is what I am doing important?

Today, I was reminded about what why what I do is important to the people who use NetApp products.

In 30 years there are going to be those people who have pictures of themselves as children and those who don’t. And the ones who don’t are the one’s parents did not make backups.

What I do is make sure that the data our customers consider very, very important never gets lost. And if the data is a picture of you pulling your little sister’s hair, well that’s a digital memory that you never, ever want to lose.

Sympathy for my professors.

One of the recent challenges I was faced with was explaining to graduating CS majors why Network Appliance was a place they would love working at. And the challenge is not that I don’t think NetApp is a great place to work. The problem is that I think it’s a great place to work because we are growing at 30% a year, are working on the most important and hardest data management problems out there, have the best executive team out here and will work with some of the smartest people in the industry.
But if you’ve never had a job, are 21 years old, just got a degree in CS, I just might as well have said:

Network Appliance eivai isws n kallntern etaireia stov kosmo gia kapoiov pou molis teleiwse to pavepistimio. Megalwvei 30% to xrovo, ta problnmata pou lunoumai eivai snmavtika, exoume tromera avwtata stelexoi, kai para polous e3upvous upallnlous.

Which brings me to my challenge. Sometimes what you are trying to explain is so basic, that you don’t realize that it’s actually pretty complex and it’s only basic to you because you’ve been living and breathing it for years.

This reminds me of a professor of mine who in class had the following dialog with a student:

Student: Why can you add and multiple nxn matrices but not divide them?

Professor: because matrices and integers have the ring property.

Student: Huh?

Professor: integers and matrices are both rings

Student: ???

Professor: Integers have the ring property as do matrices

The problem was that the Professor just did not get that the student had no idea what the word ring actually meant.

It turns out that going to that place where you have to explain what the ring property is, is a hard thing to do. And everytime I try, I keep going back to: well the integers are a ring.

So to the professor I mocked mercilessly for years, I apologize. Understanding what the gap is and explaining it, is a very, very hard thing to do.

Stupid is as stupid does.

Many years ago, I was having lunch with a bunch of friends who were doing a Ph.D in Computer Science with a focus in theory and algorithms. And somehow the conversation got around to talking about various practical algorithms. So I, of course, said:

You want an algorithm that finishes in a finite amount of time.

So to set the record straight, almost 8 years after the fact, what I wanted to say was:

You want an algorithm that terminates in a reasonable amount of time otherwise it might as well never terminate.

Movie review: 300

When I was growing up my aunt Helen, on my mother’s side of the family, felt it was her personal obligation to make me a proud Greek. I was brought up with tales of the glory of Athens and the heroism of Greeks. We, Greeks, I was told had withstood centuries of invaders and preserved our essential Greekness. Of the stories, four stood out. The first was the story of how General Metaxas told the Italian Ambassador: No, when asked if Greece would become a protectorate of Italy in 1940. The second was the Persian defeat at Salamis by the Athenians. The third was Leonidas’ response to Xerxes demand that he give up his weapons: Molon Lave (translation: come and take them). The fourth was during the Greek war of independence the phrase: Better one hour free than a hundred a slave. These are the cherished stories of my youth. And there was a time, in my life, that they inspired me.

So when I saw the film being previewed I was filled with dread. I am not so demanding that the film be a documentary. After all 300 is supposed to be entertainment and the true facts of what happened are unknowable. I was hoping for two things: to be entertained and the film be at list true to the spirit of the tale. After The further adventures of Hercules, Xena: The Warrior Princess, Troy and Alexander the Great that seemed a ridiculously high bar.

On both accounts, entertainment and veracity, the film exceeded my expectations.

The film is fun. It’s a good old fashioned over-the-top blood fest. There is the usual collection of ridiculously attired villians, scantily clad heroes, music, and slow-motion decapitations. There is the usual collection of witty heroic one-liners (including Molon Labe). There is some T and A, but I think the female and male gay population will enjoy more of the T and A than the straight male community.

The film is mostly true to the spirit of the tale and to the Spartans. The Spartans really did throw the disfigured and maimed children down wells. They really did take the children into camps at the age of seven. They really did fight as a phalanx. Their wives really did say: Come back carrying or on your shield when the men left for battle. The battle did really last three days. The Spartans did thwart the Immortals. A solitary Spartan did leave the battle to tell the tale.

As a Greek brought up on the stories of Leonidas the story rang true.

However, there was one fact that irritated me. Now remember, I am an Athenian. And in my version of the story, Leonidas’ heroic defeat was important because it bought the Athenian Navy enough time to trap the Persians at Salamis. And it was at Salamis that the Persian invasion was defeated. The battle of Platea was just some mopping up of the remnants of Xerxes army. Furthermore, from my perspective the victory of the Athenian fleet was what created democracy, Leonidas’ victory created militarism.

In this movie version of the story, Leonidas’ defeat is followed by a Greek victory in Platea. We are meant to believe that it was the Spartan war machine that defeated Xerxes. There is no mention of the Athenians and their defeat of Xerxes’ Navy.

sigh

In spite of the omission of Athenian role, I strongly recommend the film.

Organic, shmorgamic.

I find the recent craze about organic food to be irritating. Everything and anything is organic as long as it satisfies some bureaucrats idea of what organic should be.

When my grandma thought organic she thought food grown by a farmer who cared about the product he produced. In particular she did not think that processed food was organic. Probably she would have been appalled to learn what her grandson eats.

The absurdity of the definition of organic was brought home today by my wife. She bought organic string cheese from Trader Joe’s. What part of a processed cheese in the form of strings is organic?

So pardon my French, but organic string cheese is only organic if you’re a bureaucrat concerned with chemical compounds and not the basic process of food production.

A pox on them and their products.

Book Review: Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab

There is this great old joke that I learned. It goes like this:

Jimmy, a Greek-American, gets no respect. So he gets the bright idea that to get respect he needs to join the mob. The only problem is that as a Greek-American he knows nothing about the mob or anyone in the mob. Every time he asks his Italian-American friends about the mob, they keep telling him: There is no such thing as the Mafia.

Jimmy, being an enterprising young lad decides to go to Italy to find someone who knows something about the mob. After two years of trying and getting nowhere he finally returns to the USA.

Back in Astoria, his friends ask him: So Jimmy, what did you learn about the Mafia? Jimmy responds: There is no such thing as the Mafia. And with that his friends started to accord him every kind of respect.

The funny part of this story is that the FBI and the police were no better for about 50 years. Starting in the 1930’s when the Mafia transformed itself from a street gang to a real powerful organization and ending in the late 70’s, the Mafiosi worked with impunity. No one knew of their existence. No one knew who their leaders were. No one tried to arrest them. The laws that were required to arrest them (RICO) did not even exist making a made man a criminal that could never be put behind bars. The Feds in the 1980’s when they actually started to take the mob seriously ended up arresting the wrong Capo of the Genovese three times.

This is a book of the history of the Mob. The author, Selwyn Raab, is a journalist and not a historian so the book suffers from all of the flaws a history book written by a journalist suffers. It’s breathless, opinionated, dependent on first person accounts, full of conjectures and questionable assertions. However, like all great journalism it creates a sense of immediacy. This is not a scholarly treatment of the Mob.

What is interesting is that Mr. Raab is extremely frustrated with the media and how the media treats the Mob. He finds them to be a despicable organization of vultures and parasites that prey on the weak. To Mr. Raab, the notion that there is something romantic about the mob is abhorrent. A significant chunk of the text is devoted to this rant against the media.

Where the book is weak is in the history of the period starting in 1900 and ending in 1980. Where the book is strongest is in the period beginning in 1980 and ending with the present day. This is the period that Mr. Raab covered as a reporter and a significant chunk of the book reads like a re-capitulation of his notes from trials and from conversations with insiders.

I liked the book. What I found most interesting was how powerful and how invisible the mob really was. And how the notion that there are vast powerful conspiracies of men that we don’t know about is not that absurd, given how little we as a country knew about the power of the mob. Maybe the black helicopters and the tri-lateral commission really do exist …

Book Review: Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and John Halliday

For reasons I can not really articulate the lives and times of despots has always fascinated me. Maybe it’s staring into the abyss of the human condition to understand why. Maybe it’s the same urge to stare at a car accident, a morbid curiosity.

I’ve read about Stalin, I’ve read about Hitler, I’ve read about Pol Pot, I’ve read about Nanjing and I’ve read about Auschwitz. I’ve read about the Tai-Pan rebellion. I’ve read about the Norse raiders.

However, somehow, in all of that madness there seemed something redeemable in these madmen. They were deluded visionaries who believed that they could create a better man and therefore a better world. They were the kind of men who believed that if you had to kill a single innocent child to build a better world, why stop at one when you can kill a million.

Somehow the Mao of Jung Chang and John Halliday emerges as the most despicable vile disgusting self-absorbed butcher of our times. Unlike the others it was all about his own personal power. He cared about China not because he cared about China but because he viewed China as a projection of his own personal power. He was no patriot. He was no hero. He was no visionary he was a butcher who wanted to be at the top of the pyramid and was willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to get there.

The authors make a compelling case for putting Mao at the top of the inverted pyramid of despicable leaders.

The book is a very thorough treatment of the period. Consisting both of a secondary research and a significant amount of new primary materials we learn more about the details of Mao. We also learn about China.

One of the more interesting aspects about China is that China was a far more fluid and dynamic society than originally I had known. It was possible for anyone to scale into the Imperial Bureaucracy. Mao managed to destroy that and create the artificial homogeneous Chinese world we knew in the ’80s.

The one tragic figure in this book, other than China, is Chiang Kai-Shek. Tragic because he was too decent. Too caring of his family. Too willing to trust. Tragic because his lack of ruthlessness brought Mao.

As a counterpoint to Mao, Chiang let the Red Army flee on their Long March to save his son from the Soviets who held him hostage. Mao never cared for any of his children. Mao was too ruthless, Chiang too decent.

An excellent book.

The 300

After Disney butchered Hercules, and afterĀ  Wolfgang Peterson destroyed the greatest book of Western civilization with Troy, and especially after Alexander the Great, I was in no mood to watch the 300.

But I was not expecting to be offended by the reviewers reactions to the facts of the event.

To the San Jose Mercury News Reviewer: The phrase: Come back carrying your shield or on it, is not a cheesy line by a bad screenwriter. The line is exactly what the Spartan women told their men as they left for war.

Book Review: Summerland by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, presents a very different face in Summerland. Summerland is a fairy tale for children over the age of 10.

The story is set in a fantastical setting of Chabon’s invention derived from Norse mythology, some Christian mythology and his own imagination.

The story is about, in it’s own little way, baseball. Not the game, but the meaning behind the game. Summerland is the place where everything of any value centers around the game. Where there is always someone who wants to play the game. Where matters of importance, including whether the Universe will end hinge on the swing of a bat. But that inspite of the importance of the game, the joy of the game must never be lost.

As an embittered fan of the game, embittered by the lockout, the strike, the drugs, and the general callousness of the athletes and owners, Summerland reminded me what I loved about baseball.

As for the book itself, the central figure is a 10 year old boy named Ethan that must learn to embrace the pain in his life to save the Universe. The pain as a metaphor is a knot in the perfect baseball bat. A knot that prevents him from holding the bat. During the book he tries to ignore the pain the knot causes, to cut the knot, to give up on the bat, but it’s only when he embraces the pain the knot causes that he is able to swing the bat and hit the game winning home run. In other words, to become the hero that he is supposed to be.

Along the way, we meet some rather fun characters. There is the giant who is shorter than Ethan. There is the scientist so obsessed with the problem in front of him that he becomes a Flat Person, a completely empty person. A person who cares only about the problem to be solved not the consequences of solving the problem. There is the land of Liars, the legendary home of folks like Paul Bunyan. And there is the sasquatch who is looking for her children.