The Littlest Datacenter Part 6: Lessons Learned

For the first post of this long saga, click here.

It’s been a year since I moved on from the company running on the Littlest Datacenter, and about two years since it was built.  As I mentioned, I built it to be as self-sufficient, flat, simple and maintainable as possible, first because I had duties beyond being the IT guy and dropping everything to hack on junk equipment wasn’t going to cut it; second because I was the only IT guy and I wanted to be able to take vacations and sleep through the night without the business falling apart; and third, because I knew that, regardless of whether I stayed with that company or not, the IT function would eventually be given to an MSP or a junior admin.

Looking back at the setup, here are some lessons learned:

Buy Supermicro carefully:  The default support Supermicro offers is depot repair.  That means you’re deracking your server, boxing it up and paying to ship it back to them for repair.  Repair can take anywhere from one to six weeks.  This sucks because Supermicro offers a lot of flexible and reliable hardware choices for systems that fall outside the mainstream.  For instance, my Veeam server fit sixteen 3.5″ hard drives and two 2.5″ SSDs for less than half the cost of the equivalent Dells and HPs, and they supported Enterprise drives that didn’t come with the Dell/HP tax.  Just be sure to add on the onsite warranty or carry spare parts.

You’re gonna need more space:  And not just disk space.  I ended up adding 8TB more disk space to my hosts to handle the high resolution cameras for the additional shipping tables added a year after the initial build.  Fortunately I had extra drive bays, but any more expansion will involve a larger tape changer and SAS expansion shelves for the hosts.

Cheaper can sometimes be better:  For a simple two-host Windows cluster, Starwind saved the company a good six figures.  It’s no Nimble, but it was fast, bulletproof and affordable.  And like I said before, Supermicro really saved the day on the D2D backup server.

A/C is the bane of every budget datacenter:  The SRCOOL12K I used did the job, but it was loud and inefficient.  I really should have pushed for the 12,000 BTU mini-split, even though it would have taken more time and money.

So is power:  I probably could have bought the modular Symmetra LX for what I paid for the three independent UPSes.  The independent units are less of a single point of failure than a monolith like the Symmetra, but I could have added enough power modules and batteries to the Symmetra to achieve my uptime goal and also power the A/C unit–something that the individual UPSes could not do.

SaaS all of the things:  Most of our apps were already in the cloud, but I implemented the PBX locally because it was quite a bit cheaper due to the number of extensions.  I’m now thoroughly convinced that in a small business, hosting your own PBX is only slightly less stupid than hosting your own Exchange Server.  Until you get to a thousand extensions and can afford to bring on a dedicated VoIP guy, let someone else deal with it.  Same goes for monitoring–I would have gladly gone with hosted Zabbix if it was available at the time.  Same with PagerDuty for alerting.

Expect your stuff to get thrown out:  My artisanally-crafted monitoring system went out the window when the MSP came in.  Same for my carefully locked down pfSense boxes.  Just expect that an MSP is going to have their own managed firewalls, remote support software, antivirus, etc.

Don’t take it personally:  Commercial pilots and railroad engineers describe the inevitable result of any government accident investigation: “They always blame the dead guy.”  That crude sentiment also applies to IT: no matter what happens after you leave, you’re going to get blamed for it.  After carefully documenting and training my replacement, I hadn’t even left when I started getting phone calls about outages, and they were basically all preventable.  The phone system was rebooted in the middle of the day.  A Windows Server 2003 box was shut down, even though it hosted the PICK application the owner still insisted on keeping around.  The firewalls were replaced without examining the existing rules first, plunging my monitoring system into darkness and causing phone calls to have one-way audio.  I answered calls and texts for two weeks, and then stopped worrying about them and focused solely on my present and future.

Write about it: Even if nobody reads your blog, outlining what you did and why, and what worked and what didn’t, will help you make better recommendations in the future.  And if someone does read it, it might help them as well.


The End of an Era?

I was heartbroken to read about the demise of Weird Stuff Warehouse, a Silicon Valley institution.

I remember when they were just called Weird Stuff and were located in a commercial storefront near Fry’s in Milpitas.  They had glass display cases with a few dozen parts for sale, such as hard drives and peripheral cards. Once in a while, they would have something crazy, like a giant minicomputer hard drive with a spindle motor that looked like it belonged in a washing machine.  We mostly visited just to see what was new, though I do remember when they had trash cans full of ping pong balls that they were selling by the bagful.  We bought a few dozen to throw at each other at the office.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was assigned a weeklong project in Milpitas a few years ago, a good decade after I had moved to SoCal.  My GPS took me to a nondescript warehouse entrance.  When I walked inside, it was like a massive museum.  Stack after stack of 30-year-old hard drives, cards, motherboards, power supplies, test equipment, industrial equipment, cables, wires, displays, servers, switches, cabinets, modem banks… I spent every evening after work walking up and down the aisles, admiring and sometimes touching the Silicon Valley of my youth.

With my (and my 17-year-old son’s) excitement building about the upcoming Vintage Computer Festival West in Mountain View this summer, I Googled Weird Stuff so that my son, too, could experience the fruits of Silicon Valley on those shelves.  Alas, it turns out that Googling was what contributed to the death of this institution.  The search giant bought the building, and Weird Stuff Warehouse closed its doors and sold its inventory to a company that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a retail presence.

In the light of recent events involving Facebook, Uber and other companies, there’s a growing sentiment that Silicon Valley is not what it used to be.  I can’t speak to that myself; I moved out of the Bay Area almost two decades ago and haven’t followed it as closely as I used to.  But it seems that Silicon Valley, which used to be about inventing and building better stuff (hence the “silicon” in the name) has forgotten its roots a bit in its bid to grab some of that VC gold rush money.  Perhaps Silicon Valley needs to get back to building more weird stuff instead.

The Motivation

First, a confession:  this is not my first attempt at a blog.

My previous attempts typically died after a post or two.  What makes things different this time?  I heard a podcast a couple of months ago where the guests listed reasons why I should consider doing this.  Improving my writing skills, sharing tips and tricks I’ve found during the course of my work, networking with peers, and having a public body of work were all reasons that resonated with me.

So, what should readers expect?  My goal is to post something at least weekly.  With my upcoming VMware VCP training, lots of vintage equipment finding its way into my house and plenty of excitement at the office, I should be able to post with some regularity.  I expect to eventually involve YouTube at some point, but I’m going to crawl before I try to walk.  I did fire up a Twitter Account for the stuff that’s better suited to short form.

Incidentally, I’m not getting paid to say this, but it’s easy to find offer codes on various podcast networks right now, and it’s awesome having somebody else to the heavy lifting for less than four bucks a month.  Having had to maintain and patch WordPress sites in the past, I like being able to focus on what I want to write and not whether the next WP patch is going to nuke a custom theme.