Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Transparency in action at OpenSRS

OpenSRS has long been a company that "gets it", so I was excited to have the opportunity to interview Ken Schafer, who leads the transparency efforts at OpenSRS and Tucows. OpenSRS has an excellent public health dashboard, and continues to put a lot of effort into transparency. Heather Leson, who works with Ken, has done a lot to raise the bar in the online transparency community. My hope is that the more transparent we all get about our own transparency efforts (too much?) the more we all benefit. Below, Ken tells us how he got the company to accept the need for transparency, what hurdles they had to overcome, and what benefits they've seen. Enjoy the interview, and if you have any questions for Ken, please post them as comments below.

Q. Can you briefly explain your role and how you got involved in your company’s transparency initiative?
My formal title is Executive Vice President of Product & Marketing.  That means I'm on the overall Tucows exec team and I'm also responsible for the product strategy and marketing of OpenSRS, our wholesale Internet services group.

Tucows is one of the original Internet companies - founded in 1993. We've moved well beyond the original software download site and now the company makes most of its money providing easy-to-use Internet services.

OpenSRS provides end users with over 10 million domain names, millions of mailboxes, and tens of thousands of digital certificates through over 10,000 resellers in over 100 countries. Our resellers are primarily web hosts, ISPs, web developers and designers, and IT consultants.

Q. What has your group done to create transparency for your organization?
Given the technical adeptness of our resellers we've always tried not to talk down to them and to provide as much information as we can. Our success and the success of our resellers are highly dependent on each other so we're very open to sharing and in fact since the beginning of OpenSRS in 1999 we've run mailing lists, blogs, forums, wiki, status pages and a host of other ways for us to communicate better with our resellers.

Transparency is kind of in the nature of the business at this point.

Right now we provide transparency into what we're doing through a blog, a reseller forum, our Status site and our activity on a host of social networks.

Q. What was the biggest hurdle you had to get over to push this through?
The biggest challenge is really whether your commitment to transparency can survive the bad times. Being transparent when you've got a status board full of green tick marks isn't that hard. When everything starts turning red and staying that way, THAT'S a lot harder.

We're generally proud of our uptime and the quality of our services but a few years ago we struggled with scaling some of our applications and, frankly, our communication around the problems we were facing suffered as a result. People here were just too embarrassed to tell our resellers that we'd messed stuff up and in particular to admit to our fellow geeks HOW we'd messed up.

But when we pushed and DID share information and admitted our mistakes and talked about what we could do to make it better what we found was that our resellers were appreciative AND very sympathetic. They'd all been there too and knew it was hard to fess up to our errors in judgment and they really appreciated it.

One thing we STILL struggle with is how we communicate around network attacks. Our services run a big chunk of the Internet and as such we're under pretty much constant attack of one sort or another. We handle most of these without anyone noticing. Our operations and security teams do an amazing job of keeping things running smoothly in the face of these attacks but every once in a while something new - in scope, scale or technique - happens that puts pressure on our systems until we can adjust to the new threat.

In those cases we've tended to put our desire for transparency aside and give minimal information so as not to show our hand to the bad guys. It's a struggle between what we share so customers understand what is happening and not showing potential vulnerabilities that others could exploit.

I guess "sharing what is exploitable" is where I draw the line when it comes to transparency.

Q. What benefits have you seen as a result of your transparency?
One of the biggest benefits is in the overall quality of the service. When you say that EVERY problem is going to get publicly and permanently posted to a status page it REALLY focusses the organization on quality of service!

Q. Can you give us some insight into the processes around your transparency? Specifically who manages the communication, who is responsible for maintaining the dashboard, and what the general process looks like before/during/after a big event.
Our communications team (Marketing) is responsible for the OpenSRS Status page.  We generally hire marketers that are technically comfortable so they can write to be understood and understand what they're writing about.

We have someone from Marketing on call 24/7/365 and whenever an issue cannot be resolved in an agreed-to period of time (generally 15 minutes) our Network Operations Center (also 24/7/365) informs Marketing and we post to Status.

Our Status page is a heavily customized version of Wordpress plus an email notification system and auto-updates to our Twitter feed.

Marketing and NOC then stay in touch until the issue is resolved, posting updates as material changes occur or at two hour intervals if the issue is ongoing.

You'll notice this is a largely manual system. We decided against posting our internal monitoring tools publicly because of the complexity of our operations. Multiple services each composed of multiple sub-systems running in data centers around the word mean that the raw data isn't as useful to resellers as it may be for some less complex environments.

In the event of a serious problem we also have an escalation process - once again managed by Marketing - that brings in additional levels of communications and executives. For major issues we also have a "War Room" procedure that is put in place until the issue is resolved.

Q. What would you say to other organizations that are considering transparency as a strategic initiative?
The days of hiding are over. You now have a choice of whether you want to tell the story or have others misrepresent the story on your behalf. It seems scary to admit you have problems but you gain so much by being open and honest that the stress of taking a new approach to communications is easily outweighed.

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