Saturday, May 28, 2011

Now for something unorthodox …

With the HP Discover event imminent, and with headlines about outages showing no signs of ebbing, it’s solely up to those of us within the NonStop community to convey the real story on NonStop’s place in business …

I don’t have explanations and I can’t fathom it at all! The rain continues to come down here in Boulder and in all the years I have lived here I can’t recall a cooler, wetter, spring! If this rain keeps up then the countryside will be more reminiscent of England than it is of California, or Tuscany, or even parts of Australia, where the predominant color for much of the year lies somewhere between gold and brown. All summer we usually have to deal with humidity levels around ten percent, but this rain certainly alters that metric.

The picture above is of irises in full bloom outside my back door. I haven’t paid all that much attention to them in the past; perhaps I was out of town when they last blossomed. In fact, only a few weeks earlier the landscaper had suggested we remove them, indicating that they weren’t fairing all that well.

Irises have a history dating back to Greek mythology and where, given their blooming in a rainbow of colors, Irises have always been associated with courage and with hope. The association with rainbows, however, can also be considered as just another way of depicting change and with the weather we have been having, it’s reaching a point where I am scanning the skies and looking for a rainbow!

In Greek mythology, Iris was the personification of the rainbow, bridging the world of the gods with humanity – essentially, a messenger of the gods. A quick check of any encyclopedia will bring up a wealth of stories describing how Iris traveled with “the speed of the wind, from one end of the world to another.” Perhaps not intentionally an agent of change, but certainly, the image persists as humanity couldn’t escape change once the messenger of the gods departed!

Change has been a reoccurring theme of my blog posts and this is because I see us living in tumultuous times with respect to IT. Without any further resorting to clichés, it’s becoming hard to escape the rhetoric of influential technology leaders pitching their view of IT as they move quickly from one developing trend or fad to another, and leaving us to wonder where we should focus our attention.

We should be installing x86 products! We should be virtualizing everything! We should be embracing cloud computing!

These discussions haven’t been helped by the postings to the many social media blogs, groups and forums, particularly for those of us within the NonStop community. Participants have been playing a little lose with the facts to ensure their point of view is communicated, just as thought-leaders and highly opinionated columnists have shouldered their way into dialogues often at the expense of better known industry analysts.

In the game of cricket there are times where one team’s bowlers fail to curb the enthusiasm of the batsman – their ineffective bowling allowing these strikers of the ball to score runs at will. When it comes to international competition, where the game is played over five days, this situation may continue for most of a day with the attacking team’s captain becoming increasingly frustrated by his bowlers’ failure to break through the batsman’s defenses.

At these times, creative and somewhat unorthodox captains bring into the bowling attack a participant previously unseen by the batting team – often one of the bowling teams own batsman – and with this change, the very unpredictability of what the new bowler may do, can force batting mistakes that contribute to the opposition’s downfall.

A cursory look at some of the more recent postings would suggest that unless something dramatic occurs to turn around observed trends, the NonStop platform will cease to remain relevant for the majority of its users in just a couple of years!

The data points presented look ominous – solutions providers in healthcare and public safety certainly have begun building products targeting Windows. Even Stock Exchanges have moved off the NonStop platform, when for many years they were a stalwart of NonStop commitment. The biggest vendor in the financial services marketplace was switching vendors, pursuing the market with packages designed for the IBM mainframe. In some circles it’s even been suggested that there could be as many as 50 users, perhaps more, leaving the NonStop platform just this year!

And yet, the story I hear from customers is quite different. It’s always hard to get the real numbers as HP doesn’t split out the numbers for NonStop, nor can we easily reconstruct a set of figures comparable to how we used to see them presented when Tandem was a public company.

However, anecdotally, based purely on conversations and interviews I have had in association with other papers I have been writing, when you look at this past quarter there has been considerable growth! Without putting any firm numbers on just how much growth, I have heard that on a year over year basis, it was pretty spectacular. Perhaps more than 50% and possibly as high as 75%!

This time last year business was slow, and that is unquestionable. The effect of the recession was felt by everyone and business was reluctant to invest in infrastructure. But today, transaction volumes in financial services together with the building out of the 4G networks, has seen considerably uptick in business within financial services and Telcos.

A strong, if not dominant, position of the NonStop within these marketplaces continues just as after several years of aggressive marketing by the payments solutions provider who switched to IBM, not one NonStop customer has migrated off the platform and onto IBM. Quite the contrary, from what I have heard, up until early this year there has been a net gain of one to NonStop following three years of concerted efforts!
All told, as I continue to poll folks and check as many sources as I can, I have to believe that HP’s NonStop business is on track to report a full year of operations that shows growth beyond 20% and possibly as high as 30%! This is not a business that shows any signs of losing ground as best as I can tell – it’s being reshaped certainly, and the NonStop sales teams are being laser-like in their focus on new business (yes, there’s new business being created) addressing win-able opportunities in adjacent applications and customer spaces.

NonStop remains as relevant today as it ever was – there will always be a marketplace where “little to no downtime” remains unacceptable and where “the server failed over seamlessly and began running on the other (server) with very little downtime; about a minute” as I just read in a competing vendors white paper, carries with it enormous risk for business with no tolerance for failures of any kind.

Amidst all the changes, this requirement hasn’t lessened as a concern of business. There’s still no hiding from the headlines whenever major outages to services occurs and the past couple of months have seen more than their fair share of such headlines on outages!

What the commentary posted to blogs and forums of late has highlighted is that if we continue with our current approach, there’s little we can do to unsettle the competition and they will continue to amass a big score. However, even the greatest of batsmen have been known to stumble and fall when facing something unexpected.

This year’s HP Discover event, only a few weeks away, could prove to be the place for the NoNStop community to consider something creative, perhaps a little unorthodox. In Greek mythology it took someone special to bring the message to humanity, but this time around we don’t need anything that spectacular - let’s just change the perceptions on our own. I for one am hopeful.

Even without a visit from Iris, there are still many of us with the courage. Let’s promote the facts! Let’s speak out and evangelize NonStop to the greater HP! There are still rainbows, aplenty!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Check-Book IT!

In this follow-up to what was last posted, where I expressed some surprise that after 35+ years, there still wasn’t a platform that challenged NonStop, I now chastise those CIOs who believe they can spend their way to success!

The other weekend while enjoying the opportunity to take the Corvette to Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, outside of Pahrump, west of Las Vegas, and lapping the large 3.1 mile circuit with other enthusiasts, I had the misfortune of blowing a major seal in the car’s supercharger. The effect was terminal and the ‘Vette will now spend several weeks in the shop either undergoing costly repairs or, hopefully, being fixed under warranty.

While I sat by the car, a little shaken by the experience and not immediately coming to terms with the impact it would have on my plans for the coming week, one of participants tried to comfort me with the sage advice it’s only money! The picture at the top of the page is of Margo alongside the ‘Vette as we completed the transfer to the U Haul trailer we rented in Las Vegas, very unhappy that yet another weekend of driving for her had been lost due to my early morning enthusiasm.

Yes, it was only money but it reminded me of how often I have heard the phrase check-book racing and of how, no matter the event or track, there are those who arrive with toy-haulers and some amazing cars only to circulate the track behind less-powerful, underfunded, drivers who simply can work wonders on vehicles that, for many of them, are their daily drives. Local knowledge can compensate for much!

Rarely does the participant with the biggest check book prove successful; the odds favoring them can be tilted only so far and eventually, the skills required truly play a big part. Knowledge of the requirements of the car as well as the circuit, together with the experience gained from having driven many hundreds of laps, often prove hard to replicate and these big-budget participants end the day frustrated with their inability to achieve better results.

During the past two weeks there’s been a definite lift in the number of readers participating in discussions in LinkedIn groups - Real Time View, HP NonStop Tandem Professionals, NonStop SQL Professionals, Tandem User Group, as well as a number of vendor-specific groups such as comForte, Attunity, etc. The subject of my last post to this blog, “I’ll give you ‘what’s changed!’” created lively debate about the future of NonStop, what more can HP be doing to promote the platform, what more can HP do to develop a larger community of solutions providers, as well as a continuation of the discussion over the merits of TCO and ROI numbers routinely thrown around and that favor the HP NonStop server.

When I promoted the previous blog posting to these groups, I did so with the candid observation of “what really surprises me is that, even after 35+ years of market presence and there being no viable alternative solution that you can drop into a data center with the levels of availability and scalability NonStop provides, NonStop continues to be overlooked and even marginalized as often as it is!” I suspect that the many discussions that followed probably took exception to the provocative nature of the observation. However, the observation proved tough to discount – there is still no real alternative to NonStop for those applications that carry the responsibility of keeping the company in business.

Just as those turning up at the circuit with check books in hand so, too, have many CIOs found that simply approaching the support of applications critical to running the business with check books in hand, has rarely gone the way that they expected. Over the decades we have witnessed those large projects where enormous budgets were allocated to a new strategy and where a major vendor was brought in to rectify the perceived ailments within IT.

Whether it was banking core systems in the 1990s, or government department overhauls in the 1980s, after the initial headlines grabbed our attention, very few of these initiatives ever delivered on what was promised. Check book IT simply wasn’t the quick-fix many in management had expected.

Today, everything can be supported on commodity platforms and with open software. Or so we’re told. Smart individuals can quickly develop impressive prototypes and even more-impressive pilot deployments. However, in time, there’s either a scaling issue or unexpected consequences from changes in business focus and market conditions. What looked good on a whiteboard often fails to deliver the expected results, no matter the investments!

A single Linux server may have cost very little, but 250 of them (with their software licenses) trigger significant heartburn and often stunned silence when the checks are finally cashed! Yet check book IT continues to persist. Let’s give every business unit their own big budget! Let’s consolidate all the servers and give the CIO a bigger budget! Let’s pursue Cloud Computing and set aside an even bigger budget! And so it goes …

In a recent article in The Connection magazine (May – June, 2011) I quoted Dr. Richard Hackathorn, an authority on EDW and BI, who suggested that running a typical data center these days had moved dramatically from being like steering a large ocean liner to where it was more like landing an airplane at a very busy airfield. Opportunities open up quickly for pilots and if missed, they are forced into holding patterns awaiting a new opportunity!

No matter whether they are flying small aircraft or cargo planes, the experienced pilots know how to capitalize on the short windows they are given to execute a successful landing. Likewise, experienced CIOs have come to recognize that to retain flexibility, a key goal with today’s modernization projects, failure to leverage what they have can often result in not meeting the demands! There’s everything to gain from retaining NonStop!

The NonStop platform remains relevant as it provides CIOs with the opportunity to “land at busy airports.” It continues to do well integrating with other platforms and it impresses with the way it supports modern languages and programming interfaces. Yes, Java had it tough when it came to running on the older K-Series and S-Series servers, but today those who run Java on the latest Integrity servers experience none of the ill-effects of those earlier implementations. Indeed, the experience gained by those early users of NonStop is what is contributing to them competing as effectively as they are in the marketplace.

There is a lot of data that demonstrates the financial benefits from running NonStop; TCO and ROI figures remain as important as they ever were in the past. Just as experience and familiarity and the appreciation for what works (as distinct to what distracts) shouldn’t be discounted, neither should we be too quick to dismiss these numbers. It’s become all too easy to be swayed by the opinions of the broader IT industry and by the clever charts of analysts only too anxious to reduce IT to a single architecture and deployment model.

I ended the previous posting with the comment on how the strength of NonStop lies in the protection it provides – from unexpected growth, from unpredictable outages, from unwanted hackers. Perhaps I should have added that it also lies in the predictability of the outcome when it comes to reliance on NonStop. Yes, steps can always be taken to improve the ease of use and supportability of a platform, but these can be easily managed.

My message to the CIO? Put away the check book and just let your local knowledge kick-in and prove how beneficial you can be to the running of the business! Take a good hard look at the headlines of late telling of the Clouds that have failed and the scope of services disrupted. Don’t be too quick to take NonStop out of your Cloud Computing considerations. And don’t smile too broadly once discussions begin on deploying two or more Clouds as that’s what Tandem was about, remember, all those years ago!

Monday, May 9, 2011

I’ll give you “what’s changed!”

Can a 35+ year technology be considered modern especially as it continues to have few peers in the availability stakes? Let’s ask plainly, what needs to change to attract a wider user audience?

Being in Chicago in spring is not a typical occurrence for me. Usually, Chicago is either covered with snow and miserably cold as wicked winds come in from the lake, or it’s hot and humid. There’s no denying the architecture, however, and no matter the time of year, I always like to take a short stroll and check out what has changed. The photo above is me alongside the river, directly opposite the latest addition to the stable of skyscrapers erected by Donald Trump.

In fact, while I was snapping this photo, I wasn’t too far from the location of a photo taken several years ago that I included in the October 30th, 2007 post “Our need for architects ...” and where the skyline back then only showed the rough skeleton of the Trump building as the only evidence construction was under way. The Trump building’s extensive use of glass, so visible today, is in stark contrast to the splendid stone edifices of the Tribune and the Wrigley buildings.

Contrasts like this aren’t limited to architecture and to city skylines. There’s no mistaking a modern windmill when so many are now dotting the landscape and there’s no mistaking the lines of a modern cruise ship as it pulls into port, turning effortlessly in its own length without help from old-style tugboats. It was only a few years back that I was on a very large cruise ship that navigated its way into the port of Gdansk, Poland, with barely inches to spare.

When it comes to technology and to labeling products as modern, it’s far more difficult. The term legacy is thrown around with little appreciation that every business application running today is, effectively, legacy. Reaching agreement on this point however, doesn’t automatically lead us to support the premise that every business application as yet unimplemented, is modern. The lines become quickly blurred with little opportunity to step back and appreciate what are business requirements that need to be addressed urgently. “Choice! Creativity! Flexibility!” could easily substitute for any modernization catch-phrase!

The issue with modernization is the assumption that we in possession of something that is old and that it is in need of rejuvenation in order to remain relevant. In today’s throw-away societies it’s as if any item we purchase, once removed from its wrapper, is instantly ready to be discarded. Walking around Chicago, there was much that had changed and yet, it was encouraging to see how much value was still begin derived from infrastructure developed over the centuries!

In the upcoming May – June, 2011, issue of The Connection, I revisit the topic of modernizing infrastructure and to illustrate the point, I referenced façade architecture – the process whereby older buildings are retained and reused in new and beneficial ways with the urge to rip and replace disparaged. The references I make in The Connection article pull from a feature story I developed for a client, but they reinforce the mistaken belief, common among today’s CIOs, that the data centers they are charged with maintaining needs to be modernized. Pursuing such a course of action, CIOs believe, is what will make their businesses more productive.

Irrespective of the technology in place, what fuel these beliefs has been the percentage of their budgets allocated to maintenance and how little remains for innovation. Surely, it must be a fault of the platform they are running! All too often it’s not a case of the platform chosen, but the advice that they are receiving from their architects; anxious about their contribution they often make recommendations based on nothing more than their favorite salesman’s latest Powerpoint presentation!

In the article in The Connection, as I wrote about façade architecture, I observed how for some time now cities striving to retain the value inherent with older structures while changing them to accommodate the needs of residents and business, have turned to façade architecture as a viable alternative to simply tearing down and rebuilding. From this observation I then suggest that a similar prospect can be envisioned today when it comes to application modernization, as many companies view the retention of key technology infrastructure as every bit as desirable as keeping a prized city building.

Nothing could be closer to the truth when it comes to NonStop servers. In recent commentary posted to the LinkedIn group, Real Time View, a complementary communications channel to this blog site, there’s been a lot of discussion on what to do with NonStop servers to better gain traction within companies and as one writer suggested, it’s time for some plain talk. Check out the discussion, “Does HP BCS / NED need to fund more apps on NonStop?” While I will not revisit the opinions that accompanied that blunt observation, all the same, it really is time for some blunt talk on NonStop.

What really surprises me is that, even after 35+ years of market presence and there being no viable alternative solution that you can drop into a data center with the levels of availability and scalability NonStop provides, NonStop continues to be overlooked and even marginalized as often as it is! It’s naïve at best to think that the knowledge learnt over these 35+ years can be readily (and reliably) copied using commodity servers, Hi-Speed LANs, and cabinets full of off-the-shelf switches.

NonStop, as a platform, is as modern as anything else around it in the data center, but when you really break it down, even when the modernization message makes it through to those running the business, there’s a concern over the cost effectiveness of NonStop. You cannot have a discussion on modernization today and ignore pricing, as for many of these architects and CIOs everything that’s inexpensive is modern, no matter what the value proposition!

For one reason or another, they only ever consider the unit price and seem dumbfounded and even confused when presented with the final bill! Too late; it’s now all waiting for them by the loading dock! Again, the architecture in support of the NonStop server leverages 35+ years of experience; it’s not old! It’s still the coolest product in the marketplace for all those who consider not having to front the press, or a government oversight agency, to explain why services are not available or so much information fell into the wrong hands!

As you look at a modern HP NonStop server today, what has changed? How can I suggest it’s modern? How can I consider it cool? At the heart of these questions, and again, to be blunt, lays a disbelief that is hard to overcome. If it is all that is now being claimed, why aren’t we hearing a lot more about the product? Why such little recognition by the press and industry analysts? And why such restraint by HP – yes, the hardware is commodity and is priced more competitively than it has ever been, but surely there would be more coverage than we see now?

Perhaps we have all developed selective hearing. Perhaps we are tending to dismiss some of the obvious – how many of us would consider payments processors worldwide offering up their services out of a payments Cloud for so many years! You think Cloud Computing is new? Well, something as basic as processing your ATM card has been done from within a cloud (can you tell me how it’s provisioned?) for decades, so no, there’s nothing very much new with Clouds. Yet, the issue persists.

The strength of NonStop lies in the protection it provides – from unexpected growth, from unpredictable outages, from unwanted hackers. Mission-critical applications leave no room for “we are sorry, the website and the ability to instantly watch movies are both temporarily unavailable” as Netflix subscribers ran up against just recently.

NonStop servers will never be general purpose, nor will they address all the needs within a vertical market, but they will provide a level of comfort CIOs have a hankering for even as they watch site after site come down. As the price tag continues to drop and as commoditization truly materializes, then the efforts of others to keep the message suppressed may disintegrate completely. The message will get out … and that’s some plain talk I’m only too happy to discuss!