Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The check-in desk two-step!

I have arrived in London and walked into the lobby of the hotel that will become my residence for the next few days. Once again, I face the ABC’s of travel – Another Bloody Country, Another Bloody Check-In! But after getting a room and returning to the lobby for coffee, I took the time to look around. What caught my attention was how the hotel lobby had been designed and the photo I have included here provides a really good view of the layout.

The most important area for any hotel is the registration desk, as you just want to check-in, and go to your room. As you head towards it, you will always pass the concierge desk and welcome the opportunity to unload your bags before looking for your hotel loyalty and credit cards. After completing the check-in process, and as you head for your room, you pass by the lobby gift shop where you can easily pick up a local paper and a couple of bottles of water.

Clearly visible in the picture above, on the right-hand side, are these stations – and just as visible, but on the left-hand side, is the lobby bar as well as the coffee shop. Passages between the bar and coffee shop lead you back to the restaurants. All well thought out and the result of years of watching traffic patterns, its arranged for getting guests in and around with the minimum of stress.

There may be some arguments that first thing in the morning, the coffee shop may be the most important service we need, whereas in the evening, it’s the bar that takes on even more importance. But throughout the day, there’s no real competition – the smooth and timely performance of the registration desk is central to every resident’s peace of mind. And it occurred to me that the hotel realized that there were dire consequences if they didn’t measure up to their customers’ expectations with timely turn-around of the most important processes, such as registration, and that these applications were just as mission critical to them as other applications may be for other corporations.

Whenever I think of mission critical, I always think of military operations, and the critical and often dangerous nature of mission objectives, and where failure may bring serious consequences. And I have to admit that I often think of the David Bowie song Major Tom, and its chilling lines, “Ground Control to Major Tom your circuit's dead, there's something wrong; can you hear me, Major Tom?”

With modern military operations, there’s also the element of urgency with actions unfolding rapidly and in real-time. It was during the time of the cold-war when the term real-time first appeared and it was used to define the time from first detecting an incoming missile, to when it was intercepted and destroyed. Failure to take-out the incoming missile typically ended with catastrophic results – essentially, you had just run out of time!

It’s the same today with our mission critical applications where interacting with others – clients, our partners, and so on - really impacts us negatively if we can’t complete the interaction. I have seen many situations where those we are working with go elsewhere if we fail to turn around their request in a timely manner. The Sixth Edition (John Wiley, 1996) of the IEEE Standard Dictionary, supports this observation and proposes that one of the more commonly accepted standards for a system to be considered real-time in today’s computational world, is “an event or data transfer in which, unless accomplished within an allotted amount of time, the accomplishment of the action has either no value or diminishing value”.

Mission critical solutions may not need to be real-time, but real-time applications are almost certainly mission critical as the criteria for running them in real-time reflects how essential they are for the day-in, day-out, functioning of a company. Today, the definition of mission critical has evolved to mean “any computer process that cannot fail during normal business hours; some computer processes must run all day long and require 100 percent uptime”. NetDictionary.com adds that mission critical applications are “indispensable. Usually describes applications such as databases or process control software that are deemed essential to a company's operation and that typically run on mainframes …”

Working as I do for GoldenGate, the best definition I have come across was on a web site that simply said “literally, any operation that cannot tolerate intervention, compromise or shutdown during the performance of its critical function. These environments also monitor, store, support and communicate data that cannot be lost or corrupted without compromising their core function”. We take providing access to data in real-time without loss or corruption as the “raison d’ĂȘtre” of our business.

I had been staying at the London hotel with Sami Akbay, GoldenGate’s VP of Marketing, and I heard him talk on this theme as well. But he introduced another perspective for me when he told a group of IT folks “"mission critical solutions exist at the point of intersection between the data arriving in real time, and the real time demand for that data!" In other words, the applications running at those intersection points will typically be mission critical.

The HP NonStop Server has had a long history being associated with mission-critical applications. They were indispensable in their role of supporting critical client-facing applications. For the user of an ATM, the operator responding to an emergency 911 call, or the nurse dispensing critical medications, any loss of access or interruption of the service is not an option. Furthermore, in today’s internet and web applications, users have the ability to click elsewhere if the application aborts. Any degradation in the service will drive users to other providers and poor business experiences can close down a service very quickly.

Mission critical solutions also need to be configured with redundant servers. Alok Pareek, GoldenGate’s VP of Technology was speaking to a group of IT managers and reminded them that “"Mission critical applications cannot be left to run unprotected and without some redundancy. Maintaining consistency (of data) on both systems and in real time, is what elevates the application to being viewed as mission critical. It would be hard to imagine any server being configured, without a second redundant server, to truly support a mission critical application. It makes little sense to me!"

And as HP NonStop Server users know all too well, there will always be applications that will be designated as mission critical. There will always be a sub-set of incoming transactions that require mission critical support that the HP NonStop Server continues to provide on of the best platform options. Whatever happens with the NonStop technology in the future, as far as what systems will look like, there will always be the need to direct incoming mission critical transactions to where they will be serviced by NonStop. The intimate relationship that continues today between NonStop, and mission critical transactions will be something I will pursue with many more blog postings. Perhaps, with the arrival of the new bladed architecture, it will be the ability to configure NonStop in support of mission critical applications that sees the further evolution of NonStop whereby it becomes an option on any future bladed architecture configuration!

Recalling the words of another song, I began to reconsider the meaning I had given it many years ago. When the Eagles came out with Hotel California, they sang “'Relax,' said the night man, 'We are programmed to receive. You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!'” Maybe this had nothing more to tell us other than the designers of the systems in support of the front desk didn’t fully understand the need to be mission critical!

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