Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Let the good times roll ...

Back in the mid ‘90s, a couple of us from Tandem were in Sydney participating in meetings with our Australian-based development partner. Our partner had just been sold to a large US-based corporation and the reduced emphasis on Tandem wasn’t what we were expecting, and it visibly saddened us all. On the last weekend of that visit, three of us found ourselves having dinner in the popular tourist area known as “the Rocks”. As the night wound down we stopped by a popular pub, the Orient Hotel, and listened to the band playing in front of a small audience. As the band was wrapping up a set, they concluded with the Rolling Stones anthem “Well, this could be the last time, maybe the last time, I don’t know …”

And I thought about this as I was packing and preparing to return home from the SATUG user event last week. The picture I have included here is of Neil Pringle and I deep in thought although over what, I cannot recall. But it does capture the way in which senior HP management went out of their way to make themselves accessible to us all. Neil and I were aboard the river cruise on the final evening and I was experiencing similar feelings, about the likelihood of my return to South Africa, as I had had that night back in the Orient Hotel.

SATUG 2008 went off without any visible hitches with Mike Clark and his wife Jean, Anton Lessing, and Pieter Rostoll all doing a terrific job, putting together one of the better user events I have attended for some time. The enthusiasm of the vendors was apparent, and the attitude and openness of the users, was very encouraging. I happened to catch up with Patty Fennel, a recent immigrant to Cape Town. During my time as Chairman of ITUG, Patty was the HP liaison to the board and I have always respected her opinions. “The SATUG board, with the help of a few volunteers, does all the hard work in making the event a success - I've been to 4 of 8, I believe - and they now have a template that works like clockwork. The venue is ideal for a group this size, the food is delicious, the entertainment is always unique and varied (and local), the goodies are incredible... how DO they do all that?” she told me.

The SATUG event follows a pretty slick and impressive formula developed over many years. It opens with a dinner for senior managers and executives of the user community and it is one of the few events that has developed a following among C-Level executives with a number of CIOs putting in appearances over the years. This year, the dinner was held safari-style in a tent following a safari tour through the adjacent wildlife sanctuary. While there are no carnivores roaming the park, there were a couple of rhino’s.

To everyone’s surprise as we filed into the tent, the two rhinos, right on cue, lined up to follow us – coming to about 20 feet from the door. Apparently we weren’t their type! Either that or they had forgotten their invitations. After giving us the once-over, they sauntered back into the bush.

The next two days were devoted to the formal part of the event and following presentations by HP senior management, it was back-to-back vendor presentations. Patty agreed with me and told me later that she “saw the vendor community step up to the plate with some pretty interesting - and not all product-oriented - presentations.” But the presentation that gave me the most to think about was that given by Randy Meyer with his Product Roadmap update that filled in a number of blanks for me.

It has been a couple of months since I sat through a complete hardware and software update but what really impressed me was how quickly HP was moving to standards – components, parts, racks, chips, etc. Throughout his presentation, the emphasis on standardization came through time and again. He explained that there were two valuable elements to standardization – it makes the leveraging of the supply chain, within HP, possible (even for NonStop), and it makes support so much easier. Randy then described a three layer software and infrastructure stack with open access at the top, scalability and availability in the middle, and manageability and compliance at the lowest level.

He positioned the typical development environments and frameworks expected by today’s application community within the open access layer, and how they were available to NonStop users. For the scalability and availability layer, the focus was on what was being done with SQL/MX, and how important the NonStop data base was for the future. And tying it all together, at the manageability and compliance layer, was the gradual introduction of a cross-platform security and manageability product suite.

Later in the program, I was very interested in the presentation on the Integrity product line where HP-UX 11i v4 (now in development) was going to include “Zero Downtime Virtualization”, and where HP-UX 11i v5 (just in the early planning stages) was going to anchor the “Next Wave of Enterprise Computing”. Buried within this presentation was the expected arrival, in 2009, of HP Integrity Virtual Machine (HPVM). I sincerely hope that over time, element of this HPVM, or a derivative, will support NonStop as well. I am very interested to see where this leads and whether what’s happening in the HP-UX development group is applicable to the NonStop group.

Perhaps the presentation that set the event apart from those of the previous years, was the presentation by Michael Eisa, Intel’s EMEA Strategic Initiatives Manager. Now that the “Montvale” chip is shipping – and for a change, NonStop users received it ahead of the rest of the industry – he talked excitedly about the upcoming “Tukwila” and “Poulson” chips that Intel will be shipping before the end of the decade.

Changes are coming to the user community as progress continues to be made toward creating a whole new user community. And when I exchanged emails with Scott Healy, the ITUG Chairman, concerning my experiences at this SATUG event, he responded “SATUG is a forward thinking group and being a bit “off the beaten path”, are showing a lot of innovation in positioning themselves for the future. By using their strength and organization to extend services beyond NonStop to Unix and Linux technologies and business solutions, they are filling a need where there is no HP User Group presence. It is also bringing value to their members' companies, as UNIX and Linux applications typically run in their datacenters along side of NonStop.”

Patty had told me something similar when she had said to me that she “saw a vibrant organization - one that's passionate about bringing valuable information and knowledge to what can be thought of as a 'remote' area of the world.” She then confirmed Scott’s observations, adding “at the regional level, I heard that the South African user community was optimistic about opening up events to all enterprise-level customers/vendors.”

Finally, Anton Lessing, the incoming Chairman of SATUG, provided perhaps the best feedback of all when he told me “Our relationship with HP in these parts of the woods is great. Yet, we believe that we need to spread our wings and involve the greater HP community in South Africa. We have our members support for that, as we have been talking about this for a long time. SATUG 2008 saw the first of the steps on that road with the participation of Intel”

As I was getting ready to leave South Africa, and with the words of the Rolling Stones song going through my mind, I did wonder whether this was going to be the last time I would enjoy the company of the SATUG community. Thinking back to that weekend in Sydney, while we were somewhat depressed, what we didn’t know was that by the late ‘90s all three of us would be working at InSession, where meetings with the development team in Sydney saw us returning to Sydney on a regular basis for the next ten years!

While we never can be certain of the outcome of any changes, I have to admit I am no longer as anxious about the future of HPs user groups as I had been a few years back. The focus of the various boards on looking at “the whole being greater than the sum of the parts” is just the right thing to be doing – and has the interests of all us at heart. With my packing complete and time to board the flight home, perhaps I should have been thinking about the song by the Cars “let the good times roll … let the good times roll!”

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Out of Africa

It just takes a long time to get to Johannesburg, South Africa. The route I took had me changing flights in Denver, and then again in Frankfurt. After 9 hours across the Atlantic, on top of the 2 plus hours getting into Denver, its then just another 10 hours to Johannesburg. The photo here is of me in Frankfurt between flights - the ubiquitous Starbucks behind me - and a little worse for ware!

But I made it, and I am in my hotel nearby Johannesburg airport - and it’s a case of "welcome to darkest Africa"! This is the 7th time I have made the trip here to participate in the annual SATUG event, and I have always look forward to spending a few days with the community as it is one of the better user-run events on the calendar!

This morning I am blogging directly from my blackberry - a first for me - and I am in total darkness, illuminated solely by the blackberry display I am holding. An hour or so ago, the darkness enveloped me, as the power in this part of Johannesburg went out. It's the second time this district has been hit with a total power loss, as two days before they had taken a five hour hit. Talking with the hotel staff quickly brought me up to speed on the politics of power generation and distribution - politics being the key word here, apparently.

South Africa is growing fast, and you can really see all the signs as you make your final approach into the airport. There's now almost no break in the suburban sprawl between Johannesburg, the commercial center, and Pretoria, the country's capital. And the infrastructure has not been able to keep up. For many years electricity was bountiful but now they need a couple of new power stations and I am afraid they may have left it a bit late. There is considerable reliance on nuclear power in this country, and adding another generation plant will not come quickly. The story goes that additional power may come online as of 2010, while others think that perhaps not before 2012.

Infrastructure, and the development and roll-out of any infrastructure project is a lengthy process. And I am reminded how often we in IT stretch our infrastructure! How often do we blow the limits of a processor capacity, of network bandwidth, or of a data base volume! The decisions we take in favor of a solution, in any one of these areas, ties us in and defines the scope of applications we can support, for many years. Infrastructure is not an old house we can easily jack up and transport to another location leaving behind foundations we can reuse! And
haven't our own experiences taught us there's times where a little planning in advance helps us keep the lights on?

Like power grids, and old houses, infrastructure often shows it age - it creaks, it breaks, and is often only supported by a single developer. And I was reminded of this when I talked recently with our Golden Gate CEO, Ali Kutay. He had been driving back to the office and had decided to stop at a local Whole Earth store to get something to eat. As he entered the store, he came across a display that stopped him in his tracks. It was a big barrel with a sign encouraging shoppers to throw in their old phones, pda's, whatever - for disposal. Here was technology that only a few years ago we had so anxiously sought, being relegated to the dumpster.

And Ali went on to point out how infrastructure changes - the arrival of faster and smarter networks - led to more powerful devices, delivering so much more functionality, relegating these former, highly desirable, devices obsolete. The blackberry I am using right now, and a recent purchase, has a camera, GPS, and a great navigational map capability - none of which I cared all that much about or considered crucial for my needs - until I had them! Yes, I am now adding my usage, with its bandwidth demands, back onto the infrastructure.

In a recent email exchange with NonStop product management, we talked about NS Blades and the future of blades. For sure, we will quickly see the arrival of support for multiple OS's in the same cabinet ecosystem. This has been talked about at user events for some time - often just referred to as “Martin's wish”. "Hard" configurations, mapping each blade to a specific OS, will appear at first but then later, we agreed, there should be support for more dynamic, "soft" configuration options. Whether supporting NonStop, or Linux, or even a Windows configuration, users will be able to change how many blades in the chassis are supporting a specific OS.

Cool - and incredibly powerful. Particularly, should an API be provided. But its not all smooth sailing - what about the databases and no, Mr. Oracle, RAC is not the answer and universal deployment of a massive, cross-platform, Oracle data base may not appeal to everyone. Data base software, a key infrastructure component these days, is not something that can be easily changed. But neither should it be used without an understanding of its costs - and the experience we have gained drives us to ensure the data base selected aligns properly with the application characteristics. Mission critical applications really benefit from NonStop and the NonStop SQL data base - but not every transaction is mission critical.

From a future infrastructure perspective, what we will more likely see will be combinations of NonStop SQL, a lot of Oracle for sure, and perhaps a mix of SQL Server, Ingres, MySQL, etc. In other words, in an upcoming blade ecosystem concurrently running multiple OS instances, there will be a collection of un-integrated data bases still very much tied to the OS.

This has been the subject of many of my questions lately within GoldenGate - with our collective knowledge, this has to be a big opportunity. We had worked with Sabre to put together a very robust database tiering solution with NonStop SQL at the heart and MySQL downstream - and now, with what can see under development at HP, there could be real value in bringing this type of infrastructure support back "inside the box".

Surely, there will come a time where reliable database tiering will become "soft" as well. Stringing together these different data bases and making sure they contain the same fresh data is something we want to have happen as transparently as possible - after all, what use is having the option to bring up different OS's if the data they need is not available immediately?

The airport here in Johannesburg is a total mess with every piece torn up. Another war zone? Far worse, its all part of the preparation for the upcoming soccer world cup! But at least there's electricity at the airport and I was able to get coffee. Whether its transportation, power utilities, or computer systems - highly critical infrastructure components are always difficult to change, even when planned.

As we head for a bladed world where virtualization will impact servers, networking, and data, its not going to eliminate all of our infrastructure issues - just move the bar up a level, hitting us with harder issues higher up the technology stack. The flexibility to maximize our usage of processors and to enjoy a much better alignment with the applications, will be extremely important. But dealing with different data base infrastructures shows no signs of getting any easier as we continually seek the best cost / performance trade-offs.

Planning is always important and the early stages of IT infrastructure upgrades and redeployments can look chaotic at times. But history teaches us that when we see the signs of decay, and as we hear the creaks - it maybe too late!

Before we see our applications plunge us into darkness - shouldn't we have foreseen it all and capitalized on our own experiences sooner? Knowing full well that dramatic changes are on the way in terms of how are servers will be packaged and appreciative of the value as well as the potential savings, shouldn't we be taking a much closer look at critical elements of our infrastructure? After all, darkest Africa should only be a metaphor and not something we have to explain to our bosses!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"My Wish" for NS Blades

This weekend I drove out to the Southern Californian coastline, and it was a real change from earlier weekends spent in Colorado. Sure it’s winter across the US but out along the coast, it was balmy days in the mid 70s. I was driving the roadster, with the top pulled back, and the picture here is of me beside the Pacific Coast Highway –or PCH as it is known locally - just north of Malibu. The drive reminded me of those articles you find in the airline’s magazines – three perfect days in “wherever” - and I had days about as perfect as you could experience anytime in LA.

During the previous week, I was emailing folks in the UK as I was preparing to catch up with them next month. As these emails had been flying around, I made a minor mistake in the subject line – rather than proposing to meet for “drinks”, I was suggesting we meet for “rinks”! Of course this led to Sean Bicknell of XYPRO, and a BITUG committee member, to respond “I’ll bring my ice skates then shall I!?!?” Driving the PCH, enjoying the sun and thinking how freezing it was back in Colorado, led me to recall the lines of the song “All Star”, from the first Shrek movie, by Smashmouth: “The ice we skate is getting pretty thin, the waters getting warm so you might as well swim.”

Talking about skating on thin ice, I have been taking a really close look at HPs press releases, and have pulled down a number of Roadmap presentations from the ITUG web site. I have also been deep into other HP web site pages. I really wanted to get a better understanding of HP’s plans for NonStop. I am putting together a new presentation to use at ITUG events, and it all started as I recalled a comment made at last years’ HPTF&E by Martin Fink.

Martin was talking about how pleased he was that NonStop was being openly accepted by BCS development. He related that, as the blades developers working on the new cClass bladeserver chassis began to leverage the IP of the NonStop group, they asked Martin “Can we call it the NonStop Backplane”? Martin told the audience his response was “why not – go right ahead”! And today, if you go to the web and pull down the pdf of the HP BladeSystem c-Class architecture “technology brief”, you will find on page 8 a paragraph titled “NonStop signal midplane provides flexibility”.

As we continue to hear more about the first bladed architecture products, something a lot of us simply call NS Blades, it too will be using this chassis. When I asked a well-placed NonStop engineering manager whether this was the case he responded “the NS Blades system does indeed use the new c-Class platform (BladeSystem c7000) enclosure”, adding enthusiastically “everything to blades”!

Predicting the future at HP, particularly when it comes to the future of NonStop, is a risky business and I have spent my time out skating where the ice is thin. I haven’t always been right but I have been close most of the time. But rather than talking about what will be coming from product management, it may be more interesting to lay out my own wishes for the NonStop family.

I began to lay out some of my thoughts in earlier blogs and late in January (The check-in desk two-step!) I wrote about Mission Critical applications and of their long association with the NonStop platform. I went on to add in the next posting in January (NeoView; a new view?) how transaction processing will always have mission critical elements and that the support of these elements will always benefit from the NonStop architecture. And then in an early February posting (Disruptive technologies and radical innovation) I reported that NS Blades have the potential of becoming a classic disruptive technology in that its support for any OS, including NonStop, means that your choice of OS can be arbitrary and driven solely by the demands of the application.

I have three items on my wish list and all involve the NS Blades. I am working with the belief that HP will begin shipping NS Blades sometime mid-to-late summer. I am also confident that these will utilize the c-Class blade enclosure (BladeSystem c7000). And so my first wish is to see HP BCS deliver on the slideware Martin Fink first unveiled as the “Shared Infrastructure Blades” package. This is where any mix of NonStop, HP-UX, Linux, and Windows Server OS’s will be supported.

The importance of this feature – and getting the manageability all sorted out – is that customers will be able to deploy any mix of web, application, and data base servers in a single enclosure. NS Blades customers will be able to add additional blades as growth in any one area dictates. Indeed, I am expecting that they should be able to reconfigure and “redeploy” under-utilized blades to other OSs as workload mixes change over time. The manageability component is very important – you only want a single command interface to all the blades. A separate console, per OS instance, kind of misses the point. And I am wishing for a programmatic interface into all of this as well.

My second wish is to see a hypervisor introduced where NonStop can be configured as a “guest OS” in much the same way z/VM is used on the IBM mainframe. The trick here is to see this introduced without marginalizing the traditional association between NonStop and the hardware with respect to being fault tolerant. In other words a processor, within a guest NonStop configuration, needs to know when to initiate a take-over. Perhaps exposure to the hardware may not be right answer these days – as so much self-checking and correction goes on at the chip level – but NonStop users will not want to see a hypervisor becoming a potential “single point of failure” either. While it may not be as simple as configuring a number of hypervisor processors under the management of a check-pointed “hyper-mon” process, my own logic wants to take me down this path.

If you check out hypervisors on wikipedia, you will see references being made to Type 1 (native, or bare-metal) and Type 2 (hosted) hypervisors. I am a lot more interested in the Type 1 implementations, and while some OSs may want to run the hypervisor as a guest of the OS (e.g. Microsoft Virtual Server – a virtual machine on the Windows Server 2003 operating system), traditional NonStop users may view the properties of Pathway providing something similar!

But it is my last wish where I really want to go out on a limb. If you assume Martin is successful and a shared infrastructure blades package becomes available with a native, or bare-metal, hypervisor (NonStop as a guest with no loss of its NonStop attributes), then wouldn’t it be advantageous to users if interrogation of the incoming transactions would direct mission critical transactions to NonStop, important informational but not quite mission-critical to a Unix or Linux, and voluminous inquiries to Windows? A variation on today’s workload balancing products, but supporting a transaction profiling capability that once set up, learns about the overall mix of transactions, and automatically adjusts the OS configurations on the fly? No longer would you agonize over the ratio of processors assigned to any of NonStop, Linux, or whatever – the system would learn enough over time and adjust the composition accordingly!

Returning from the drive along the PCH, the song “My Wish” by Rascal Flats began to play and as I listened to the verse: “And if you're faced with a choice, and you have to choose, I hope you choose the one that means the most to you. And if one door opens to another door closed, I hope you keep on walkin' till you find the window”. Followed by the chorus “Your dreams stay big, and your worries stay small”. I just knew they were singing about NS Blades!

With the flexibility inherent with the design of NS Blades, and the doors this will open for us all, I can’t see placing any limits on how big our dreams will be! Or, as Smashmouth sang, “My world's on fire how about yours, that's the way I like it and I never get bored”!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Houston Accord

The weekend before last I went to Houston where I caught up with the ITUG Board. Also in Houston were the leaders of Encompass and HP-Interex EMEA. The picture I have included is of me standing outside the HP premises in Houston (Entrance 13, in fact) as I didn’t participate in any official capacity, but I did join them for a couple of evening functions

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may recall the posting of October 17th ’07 where I wrote about my own observations of the ITUG Summit at HPTF&E event in Las Vegas. You may recall how positive an experience I had as ITUG collaborated with HP and Encompass and how the ITUG membership really benefited from the exposure to the full HP Business Critical Server (BCS) product line – even if the scale of it proved daunting for those unprepared for all the walking involved!

Scott Healy, the ITUG Chairman, told an audience at HPTF&E that “IT shops are multiplatform today, and we all have to deal with inter-platform issues like interoperability, the integration of data, and an almost constant world of migrations”. Most companies today have a variety of servers and the need to remain well-informed on all of HP’s product roadmaps, and the community recognizes the importance of the communication that comes when the different groups collaborate like this. In the discussions that followed, HPTF&E participants talked about how the communities needed to keep pushing, trying out new ideas and developing dialogues across community boundaries, with Scott stepping adding “we can adapt with the technology, and with the industry, or hold the course and disappear over time!”

Perhaps the best comment I received, after posting that blog, came from Jimbo in his August 28th comment where he posted “I too found the recent (event) a little overwhelming. But I have to say there was a palpable energy that has been missing from recent ITUGs. I love San Jose, but this was exciting. And you very much got the feeling where HP puts value – in NonStop!!”

In Houston I found myself engaged with the boards on the topic of how to best meet the needs of such a diverse HP community, how to develop a completely new business model for support of this community, and how to provide value to HP as the primary vendor? When I joined the board of ITUG at the end of ‘99, the talk had been about the impact of becoming one of three or four user groups within Compaq. At first, it was all a bit of a shock and the competitive nature of each group surfaced. But eventually, the leadership began to talk about merging into one global organization – and like anything on this scale, the devil turned out to be in the details. There were arguments for and against, task forces were created, but the differences of opinions across the leadership proved to be a gulf that couldn’t be bridged.

So much has changed since my time on the ITUG board, that it’s a credit to the different user group organizations’ leadership that not only are they talking to each other, but they have built a multi-lane bridge across that gulf and traffic is racing across. And the dialogue that began so tentatively back in 2006 has really flourished in 2007, and we saw how successful the HPTF&E event had been and how pleased the communities had been with the results.

Buoyed by the success of the event in Las Vegas Nina Buik, the President of Encompass, and Scott began talking about the possibility of creating an even closer working relationship, and reached out to the other HP user groups. While Vivit (formerly OpenView Forum) elected to watch from the sidelines, HP-Interex EMEA decided the time was right and jumped right in!

What I found encouraging in Houston was that there wasn’t any talk about merging, but rather, the discussions were very focused on creating something new. All parties were anxious to talk about the real value that would come from such an organization and were cognizant of the many potential pitfalls they had to be wary of and needed to avoid. As the weekend concluded, each board voted to move ahead with creating this new organization and agreed that a news release needed to go out.

Barely a week later, on February 4th, it was reported by ComputerWorld that the independent Hewlett-Packard user groups were proposing to their communities that there be “a single organization with more than 50,000 members” and then quoted Scott "it's more than a merger - it's creating a new organization, and the new organization is targeting the needs of a larger community”.

On the ITWire web site, it was reported that the user groups planned “to consolidate to form a single community of users of HP enterprise products and services”. The publication then quoted Nina "our intent in pursuing this new unified organization is to bring value to the entire HP community by creating expanded user group member benefits and relevant content”.

Each community will now be voting on the creation of this new organization and my vote will be in favor of forming the new group. I have had email exchanges with a number of volunteers active with the RUG community and while the feedback has been measured, as there are some concerns, there is growing support for the plan. The success of the recent events is still very fresh in their minds and they recognize the benefits of creating a stronger, cross-platform, enterprise level user group.

According to Peter Shell, a former OzTUG President, “I think that it would be a good idea for Australia as well. They need to build up the size of the group and as it stands now … if OzTUG are to continue they really need to join up and become part of this bigger group!” Neil Barnes, Vice Chairman of BITUG, added “in retrospect we should have seen this coming. At a high management level it makes sense, sharing conference costs and logistics, it is a no-brainer … the current areas I think of that we can share are, new functionality (e.g. Linux, SOA), computer centre design, web security and non-technical areas of disaster recovery, program design etc.”

I talked with another community member from a large British bank, who told me “I only picked up on this story this morning - having now discussed it with a few ‘old hands’ here in the bank, the common reaction is that such a change is sad but inevitable”. He then added “it has to work well from day one, else the energy and direction provided by and through ITUG will start to dissipate - board level, active volunteers, down to the techie who currently strives to persuade their manager that a conference in Las Vegas really is a worthwhile investment”.

In a short exchange with those close to CTUG, it’s clear to me that they will need a little more time to discuss among themselves, as earlier efforts among the Canadian leadership weren’t that productive. And then there are the ongoing concerns I run into frequently over the commitment to the NonStop platform and whether the creation of a larger body will weaken the voice of NonStop - but I have to say here that in the end, this comes back to all of us. It’s up to us to not let that happen! On the other hand, from what I have heard coming out of SATUG, there’s a lot of enthusiasm in favor of this new organization.

Perhaps the clearest message I received came from another former RUG President who made the suggestion “that, at the very least, during your negotiations (and there will be lots of them) you ensure the ground rules are laid out at the base level so there are no surprises later. Obviously there are lots of drivers for an amalgamated group, and I saw the benefits at last years ITUG event. It’s an inevitability that the groups will join forces – just remember that the users are the ones being served!”

As we left Houston, I was reminded of how I concluded my October 17th ’07 posting “You can’t survive if you ain’t got drive ...” Last year I had said “but we have to try! We either adapt to our environment or we fade into oblivion”. And it was with the same sense of inevitability that I could see it making a whole lot of sense. The whole was definitely a lot better than the sum of the pieces. I then went on to say “we have to keep pushing, or we will cease to be relevant. Holding the course, maintaining the status quo, resisting change, never wins out. Even private clubs eventually fold and disappear.”

I kind of anticipated that something like this would develop but now that I have seen it unfold, I am very excited by it all. Yes, there is a sense of inevitability about it all. But I still have the passion, and I still enjoy working with all the stakeholders, so now I am really looking forward to embracing this far bigger user community!

And I will do my part to make sure it works well from day one!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Disruptive technologies and radical innovation ...

After returning to Simi Valley it really was a case of repacking the bags and heading to Houston for a weekend of socializing with HP and the ITUG Board before heading to Boulder for a few days of downtime. As I left Denver airport I drove into a winter snowstorm, but getting to spend some time in the old hangouts made up for the excitement of the drive home. The picture I have included here is of me having breakfast at the local cafĂ© – a typical Boulder establishment without pretence, but serving great pancakes. And the range of topics overheard in this place has always proved interesting with topics ranging from IBM engineers talking about technology to the latest news about Crocs shoes!

But this time, the conversation I overheard was off on a different tack entirely as a couple of scientists began discussing the connection between space and time. Since many scientists from Boulder have worked on the Hubble space telescope, the topic didn’t come as too big a surprise and I just couldn’t stop listening to the exchange.

“We can see the very perimeter of the universe, and it’s just a void! Nothing is coming from out there, that can be seen or heard. Space and time could be folding in on themselves with matter simply going back in time! Maybe the universe isn’t linear, but just wraps in time, and as matter continues to accelerate the further out in space you go, perhaps it accelerates beyond the speed of light and just goes back in time as we understand it ….” And so the conversation developed, with references to Stephen Hawkins and others, and where I couldn’t follow most of what was being discussed. But it was clear to me that these were very passionate scientists and they were talking about some very radical ideas and concepts!

I have been developing a new presentation that I plan to give at a number of upcoming user events, and I was fascinated by what these scientists were discussing. For some time, I have been interested in disruptive technologies and radical innovation and just hearing these scientists refer to the radical nature of their observations, brought my own thoughts into clearer focus.

In 1995 Clayton Christensen published a book called “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave” where he introduced the concept of disruptive technology. This he defined as “a technology innovation, product, or service that uses a ‘disruptive’ strategy, rather than a ‘sustaining’ strategy, to overturn the existing dominant technologies or status quo products in a market”. Often associated with the introduction of a lower cost or, just as frequently, a simpler technology, these products can go on to create a new market while destroying existing markets.

Apple has done a remarkable job, over the years, in introducing disruptive technology – the iPod was a cool product, as well as one that redefined the marketplace for MP3 players. The iPhone certainly has built on the iPod phenomena and continues to attract imitations. In many colleges, the ’84 NFL SuperBowl commercial for the Mac is mandatory viewing for all would-be advertising executives.

For many of us, Tandem Computers’ fault tolerant machines of the mid ‘70s were another cool product that went on to carve out a new marketplace. The fault-tolerant NonStop computer certainly met the criteria of being a disruptive technology as its “shared nothing” architecture proved to be an extremely simple technology that no other manufacturer was able to completely re-create. While traditional vendors worked diligently on the elimination of failure, often letting applications hang on as the system tried valiantly to repair and continue, but often coming to a hard stop as a result, the Tandem architecture would initiate a take-over by a healthy processor / process at the first sign of potential difficulties.

When ServerNet was unveiled in the early ‘90s, it too represented a disruptive technology as it broke new ground for processor and I/O interconnects. While the concept had been around, it took Tandem engineers to sort out the algorithms for a solution that was both fast and reliable. With the success of ServerNet, it is clear to me that future interconnect solutions will owe some of their heritage to the pioneering work done at Tandem. As we see Infinband (IB), for instance, finding acceptance with a number of vendors, it looks to be a natural follow-on technology to ServerNet. I had one senior HP BCS executive point out to me that “IB would be a suitable replacement for ServerNet; (and) this goes without question - the ServerNet footprint is all over IB”.

Disruptive technology is only half the story. The picture becomes complete when it drives radical innovation. Larry DeBoever, Managing Director of EAdirections, summed this up best when he said “radical innovation requires an understanding of the underlying long-term trends in the economics of technology; it is innovation that transforms the business”. In other words, you first need to recognize and understand the importance of a disruptive technology, as it comes to market, and then apply it to your business in a way that propels you into a leadership position.

Radical innovation is the development of new businesses, products, and/or processes that transform the economies of the business! As this development unfolds, it explores new technology with the business model and plan evolving through discovery-based learning! Guy Kawasaki, in his paper “The Art of Innovation: the 9 Truths”, talks about making the jump “to the next curve”. What he talks about is that “true innovation happens when a company jumps to the next curve – or better still, invents the next curve”. Don’t keep refining the business you are in, apply technology and define a new market.

Neoview is a good example of radical innovation, and it is the first Enterprise Data Warehouse (EDW) product that has the technology to truly deliver on the Operational Business Intelligence (OBI) promise that has been talked about for many years. And this, in turn, “would overturn the dominant player”, according to one HP exec I talked to recently and clearly pointing at Teradata, “since their architecture struggles to meet the increasing needs of OBI”. Unlike existing legacy platforms, where their architecture and software “stack” were designed for an era of data warehousing that is now becoming obsolete, Neoview has the opportunity to transform the market in delivering OBI.

The arrival, later this year, of the HP bladed architecture with its support of any number of operating systems including NonStop, has the potential to become another disruptive technology. By leveraging a very inexpensive building blocks (I have to believe the whole product cost of these new blades will be less than $1K – and even drop, over time, to as little as $100), HP customers will be able to focus on buying the best application for a given business issue with little need to consider the mix of hardware and operating systems required.

One ISV executive I talked to went so far as to tell me that he had to believe that “the IT/data center/CIO crowd would love this (and) for sales, it should allow them to focus the customer on a total solution, rather than how expensive a platform (NonStop, Unix, or zSeries) is to operate.” Again, taking a disruptive technology like the HP bladed architecture, with its support of many different application environments, should greatly reduce the technology investment among its early adopters and could trigger radical innovation. For the moment and without knowing what the final bladed architecture product will look (and be priced) like, it's still way too early to predict anything with any degree of certainty of course, but I have high hopes this time round.

In a few weeks time I will be in Johannesburg at the SATUG user event and will be giving a presentation on the topic of innovation. And as I connect the dots between the emergence of disruptive technology with the appearance of radical innovation, I can’t help wondering if perhaps the biggest example of this isn’t HP itself. The server consolidation program around NonStop and Neoview and potentially around the new bladed architecture is still not complete and we have to wait another year before we know much more about the progress being made, but will definitely revolutionize the way HP deals with data.

As HP CIO Randy Mott explained at last years’ HPTF in Las Vegas – from the transformation under way with Neoview, HP IT will “provide good information, to enable better decisions; significantly reduce the cost of IT, while delivering more to the business; all at a lower risk to the enterprise, and with better control of the infrastructure”!

Shouldn’t this become the mantra for all of us engaged in IT at all levels? We may not fully understand the writings of Stephen Hawkins and we may not be all that interested in how time bends and folds, but surely helping our companies leverage today’s new and disruptive technologies to better compete in the global marketplace is something we have all come to understand. As surely none of us want to hear that our IT group has a lot in common with the edge of space, with nothing coming from there that can be seen or heard!