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!


Ron B. said...

Hi Richard,

Your link between "disruptive technologies" and the HP Blade architecture may very well turn out to be true. As hardware has trended toward a commodity status, the Blades Architecture is a way to differentiate the hardware and infrastructure offering. The virtualization of the type of operating system through management consoles will begin to remove a layer of specialty skills required by the IT organizations to operate some of the more specialized hardware/operating systems such as HP NonStop and zSeries. This focus' the need for specific hardware platform skills at the software developer level.

Ron Beauchamp
ACI Worldwide

Richard Jennings said...

There are many new disruptive technologies coming to market quickly and changing the way people do business.,,, and many others.