Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A question of balance!

Back in the early ‘70s I worked at the Steelworks in Wollongong, an industrial town south of Sydney. It was when I first realized that being part of IT had an upside – the data center was the only building on the campus that had air conditioning, and as anyone familiar with what working near a blast furnace is like, any place cool was a welcome relief!

Wollongong sits on top of rich coal deposits that are part of a dish-like coal basin that lies beneath Sydney and surfaces at Wollongong, Lithgow to the West of Sydney (and beyond the Blue Mountains) and Newcastle, a little North of Sydney. The picture I have included here is a view of the Port Kembla facility, with the Wollongong Steelworks lying behind the coal unloading facility – courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

There are a number of interpretations for the word Wollongong, with the Sydney Morning Herald providing a couple I found particularly relevant to today’s blog posting. The first from a Terry Gorman, who concluded “Wollongong is the Aboriginal for `Look, here comes the monster'. The Aboriginals probably spelt it and pronounced it Woolongong but the ‘First Fleeters’ (arriving in Australia in 1776) were convicts, and could not spell in Aboriginal.” The second is from an Ian Hart, and is a little more intriguing, as his explanation suggests that in Cantonese, “Wu Loong Gong literally translates as `black dragon harbor', or more poetically, `the dragon got drunk and fell into the harbor'. Whatever it means, it is incontrovertible proof that the Chinese discovered Australia first!”

Although I was living in Wollongong, I would always find time to return to Sydney. My folks’ house was 100 miles from the Steelworks, and every Friday afternoon I would ride home on one of my motorcycles – one, a real 250cc motorcycle!, the other, a 75cc motor scooter I bought from a local nurse and that should have been a clue! More often than not, my bikes would both be in repair shops getting straightened. There was nothing conservative about my early riding style, or particularly skillful about the way I balanced the bike through corners.

I can’t even recall a time where I spent a full month incident-free, and the calls to my parents to “come and get me” became a regular part of the weekend routine. Over time, I became a regular passenger in my good friend Klaus’s VW beetle, as he returned to Sydney as regularly as I did. Driving back through the national park, that separated Wollongong’s northern suburbs from the southern outskirts of Sydney, the most frequently-played albums on the radio, was the Moody Blues “A Question of Balance”. This had nothing to do with my riding style, mind you, but the memory of this album came back to me as I read the responses to the blog posting ACI Strategy - it's all about choice!

At at the time of this posting, it had generated the most feedback ever, and while I haven’t previously written a posting based on posted comments this many postings does warrant an exception. But it is the words from the second last track on that Moody Blues album that I recall, and find just as applicable today. “Why do we never get an answer when we're knocking at the door?” as, the songwriter goes on to add: “it's where we stop, and look around us, there is nothing that we need.”

Rich Rosales, a long-time development manager on NonStop, responded to the blog telling us that this posting was “a well-balanced view of what ACI may be attempting to do – but what I don’t hear ANYONE talking about, is Guardian!” Rich then continues: “have we application programmers failed to extend our applications into ways that realize the dream of Tandem architecture?”. Dave Finnie, now with ACI and instrumental in the development of ICE, pointed out that perhaps “enterprise systems need a bit of a rethink. Does it always need shared nothing versus shared everything? Independent processors, versus (symmetric multiprocessing) SMP? What about a mix?” David Kurn, famous for the development of the Common Kernel, remarked “one must educate and convince customers. If only HP realized what a jewel they have here.” To which Randall Becker, of CTUG, added to David’s observation by saying “HP has a real diamond here, if they could only see that the cut glass, through which they’re looking, isn’t good enough!” Randall then asks “but then, we all struggle with the question of what reliability is good enough? Where do we set the bar?”

The message that came through here was not so much aimed at ACI, as I thought it most likely would be, but rather at HP, and at each of us. While there were questions raised about the effectiveness of HP’s marketing, as well as about how difficult it is to sell NonStop, the prevailing sentiment was strongly behind how viable NonStop remained in today’s heavily-scrutinized, cost-sensitive, data centers. Questions will always be asked of us and we will frequently find ourselves defending the choice of platform we have made and continue to champion within our organizations. Have we actually stopped, and looked at the other platforms being used and replied to our colleagues “there is nothing (here) that we need!” Perhaps it is all about costs! Across today’s IT community we are being asked to look at costs in ways we have not seen before. The pressure to wring out even the tinniest, incremental, cost savings is making many of us squeamish!

But looking at IT budgets, most of the costs continue to be people costs, and here’s the rub. If we scale back our expectations and think of deploying a solution on a less reliable platform with less robust infrastructure, particularly where it is mission critical and intended to increase the competitiveness of the business, only to add staff to write and maintain scripts, put out fires, slow the time to market, etc,. then we may very well end up spending more!. This cycle is repeated too often, as we opt for even cheaper servers and infrastructure and spend even more money to stabilize it – to the point where we may elect to offshore everything to cover the initial mistakes that we’ve made.

At the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in 2006, the Gartner analysts were extremely critical of this cycle and said “too many IT organizations and too much IT spending is not contributing directly to business growth,” adding “if an IT leader’s infrastructure is inconsistent, and their architecture and project and portfolio management aren’t working, their governance will never work. They won’t be considering the right questions, let alone making the right decisions … anything that doesn’t support growth is expendable. You’re either a contributor to the business, or you’re an expense to be cut.”

Not every application needs NonStop, and sometimes we may pursue projects better suited to other platforms. In one of the last comments posted Thomas Burg, CTO of comForte, raised a very interesting point. He said that “you can do ‘anything’ on ‘any’ platform – the trick question is ‘which platform do I choose given my requirements (cost, availability, security, performance ….)?’” Thomas then suggested that perhaps HP should consider hosting a panel at the upcoming HPTF&E conference where “HP provide(s) a presentation … where thy would (a) bring in HP tech sales people for NonStop, HP-UX, OpenVMS; (b) pick a small number of ‘application scenarios’; and (c) have each argue where ‘his’ platform would be best!”

Perhaps we need to have such a discussion. It could be a question of finding the right balance and of understanding where to set the bar. Our user events have historically been the places to go to hear from our peers and to learn what works, and what needs to be avoided. Looking ahead to this year’s event in June, with the focus on education, and on user deployments of NonStop, the opportunity certainly exists to become better equipped to respond more intelligently to the questions that come from our colleagues back in the office.

As for me, the one message I have taken from the comments posted to the blog, is that the community remains very passionate about NonStop and about wanting to see broader acceptance of its capabilities within their organizations. Perhaps, with the type of presentation Thomas suggests, we would get better insight into marketing of the use of NonStop and this would be very adventurous of HP to pursue! Evangelists within the NonStop division would relish such an opportunity, I have to believe.

The last track on that Moody Blues album is the song Balance. And it contains a number of really telling lines. “Just open your eyes, and realize, the way it's always been. Just open your mind and you will find the way it's always been.” NonStop remains an amazing technology that has thrived for decades. And we understand! We have learnt how to leverage it in support of our most important, mission critical, applications. Perhaps we haven’t fallen all that short of realizing the dream of the Tandem architecture after all!

We may not always be confident that HP universally understands this, or that it knows how to communicate this message. I was in an email exchange today with an executive of an ISV where he lamented on how poorly HP executes, asking “but are they listening? Do they really grasp the magnitude of where this is at?” But we know! NonStop has always been the most available platform, and nothing has appeared in the market to change that or lessen its viability – perhaps all we need to do is , once more open our eyes and look at the way it’s always been!

Friday, March 21, 2008

The need for standardization!

I was sitting in the airport lounge in Frankfurt when I came across an article in Time magazine. It was a story about a British real estate development company that built a building for a group of artists “fashioned from 20 recycled containers in London’s Docklands district” back in 2001 and had since constructed another 27 buildings from these old containers. In the London suburb of Uxbridge, “a 120 room Travelodge hotel is being built out of 87 (of these) steel crates, stacked and snapped together Lego-like into two nine-story towers.” The picture I have included here is of the construction of this building where the installation of the containers is clearly visible.

I wasn’t working in IT back at the birth of containerization, in fact I wasn’t even at school yet, when in 1955 the “world’s first truly inter-modal container system used the purpose-built container ship, the Clifford J. Rodgers” sailed between Vancouver, British Columbia and Skagway, Alaska. It carried 600 containers that had been delivered dockside on trucks, that were then “unloaded onto purpose-built railway cars for transport north to the Yukon.”

But I did join Overseas Containers (Australia) Limited (OCAL), a subsidiary of P&O, in 1972, just 3 years after the first container ship had arrived in Sydney. The IT department had to make sure tapes of the ships manifests could be processed and be made available for customs agents. I learnt a lot about bill-of-ladings, tracking empty containers, full container loads as well as less-than-full container loads (FCLs vs LCLs), etc. And I learnt about managing the security of the containers and ensuring that there had been no tampering along the way! The picture alongside here is of the Encounter Bay, the first of the new class of "Encounter Bay" container ships to arrive in Australi in 1969.

The time I spent working in the container shipping business really reinforced for me the value that comes from standardization. The industry would have been a total disaster if different trade organizations had held out for their own container sizes – or if we had elected to support both an imperial and metric container. The duplication, perhaps triplication, of port facilities alone would have driven up the prices so much that shipping in bulk and general cargo ships would have reappeared as an economically viable alternative.

When it comes to standardization, we are beginning to see the same revolutionary approach to packaging appear in the computing industry. It is already well on its way when it comes to storage, and now it’s all about blades! From the blade chassis, to the blades themselves, it’s very much become a drive to standardization. And the reason for much of this focus is to drive down costs, while increasing the options we have.

Looking at them separately, the lifecycles of the chassis and the blade will be very different. Decisions taken with the design of the chassis, and the technology it supports in terms of connectivity and the storage that can be hooked-up – what can plug into what – will influence the generations of blades that follow. Chip designs continue to evolve rapidly and that’s no surprise for any of us. But what really many of us want to see is the ability to integrate new generations of these chips into a single chassis so that the price benefits can be immediately realized. Over time, chassis changes will be introduced into the marketplace very cautiously, and I fully expect to see vendors support combinations, or hybrids, so that transitions to new chassis can be easily undertaken with minimal to no downtime.

However, a lot of work is still required with the blades themselves and with key infrastructure components, before they are a truly standardized package. For instance, the industry really does need to move more aggressively and produce a single interconnect technology for clustering. As much as I am a huge fan of ServerNet I cringe at the sight of specialized mezzanine, or daughter, cards being added to today’s blades. If we are to see a standard blade become available, that supports NonStop, HP-UX, Linux, Windows, etc. then just one interconnect technology needs to be integrated onto the blade and be available for any OS to exploit.

The recent decision by IBM to use InfiniBand (IB), on their new z10, as the interconnect technology for accessing all types of controllers, has to be a big first step in the right direction. The “footprint of ServerNet is all over IB” I have written previously, quoting a senior HP engineering manager, but it’s true and we need to be reminded of it. I believe that future iterations of IB need to be integrated into every blade so that an industry-standard, universal, blade appears. NonStop can be easily enhanced to take advantage of it and for Unix, Linux, and Windows developers looking to support cluster configurations, it’s an ideal technology.

The costs for each blade would come down significantly, and the need to constrain the running of an OS to a specific blade instance would disappear. The flexibility that this would give IT would be enormous as they could simply plan on adding “x” number of blades to their collection of blade chassis each year, without the need to spend too much time looking at which blades need to be allocated to which OS. Solutions that best met the needs of a company can now be deployed without any real need to worry about the OS required. Nonstop could move a lot closer to center stage, and its attributes better utilized, as its need for unique hardware subsides.

But perhaps an even bigger challenge lies in standardizing the infrastructure middleware required to support all of this. Data bases don’t provide such flexibility today out of the box. For instance, a data base running on Windows cannot be accessed by an application on Linux as if it were MySQL. Even though SQL is an industry-wide standard, it doesn’t provide any interoperability flexibility. It’s almost as if there’s a need for a parallel backplane technology – not just the physical backplane in the blade chassis, but a logical or virtual backplane that transparently interconnects the data bases. And this is not data virtualization either!

For some time now, GoldenGate has supported data base tiering outside the box. Sabre did a lot of pioneering in this field and today, has a powerful configuration in place across a mix of NonStop SQL and MySQL. Outside of the travel industry, I have seen other industries begin to look at this model – from stock exchanges to manufacturers. But bringing this technology inside the box needs to become a serious consideration – if for no other reason than the breakthroughs that will come from standard blades and blade chassis may be offset by additional data base complexities that materially impact the overall value proposition that should arise from any standardization of blades.

Once containerization began to take hold, it wasn’t long before its versatility attracted non-traditional shippers. Shipping fresh produce across the globe had always been problematic with many shipments arriving at their destination spoiled. However, new container designs appeared that would take a “clip-on” refrigeration unit that, when lifted onboard the new generation of refrigerated container ships, or “reefers”, plugged straight in to the ships central refrigeration system. Containers would simply have their clip-on’s removed as they were loaded onto the ship, and then reapplied as they were unloaded.

Perhaps we need clip-on’s for data base? Perhaps the solution is to clip-on a software module that keeps the newly deployed data bases completely synchronized. It is not that big of a stretch to consider such a development as being close at hand, as most of the underlying technology already exists. The premier products in the change data capture field could play a major role in providing these essential clip-on’s.

The arrival of standards for blades and blade chassis, and perhaps even with data base access, will continue to excite me. I see tremendous potential to reduce costs while opening up the options and broadening the range of choices available. Earlier this year I wrote about my three wishes but, in reality, there has to be changes at this level before any of my wishes can materialize. But I suspect, as we watch the technology announcements unfold this year, we will begin to see much of what I wish for take on real substance and a world of choice open up. And who can tell, perhaps the demand for NonStop may move it closer to center stage faster than any of us expected.

And what were those three wishes, you may be ask? Take a look at February 12, ’08 “‘My Wish’ for NS Blades!”

Sunday, March 16, 2008

ACI Strategy - it's all about choice!

I have just returned from spending a few days in Omaha attending the annual ACE Focus meeting. These two day meetings provide more in-depth technical coverage than is usually found at the regular ACI user events, and ACI customers have been coming for more than a decade to hear the messages directly from company executives.

The picture I have included here is of the venue of the Wednesday night social event – a reception held at a local sports bar called the ICEHOUSE. And I found this extremely ironic as my own involvement with ACI came through my association with the ICE product. For most of the ‘90s, ACI had been the global distributor for ICE and then, as we began the new millennium, ACI purchased Insession, creating a separate business unit that it named Insession Technologies. For nearly six years, as part of ACI it enjoyed a successful partnership with the NonStop community and had provided a number of solutions in communications, web services, and security.

But the decision in late ’06 to fold Insession Technologies into the rest of ACI now looks to be less important for the NonStop community than the complete change in direction we saw in the press at the end of ’07. The press release of December 17 ’07 stated “IBM and ACI Worldwide today announced a significantly expanded strategic alliance to create an end-to-end solution for electronic payments powered by IBM's open technology. As part of the alliance, ACI will optimize a new generation of payment solutions on the IBM System z platform including IBM DB2, WebSphere, and Tivoli software and Crypto-chip technology.”

An IBM executive was then quoted, saying “Payments systems running on IBM System z and ACI payments software address these issues and provide our joint clients with world-class transaction processing performance and the flexibility of SOA through next generation mainframe technology.” Philip Heasley, CEO of ACI then added "IBM's capital, both economic and intellectual, will help us accelerate the availability of our integrated payments framework and make it available on what is already the platform of choice for a majority of the world's banks.”

So what does the future really look like for the large number of Global 1000 companies that depend on BASE24 running on NonStop? Will they be facing a forced migration to the IBM mainframe – a good platform, but rejected time and again by the community for this application? And just as importantly, was ACI really going to stop supporting BASE24 on NonStop? I have to admit, after reading the announcements and talking to users, I was a bit perplexed by it all, and wondered about the future of NonStop.

When I was still working at ACI, the new product, BASE24-eps, written entirely in C++, was becoming available on a number of Unix platforms, including those from IBM, SUN, and HP. Early versions were also beginning to be sold to System z customers. And it is this BASE24-eps product that will find its way back onto NonStop. Customers already running the latest Security and User Interface features have been exposed to some of the components that now make up BASE24-eps and have seen these as just the first steps in the evolution of BASE24 to BASE24-eps.

And that’s when it really hit me - every software company retires older releases of their product. It is just not good business to keep on supporting a product that may be back-level by three or four releases. The sun-setting of BASE24, an older TAL-based product, should not be a surprise for any of us as ACI customers were being encouraged to migrate to newer releases for quite some time. At the ACE Focus meeting, a number of very big users had just migrated to HP Integrity NonStop servers and wouldn’t be moving away from that platform for five, or six, or even seven years. For these customers, their focus was on the migration to BASE24-eps, and on working with the recently formed Migration Team in Omaha. ACI was making it very clear that they would continue to be supported for many years to come following such a migration.

Looking at the bigger picture, I am beginning to see that there’s more than one side to all of this. There’s messages, and then there’s messages! And ACI is performing a pretty miraculous high-wire balancing act. On the one hand, walking hand-in-hand with IBM is conveying one message, as is the sun-setting of BASE24 on NonStop, but then there’s the recent sales successes in EMEA. A few weeks earlier, listening to HP NonStop management presenting new business success stories to the SATUG user community in South Africa, it was obvious that ACI and HP NonStop continue to provide solutions.

Aaron McPherson, an IDC analyst, told an E-Commerce Times reporter back in December, that “the partnership solves a growing problem for ACI, which has adopted an evolutionary strategy that tries to knit together all its payment systems … (yet) NonStop systems are so reliable that it is difficult to get customers to move off of them even if the new generation of software is superior and a lower cost to operate. It's a tough sell to get banks to move because payments tend to be an area where banks are reluctant to make changes because it's one of those sensitive areas." McPherson then explained, according to the E-Commerce Times, “if payments go down because you made a bad decision about your upgrade, that tends to end careers. So banks are skittish about it, especially when you're talking about bringing all payment systems together. That doubles the anxiety."

ACI will no longer be supporting HP-UX. But they will not be supporting Windows either and even Linux, a non-starter across the financial industry, may end up unsupported. The platforms they will be supporting will be System z, System p, SUN and HP NonStop. While ACI executives still reiterate the strategic nature of the partnership with IBM, it will be the customer that controls the final outcome and will be choosing the platform that meets their needs for availability, reliability, and perhaps most importantly, their cost criteria.

Readers of the blog have read a number of references to the plans of Platform Solutions, Inc – a Silicon Valley company with firmware that supports zOS on Itanium. Late last year they took in additional investment funds from a number of companies – including Intel and Microsoft. While PSI and IBM are locked in a legal battle, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see some movement towards resolution happening soon. In any discussion on choice I find it extremely interesting, should PSI prevail and be allowed to support zOS on Intel Itanium platforms, if one of the options as to where to run BASE24-eps swings back to HP. With its upcoming bladed architecture servers capable of supporting BASE24-eps on zOS, mixed in with NonStop, customers may be presented with choice beyond anything imagined inside of corporate ACI.

Perhaps a little far-fetched? According to the electronic newsletter, IT Jungle, writer Hesh Wiener commented in his September 26, ’06 column “A Joint Assault on the Mainframe Hardware Market” that “Platform Solutions has built a series of large-scale computers that can load and run software written for the System z9 and its antecedents. T3 Technologies will incorporate PSI's technology in a line of midrange IBM-compatible mainframes”. As for the hardware under consideration by T3, then “plans to sell machines bearing its own T3 Liberty brand built using PSI firmware and HP's just-announced Integrity rx6600 servers. These HP boxes have four sockets, each able to take a single-core Itanium 2 or dual-core Itanium 9000. Because T3 systems will use the dual-core Itanium 9000s and will be configured to use at least two cores for systems management functions, each box can have one to six cores running in mainframe mode. The machines will match the performance of smaller IBM z9 BC systems.”

The irony that came with having the social event at the ICEHOUSE sports bar was that even today, the ICE product developed by Insession, has become a crucial middleware component of BASE24-eps. Renamed ICE/XS (for Cross Server support) it is in use on a number of Unix platforms and has become available for NonStop. It may even be used in support of BASE24-eps on the System z. ICE was modeled on early IBM VTAM APPN middleware, designed for the IBM mainframe, and it would be particularly gratifying for a number of us to see ICE/XS return to the zOS environment.

This really does remind me of the scene in Star Wars, as Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi have their last stand on the Death Star. Darth Vader, turns and says “"I've been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you I was but the learner. Now I am the Master." Perhaps a little melodramatic, but in this age, where the mix of hardware, operating systems, and infrastructure are becoming somewhat elastic, and where applications no longer are dependent on technology in a lower layer, nothing can be ruled out.

And this is perhaps the biggest message I have taken away from the ACI announcements of last year. There will be choice. There will be surprises. And while I have not heard any ACI executive support my point of view, I am a firm believer in choice. Everything I now know about the strategy suggests that ACI users will be given a choice – and this cannot be a surprise for anyone. But in the end, and rightly so, it will be the customer that drives the future direction of this historically-strong and very important NonStop partner.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It's still the same, just different!

I have just returned from Prague after spending a couple of days there with folks from GoldenGate and HP. As I mentioned previously, this is one of my favorite cities and I really enjoy any opportunity to visit there. On the evening of the last day, we even had time to go down to the old town – and the picture I include here is of me and Sami Akbay, GoldenGate’s Marketing VP, taken by Scott Healy, GoldenGate’s Industry Solutions VP and the current ITUG Chairman.

Sami only joined us the day before, after the most miserable trip ever, from his perspective. He was in Cairo and planned a routine visit to Prague, via London, with BA. He checks out of the hotel, elects not to use the hotel’s Mercedes, and jumps into a taxi. As he heads for the Cairo airport, he asks the driver for a receipt, and then it all goes horribly wrong. The driver didn’t carry receipts so he headed back into the city to get them, but in the process found time to take a twenty minute coffee break! After a madcap rush back to the airport, Sami missed his flight!

BA customer service couldn’t tell him when he would be on another BA flight, as London took two days to respond to telexes, and no, they weren’t allowed to use the phone. The phone number they eventually provided Sami was no longer in service. Sami had an e-ticket so he used his cell to call our corporate travel partner to get him on a flight to Pragueand a return flight back home to San Francisco, which the agent duly assembled. With all of Sami’s travel information online in the travel data base, the agent was quick to respond. Sami would now be routed through Vienna and, as long as he was prepared to return to the US on Lufthansa via France, everything would be OK. “Why France,” asked Sami, “is this a code-share flight?” It appears that, in some circles, the airport code of FRA now means the country France, and is no longer a reference to the airport at Frankfurt, despite Sami’s protests! Out of sheer frustration, Sami demands: “just ticket me, and get me on the flight to Vienna! I will figure out the route later.” As he told us later, facing the possible option of not leaving Cairo at all, he really had no choice!

At last, Sami had a flight but, as this new plane joined the line for take-off, it came to a stop and taxied to one side. It had lost power from one engine. The ground engineers were dispatched and began to work on it, and eventually the pilot broke the bad news – they needed a part to be flown in. Four hours later, and having remained on the plane the whole time – yes, they opened the door but didn’t provide any stairs – they ready. But not quite, as one of the trucks that had brought the engineers to the plane parked across the front of it, left its headlights turned on, and drained the battery. The truck couldn’t be started and just stood there, blocking the path of the plane and effectively preventing it from being moved in any direction. It was another hour before the truck could be towed away and Sami could leave Cairo. The plane landed in Vienna well after the connecting flight to Prague had departed, forcing Sami to spend the night holed up at an airport hotel. As Sami walked into our hotel, a day late and very much the worse for wear, we all found something else to do as it was very clear he was looking to sacrifice something and we were not sure if it was one of us that would become the target of his wrath!

Electronic tickets, or e-tickets, have really taken off. USA Today this week reported that “it has been a rapid decline for paper tickets. By the end of this year, more that 99% of airline tickets issued by travel agents will be electronic.” Frequent flyers quoted in the article reported that they were “totally against the use of e-tickets when they first came out” as they wanted “concrete evidence” of their flight. One traveler went so far as to say “with computer glitches, I didn’t have the confidence that the airline would have a record of my flight!” But now, with e-tickets, airline operators and their agents, “make faster changes to passenger itineraries.” Sami was definitely a benefactor of this process, and its not all that clear to me whether or not he would still be in Cairo if it wasn’t for the flexibility today’s e-tickets provide.

I was very much reminded of all of this – the initial uncertainties that came from no longer having paper tickets, and the fear of computer glitches remaining an ever-present concern. While it’s a lot better, it’s still not perfect with many check-in kiosks still unable to provide boarding passes to those who purchased e-tickets at the last minute. There’s still a need to connect all of the infrastructure in real time. Unfortunately, it’s still an all-too-frequent site to see complete rows of kiosks not working. On my last trip out of Orlando, a week or so back, I had to return to the check-in lines as the kiosks couldn’t print a boarding pass!

We came to Prague to catch up with HP BCS folks and we had the good fortune of catching a presentation by Neil Pringle. Working a different crowd to that which we were normally accustomed, Neil began by quoting the famous England soccer player, Kevin Keegan. “Gary always weighed up his options especially when he had no choice!” was his first slide. This was the same inspirational England manager who once said “I don't think there's anyone bigger or smaller than Maradona” as well as the well articulated observation “that decision, for me, was almost certainly definitely wrong.”

The US and indeed Australia, have rich traditions surrounding professional sporting leaders who, when facing a television audience, somehow didn’t quite get the message across. Perhaps none was better at this than former Australian Rugby great, Rex Mossop, when he said “let me reiterate back to what I was saying previously”. Of course, the best known of all was Yogi Berra and his best attempt at clarifying his goals and directions for his team came out: “If you don't know where you're going, chances are you will end up somewhere else.”

Being presented with mixed, and frequently unclear messages, and with directions that are difficult to follow, will become more routine in the future. So much of what we want to do today is online, and with it being online we will continue to push harder on the underlying technical capabilities. We book airline tickets and trust the infrastructure in place will notify all the parties. We make hotel reservations, we add cars, and we even make restaurant reservations adding requests for flowers to be delivered to the table. The sheer volume and complexity of it all is, for the most part, hidden from the users. But we know what transactions will be generated. We know of the many disparate servers that will be involved. And even though we really do believe the odds of having everything turn out perfectly are pretty high, we just worry a tad anyway.

If you have any uncertainty about this growth then just look at the size of files and data bases we routinely have to deal with. The data bases, and the disk drives supporting them, are growing exponentially. Kryder’s Law says: “Since the introduction of the disk drive in 1956, the density of information it can record has evolved from a paltry 2000 bits to 100 billion bits (2005)”. This is a 50 million fold increase! But perhaps we really do need to see this capacity grow. At last years HPTF&E in Las Vegas, Anne Livermore told attendees that “more information will be generated over the next five years than in all previous history.”

Prague is a very pretty city having come through the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries unscathed. Its medieval architecture has been wonderfully preserved and, as the picture shows, we spent a lovely evening in the old town. As the only one familiar with the locale, I was very keen to show my mates the famous Charles Bridge over the Vitava river. Built back in the 14th century, its gothic form is well known throughout the world. Unfortunately, we never saw it as after leaving the center of the old town, I walked them both in a complete circle back into the center of the old town. I have no idea how I managed the feat, but in heading the three blocks to the river I was able to cover almost a mile before wheeling us back into the center square.

Listening to Sami’s ordeal in Cairo, being present as Neil Pringle quotes Mr Keegan on “weighing up his options”, and walking my friends around in circles, I was reminded of yet another of Mr Keegan’s famous quotes. Paraphrasing it to take into account our current situation in Prague, as indeed Neil himself had done earlier in the day, I was able to reflect on how “I came to (Prague, ten years) ago and it's much the same today, except that it's totally different.”

And this is the real challenge that I see – we are headed to where our world is increasingly shifting to being online and real time. Yes, it’s the same as it has been for some time, but now it’s a whole lot different. Today we make fun of glitches and functions that go offline. But our frustration levels – indeed our anger thresholds - are beginning to break down as our tolerance for anything other than an accurate, reliably functioning technical infrastructure, is disappearing. While those of us familiar with NonStop see opportunities everywhere we turn, there’s still a long way to go before it is the first place we turn for solutions.

But if my experiences of the past week in Europe are any indication of where it’s all headed, I have to admit I feel a lot more confident about the future of NonStop. Technology is very much as I recall it, when I first started as a computer programmer, except that everything has changed.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

From higher altitudes!

I took a weekend break in Boulder. The first for many weeks, and I needed it. I had just returned from Orlando and on Sunday, it was back on the plane for a trip to Prague – one of my favorite cities in all of Europe.

The weekend along the Rockies proved to be unseasonably warm so it was a good time to grab the motorcycle for a ride up into Wyoming and to revisit some of my favorite front-range roads. The picture I have included here is of me parked at a rest stop just outside Laramie, as Interstate 80 (I80) crests the 8,600 foot summit – the highest pass on I80 as it connects New York with San Francisco.

While the temperature for most of my trip had been in the 70sF (20C), passing over this summit brought it down to the low 40s (5C) with winds pretty constant at 45 mph (60+ kpm). It was also at the midpoint of the 300 mile (480k) loop I had chosen and the views from this altitude were spectacular. I took the time to have a good look at the surrounding mountains and to peer down into the alpine pastures and valleys.

At one point on this ride across Wyoming I had an anxious moment. I just didn’t know for sure where the next town was and, with no gas gage on the motorcycle, I was not quite sure if I had enough gas to make it into Laramie. As luck would have it, I came across the town of Buford and it had a gas station. It has a population of 1, making it the smallest township in the U.S. Finding it was completely by chance and I am sure I would have been less stressed if I had have consulted a map before leaving Cheyenne.

I suppose it’s not the smartest thing to do, but I never take maps. Big-twin cruiser riders (as opposed to our touring brethren) never need maps – it just doesn’t look good to be seen stopped along the side of a highway, checking a map, and looking lost. We just keep riding till something looks familiar, and we don’t turn around just to be safe. And we never, ever, stop at gas stations to ask directions!

As I was sitting in a Starbucks in Ft Collins I heard a familiar song, by Jim Morris, called Southward where he sings “It was chilly through Virginia, but I hit the Outer Banks, and my attitude was toasty as a fire … Took the Cedar Island ferry on a morning bright and clean, what’s behind me never crossed my mind at all.” Listening to the music also reminded me of something similar from the ‘70s movie - Gumball Rally. In perhaps the most memorable scene Raul Julia, playing the Italian race car driver, Franco, delivered his famous one-liner “the first rule of Italian driving?”, as he tore off the rear-view mirror, “what’s behind me is not important!”

Yes, I had ridden across mountain summits and I had been cold. I had taken time to enjoy the scenery from that altitude. But now, with my latte and a warm corner to curl up in, what was behind me was no longer important and riding without a map hadn’t proved disastrous. As I mellowed, and began to anticipate the next leg of my ride, I began to think about all the roadmap presentation I have seen of late.

I had sat through roadmap presentations on NonStop at SATUG, as I had sat through Intel’s chip roadmap. I had sat through IBM’s plans for the System z as the z10EC mainframe rolled out last week. I had sat through many GoldenGate presentations as well. Yes, product roadmaps are very important, and they provide a wealth of information if you just know what to look for! There’s not a product manager on earth that doesn’t get passionate about something they are directly involved in, and they are always eager to press home the point of how such-and-such feature is going to dramatically improve the fortunes of the user, the technology, and their own development team.

And it reminded me that sometimes, watching presentations on product roadmaps, there was much to be learned from what was not said as from what was actually said. Likewise, you could also learn a lot from recalling what had been included in previous presentations, but had never materialized as product. In today’s litigious world, what actually makes it onto a roadmap has been so well-sanitized that it often lacks drama or excitement. Resources are committed - there are real dates, test plans are in place - and you can anticipate an early adoption program following shortly.

So much sanitizing that you just have to wonder what else is in the product and technology pipelines. For me, there’s always the nagging suspicion that there’s some really incredible technology being worked on that could just tip the scales a lot further in favor of whatever product is being presented. While I am beginning to develop my own “wish list” roadmap for NonStop, and pepper it with my own outlandish requirements, I keep tripping over the non-appearance of items I really thought were on the roadmap.

From the time Martin Fink stepped to the podium in Berlin to address the European ITUG event, it was clear that the paths of the Open Systems / Linux and NonStop would intersect. At first, I took his comments to imply that at some point, we may have elements of NonStop integrated with Linux. Something modeled on the work first done during Bill Heil’s watch - the ServerWare (later NonStop Software) project. Back in the mid ‘90s a lot of energy went into overlaying Windows with enough of NonStop’s message system to provide Microsoft with the foundation for a clustered fault tolerant offering. Perhaps, what went on before should be considered more seriously. Perhaps what was behind us remains relevant, after all!

While this lab project never saw the light of day, and ServerWare development has been abandoned following the Compaq acquisition, I suspect that much of what was learnt has now been revisited but this time with a focus on Linux rather than Windows. While Martin may not bring a fault-tolerant Linux to market I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some lower-level components and routines within NonStop draw from Linux, and the experiences gained from ServerWare.

Another similar project I really thought was fully funded was what Cupertino internally referred to as Hybrid Super Clusters (HSC). Fueled by what some of the biggest customers had been doing (e.g. Sabre, as well as some stock exchanges), and where a mix of NonStop, Linux and HP-UX were deployed essentially as clusters, there was some consideration given to productizing some of this. As Martin presented his vision of “shared infrastructure blades” that supported a mix of blades and operating systems, I thought that this was really a sign of what was to come. I could envisage a marketplace that really could take advantage of such a package as and when it materialized.

Turns out, this was never on the product roadmap, in any official sense. From the lofty heights HP NonStop executives move in, this was more a framework for discussion than anything else. Or, was it? Recently, I was taking to a development executive who pointed out to me that “work (internally on HSC) has now been completed … one of the values that resulted from this project was our recently released NonStop Cluster Essentials product; it provides an integrated management interface for monitoring, managing, and controlling heterogeneous clusters of NonStop and Linux.”

This development I find very important. In the roadmap presentations given at SATUG, a senior product manager broke down the key areas of development into just three categories – Open Access, Scale and Availability, and Manageability and Compliance – and where the issue with Manageability and Compliance was the need to support cross platform deployments. We know that specialty controllers will begin to appear shortly – Linux on blades hosting communications and other I/O controller software - and for them to be successfully deployed, they would have to be seamlessly integrated into the overall manageability scheme.

Perhaps this is where we begin to see the pieces all fitting. As we see the Intel roadmap being followed, with dual-core, quad-core, and eventually multi-core chip technology being supported, we could see the morphing of NonStop with Linux appearing in a more subtle ways – integrated as part of the lower-level components of NonStop, as the OS of specialty controllers, and all managed from a single, integrated management environment. Is this what we expected after hearing from Martin? Is this the kind of Hybrid and Hybrid-Clusters we were anticipating? Again, not really! But on closer examination – is this of more immediate value. Absolutely!

As I looked down from the mountain pass I couldn’t always see the road behind me. And I couldn’t always see what was happening in the valleys below. I may be reluctant to pull out the roadmaps while riding a motorcycle – but when it comes to technology they are incredibly important. We may not have visibility into every project the labs are working on and we may not see everything appear as a supported product. But where these roadmaps direct us, and the history that comes with them, gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Projects, whether on the roadmap or not, always are leveraged at some point and the products we finally see being delivered frequently employ components and routines reminiscent of earlier lab activities. I can only now speculate that when we see future bladed architecture product offerings then, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, “we may not get what we want … but we may just get what we need!”

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Thirty years on - a new generation!

I had only been back in Sydney for just over a year when IBM launched the “Glendale Series” of mainframes – the IBM 4331 and IBM 4341. The year, 1979, was a very exciting time for IT in Australia as the federal government was allowing a capital investment allowance of 40 percent, as an incentive to industry, which included new computer purchases. However, this great deal was due to expire on June 30th, 1979.

So, with the New Year, corporations were waiting for the announcement of this new mainframe and were anxiously standing by their fax machines eager with anticipation. As January 30th dawned on the US East Coast (January 31st in Sydney), the news finally broke and the price points were stunning. It was a circus! IBM worldwide quickly became overwhelmed with orders and introduced the first lottery – allocating new machines according to a random draw.

These new mainframes featured high-density logic chips, with up to 704 circuits per chip. And with the older IBM 370/158 rated as a 1.0 “old style” MIPS machine (based on IBM’s figures of a cycle time of 115 nanoseconds, which is about 8.7 MHz.), this new one, the 4331 mainframe, rated at about .3 MIP, and its big brother, the 4341, at a shade under 1 MIP – an incredible price/performance achievement at the time.

I was reminded of this as I was in Orlando, FL at an IBM user event to see the launch of IBM’s tenth generation mainframe – the IBM System z10 Enterprise Class (z10EC), and I was anticipating its launch in much the same way as I had some thirty years before. As the events of Monday wound down, and the trade-show floor emptied, IBM engineers descended on the z9 mainframe that was on the stand supporting attendee labs, unplugged it from the storage, and after 4 hours of frantic work replaced it with the new z10. By midnight, it was running, and as the attendees returned for early morning labs they found themselves running on the new mainframe. Whereas the other four sites around the world, where IBM held its press conferences, had only z10EC shells - it was at the user event where a fully operational z10EC made its public debut!

So much has changed since the Glendale Series rolled out, but the performance improvements provide the biggest contrast and with the z10EC, it’s all about the new z10 Processor Chip and the z10EC Multi-Chip Module (MCM). IBM is leveraging the POWER6 Dual-Core chip – no, it’s not the same chip (CISC for z10EC Processor Chip), as its not s a RISC chip as you will find in other IBM offerings – with IBM suggesting that they are “siblings, (but) not identical twins” as there is small number of elements common to both.

Instead of the high density logic chips, with 704 circuits, that we saw on the 4331 and 4341 mainframes, we now have ceramic MCM blocks (103 ceramic layers) each with 5 Processor Units (PU) chips, where each PU had four cores, and where there were now 994 million transistors per PU chip – somewhere near 5 billion transistors associated just with the PUs on the MCM block. Throw in the two Storage Control (SC) chips that add an additional 1.6 billion transistors, and you end up with something like 7 billion transistors per MCM block. A fully populated z10 with four “Books”, IBM-speak for very fat blades, each with one of these MCM blocks, gives you a total of 64 PUs that are capable of processing some 30,000+ old-style MIPS.

Putting this into context, my rough, back-of-the envelope calculation, suggests that just one of these mainframes now has more MIPS than was shipped across the entire life of the Glendale Series. All in a machine that’s not much bigger than the earlier 4341 stood upright! Certainly not the behemoth many of us had grown accustomed to seeing holding court in the middle of the data center. And did I mention that the contrasting color flash down the side of this new mainframe has been changed from red to green – a stark reminder of everyone’s concerns over energy requirements.

But in the press reports that came out on the day of the announcement, there were still some concerns about IBM’s continued investment in mainframes. According to a report by Associated Press “analysts said IBM's advances in chip technology and software are helping the mainframe stay competitive against lower-cost competitors. But they caution that because of price IBM still faces challenges in luring in new customers.” And in the same story, they quoted Brad Day, a Forrester Research Vice President, as having said "this is definitely not a slam dunk - the math still has to be there. The life-cycle-cost-of-ownership argument still has to be there."

The picture I have included here is of me beside the working ”internals” of the z10EC. What you may not pick up all that easily are the very fine optic cables coming down to the multiplexers that support all the external storage. These are running InfiniBand – a first for IBM. When I was talking to an HP NonStop engineering manager recently, and we were talking about InfiniBand, he talked openly about how “the ServerNet footprint is all over InfiniBand.” While IBM is only using it to connect to I/O subsystems, as well as supporting its own Parallel Sysplex interconnect option, I found it highly encouraging for IBM to now deploy a technology with which all of us working on NonStop are familiar.

IBM continues to make extensive use of virtualization – the concept of logical partitioning, or LPARs, is the first layer of abstraction above the metal and is based on earlier releases of VM. “LPARs, on (the z10EC are) not really virtualization with overhead, because it is truly built into the hardware,” suggested a colleague attending the show and helping me sort through all the terminology. In an LPAR you can run IBM’s zVM hypervisor with its support for any number of guest OS’s including zOS and zLinux. While you may want to configure a “relatively small number of LPARs, compared to the number of VM guests,” he added, “there is a significant advantages when running as a VM guest.” IBM’s support of virtualization remains a very powerful feature of the z10EC and is a technology where I do anticipate hearing more from HP, including HP NonStop, in the future.

The timing of my trip to Orlando, coming as it did back-to-back with my trip to South Africa for SATUG, where HP and Intel had provided updates to their product roadmaps, I couldn’t help but notice many similarities, and how the technologies of HP and IBM appear headed in very similar directions. I know that this statement might surprise some of my IBM colleagues – but the more I looked at the z10EC and the more questions I asked, the more I saw how the “top-of-the-line” offerings from both vendors were beginning to look alike.

And has IBM done enough with the z10EC to threaten the HP NonStop marketplace? My first reaction - I am not seeing it just yet! Even in the presentations made by IBM, the proposed growth appears to be organic, coming from upgrading existing customers. Yes, IBM talks about potential future products from ACI (I heard this mentioned a couple of times) as helping, but any movement on that front is years away. I continue to be amazed how the NonStop technology continues to outlive the technologists that propose a change!

For me, the biggest difference comes with the decision taken by HP to standardize on single chip architecture, and to ride that vendor’s roadmap. IBM still uses different chip architectures and while there’s some shared portions, it still requires two different design groups and two separate fab facilities. I don’t get that, and I can’t see that being a sustainable model for the long haul!

The NonStop architecture may be better positioned than the IBM mainframe as HP looks to position NonStop as a “configuration option” on future HP bladed architecture products. In my recent presentations I have simply been stating: “rather than asking the question ‘who will be using NonStop’ perhaps the more appropriate question may be ‘when do I take advantage of the NonStop?’” There will always be a subset of transactions that will be viewed as mission critical, and routing them to mission critical applications deployed on bullet-proof NonStop servers, at a much lower price point, will continue to give HP an edge.

I realize that this blog posting is a little more technical than I have written in the past, and I trust you will indulge me on this occasion. But has the arrival of z10EC changed my view on any of this or become a disruptive technology that will force HP to change its roadmap – well, not exactly! Without taking anything away from IBM – it’s a great system with some remarkable technology that will be welcomed by many of IBM’s customers – it’s not a must-have “killer system”! And I just have to wonder if the green stripe down the side of the box is a slight tinge of envy as much as a testament to its reduced environmental impact!