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.