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!

No comments: