Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Keepers of the inner sanctum!

I am back from Vienna but it’s hard to put thoughts of this city too far away. I first went to Vienna when I was with Nixdorf Computers, back in the early ‘80s, so I have been visiting Vienna for 25 years! The picture I have included here is just a quick snapshot looking down a lane as I watched construction workers restore an old four-story building and what caught my attention was how the scaffolding was being erected.

Stationed one above the other and separated by about eight feet, the scaffold riggers were man-handling the scaffold tubing up a human chain as they extended its height up the side of the building. From the sidewalk, they were lifting these tubes and simply passing them up to the next level of the scaffold – there were five or six riggers in the chain, one per level - before the tubes were clamped to the framework in support of the next level. Balanced precariously, the riggers showed no fear of heights as they confidently pushed their framework higher. I am certain there were architects and building site managers present, but it was the riggers getting the real work done.

Whenever I am in a city I take time to look around me and to appreciate the many unique styles that different architects have developed. Whether I am in Chicago, Sydney, or elsewhere around the world, I am always observing the pride their citizens take in their city skylines and the pleasure they get from showing me the sights. Walking through data centers these days generates much the same feeling. There’s not a data center operations manager I have encountered who isn’t absolutely thrilled to walk you through their domain.

The nerve-centers are often located somewhere else and, more often than not, the team is overseeing the operations of a couple of sites. At the bigger installations, these may be split functionally with multiple nerve-centers each supporting multiple data centers. With layers of console screens and, just as frequently today, large flat-screen displays showing everything from network and power grids to weather maps and even CNN news feeds, these facilities are abuzz with activity as information transits the enterprise.

But it is the role of operators, watching over the processing of information critical to the business, where near-chaos appears to be routine, where I see the real face of IT. For those corporations that have a heterogeneous systems environment (and it’s hard not to, these days), the complexity is absolutely mind-boggling! Transactions arriving on many different networks are being routed to the appropriate applications platform, with data being pulled from many different operational data bases, and with logs being updated, at a furious pace. While not the same as passing metal tubing hand-over-hand from one rigger to another you sense a similar protocol all the same!

Architects responsible for the design, and technicians sorting out infrastructure, move from one opportunity to the next. They enjoy the moment, but rarely stay around for the complete lifecycle of the project. Operations staff not only have to live day-in and day-out with the consequences of the project, but continually adjust to accommodate the arrival of other projects that often come with conflicting or incomplete operating instructions.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with a senior operations executive at a financial services company, and came away highly impressed with all that he had on his plate. I was particularly interested in the real world feedback on the true cost of operating today’s HP NonStop server. I had decided to dig into this as I continue to be told how expensive the NonStop platform remains and I have become puzzled over exactly where these costs originate. “While there is no single priority, but rather, a whole slew of priorities, for operations managers, cost savings is firmly at the top of his list. Automating as much as possible, in order to meet ever-more-aggressive availability metrics within the Service Level Agreements (SLAs), continues to be a priority for management.”

Of all the systems in any data center, the IBM mainframe still requires the most support. Steps have been taken over the years, through technologies such as Workload Management (WLM), and advanced scripting tools, but turning a reliable platform like the System z into a highly available platform remains elusive and even enabling parallel sysplex (the mainframe’s cluster solution) is no panacea. While fail-over support can be added, via scripting, for selected applications, it’s not a take-over technology, and requires far more awareness of the environment being programmed directly into the application. The fall-out can often be far more pressure on the operations teams as they try to avoid making mistakes in times of crisis!

And it’s not just the large corporations that wrestle with SLAs and availability issues, as software companies face many of the same issues. Talking with Marc Paley, Director of Global IT Operations at GoldenGate, uptime has become paramount. Running one of everything, from large System z and HP NonStop servers, to Sun and Windows servers, as well as every flavor of Linux, “availability becomes even more demanding than in commercial shops! We literally have one of every data base product, and often a number of different versions needing support. Achieving uptime involves deploying redundant servers, and the use of load balancing, in order to achieve the high availability our company requires.”

By comparison, the elegance of the internal design of NonStop and its newfound fondness for openness, makes it so much easier to operate. A long time ago, when visiting a retailer in Texas, I was curious how many folks were assigned to operate the NonStop server. And the response I was given was that actually, there was no dedicated operations staff. Instead, I was told, “we are listening to the console printer and if it gets really loud and we can see it spewing paper, then someone will go over and take a look. Otherwise, it just runs!” Now that was a few years back and times have changed – but for many NonStop users, retelling this incident generates very little contradiction.

As for the other items on the list – recruiting and retaining quality staff, selecting and deploying tools and utilities, including Business Process Management (BPM) products and scripting languages, like Perl, and ensuring complete security of the environment – they are only slightly less important than reducing costs and improving uptime. As in the commercial world, Marc noted, operators at GoldenGate develop scripts, and this has now become a must-have requirement of every operator. Marc then went on to add “as for recruiting operators, we really do need then to be familiar with the operating systems and data bases we support and we don’t hire them unless there’s competency already.” But for me, what came across from these conversations was the challenges that arise in making sure senior management is fully onboard with the value proposition that good data center operations provides.

There’s not a data center manager, however, who isn’t looking over their shoulders to see if an outsourcing company is coming through the doors! The recent decision of ACI to outsource its internal IT operations is just the latest example of a company going down this path. There’s no question whatsoever that, as data centers increasingly move from manual to automated processes (maintaining the same SLA for the same applications), the incentive is to reduce the number of people involved. And getting someone else to do it at a much lower price certainly becomes seductive – at least, on paper, and before the second round of negotiation begins.

I have covered other management functions in previous blog postings – the CIO, the CTO, Software Architects, and the gifted artisans spread throughout development – and have commented on the value that comes from well-functioning teams that have strong communication skills that keep them all well-connected to the business. But in the end, all of these areas are under tremendous pressure to reduce costs, while improving uptime, and I see a marketplace growing more aware of the true advantages of the HP NonStop platform.

With so much capability built in to the NonStop server, and very few resources needed to manage them, I remain puzzled over the observations about how expensive the platform is. Certainly, Jim Johnson, Chairman of The Standish Group has always maintained that operating NonStop requires fewer operations resources than pretty much any other platform. In our most recent email exchange, Jim remarked “that was the major cost advantage that NS had for years, and right now, (compared with the) IBM mainframe, it remains a 3 to 1 advantage!”

Will we ever see completely automated data centers? Will data centers evolve to where human oversight is no longer required and where operators are no longer required? Probably not in my lifetime! Users will continue to see more tools on their desktop allowing them to assemble and tailor the solutions they need, but out there somewhere, there will be smart people engaged in looking after it all. For the NonStop user, there may not be as many as needed on other platforms, but knowing there’s other sets of eyes watching over the information flow, stationed “securely” deep within the inner sanctum, brings a whole lot of comfort to many of us. And they don’t have to be afraid of heights!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Vienna Dialogue!

In a couple of hours I will be heading for the airport to fly home. I’ve spent five days in one of the most “classic” cities in all of Europe. Everywhere I turned, there were reminders of the glory days of the Austrian – Hungarian empire. Unfortunately, for most of the time I was captive of the hotel and the picture I have included here is from the lobby coffee shop, as I put down a few thoughts on paper.

I hadn’t penned more than a few lines when the words of a Billy Joel song, “Vienna”, came back to me. Over the decades I have been a huge fan of Billy Joel and his “Piano Man” is a song that just brings back so many memories – of ITUG events in Amsterdam, for instance, where many nights ended at the Piano Bar. And I can just hear the emotion in Billy Joel’s voice as he gets into Vienna: “You've got your passion, you've got your pride. But don't you know that only fools are satisfied? Dream on, but don't imagine they'll all come true. When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?”

As a captive in the hotel, all I can see from the windows are cranes. I can’t recall any previous occasion when there was as much construction going on – particularly in the streets around St Stephan’s Square in Old Vienna. I am not sure if this has anything to do with the 2008 European Football Championship, but the old town is certainly getting a thorough work over! Building facades are being refreshed, with old exteriors being incorporated into new structures, ensuring that a balance between old and new is maintained.

All week the European BASE24 User Group (EBUG) meeting has been about the need to maintain a balance. Both IBM and HP have been strongly represented at the conference, with each vendor outlining their plans for support of the new ACI products. The newly announced IBM Alliance was at the heart of many of the discussions with the community anxious about the ramifications for their companies. One of the better presentations came from Christine Dryden, a technical specialist with the Royal Bank of Canada, who described how the bank migrated many BASE24 applications from an older S-Series to a new Itanium-based Integrity NonStop server with TMR. It included an older BASE24 POS application (Release 5.1.2 - a release that’s been around since the days of the Y2K initiatives), that supports more than 500,000 POS devices on three separate logical networks. Mixing the old with the new hadn’t presented any problems to the bank’s staff.

Some of the performance gains achieved were quite remarkable with the internal response time of BASE24 reduced by 71% - from 31ms to 9ms. “We may have bought a bit more system than we needed, as we now have a little more headroom,” Christine observed, “but processing the Christmas peak this year, wasn’t as stressful as in previous years!”


Walking through the parks that surrounded the hotel you are never far from reminders of the past – and adjacent to my hotel is the Stadtpark with its golden stature of Johann Strauss. But directly across the stature is a Ferrari dealership and the juxtaposition is quite remarkable if not extreme! The city’s artistic past facing one of the most beautiful examples of modern technology. Yet only a few steps away at a construction site, in the rubble at the base of a crane, there was a PC monitor that had been thrown from the building as trash. Clearly, no longer viewed as having any further value!


The IBM Alliance has had an impact on HP. One of the oldest NonStop alliance partners, ACI had been working

with the NonStop platform for more than 30 years, and so their decision to switch allegiances caught many of us completely by surprise. But HP has decided to return to the basics, and has begun selling NonStop once more. There were many options open to HP – they could have simply elected to skip the event. In a very calm and measured presentation, Steve Saltwick, of HP BCS, started with the observation that “it is ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Steve then went on to present HP’s vision of the future and how payments are viewed by HP as a change agent, and that HP was taking clear, low-risk, short term steps with an eye on comprehensive long-term options. In other words, it wasn’t panic stations or a call to arms, over at HP. Changing gears quickly however, Steve introduced the bladed architecture and how “a ‘bladed environment’ has absolutely a compelling argument …” and that, in the end “what really matters? Trust the machine!” Don’t be too hasty here - NonStop would not be destined for the trash heap after all, I could read between the lines.

The words of Billy Joel’s “Vienna” came back almost immediately: “Slow down, you crazy child, And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile. It's all right, you can afford to lose a day or two, When will you realize,..Vienna waits for you?”

In a city of music, art, and architecture perhaps the song is right. At the cocktail reception, HP hosted, there was an increased sense that perhaps everything was going to be all right. The mantra of “the Customer if King!” could be heard and while there were concerns over the amount of time remaining before old BASE24 Classic would be sunsetted, the arrival of the IBM System z was beginning to be viewed as an additive, or complementary, offering and not as a replacement! But it would be the customer that would be making theis call. It would be the customer weighing the options and making the final decision.

For many years, and following a series of acquisitions, ACI had been struggling to support eight different retail payment engines. The decision to support just one retail payment engine was a business necessity – and ACI now believes it has demonstrated that it is a superior product offering, having responded to the user community requests for an open implementation, that gave them hardware options as well as removing the need to retain TAL programmers.

The architecture of Vienna is wonderful – from the lace-like stonework of St Stephan’s Cathedral, to the soaring domed entrance to the Palace, to the quirky use of glass and steel in some of the new buildings, it all works and gives Vienna a remarkable presence. Looking at what ACI has done, in pulling the key applications together into just three solutions, and to architect them such that they are completely independent of the underlying infrastructure and middleware stacks so that the XPNET on Integrity NonStop and the Enterprise Server Bus on System z, is only adding to the choices available to financial institutions.

“We’ve added a platform, and (the support for this platform) has been accelerated because of the alliance with IBM!” Tucked inside each of the three applications is the support of a layer of abstraction that hides the different infrastructure “stacks” such that the each of the three applications can run on any of the supported platforms transparently. But again, ACI management reminded us that not all of the three applications would run on NonStop. According to Bob Cronin of ACI, “while the System z will be our reference platform and be the platform where all three applications Retail, Wholesale, and Risk Management, will run this does not mean we will stop selling the three applications separately”. “The ability to partition a System z via LPARs and to have “support for both zOS and zLinux was very attractive”, according to Rainier Brueren, of ACI’s Retail Payments Solution.

I asked the ACI panel, during the Q&A session with the community, “seeing the HP roadmap and now aware of the ‘Shared Infrastructure Blades’ with its promise to support any mix of NonStop, HP-UX, Linux, etc. – could an existing NonStop BASE24 user ‘assemble’ all three applications themselves?” In other words, was there any barrier or restriction by ACI to any user deploying the applications on a mix of NonStop and Linux just like on a System z? “Yes, you could do that”, answered Bob Cronin.

As I listened to the exchanges between ACI and the community over dates, support options, compliance, I became less concerned over platform issues and more engaged in the dialogue. Bob then added to me in private, “and this is what we are looking for – right now, it’s the dialogue with you all that is important for ACI. Users, ISVs, the whole ecosystem around BASE24eps – all of us need to be talking!”

For the last couple of years I have grown a little weary of defending the performance of the NonStop sales organization. Wherever I go I am asked about new NonStop deals – even within GoldenGate, I get emails asking about recent wins. But for the last year I have begun to see a renewed enthusiasm for the platform across HP, and to see HP NonStop management electing to fight back and aggressively selling the business value proposition of NonStop. This may not be the response ACI was anticipating, but I have started to wonder if this wasn’t part of the strategy of ACI. No matter how you view it, ACI has both IBM and HP aggressively competing in the marketplace - and isn’t this what we all have been waiting for?

In the last verse of Billy Joel’s song, “Vienna” you hear the words: “And you know that when the truth is told, that you can get what you want or you can just get old! You're gonna kick off before you even get half through - Why don't you realize, Vienna waits for you!”

Monday, April 21, 2008

We all have opinions!

This morning I have woken to a mild spring morning in Vienna, Austria. The picture I have included here is of me watching chocolate tortes being made at the Demel coffee house, where I had a late morning breakfast of coffee and tortes. Joining me for breakfast was Ron Beauchamp of ACI Worldwide. I had caught up with Ron the night before, immediately after arriving in Vienna, and we had gone to the old town surrounding St Stephan’s Cathedral, for Vienna Schnitzel at a local café, the Figlmuller. Vienna has some great cafes and coffee shops, so we wanted to try them as soon as we could, as we knew we would have little spare time for the rest of the week.

Ron and I are in Vienna for the European BASE24 User Group (EBUG) event. This year’s agenda has taken a completely new look, and I will be very interested in how it proceeds, and in the general mood of the community now that ACI has moved away from HP and aligned itself strategically with IBM. There’s no escaping the fact that this holds enormous repercussions for all of us as ACI has been the largest ISV in the NonStop marketplace and any shift away from the platform will have lasting impact on all of us. While sources tell me that even though ACI and HP have sold a couple of new systems here, in EMEA, after the announcement, IBM will prove to be formidable presence in what has been traditionally a NonStop marketplace.

I have participated in a number of user group meetings this year – from SATUG early in the year, to RMTUG in Denver, and most recently, DUST in Phoenix. And I have had a number of email exchanges with BASE24 users as well as with HP. And the message I am getting is not all that bad, certainly not a tale of doom and gloom with skilled NonStop managers looking for the exit signs. The old BASE24 product may have been heading for the scrap heap for some time – ACI’s decision to sunset it shouldn’t surprise anyone. The small detail hidden in the fine print, and missed by many, is that BASE24eps, the main cross-platform product from ACI, will be fully supported on NonStop. Migration to the new product will not be easy, and I have concerns about the strategy ACI is pursuing, but they do have a plan and they have a group – the Migration Factory – that is tasked with helping customers through any transition problems. When you put all the posturing to one side, there’s no question in my mind that ACI was not about to kill off their golden goose and do want to continue working with HP.

It’s perhaps a coincidence, but while these announcements by ACI were going on, and grabbing the headlines, ACI was also quietly introducing a new online network – the ACI Forum. I briefly touched on this in my blog of January 9, 2008 “I got my new horizons!” While I noted back then that it was very early days, I have to say that it is beginning to attract a readership, and while it’s a place ACI users will be able to ask questions and to seek input from their peers, I expect it will also become a place where these users will
express their opinions.

Among my readers, it’s widely known of how valuable I view social networks, and blogs like this one are just one example of social networking. ACI themselves see the ACI Forum not so much as a social network, but a tool at the business level. By this, ACI acknowledge that with a managed set of users, it is very focused on providing support for their customers. It is not open to everyone, and all postings will be monitored. But even with this, I have been reading comments and have provided a couple of postings.

Whether open or closed, social networking has made enormous inroads to the way most of us maintain our awareness of what’s happening across the industry. There’s no shortage of writers willing to express their opinion on a wide variety of topics. The ACI Forum, I am hoping, could become a place where the ACI community engages ACI product and business managers on all aspects of their strategy, and where all of their users can go for the latest insight into what their peers are thinking. This interaction is typical of the way our society is adjusting to new communications channels.

In the past we would rely on our Church newsletters for information about what’s going on within our neighborhood and the social life that developed in parallel was where many of us went to develop personal relationships. Numbers scribbled on the back of matchbook covers, in the local bar, also helped us make new friendships. The message boards littered with hand-written “for sale” notices and news about upcoming training camps for all manner of sports that were prominently displayed at the corner dinner and in our coffee shops! They were all important vehicles for keeping in touch with our local community.

Newsletters, scribbled notes on coasters, and tear-off strips on tattered notices, are all still with us but for most of us, we have moved on. Whether we keep our family aware of our activities on Facebook, or network with current and former business associates on LinkedIn, or check the reviews of a book or movie on Amazon.com, we are all very much living in an on-line world where information is only a few keystrokes away. And this is not even talking about the changes that have come through our increased dependence on Google, Mapquest, or eBay! Or about the numerous wiki’s that support many of our clubs and associations.

In fact, some of the practices of the past now look a little foolish. Seldom does any single person just walk into a bar as the primary way to meet another single – it’s only done today after a number of exchanges online with a little background checking already undertaken. Giving out too much information on a Starbucks message board now bothers many of us. And the comments box that used to be an integral part of our business life, never attracted too many honest suggestions.

While sitting in an airline lounge in Denver, waiting for my flight to Europe, I ran into a senior Garnter executive. As we waited for our plane to open for boarding, we talked about Gartner and the roles of senior analysts. I posed the question to him that social networks could make an impact on companies like Gartner in that it allows users to talk directly to other users and hear their opinions without having to rely on an analyst. “And that’s the point,” he suggested “companies like Gartner are not really in the opinion business as much as they are in the analysis business.” Essentially, what he went on to explain is that there will always be a need for companies like Gartner when we need to see more detail analysis of a market segment or a developing technology. And I have to agree with him on this point – opinions can be pretty easy to provide but good analysis is always a premium commodity. Just the process of vetting everything produced within Gartner is a major process and pretty much stands in the way of the style and immediacy we associate with social networking.

Over the past couple of months, I have written about reasons why I started this blog and how I thought of it as a complementary communication channel, aimed at those within our community who just feel more comfortable going to the web for their information. I have developed a level of impatience over the coverage of NonStop by the industry and believe blogging does contribute to generating more “buzz” around the NonStop platform. I have written about the work Nina Buik, the President of Encompass, is doing with her blog, and how the Encompass board has been instrumental in bringing to market the new HP user community social networking site and where I am now contributing content alongside Nina. And of course, we have the ACI Forum site as well.

Social networking will not ever take the place of face-to-face meetings – and that is the main reason why I traveled to Vienna this week. I just want to catch up with many colleagues I have known for many years and to participate in discussions I am certain will develop. And I still engage in email exchanges with a number of you who have concerns over the balance and mix of opinions being expressed via this medium where it’s volunteers from the vendor communities that appear to be the most vocal right now. What I believe ACI is hoping to achieve with the ACI Forum is to see a open and highly informal dialogue open up with their users at this time of major change – and to have a vehicle where they can make sure their message is correctly presented. Unfiltered and undiluted!

Social networking has now made its presence felt on us all - whether we check comments on Amazon.com, look at the latest news from our family on Facebook, or even T-times and groupings provided on the local golf-club’s wiki. Will these communication and networking vehicles survive over time, and will we always turn to them for information? Or will this be viewed as just a fad, popular with a younger generation of users? It’s like everything that’s gone before whether simple newsletters, major newspapers or trade magazines, it’s all about the content and as long as what is being provided is worth the time reading, then social networking will continue to thrive. After all, while there is a legitimate place for analysis, it is the opinions of our peers and colleagues that still influence many of our actions, and social networks have, for the most part, eliminated any middleman and given us direct contact with all those contributing opinions. For better or worse, we can read it all!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Relying on Routines!

After five days of driving it’s actually quite good to be back at my desk. Over the weekend I drove close to 1,000 miles up to the Sonoma wine country and back, only to turn around and drive across to Scottsdale, Arizona for the DUST user group meeting. While in Sonoma I spent some time at the Infineon race track at Sears Point and captured a shot of a SMART car, the picture I have included here, mixing it up with Miatas, Mustangs, and Corvettes out on the race track.

I have always enjoyed driving long distances. And today, it is far more relaxing than flying the short hops – with security lines and cancelled flights. A few years back I was in Singapore standing alongside a carousel waiting for my bags and, as the system quite stopped unexpectedly, a passenger next to me just sighed, and said “don’t you just love the romance of travel!”

Well the romance of travel has long gone. Today it’s more about fatigue, frustration, minimal connect times, and bad food for $5 (even in first class, I’m told by the Delta faithful)! Having any opportunity to hit the open road these days, I am finding particularly enjoyable. But after running up the miles, I drove to the local dealer for an oil change – a routine I religiously maintain – and had the service manager check out the car. “You have to take a look at this,” he said to me as the car was returned. Pointing at the front tires, he added “this is pretty dangerous; the inside of both tires are badly worn and the cord is showing – you better replace these tires if you want to avoid a disaster.” So on went a set of Pirelli pZero Rosso tires, the front wheels re-aligned, and what a difference!

As well as attending RUG meetings, I continue to stay in touch with the SIGs. Last year I was the Business Continuity (BC) SIG leader but I am pleased to say Mike Heath has now stepped in to lead this group. I have known Mike for years - indeed, I can recall sitting in a bar in La Defense to the west of Paris with Mike, after one of the Tandem road-shows of the early ‘90s, listening to CD “Waking up the Neighbours”, by Bryan Adams and released the year before as I recall, and we both enjoyed our cognacs
.

This past week we held a virtual BC SIG meeting on the subject of “Active-Active”. On this call were folks from GoldenGate, Gravic, and Network Technologies (NTI). When it came to NTI’s 15 minute presentation, I was very much amused when I heard Jim McFadden explain he was going to talk about “disaster-recovery avoidance” before going on to add “this is the first time I have laid claim to being in the ‘guaranteed disaster business’ - even when (our customers) purchase and implement (our software), they will fail when they don't implement the solution across the operation.”

Many years ago, I had been sitting in a restaurant on Stevens Creek, Cupertino with Roger Matthews. Roger and I were winding down from a week of meetings and we saw the chalk board suggesting we try the “giant shrimp”. Of course, this kicked off a lively discussion about oxymorons and how many of them had made it into every day usage. We talked about “military intelligence”, “common sense’, “Dallas culture” as well as my all-time favorite “user friendly” particularly when used in the same sentence as “customer service”! While I still have problems with “manufactured customs”, seeing a “SMART race-car” on the weekend stopped me right in my tracks. But it looks to me like we now need to add “disaster-recovery avoidance” to the list!

Disasters are becoming common place – almost routine. Whether it’s a natural disaster, just the local contractor tearing through a conduit with their backhoe, or just as often (as it now seems) a terrorist attack, disasters will happen and we need to be able to recover. At the DUST meeting this week, one participant pointed out how a major financial institution was moving their second site out of California and setting it up close to Phoenix. Having decided that they were a lot better off with two computer centers, they had built them both in California, either side of major fault lines, and according to the experts, this didn’t exactly look like the optimal deployment.

One of the tracks on the Bryan Adams album that Mike and I listened to in Paris was “Vanishing”, and it opens with the lines “People all over build on solid ground; they build it up and then they tear it down. Take it or leave it; who cares how much it costs. They'll never know how much is gone until it's lost!” Something about “solid-ground (in) California” strikes me as another obvious oxymoron we should have included in the list!

However, meeting the requirement for business continuity by simply building two computer centers, is just a starting point. As Jim highlighted, unless it’s implemented at all levels – applications, networking, data bases, etc. - it will not function as expected should a situation arise where the second computer center is needed. The whole philosophy of accommodating failures and making any such outage as transparent to the user as possible, takes a lot of work and attention to detail.

Active – Active is not an oxymoron, but it’s not tautology either! Distributing computer centers across multiple sites just makes good business sense. But the former practice where one center was designated as the emergency back-up site, and left idle for most of the time, is not a cost-effective option. And simply having it powered-up receiving a steady stream of data base updates, in an “Active – Passive” fashion may not always survive scrutiny as there’s simply way too much compute power being wasted. Today, it makes more sense to have all available computing power available to the business! Active – Active configurations, where both centers are equally engaged in supporting mission critical transactions with ample provision for taking up the slack, should its partner center fail for any reason, is what businesses demand.

At a recent gathering of HP sales folks in Prague, Scott Healy now with GoldenGate but most recently, with Sabre, was asked how Sabre would respond if their main computer system took an outage. “It depends,” started Scott, as he explained about all the steps that would have to be taken in order to successfully switch from one active system to another, adding “the key point is that we need to be as confident in executing a takeover as a switchover.”

Before any system as complex as that deployed at Sabre could support a take-over by a second system (programmed to be looking for failures), management had to walk-through many scenarios and have scripts developed to automate as much as possible, and then routinely test the scripts even if this meant throwing a switch and creating an outage to ensure all parties knew the ropes, and the procedures be followed, as they would be the same as those to be followed during any real outage. “The only way you do (testing, and real outages) is to have the procedures the same for both cases.”

However, even with this knowledge, Scott said this was not always the case as sometimes weeks, and perhaps months, went by between tests and he suggested that if pushed, he would actually take an outage of 10 – 15 minutes rather than cutting over to a system that may not have all the right code in place, or the latest table implementations running, as senior management would take much longer than 10 -15 minutes to make their way down to his office! He then added “the script should always be (available) and updated. If I could have executed a prepared script in test, and if successful, have confidence executing it in production, then yes, I would have done that.”

Active – Active implementation requires addressing many areas – from the libraries where the executables reside, to the network, and to the data bases and files. Keeping the data bases fully in synch is a big part of the equation, particularly when it comes to deploying mission critical applications, but so is the development of scripts and the training on operational procedures. And letting network traffic switch between computer centers has to become routine – with no surprises in store for anyone. In the end, as Jim so rightly pointed out, the aim is for complete disaster-recovery avoidance where tapping the resources of other systems in times of necessity is a built-in and automated procedure, and where the users are oblivious to any transition.

As Bryan Adams went on to write “think I hear thunder, ain't no sign of rain; danger signs flashin' in my brain! Ridin' on empty - lights are turnin' red …” what are our practices when it comes to business continuity? What will happen when lights start flashing red and when we see the danger signs? I am sure none of us likes to hear someone else telling us to “change the tires” if we really want to avoid a disaster.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cadillacs! Corvette Coupes! And Custom Cycles!

Our eldest daughter, Anna, is in the market for a new vehicle. She’s been talking to us for the past few months and now it’s getting serious. She has been driving a Honda Accord now for many years and it’s as much about getting something new, and better suited to her current needs, as it’s about dumping the Accord.

Cadillacs!

She bought the Accord when she had no pets, and lived in California. Now she has a Greyhound dog, lives in Colorado, and has to deal with all four seasons. While I have been a party to the exchanges with her mother, this weekend she came to me with a short list of candidates. I drive an older Cadillac SUV but unfortunately, with all its creature comforts, it is a bit overweight. While I don’t like to see the register clicking over each time I pump gas, I wouldn’t have made it through the blizzards of ’06 without all three tons of this heavy metal behemoth!

So how could I not go back into the showrooms to take a look at the new models? It must be Spring! Anna wants some separation between herself and her dog. She would really like something better suited to the climate, and so a smaller 4X4 comes to mind. But with today’s gas prices, the big SUV is just not an option for her, and perhaps hybrids may be the right way to go.

But where do you go to for advice and who do you really trust, particularly when family members may have prejudices?

Corvette Coupes!

As I was thinking about this on my way to the car lot, a car pulled up next to me and blew its horn - it was a similar car to the ragtop coupe I was driving. The driver called to me “do you live here?” When I responded that yes, I do, the driver responded “would you like to start a car club with me, for this model – they are so much fun! Call me, I work for the local Chamber of Commerce and my name is Susan!” And then, off she went. I love coupes – particularly Corvettes, whether Targas, or Convertibles – but there’s always compromises when driving these cars as the characteristics I get excited about often annoy my passengers. I can tell that the trade-off that I have made, for the sake of performance, really isn’t appreciated by everyone.

I used to be a regular visitor to the auto shows, and each year I would look forward to them. My brother and I went to the show in Sydney during the ‘80s, and when I lived in London, I took the tube to Earl’s Court for the London Car Show in 1975. I was never hesitant in approaching the manufacturers to talk about their latest offerings or to talk with other attendees about which car we would really like to own. These big events offer the manufacturers the opportunity to roll-out concept cars and to gauge their popularity. And the enormous increases in horsepower of today’s sports cars has been in response to the fascination of today’s baby boomers with the sports cars of their youth – but now with airbags, carbon-ceramic breaks, and dual-clutch “automatic” manuals!

Yes, there’s specialty clubs and associations for select and mostly up-market, expensive, marques - is there a community we could tap into for real-world experience with the type of vehicles Anna is considering?

Custom Cycles!

More recently, I attended the Denver Motorcycle Show to check out the latest offerings and to catch up with some of the dealers I know. I even ran into a fellow ITUG member as I sat astride a new bike. The move by many Motorcycle manufacturers into the market segment now being called “manufactured customs” has been materially influenced by the crowds surrounding the current crop of specialty bike builders - and the Discovery Channel has a lot to answer for! The picture I have included here is of the custom cruiser owned by Ron Thompson of CAIL and it’s a Titan Softail Chopper with a beefy S&S OEM 113 cubic-inch power-plant! I have lightly customized two production cruisers already but the extra money needed to get them looking and working just right pushes me into maintenance that becomes incredibly expensive over time. Nothing is ever just right, and has to be upgraded or, more often, simply thrown away.

But as I read the magazines and look at the letters they publish, and as I surf the Internet and scan the blogs that are posted, much of the innovation for custom cars and bikes is happening locally in the suburbs, far removed from these big events. While I don’t particularly care for every trend I see (no, I just don’t get car “drifting”, or am I particularly excited by motorcycle “stoppies”) there’s no question that some of the trends that emerge from these local communities do influence the mainstream of car and bike manufacturers. And for that reason, they remain an extremely important faction across the industry.

Do we run the risk of walking into groups on the bleeding edge, where “extreme machines” dominate – are we to be cautious about the communities we join?

Readers who regularly log onto this blog are aware that I have a fondness for anything with engines and wheels. Whether a car or a motorcycle, they hold a fascination for me that I have harbored since my youth. It was on a family vacation to the northern Australian state of Queensland, and to its famous Gold Coast, when the car bug first bit. I wasn’t yet in high school when we drove up the New England Highway, west of the Great Divide, I watched the first E-Type Jaguar I had ever seen race past us. I will always remember the sight and sound of that car, and the excitement I felt as I found that very same car parked at a vacation home just around the corner from our hotel.

I have much the same love affair with user group events as I have with car shows. The Las Vegas HP Technical Forum and Expo (HPTF&E) will open its doors shortly, with the big European event scheduled for later in the year. These are spectacular events attracting most of HP’s executives. Last year, we heard from Mark Hurd, Ann Livermore, Randy Mott, Martin Fink, and many others - unfiltered, live, and very topical - talking about issues we were all facing at that time. I really look forward to participating in these events as it does give me the opportunity to talk with the developers about their newest products – not unlike the way I check out the latest cars and bikes!

Last week I attended the local RUG meeting outside of Denver – put on by the members of RMTUG. Next week I will be in Phoenix for DUST. And earlier this year, I attended SATUG. I have also attended other user group events, the ACI ACE Focus meeting in Omaha being the most recent and I will follow up shortly by attending the EBUG meeting in Vienna. Just the week before HPTF&E, there will be the major user event of my own company, GoldenGate, in San Francisco, where I hope to catch up with many of you. As much as I enjoy the big events, I continue to come away impressed by the quality of the turn out at these local regional gatherings.

When regional groups get together, the topics are focused on the real issues these users face daily, and while they don’t ignore the broader industry perspective, they want to drill down into the details specific to their issues. Ask any of these participants what they think of a deployment or of a new feature-set, and you will instantly tap into a wealth of real-world experience. And solutions that are just too bloated or costly, those that offer blinding performance but with many critical features missing or only available as part of a service offering, as well as those that require a lot of “assembling” with serious ongoing maintenance issues, are quickly discarded.

I have a really good idea on the type of car our eldest daughter would like to buy – and I understand why she is as interested in some cars and not others. Cadillacs are just too big and a little out of sync with the environment! Corvettes just aren’t that practical for transporting big dogs! And Custom Cycles are for her parents! Perhaps I should check and see if there’s a local owners group for the vehicle she’s interested – perhaps all the Greyhound owners have a preference for a certain make and model.

One day I will get to see another London or Genève car show, with the same level of excitement that always overtakes me as I prepare for the big user summits, but you know, having local folks sharing the same interests I have is just as valuable and often, far more practical and relevant. And no matter how successful and informative the premier events for our community become, it will always be the local RUG meetings that keep me connected with the issues of the day!

Maybe I should give Susan, at the local Chamber of Commerce, a call back. Perhaps it would be fun to join a group of folks that get as much fin from their car as I do!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Thanks for the Memories!

I am in Boulder for a few days. I came back to attend the Rocky Mountain user group (RMTUG) meeting. It wasn’t so much the meeting agenda – it was on security and the impact of standards – as it was an opportunity to catch up with a lot of old friends. Many of them had been with me during my time at Insession, but after ACI elected to dismantle the group, they found new homes across the NonStop vendor community at companies like XYPRO, comForte, and GoldenGate. And it was good to catch up with everyone over drinks and a bite to eat – courtesy of the generosity of a couple of the participants’ companies.

Earlier in the week, I was in Northern California where I met with folks in Cupertino from the NonStop and the Neoview teams. We talked about the user communities and about the referendum now being conducted seeking approval from all constituencies to create a new user community. We are keeping our fingers crossed as we can see a bright future and hope we can announce the new organization at the HP Technology Forum and Expo in Las Vegas.

In stark contrast to this kind of user and vendor engagement, I spent some time inside virtual communities. I have a profile on LinkedIn, and this week I joined Facebook – something I had been meaning to do for some time as I am a huge fan of virtual networks and regularly visit them. The picture I have included here is of me inside Second Life, standing on the stern of the motor-yacht “Palmisano” that is moored alongside one of IBM’s virtual islands. IBM has gone to great lengths in digitizing their facilities, including labs, and to find their CEO Sam Palmisano’s motor-yacht open to all was a lot of fun. As an aside, I have also included a photo of me on the main deck where I came across a picture of the Titanic hanging on a bulkhead. Couldn’t figure out what that was all about, or who came up with that idea, but it had me wondering all the same as if a secret message was being communicated to the IBM hardware team.

But for all the time I spend in virtual worlds, I am becoming a little jaded with it all – I am finding it all pretty boring. There’s certainly a wealth of information – if you are prepared to spend the time looking for it – but it’s still a pretty dull place for us technology and business types. There’s absolutely no sense of community and there’s very few opportunities for spontaneous “networking” as we often refer to this type of socializing. Finding anyone at all can be a confusing undertaking, even when you know they are present, and starting up a conversation can be an extremely painful process. It’s in complete contrast to the type of meetings I have been enjoying in the real world this past week.

User groups are very important, and the opportunity to meet with our peers and to talk about technology and the business problems we face, provides incredible real world value. Conversations tend to be unpredictable and unstructured but in the end, we often hear about situations and opportunities we may have otherwise been oblivious to. And networking has become increasingly important for us all given the current uncertain economic times we all live in. Nina Buik, the Encompass President, wrote in her march 3rd blog posting on the new HP User Group Community Social Networking site - http://hpusercommunity.org/blog_community.aspx how she was observing that “threats to IT jobs … should keep you on your toes when it comes to professional / interpersonal skills,” before adding a little later in that same posting “the cheese is constantly moving. You may have to be prepared or you might find yourself unemployed, or even worse, unemployable!”

I am not trying to evoke panic among the community, but there’s a strong message here. Networking in the virtual world may help us get information into the public domain, but I am not convinced that is as good as developing strong personal relationships among our peers in the real world. Typing lengthy dissertations into popular websites is just no substitute to “working the community.” Networking is how we sustain the message of NonStop and there’s nothing better than hearing stories first hand about the latest solution just deployed on NonStop.

This is very important for all of us, and for many of us it’s the only way we learn of these user experiences. But what about the NonStop platform itself – how’s the networking within HP going? It is all too easy to blame HP sales whenever we see sites moving away from NonStop, or when an industry report fails to include any references to the NonStop server. But perhaps its not all bad news as the message of NonStop is becoming more widely accepted across the HP corporation.

We are all aware that Martin Fink now heads the Business Critical Server (BCS) organization, and has taken with him a lot of enthusiasm for the NonStop platform. The arrival of the NonStop mid-plane in the new c-Class chassis (the BladesSystem c7000 enclosure) that will be used by the upcoming NS Blades system along with Unix and Linux servers, is a great start and a perfect way to infiltrate the bigger HP. And then we have Hal Massey, with years of experience on NonStop hardware and operating systems, heading BCS hardware development. Gary Campbell moved into the office of the CTO and of course, Chris Whitener, the head of Atalla, now leads the HP ESS security strategy. Not forgetting of course, the several hundred developers working for Mike Dowers that are now living in the Software group, as part of the Neoview team. The scattering of NonStop skilled engineering staff throughout the HP organization has led to a very deep transfer of NonStop knowledge into the very heart of HP.

The question I pose to audiences of late is to no longer think of the uniqueness of NonStop but rather, to think in terms of all future HP product lines being capable of supporting NonStop. The NonStop operating system may be running on all future bladed architecture servers – no longer thought of as a specialized server package, but widely accepted and an option for every user! In a recent exchange with a high-ranking NonStop product manager, he intrigued me with his observation that, once you move beyond fault tolerance, scalability, data integrity and so on, what does the NonStop really help us accomplish? He suggested that what we know is that it absolutely guarantees a transaction will be processed – transactions that arrive at the NonStop platform will be processed! I liked this remark and it further suggests that very soon HP will be supporting a “NonStop option” on many platforms.

There are a lot of changes being proposed and the community faces a major sea-change. As I write this posting we are about mid-way through the voting process to support the creation of a new user group representing the users of all HP BCS products. When I last checked, about 10 percent of the ITUG community had cast their votes and the margin was already close to two to one in favor of creating the new user group. In a follow-up email exchange with Scott Healy and Margo Holen, the current Chair and Vice-Chair of ITUG, Margo quickly responded and told me that “if you don’t vote [are] you abdicating your responsibility as a user to define the future of users groups?”

When it comes to the alternative, or to looking at options other than creating the new community, Scott came out with even a stronger message predicting that the “downside, [is] a gradual decline [in ITUG]. The past few years have been saved by the investments of the reserve. That won't be much help this year. Taking action now, while we are strong, seemed preferable to waiting a few years until we were "hat in hand". I could think of nothing more miserable than presiding over a gradual decline.” ITUG will not disappear, should the community elect to stay independent and remain outside of the greater user community, but its effectiveness and its ability to influence HP will be seriously eroded with little chance of mounting any major initiatives. Perhaps the time has come to let go of the memories we all have of the former Tandem-days we all so fondly remember.

The influence of NonStop is pushing deep into HP BCS and future products will include more and more technology we are all familiar with on the NonStop platform. The downside is that we may not see a separate NonStop product line apart from perhaps a very few specialized bespoke models assembled for a couple of major users, but the upside could be NonStop everywhere! And isn’t this a huge breakthrough for all of us, following the dark days of the last year at Tandem and then again in the years under Compaq? There are still a lot of community members who tell me of how they miss the good old days of Tandem but honestly, in the words of the current popular song by the group Fall Out Boys “thanks for the memories, even though they weren’t so great!”

So if you haven’t voted yet for the creation of the new user community – get on with it, and submit your vote. Your colleagues are anxiously waiting for the results and are all counting on your vote!

There’s a great line in the song “Thanks for the Memories” that adds “I’m looking forward to the future, but my eyesight is going bad! And this crystal ball …” And no I don’t have a crystal ball and yes, I am not seeing as well as I used to, but I do have to admit that aiming to be a significant contributor in the new community with a partner committed to driving NonStop into the heart of future server lines, isn’t all that bad! I am really looking forward to moving ahead in this new community, and with a partner in HP that really gets it!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Social Networking!

Last week I posted an entry into a new community blog on the recently launched HP user group community networking site. Check it out at http://hpusercommunity.org/

The site has just opened, and most of the sections have limited content - but I will be very interested to see how it fairs. I am taking an interest in this site, and in the community that develops around it, as the new user group is created from the platform-specific communities in place today. As readers can tell by now, I am very supportive of social networks and any place I can go to for current information on HP’s platforms and solutions is of particular interest to me.

In the blog entry I posted last week, I made a comment about the green hills of Southern California, and so I have included a picture here of the view from the front of where I live, just so that you could see what it looked like. It lasts for less than a month, and it’s very different from what I am used to back in Colorado. But it’s not really the color, or the temporary nature of it’s presence, that I was interested in but rather its message of change!

As the new community blog went live, I had an email exchange with Nina Buik, the Encompass President, as I was interested to know some of the background. “The social networking initiative was based on the results of a member survey Encompass held in early 2007 … and it was the highest priority,” Nina explained. The Encompass board decided to pursue such a change and selected software from Leverage Software. But Nina quickly added “with the efforts under way across the user groups, this effort is now inclusive of all participating communities.” It is hoped that members of Encompass, ITUG and HP Interext EMEA will be able to connect with like minded technologists and as Nina told me that “to accelerate growth, visibility, and awareness, the new ‘project Endeavour’ social networking site has been launched in conjuncture with HPTF&E and be a means for conference attendees to not only connect on or before the conference, but to then turn to year round as well!”

As you look at the stakeholders in any community - the primary vendor, the competing third-party vendors or ISVs, and the end users - then there’s no question that much of the commentary appears to be coming from the ISVs. It’s not that the end-users are not fully engaged, but the individuals attracted into the ISV community tend to be a lot more vocal than their colleagues in the end-user community. For many end-users, it is strictly forbidden to identify their company affiliation and be visible in something as public as a blog. For others, there will always be the concern that their observations may be at odds with the rest of the community and perceive the risk in responding as outweighing any value they may otherwise obtain. And this is to be expected across any communications vehicle within any community. There will always be a vocal minority!

But are we seeing the presence of vendors in public communication vehicles becoming too prevalent? Are we running the risk of seeing real user dialogue being stifled? As readers of this blog know full-well, I too am a vendor and often reflect a vendor’s perspective. While I do have a day job at GoldenGate, I am conscious of over-referencing GoldenGate solutions. I do try to keep references to GoldenGate products and GoldenGate executives to a minimum, and to limit references to related topics where the product features or executive viewpoints contribute to the overall dialogue. But I am aware that a lot of contributions are coming from ISVs and that they are never shy about expressing an opinion.

In the email exchange with Nina, she did point out that the new Community Networking Site “will also be an excellent marketing venue for HP’s partners to market their ‘wares’ (and that) social networking sites are the fastest growing advertising mediums.” I asked Nina to explain this last point, and she added “because advertisers can reach their target audience without their message being lost on a general webpage!” While I am the first to admit that I really dislike the current fad of pop-ups and the over-use of flash presentations, I can see her point. We do present a good target for many ISVs. But without the support of vendors, much of what we want to have supported within the user community, just wouldn’t happen. The business model for user groups depends on financial support coming from a broad base of partners and the vendor community is incredibly important to the functioning of the community.

But is this turning off users? Is this even impacting our more traditional communication vehicles – are all of our community stakeholders comfortable with the increased visibility of vendors at regional user group meetings (RUGs), within SIGs, and even the main events themselves? Have we seen the scales tip too far in favor of vendor participation and is the increased visibility of vendors turning traditional events into marketing shows? I have written recently how as users of technology, we need to find the right balance when it comes to deploying applications on NonStop. We need to be sensitive to what really should be deployed on the platform. And the same appreciation for balance should apply when we look at the balance of stakeholders within the community.

In a recent exchange with the Advocacy team, Sam Ayres outlined the role of Advocacy and strongly reinforced its future position in the new unified community. Sam is slated to lead the new Advocacy group and has proved a strong champion of this group over the past couple of years. However, one advocacy committee member wrote how he was “hearing that one of the main issues to the user group community as a whole is the lack of actual HP users (and that) the feelings I get are that the vendor community has been turning the user groups into marketing venues and this is why attendance and memberships are down.” To which Sam turned the discussion onto a path I hadn’t considered, saying “I would like to add that many of the ‘partner / vendors’ have assumed that role (within the user groups) because they were among the most successful ‘end users’!” Adding, “we need to maintain balance of true end-users versus partners, we must be careful not to bash those users who were so successful as to start their own companies and become partners!”

I find this gets to the heart of the issue – there really is no firm line between the different stakeholders, nor should we try and establish one. On the one hand a successful user may indeed license their software to another user, or share a back-up site with other users in their city. ISVs may be users in their own right and share the same issues with other users in terms of migration planning and business continuity. Larger ISVs may offer outsourcing and perhaps even Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings. Even the primary vendor may be a user, for a number of ISVs, plugging gaps in their product offerings. In other words, there is a growing fuzzy, blurred, dotted-line between all the stakeholders and each of them has a need to participate in all user community communications vehicles. We may not always be aware of their business goals, but we should never try to peg them down or slot them into just one category. Sam added “we must always keep a balance of end users and HP partner / vendors within the user group organization (as) both serve vital roles in the dynamics of our user group. We just need to make sure we don’t tip the scale too far in either direction."

I closed my most recent posting on the new HP User Group Community Networking Site with an observation about how seasons change and how in business we live with constant change. Adapting to change and growing is the challenge for all businesses. The challenge for user groups is just the same as it is for business – no one at ITUG would have predicted Tandem would be sold to Compaq or that later, Compaq would be acquired by HP – change of this magnitude was not on any ITUG board member’s radarscope. Building a new community and adapting to popular social networking are very important for the future of all stakeholders. We may not like some of the decisions taken, or like the larger visibility of partners. But if the new board gets the balance right, I think all sides will benefit and see that a future within a bigger more dynamic community has so much more to offer.

The green hills here in Southern California will soon be gone and the traditional golden tones so familiar to us all will dominate. I enjoy the cyclical nature of it all and frankly, I like the Colorado’s season changes even better as they are much more pronounced. And I am really looking forward to the next cycle in the life of the user community and to a lively social network!