Thursday, June 5, 2008

My road to the vendor side ...

I try to avoid starting a blog posting with references to the weather! It is a bit like saying - I like your tie! Or, I like your shoes! But returning to Boulder has been a bit of a shock, and I really did have to check the calendar. Yes, it is June 5th! From early afternoon yesterday, the rains came. Hard! And through breaks in the clouds, I can see the snow falling in Estes Park and across the Continental Divide as well as the Front Ranges. I am being advised that the snow level is down to 8,000 feet.

But it’s June and it’s BBQ season – I wanted to ride my motorcycle on the peak to peak highway this evening, but it’s now out of the question.

The limited amount of driving I have had to do has been hazardous, with signs on the freeway announcing “Pooled Water on the Highway”, but having the SUV in the garage helped a lot. Not sure how long it remains viable, given how gas prices have soared, but there are still times where the vehicle’s ground clearance and its all wheel drive capability has its upside.

But I am not ready to give up on living next to the mountains – and the picture I have included (above) is the winter view we have of both the Continental Divide and the Front Ranges, and the picture to the left is what I awoke to following a day of rain and snow!

I first experienced living near the mountains when I moved to Edmonton, Alberta in 1976. Waiting in the lobby of Alberta House in London for my immigration papers, I was surrounded by pictures of the Canadian Rockies highlighting places like Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper. It came as quite a shock when I arrived in Edmonton to find the mountains were nowhere to be found. The city is in the prairies but once settled in, I took every opportunity to drive up into the mountains and I enjoyed each time I had among the peaks.

I have mentioned in a previous blog the opportunity I had to join a Caterpillar distributor in Edmonton, and to work in their service bureau. But what I left out was that this opportunity turned out to be the changing point in my career – that period in my life when I knew that my career was in IT, but not as an end user. For the two years I worked at the Caterpillar distributor, I slowly gravitated to the vendor community and I found working in a service bureau was the ideal place to make the transition. My manager, Mike Day, turned out to be a great mentor and I will always remember working for him.

There had been time sharing operations available for some time. However, by the time the mid-70s arrived, a number of purpose-built service bureaus began to appear. Want your payroll processed? There’s a center across town doing just that application! Want your statements printed? There’s another center we know that have just opened a printing shop – all we do is supply them with a spool-file tape! The easy access to companies like FedEx and UPS guaranteed a reliable infrastructure could be put in place.

As I noted in that earlier post, the Caterpillar Distributor, R. Angus (Alberta) Limited (RAAL), was quite progressive in spinning off its service bureau into a subsidiary, R. Angus Computer Services (RACS) and looking for complementary business. However, the pricing for the services was never completely figured out and, for much of its life, remained heavily subsidized by its parent, RAAL. Although the service bureau had two mainframes, adding a second site and ensuring continuous availability became a lengthy exercise with requirements far outstripping the capabilities of the day. And was basing the solutions on an IBM mainframe even the right technology choice?

Suddenly, the Athebasca Oil Sands reclamation project exploded onto the scene, and the mining operators began to “devour” Caterpillar tractors at a ferocious clip. And devouring was the operative word, as oil sands found their way into every moving part of a $300,000 Caterpillar scraper rendering it completely useless after only a few months. RAAL had hit the “mother load” as far as customer demand for its tractors was concerned, and interest in the service bureau waned rapidly. Shortly after that, the bureau was sold to a New York service company, Advanced Computer Techniques (ACT) founded by a real industry character, Charlie Lecht, who went to school with one of the RAAL executives.

I had been brought to Edmonton to help out with selecting a general purpose Data Base Management System (DBMS) software product, having come in on the end of such a project when I was in London. At the time, the “Big 5” for any IBM mainframe shop was Cincom’s Total, Cullinane’s IDMS, a product called System 2000, Software AG’s ADABAS, and a mixed bag of offerings from IBM including DL/1. As RACS was an established CICS shop, with their customers accessing data on-line, it would be ideal if the data base software selected worked well with CICS!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t part of the game plan for most DBMS providers who were anxious to add a data communications component to their DBMS offering. So, ignoring all the cue’s I had picked up on, and putting to one side all the experience I had accumulated working with Cullinane’s IDMS product, I selected a brand new DBMS offering with only limited references - choosing their complementary data communications offering thinking that I could simply replace the entrenched CICS environment.

The approach I took in selecting this product, Datacom DB (with Datacom DC), so appealed to the Dallas, Texas based vendor that they invited me to present at their user group conference. And so my path to the vendor community, and my interest in user groups, commenced. And in my last days in Edmonton I worked hard on convincing the management of RACS to become the Datacom distributor for Canada – even though Alberta was a long way from the lucrative IT belt of Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal.

Service bureaus have all but disappeared. Some large corporations operate businesses that look a lot like the service bureau’s of yesterday, and ADP comes to mind. But today, there’s so much talk about Software as a Service (SaaS) and, before that, Application Service Providers (ASPs) architectures, that I can’t help but feel we are revisiting an old model.

Only this time, there’s no need for FedEx and UPS there once was, as everything is hooked together via the Internet. But many of the problems remain similar – pricing of the services is just as difficult as it’s always been, ensuring continuous available through any number of disaster scenarios remains an issue, and finding the right mix of technology continues to be a challenge!

Will the imminent arrival of cloud computing help out at all? I am sure it will make an impact – there’s a clear fit between building a cloud and providing SaaS – and I will be watching it closely. The leaders within HP BCS certainly acknowledge that, with the new bladed architecture together with the support of shared blade infrastructure, the basic pieces are beginning to fall into place for a very compelling solution.

And I am convinced there will be a number of major customers who gravitate to this architecture. But are we just revisiting the past? Is the possibility of pooled water on the highway ahead of us coming at a time when everything else suggests it shouldn’t be? Do we have the SUV warming up in the garage ready to overcome any barriers across our path? Will the apparent prolific compute-power, coming with newer HP platforms, marginalize former problem-areas faced by service bureaus and allow us to smoothly transition to this new architecture? Could we be witnessing the emergence of a HP server dynasty!

What happened with all that Datacom knowledge – well, it turned out to be the key that allowed me to return home to Australia. After first trying to join the organization in Dallas, but not having the right immigration papers to support such a move, their distributor in Australia appeared on the scene and in urgent need for training as they had just sold Datacom to a large service bureau! It was the perfect match so within weeks, I returned home.

I have stayed in the vendor community ever since and probably will remain associated with a vendor for the rest of my career. But looking back to my time in Edmonton, and to my experience at the service bureau, I will always appreciate the mentoring I had and the opportunity I was given. The only downside I can look back on is that, as I was leaving Edmonton and as the local ice hockey team moved from the old World Hockey League to the National Hockey League, a young kid showed up – Wayne Gretzky – and I missed the creation of hockey’s most famous dynasty!

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