Saturday, June 14, 2008

Road to Mandalay (Bay)!

After the better part of this week in the San Francisco Bay area, I have now arrived in Las Vegas for the HP Technical Forum and Expo (HPTF&E). Last week I was at sea level enjoying three perfect days of sunshine – not a frequent occurrence and much welcomed by the locals. The picture I have included here is of me looking across at the Bay Bridge that runs nearby the offices of GoldenGate Software.

As readers will have seen in the previous posting I was at the GoldenGate Real-Time 2008 event, where the theme was “Where Information Meets Innovation”. And the event turned out to be an excellent warm-up for the main event from HP this week in Las Vegas. No more so than during the final panel session of the event where CIOs were given an opportunity to present their views on data and where one of the panelists warned us all to be on the look-out for complacency!

In the sport of motor racing, one thing that often happens is that a racer continues to improve until he reaches a stage where no matter what he tries, he just doesn’t get any faster. These drivers will then tinker with their cars in an effort to go faster, or talk with other competitors to see if there are “secret lines” through corners that perhaps they are missing. They sometimes even go looking for different race tracks. But it’s usually not the tracks or the cars, but the drivers where the problem lies. Racers often reach a certain comfort level and find it hard to brake through it and really race at the limit. And it’s the gradual development of complacency while in this comfort zone that impedes any future “break-through” achievements.

And so it is with data center operations. How many of us reach a level of comfort with what we are supporting, and with the tools we are using? How many of us even feel uncomfortable when called upon to do something a little differently? How many of us experience mixed feelings when the systems we have been using for 3 or 4 years are upgraded or replaced and we face something very unfamiliar for the first time? How many of us even look back with some nostalgia to the days of batch, where every step in every run was scheduled often days, and sometimes weeks, in advance?

In his introduction to the panel, Alok Pareek, GoldenGate’s VP of Technology, presented a high-level view of concerns being expressed by CIO’s as reported in the popular press. He had assembled the points made about things holding back enterprises which represented many of the key inhibitors to moving out of their comfort zones. Among the concerns were “deriving value from the data”, the need for “faster, (more) accurate data”, the provision of “uninterrupted services”, “scalability”, and “cost”. Alok then went on to make a comment that put a whole new spin on why the IT industry continues to spawn new entrants when he simply observed “between the promise of (a technology, a product, or a service) made by vendors, and the reality that eventuates, is the “gap” that provides the impetus for new vendors to step in and innovate!”

The problem with data today is that it is “isolated, not easily accessible, and (we need) to release its value through better integration”, Alok said. By doing so, we support much faster and more accurate analysis of changing business operations and can respond, even innovate, accordingly. Alok then asked “why do we continue to question real time data (integration)!”

As the panel moved on to costs, there was a hidden gem that I guess shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me - “processing the data as it arrives, is going to become necessary as it’s the most efficient way to deal with data.” And that, one big benefit from moving from batch to real time is that you “smooth out the processing – (it’s) now a continuous process with less pressure and contention for switches, bandwidth, etc. Arguments were made that suggested that data is at its most valuable where it is captured – in the office, the street, , whatever. And once the data has been captured, in percentage terms only a small component is ever subject to change – often as low as 1 percent. “Sure, the data will contribute value in summary form when fed into analysis applications, but for the most part, it’s of most value locally.

“Separate the processing of data from the delivery of data (and) for these reasons you want to process the data as its coming in! Process continuously (and) serve it up to the users when they need it! Think about how to process continuously as this will give you huge leverage over cost!” Again, the arguments were made which pointed out that following this model allowed you to deploy smaller simpler nodes, rather than depending on clusters, and that these reduced complexity, operational overhead and this lead to significantly reduced costs. It also facilitates more flexible data recovery scenarios – as you can, according to one panelist, “bring Disaster Recovery (DR) redundancy into your core operations – load balancing, etc. - such that at all times, you know every server, every site, every link of the total system architecture is working and will less likely fail when called upon in a DR situation.”

I took a good look around the audience and even though it was an early-morning session hard on the heels of a lengthy, previous-evening, networking opportunity that continued on into the early morning, many of the participants were furiously taking notes. Comfort zones were being sorely tested and any remaining complacency was being shaken. And then, a question from the audience “we have heard (a lot) about spreading out our processing – scaling horizontally, as it has been suggested – but it would appear to be at odds with the hardware vendors product directions as they continue to develop and promote fewer, larger, CPUs, and bigger disks, and will we be locked into this “fewer, but faster / bigger components scenario where scalability becomes mountainous?”

And maybe this is my cue, as I arrive in Las Vegas, having traveled the “Road to Mandalay”. In the days ahead, perhaps HP product roadmaps will address these issues and be less at odds with what the panel of CIOs was endorsing. In a break with the past, perhaps it just wont be more of the same “fewer, faster, bigger”, but rather help us get even more value from our data.

As you first enter the cavernous complex that is the Mandalay Bay convention center and hotel complex, it takes a while to recognize that it was Rudyard Kipling’s poem that inspired much of the architecture:

“Come you back to Mandalay, where the old Flotilla lay:Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?”
Everywhere there are planters of bamboo, the occasional strands of vines, and the lobby store is the “Rangoon”. There’s the Shark Reef and Aquarium to add a little more to the sense of the exotic Far East everywhere you look. And as I ventured out this morning, the lyrics of Sting’s song “Desert Rose” with its Moroccan melody and Algerian chorus added another layer to the atmosphere.

Yes, we have returned to Mandalay. It may not be the British Naval flotilla that is the attraction – I have included a photo of the exhibition floor in very early stages of assembly – but as the events of the week unfold it will be equally as impressive, I have to believe. Will HP hardware product roadmaps be a continuation of the past – will they too, like IBM back in February, be taking the wraps of their latest high-end server or will we see some divergence and the commencement of a new, less mountainous path? Will all the hype of the past few months surrounding a bladed architecture present us with new options and perhaps some relief from the demands to add capacity in ever-increasing chunks? I happen to think there will be relief and I am expecting to see some real product “fireworks” along the way!

This week I am high up in the desert where the dry air and heat is far removed from the moist, marine-air surrounding San Francisco Bay. It is a hard climate and the drive out through the desert landscape was in stark contrast from only a few days ago when I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway along the California’s Pacific coastline from Monterey to Cambria. The desert forces you out of you comfort zone and, if you remain complacent and inattentive to your surroundings, can seriously injure you. Kipling’s poem goes on to observe:

“On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin'-fishes play, An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!”

And after GoldenGate’s Real Time event in San Francisco, I have to say that while the only “flyin’-fishes” may be in the resort’s aquarium, that I am expecting thunder out of Mandalay Bay!

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