Monday, July 7, 2008

Turn this ship around!

I am back in Boulder for the July 4th weekend. After nearly four weeks of continuous travel, and from going to one user event after the other, I have really enjoyed the downtime that came with the holiday break. It’s been a while but I took some time out to take my motorcycle up into the mountains once again - and it's pictured here just before I rode off.

The weather in the greater Denver area has been very hot with afternoon thunderstorms and as I pushed the bike out of the garage, it looked like the afternoon was going to be a repeat of those evenings already passed. But I couldn’t see any lightening, so I thought I would take the road up into the mountains where only after a few miles up the road it began to rain heavily. Riding became difficult and I had to change my approach and what came to me were memories from my most recent performance driving classes. For the sake of safety, they were teaching the class to take corners with a relatively late turn-in, waiting until they had a good view of the road ahead. In other words don’t cut the corner, but rather, stay out a little longer before the turn-in and you will have less chance of running off the road.

Adapting to the conditions, and putting into practice what I had learnt from a different form of vehicle control, allowed me to ride safely and gave me an opportunity to be in the mountains at a time when it really is at its freshest and where the air is perfumed with the scent of trees and wild flowers. Even if it meant moving out of my comfort zone and holding my line a little longer than I was used to, it made me ride with a more upright stance and slowed me down considerably.

The flight back to Boulder was once again eventful – the plane out of Burbank was cancelled and the only way to Denver was to take a flight to San Francisco and lay over for a late afternoon flight home. As I wanted to spend the holiday weekend with family, I made the effort but once again, it messed up the whole day. And it reminded me of my previous trip into Denver where the last flight on the Friday night was cancelled and I had to return home and take the Saturday flight. Of course, this meant I had to rent a car to get home and back again.

Riding through the mountains and trying new lines through the corners brought back that early Saturday morning trip to the airport as just as I turned into the road taking me into the airport, the local FM radio-station played a pretty amusing set of three songs, and the compilation has stayed with me through all the user events I have participated in.

“Can't you feel 'em circlin', honey. Can't you feel 'em schoolin' aroundYou got fins to the left, fins to the right. And you're the only bait in town”

This is the chorus from Jimmy Buffett’s famous “Fins” song and it had been only a few hours before that I had finally decided to accompany my eldest daughter, Anna, to the car dealerships to help sort out which car she would buy. Anna has been looking for quite a few months now and I wrote about this in a previous blog posting. Now it got serious and the stakes are high – and the car salesmen seem to have an uncanny knack of knowing this.

Walking around the exhibition hall at this year’s HP Technology Forum and Expo (HPTF&E) gave me a similar feeling. Although a seasoned stroller through exhibitions, I still am anxious about being approached by well-meaning sales folks. And I never seem to have a good response prepared for when I am approached. Perhaps it’s not quite fair to compare computer sales folk to car sales folks but nonetheless, I could sympathize with my daughter and appreciate why I was there.

“New tides surprise - my world it's changing … I built this ship - it is my making!Crazy on a ship of fools! Turn this boat around … ”

A few lines taken from the second song, “Crazy Ship of Fools” sang by Robert Plant. It was back in late ‘60s, when I was riding in my friend Graham’s old Holden station wagon (the local GM product) on a Sunday afternoon and as we were cruising up the Palm Beach Road, on came Led Zeppelin with their first major release “Whole Lotta Love” and as the song began to gain in volume in the opening bars, it was the voice of Robert Plant (long before we appreciated Jimmy Page), that made Graham pull off to the side of the road so that we could listen without disruption.

Many years later I heard another Australian singer / songwriter Richard Clapton chronicle those days in a milestone piece he called Deep Water, but I will leave this for another time. As I listened to Robert Plant singing about being crazy on his own ship I couldn’t help but identify with all the data center managers I have talked to over the past few months.

On the one hand we have HP taking everything to blades, and announcing NonStop support for blades. On the other hand, we have IBM putting even more marketing muscle behind the mainframe message. Even though, only a few weeks earlier, IBM had announced that the IBM BladeCenter would now support System i alongside System p with the blades extending support to IBM i 6.1 (IBM i5/OS V6R1), AIX 5.3 or later, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 for POWER SP1 or later, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux for POWER Version 4.6 or later.

According to the April 2nd, 2008 press release “IBM introduced the first of a new generation of IBM(R) Power Systems that will provide IBM System i and System p clients a single, unified line of servers … i Edition Express for BladeCenter S offers an extremely attractive option for existing AS/400®, iSeries® and System i 515, 520 and 525 customers.” But no mainframe option! No support for z/OS!

I have spent a lot of time in both the HP and the IBM camps. I have a great many friends among the IBM mainframe community as I have many friends using NonStop. There have been times when the issues for both user camps has been very similar – how many times were we been told that these systems were “legacy” and that continuing to invest in them was short-sighted? Why would they be retained as everyone headed for open systems and why all the expense on maintaining their applications? The old retort “Batch is Dead” was recently replaced with “Batch is Dead-er” at one event I recently attended.

But with HP’s blades announcement and the support for NonStop on blades, HP is taking a different approach for its leading transactional system. IBM may be keeping System z outside of blades while HP is welcoming NonStop to blades. Will IBM turn its ship around? For sure, they made the ship and they can pretty much do as they please but will they? I am not so sure and from what I can tell, may even isolate it further. And this, for me, is pretty sad to see.

I still believe, after you have peeled away all of the marketing hype and looked really closely at the System z, IBM has not only a mainframe, but the biggest, bad-ass server in the marketplace. But to change direction, drop the mainframe label, and opt for running it as another configuration on the IBM BladeCenter will become increasingly difficult to do. And it may not prove to be enough if they leave it much longer. And I wonder if they are seeing any fins to the left, fins to the right!

The third song in the set played on the radio? It was that well known anthem by the Rolling Stones – “It’s only Rock ‘n’ Roll” with the chorus:
“I said I know it's only rock and roll, but I like it, like it, yes I do.Well I like it oh yes, I like it, I like it ..”

Having been associated with Tandem for more than two decades, and having come from an IBM mainframe world, there have been times where I truly thought NonStop wouldn’t make it. I had given serious thought to the downside of my conviction that the platform was the best choice for supporting mission-critical applications, but had elected to hang in there all the same. Is IBM right in keeping their mainframe offerings above the fray and free of any association with blades and server offerings? Is NonStop headed in the right direction, leveraging the best of HPs technology? Will there be a furious rush to embrace the blades offerings?

I have my own ideas about this and just as I adapted to the wet conditions on the mountain and as I slowed down to take a later turn-in to the corners, so too I suspect many data center managers will wait for better visibility of the road ahead. Adapting to the conditions has been all part and parcel of the “modus operandi” of successful data center managers over the years. But the potential that comes from optimizing around a “standard package” product remains compelling and sure to win over many advocates.

Will this put even more distance between HP and IBM? Will NonStop on blades present data center managers with viable new choices? I don’t want to be drawn into anything controversial just yet as I can see the fins circling and “something’s gotta give.” I am not sure whether any vendor can be considered crazy or not – even at a stretch. But there comes a time when ships do need to be turned around. And after all the years I have spent in IT, I can only echo Mick Jager and say “I like it! I like it! yes I do!”

Footnote: And for Jeff Wilson of HP - who really wanted to know what car Anna bought - it was the Infiniti EX 35!

1 comment:

John Matthew said...

Richard,

I love your write-up I find the use of the IBM Z-Series interesting for large Linux deployments.

A buddy of mine at GE went to a show at the IBM center somewhere back-east, and they gave the full push for the Z-Series. Man, if you read some of the docs on it's capability, its awesome.

I haven't studied much of the blades from HP, but I know they are throwing everything they can at it as the current Data Center solution (power, A/C, space). It will be interesting to see who comes out ahead.

We use all HP equipment, and I must say, they do a very nice job. I've had experience all the way back to the 65xx series. HP makes a great product.

Always nice to read your blog.

Take care

John