Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On higher ground – one step at a time!

I have spent the past few weekends travelling back and forth between the front ranges of Colorado and the coastal valleys of Southern California. And even though these trips have become routine, they are proving to be anything but boring or tiring. The changes in elevation that you drive through, offer some spectacular scenery and the picture that I have included here is of me with my back turned away from one of the more scenic sites as I check up on my mail from my Blackberry.

Between the different mountain chains forming the backbones of Colorado and Utah, there are incredibly beautiful elevated planes of stone that push up from the river canyons. As National Geographic has reported “sandstone buttes seem to whirl in place on the Colorado Plateau in Utah.” These areas of high ground, with varying amounts of level surfaces, have become a major feature of the region and groupings of them seem to be giant stepping stones leading up into the Continental Divide visible on the Eastern horizon.

It was against this landscape that I read the latest stories coming out of Beijing in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. Athletes were participating in various warm-up events as they worked hard to time their performances so as to peak on just the right day. And the focus of the coaches was on making sure their star performers didn’t fall into a routine and tail-off prematurely. There was nothing these coaches feared more than to see their charges plateau too early, and fail to live up to the expectations of their legions of fans. Ensuring that their athletes build on each new personal best, and to use each success as a launching point for even greater achievements is what brings the world’s athletes together for each Olympic event.

Regular readers of this column will know of my own endeavors in learning to better drive high performance sports cars, and how I am paying a lot of attention to the instruction I am being given. While this can’t be compared with what the elite athletes in Beijing are accomplishing, I am progressing one step at a time as well. Through repetition, the elimination of mistakes, and eventually consistency, I am learning each track circuit and developing new skills along the way. It’s all about focus and concentrating on execution. And this is the way each student improves their times.

John, the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) instructor overseeing my development, provided the following advice “most people progress in stages, or plateaus. I found that with my own skill, I didn't have a problem going fast (I knew the lines around the track) and that it was true car-control I was missing. Stick to the basics, like looking ahead and smooth stuff, and you'll do great!”

I have been digging through back issues of the Connection magazine as well. I had been looking for articles on Web services and SOA recently, and came across an article by Wil Marshman “What is Real Time?” Wil has been a Product Manager with HP going all the way back to Tandem days, and we had the good fortune working together for a number of years. As I read the article again, I was struck by how often our industry hits plateaus and how it takes considerable creative thinking to move beyond them.

In his article, published in the January / February 2003 issue of Connection, Wil makes a couple of observations I find interesting. He wrote “the term real time was coined in the days when computers were first used with missiles, both indirectly to simulate their flight and directly to control them. Real time meant that the computer program was ‘keeping up’ with the missile.” But then Wil asks the question “can we translate the concept of tracking a missile to operating an enterprise?” And then adding a little later “we have the technologies today to integrate disparate databases, to utilize rules engines for well-known business rules, to interconnect multiple computer platforms, to provide modern command and control centers for management.”

In the early days of applying computers to military “Mission Critical” applications, Wil also notes that there were real issues tracking, and controlling, missiles and that the concept of real time was considered more or less a goal. Computers and the applications of the day just couldn’t process all the data generated during the flight of a missile. But with each subsequent chip generation, together with major software breakthroughs, the real time goal was realized.

The evolution wasn’t linear. This wasn’t about incremental change adopted on a regular basis. Moore’s law worked against simply refining processes – it mandated “break-through” developments in order to leave one elevated plane behind and reach for one that’s even higher. Just as the buttes on the Colorado Plateau in Utah begin to look like a sequence of giant stepping stones rising up to meet distant mountains so too, has been the course of silicon research. From valves (or tubes), to transistors, to integrated circuits, to simplex cores, to the multi-core technologies of today, at every step along the way innovative engineers dragged the rest of the community up onto the next plateau.

Wil raised the notion that with the coming of the “real time enterprise … a company can manage all its data (and) that it can all be so well integrated that brand new things can be done.” While many institutions question the value, and indeed necessity, to provide a real time view into a company’s data – the reality is that there’s a huge competitive advantage to those companies who see trends and recognize business shifts, and can react accordingly.

Often the supporters of less-than-real time, or near-real time, technologies or solutions are simply those vendors without solutions capable of supporting a real time environment. Can you ever really justify not stretching to achieve more – users may elect not to deploy a technology or solution to its full capabilities, but they should never be constrained by a product’s short-comings or limitations.

In my day job here at GoldenGate, real time is something everyone in the company consciously focuses on – everything we do helps reinforce the thought that you can access current information in real time. And the comprehensive scope of the product today is a reflection on the number of steps, or plateaus, it has ascended laying one feature on top of another. But just as an athlete uses a personal best as a launching pad for even greater achievements, and as the demands of the military focused the minds of technologists, it is very evident that companies like GoldenGate advance by progressing in stages, mounting one plateau at a time.

“The contribution our customers have made helping us ascend from one plane to the next,” suggests Sami Akbay, VP Marketing for GoldenGate, “cannot be understated. Without the partnership with Sabre, we would not have pursued data base tiering and without the engineering support from our partner ACI, it may have taken a lot longer to develop support for dual site and active – active product features. Each of these undertakings helped focus the company on what needed to be done to propel us further into supporting real time access to real time information.”

In today’s Mission Critical world, where many HP NonStop Servers are deployed, there really isn’t any practical limit to keeping operational systems fully synchronized with the reality that is the business of the moment. When I asked Wil if he still agreed with the article he wrote back in 2003, he quickly responded “it stands up pretty well, even regarding companies moving to become real time businesses, (and the) importance of decisions based on real time data.”

Will we ever stop trying to run or swim faster? Will we ever turn down the opportunity to drive a car with too much power and too much speed? Will we ever be completely happy with old information?

We are all driven to improve on our personal bests and to perform better at every opportunity. Mission Critical technologies and solutions require no less of an effort and the companies that capitalize on products that operate in real time, can flex competitive muscle in ways others may be compelled to match.

Have you taken a good look at the landscape around you and begun to step up to higher plateaus? Or are your coaches unimpressed with your lack of focus and despairing at your sub-par performances?

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