Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Watch the dips …

I was walking to the coffee shop this morning and as I was about to step onto the crosswalk I heard a thunderous crunch. Heading the other way across the intersection was a small car that had driven through a deep drainage culvert running across the street. The impact from driving through this dip was a tearing noise that sounded very much like something under the car was no longer attached. An expensive dip in the road!

And it made me recall the roads I have travelled recently as I have crisscrossed the south west. Readers may have already checked out my social blog buckle-up-travel where on August 26th I wrote a blog posting “Crisscrossing the Continental Divide …”. Many of the highways I took were in pretty poor shape.

On the interstates, it was a different story as nearly every bridge was under repair, but driving any road other than the interstate was fraught with dangers. Washouts, potholes, and crumbling edges pounded the car continuously and often had you peering off the end of your hood to make sure there was actually something stable under your wheels! And the picture I have included here is from the internet but shows clearly what many of us encounter on a regular basis.

From the first time I drove onto a US highway, back in the ‘70s, I have loved to travel across America. I was coming down from Canada and entered Montana on what turned out to be an 8,000 mile drive across ten states and two provinces over a three week period. And I haven’t really cut back at all, even with gas prices now at the levels they are. But the state of the roads is really appalling and with the low clearances of today’s modern cars, every one of these potholes has a potential to create financial disaster.

But it’s not just the highways that are in trouble. I have spent the past weekend in Austin, Texas and flew back to Simi Valley late Sunday afternoon. And the condition and cleanliness of the planes, and the quality of the upkeep of airport facilities, is not far behind. So hearing that the computers of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) went down yesterday during a normal, daily software load, with many flights delayed and many more cancelled, came as no real surprise.

It led to one Atlanta FAA spokesperson remarking “apparently a file was corrupted and that brought the system down… the Naden (facility, south of Atlanta) outage resulted in about 650 flight delays nationwide.” Surely not – one corrupt file brings down an entire communications network? And no way to rapidly back it out and repair? For corporations exposed this way, many more consequences and perhaps a lot more serious than a dip in the road!

It wasn’t too long ago, when working on the Tandem Computers campus in Cupertino, you couldn’t walk past a facility without seeing signs directing FAA personnel to classrooms. It had been a significant win for Tandem and in subsequent visits to FAA facilities back east, I saw a number of CLXs in operation – tied into the national weather services, as I recall. But at the time, it always puzzled me why an agency, like the FAA, didn’t deploy more of its applications on NonStop. It seemed pretty obvious to me that it was like a match made in heaven, given the very nature of the aviation industry. But without knowing too much more, it seems that old systems continue to prevail, outages continue to happen, and the transportation infrastructure crumbles further.

NonStop has had a role in the transportation industry for many years. Whether it’s been car manufacturers, trucking companies, delivery companies, the use of NonStop has been extensive. I was recently on the internet searching for information on NonStop when I came across Marshall Resources, Inc where their “Refurbished Tandem HP NonStop Equipment” Client List included such well known names as USPS, UPS, FedEx – all valued operators in the transportation arena.

As I continued to research NonStop and transportation infrastructure, I came across a recruiter looking for staff for Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) where the requirements were “Experience in SUN Solaris or Linux administration and scripting; good knowledge of TCP/IP and networking concepts; … and HP Non-Stop technology will be advantageous.”

Readers familiar with this blog may recall a previous posting, on March 21 ’08, “The need for standardization!“ where I talked about my early IT experiences in container shipping. This has to be a recent win for HP and I cannot really comment further as I know very little, but it just strengthens my own observations that NonStop servers and major infrastructure industries, particularly transportation, really are a great fit!

The reference to PSA also brought back other memories. I had only just left Nixdorf Computers in Australia to become the Managing Director of Netlink (then called Systems Technology), in its early start-up phase, and one of my first tasks was to oversee the relocation of manufacturing from a local Sydney contractor to a Singapore contractor. Netlink designed and manufactured a line of SNA protocol convertors and hubs and for many years was the provider of a premier product in this market segment. PSA was in the throws of migrating to Fujitsu’s Plug Compatible Mainframe (PCM) computers and needed to support older generation network devices and the Netlink protocol convertors helped them out.

Up until I joined Netlink, my IT career had centered on IBM mainframes – including PCMs – but this was the first step that would lead me to Tandem Computers and to the NonStop architecture. But to my IBM colleagues, this wasn’t a dip in the road or some other inconvenience – this was leaving the road altogether! What was I thinking?

As Netlink grew and began to develop a US business, I moved to the US to take up a corporate position in business development. And it was while working in business development that the deal to bring in Tandem as the major investor was put together. At the time, I met folks like Andy Hall, Suri Harish, and Roger Mathews – and it was after talking to Suri one night, that I decided to leave Netlink, return to Sydney, and join Tandem.

Events took over and things developed rather quickly after returning to Sydney and joining Tandem. Within a year I was commuting to Cupertino where I became a Program Manager before joining Product Marketing and eventually Product Management. With my background in IBM and my experience at Netlink, it was no surprise that I was heavily involved in the product management of networking and communications solutions.

However, while a Product Manager, I was approached to join Insession and the chance to work at another start-up proved irresistible. And it was also the chance to join up with Mark Hutchens once again – Mark had replaced me as Managing Director of Netlink Australia when I left for the U.S. Insession provided alternate communication stack offerings for SNA support and was eventually acquired by ACI Worldwide. I remained with ACI for many years, only recently joining GoldenGate Software whose products had been sold into the NonStop marketplace by ACI Worldwide.

Infrastructure has been a consistent theme for much of my IT career, and has heavily influenced the types of IT positions I have held. And it really bothers me that in today’s world, so much of the infrastructure we depend upon is crumbling away. Am I an evangelist of the use of NonStop for key infrastructure industries – you bet! I can’t imagine another technology providing a better fit – all key infrastructure needs to run 7 X 24 X 365 without disruption. Outages – planned or otherwise – cannot be tolerated, as service is immediately impacted, and in many instances we all hear about it quickly as news scrolls across the bottoms of our television sets under the banner of “breaking news”!

Are we poised to see wider deployment of NonStop in this no-downtime-tolerated market segment? I certainly never considered my move away from mainframes and IBM to Tandem as a dip in the road, even if my colleagues at the time were puzzled by it. I recognized a technology with great potential, and I pursued it. And I am becoming more encouraged as I hear – anecdotally, and even accidently, as I troll web sites - more companies in the infrastructure space turning to NonStop.

The recent driving through the south west highlighted that there will always be dips in the road – unsighted, potentially dangerous, but they’re all the same. Unprepared, and with the wrong platform, incapable of recovering from a simple transfer of a corrupt file, has to rate right up there with “the dog ate my homework”! Shouldn’t we be more vocal as a community about the smooth ride that comes from running on NonStop?

And shouldn’t we be more demonstrable, as we ride on through catastrophes that take down other solutions? Dips in the road will not go away, but their consequences will, in part, reflect the technology choices we make.

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