Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Blues!

I have just returned from spending a couple of days at the ACI Customer Exchange (ACE) event in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the theme had been “The Next Horizon”. A number of participants had wondered whether the picture selected, as the symbol of such a next horizon, was depicting a sunset or a sunrise. Perhaps the implications, of one over the other, with respect to the fortunes of ACI Worldwide, could become the subject of another blog posting, but it did remind me of another picture – The Blues Brothers.

For readers who may not recall, in that movie Jake and Elwood Blues wanted to get their band back together and perform once more. Having convinced the band members to return, Jake promised them a “gig” for the evening, but as they drove out of Chicago and the afternoon turned into evening, out of desperation, Jake pulls into a bar that was promoting the appearance that night of a band called the “Good ol’ Boys” and passes off the band as the group. When he asked the publican’s wife what music their patrons preferred, she responded “only two types, country and western!”

The picture I have included here is of me outside the meeting rooms at the open fire-pit where, each evening, conference attendees gathered for a last nightcap to discuss the presentations heard that day. These memories of The Blues Brothers film came to mind after one of the keynote presentations at ACE – this time from Big Blue!

The presentation, given by a senior manager from IBM’s Payment Team, made reference to the recently published survey IBM had undertaken of Global CEO’s. The results are on the IBM web site and is called “The Enterprise of the Future”. In his introduction, the IBM CEO Sam Palmisano remarks “our clients’ experience is consistent: a focus on innovation works… those of you who are making the boldest plays … and (pursuing) disruptive business model innovation – are outperforming your peers.”

The report goes on to describe what the enterprise of the future will look like, based on the surveys results, and how “the enterprise of the future establishes processes and structures that promote innovation and transformation”. Innovation and transformation that, according to IBM, will be via disruptive technologies - like the iPhone, etc. How long did it take IBM to figure this all out? And I can’t help but see the parallel to the response Jake received from the publican’s wife. And many of us in the audience this week, I have to believe, sighed as heavily as Jake.

Martin Fink, in his latest blog posting on September 15, 2008 - The UNIX Paradox - Stability - wrote:

“I completely understand the desire for stability in one’s production environment … Don’t, however, be mistaken that by focusing on stabilization I am neglecting innovation. Innovation is key to the future of our operating environments …”

In a blog posting I made back on November 25th, 2007 - Preventer of Information Services? – I suggested:

“The ability to innovate, and than adapt, is critical for any business today. There is little potential for remaining in business if we just stand still … Innovation is important – it’s what puts distance between those individuals and corporations that are successful and those that fail.”

In the film, the Blues Brothers tried to ignore the advice of the publican’s wife and suffered the consequences: they had to regroup and play the music the audience came to hear. It wasn’t quite the same with the ACE audience, but pretty close. After all, this was an audience made up of predominantly BASE24 users, with years of experience running HP NonStop servers – and had been at the forefront of innovation for decades.

In my last days at Tandem, I had the opportunity to participate in a product roadshow through South-East Asia as part of the launch of the latest version of the NonStop operating system, and where the support of Unix APIs was being provided for the first time. In Bangkok, I gave a presentation to twenty or so participants in the event, and I went into excruciating details about the NonStop Kernel and all that it could now support. I thought it was one of my better presentations and I presented for an hour.

However, when the next presenter of the detailed NonStop plans, Margo Holen, took to the stage, she politely asked “how many of you are familiar with Tandem and with the NonStop operating system?” and to my surprise, not a single hand went up. “Well then,” she added, “perhaps we should all adjourn to the bar!” It turned out that the participants were all Unix developers and were simply interested in a high level snapshot of what was now supported and sitting through a presentation on Pathway, NS SQL, TMF, etc came as a bit of a surprise, and pretty boring and irrelevant, to this audience. Fortunately for me, there was no culture of throwing rotting fruit or beer bottles at the stage to express displeasure, but I have to believe their next visit to the dentist didn’t seem to be as painful as listening to my hour-long presentation.

Attempting to build on the theme of innovation and transformation, the IBM presenter at the ACE conference went on to talk about the IBM System z platform. Again, the majority of the participants at ACE were from the financial services and retailing industries, with years of knowledge of NonStop, and those were the folks who had made the decision to use the NonStop server after looking at all of the alternatives, and they were not all that familiar with IBM and IBM terminology. All was going along quite well and it was getting close to the break, so a little fidgeting among the audience was apparent when the IBM presenter came out with “Availability? Twenty years ago, Tandem built a box that was ahead of all other products but today, the System z is now clearly on top when it comes to availability!”

So much for thoughts about coffee! Quick sideways glances showed many amused faces – did the speaker really not understand the background of the attendees? We all know what ACI is pursuing the alliance with IBM but to this group of users? IBM is a great company, with a wonderful history, and has demonstrated time and time again how to change the playing field when up against a tough competitor. But to try and promote the prospect that NonStop wasn’t as available as the System z, and to this particular audience, has to rank as one of its all time boldest moves. Or something far removed from being bold!

I have had a short email exchange with Jim Johnson, Chairman of the Standish Group, and asked him about this remarks on availability by IBM. Jim responded that it really depends on the “sampling” these days, as the gap between NonStop and System z has closed appreciatively. Referring to his latest survey, he noted that from the “numbers … in this report … as you can see they are neck and neck. Any change to sample could easily put them ahead.”

But out-of-the-box, can you simply deploy a System z, and drop in an application, and get the same level of availability as you would get out-of-the-box with NonStop? Is availability built right into the hardware and operating systems, the middleware and common services as is the case with NonStop, and is availability measured in terms of application availability?

IBM has come along way with Parallel Sysplex, and with Geographically Dispersed Parallel Sysplex (GDPS), but out-of the-box? And at what cost? And with what complexity? I remain unconvinced and I have been around IBM mainframes since the early seventies.

This will be a topic I will explore further in the coming months as it is central to why any of us continues to rely on NonStop. But it does take me back to my presentation in Bangkok – do the predominantly NonStop users of ACI products care about IBM and the System z? Is there any real interest in something so alien to them and so fraught with risk?

IBM talks a lot about innovation and transformation and about the use of disruptive technologies – but NonStop is THE benchmark when it comes to a disruptive technology and nothing I have seen from IBM, as much as I really do love the folks I know there, suggests anything has changed and I am looking forward to diving deeper into this topic.

And talking of NonStop’s availability and the future postings I will develop, also takes me back to the Blues Brothers, THE benchmark movie and to their famous line:

“It's 106 miles to Chicago. We've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses - Hit it!”


Anonymous said...

Richard, to extend your Blues Brother analogy, in the sauna, the promoter tells them that no one is interested in their music anymore, but they go onto fill the biggest concert hall around by delivering on their traditional promise.

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