Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The game changes ....

Late last year I was invited to my high-school reunion. In Sydney, no less! Unfortunately, business got in the way and I had no chance to participate. This is the second time I have missed a reunion, but our school captain, Will Jephcott, persists and hopefully I will make it one year. Then again, you have to be careful what you wish for – after all these years will I recognize anyone and will anyone want to see me? The picture above is of me when I was 13 or so – and it was forwarded to me by Graham Maher. Graham who?

In High School, I played Rugby and after a short stint in Rugby Union switched to Rugby League where I didn’t do too badly, playing a little representative League. But there was very little equipment available for fitness training – in Australia, there was never any funding on the scale I see today at the local US high schools – about all we could do was running and participate in ball-handling drills. But I did develop a fondness for long-distance running and enjoyed cross-country running – until the school championships where out of nowhere, Graham Maher powered past us all ….Yes, I do recall Graham very well!

Memories from my days in high school are not times I recall with any degree of fondness - I couldn’t wait to be free of school and to move onto something else. I lasted less than a year at University before I sat for an IBM aptitude test and somehow passed. Be trained as a computer programmer? Sure – but what’s that? In March of the following year I began a two-year “cadet-ship” in the steelworks under the tutelage of some very experienced IBM trainers, the career I have pursued ever since.The IBM System/360 mainframe had arrived and there was an urgent need to train programmers but, at the time, Universities were reluctant to entertain computer science as an academic pursuit. It was up to the industry to kick-start the discipline that was to become information technology, and the IBM System/360 ended up transforming the industry and me as well!

During those last years in high school I just couldn’t wait for it to end - for some reason, I thought that would be the end of any need for further education. And I was reminded of my years at high school this morning when I went for coffee and caught up with Brian, a neighbor who also enjoys taking his Corvette to the track on weekends. He has more lap time and experience than I have, but we enjoy comparing notes and talking about the tracks we have driven – we have driven on the same tracks but at different times. The experiences we have had, though, are pretty similar and we share the same enthusiasm for the sport.

Both of us are acutely aware of what’s happening in the auto industry and with the state of the economy. We both wonder if there will be future for the automobile that will hold any interest for us – will the internal combustion engine go the way of the steam engine? Will the wonderful sounds generated by high-performance automobiles, as their drivers wring every last engine revolution from them in their pursuit of more power, be lost to future generations? Or will we see something appear from within the industry that will simply turn our heads and have us salivating over unbelievable capabilities that we just have to go out and buy?

In the last century, the automobile proved to be a game-changing technology. The days of the horse and buggy obliterated over night. Some carriage manufacturers adjusted while others failed to see the dramatic changes ahead. There’s always been the tale of the buggy-whip manufacturer in Chicago that didn’t realize they were in the transportation industry and watched their business fail.

Likewise, the powerful railroad industry came on hard times as it failed to adjust to the explosion in road transportation in the US following WW II. It should have been the railroads who invested in containerization and who built the handling facilities, invested in other forms of transport including trucks and even ships – this was their business to loose, and they failed to recognize the transformation containerization brought to the transportation industry.

In this morning’s edition of the LA Times (January 13, ’09), there was a story about the recent auto show in Detroit where the writer reported “the auto industry is not unlike the computer business which was once led by hardware makers but now is dominated by software and services.” The reporter than quotes Larry Burns, GM’s head of Research and Development and Strategic Planning, who said “If you look at the major industries that have been transformed … not many of the incumbents came out of that transformation strong.”

What led to these remarks from GM’s Burns was the industry buzz around the expectations arising from the rush to hybrid and electric cars. GM was opening its own 30,000 square foot battery research center and Rick Wagoner, GM’s Chairman and CEO was quoted by the reporter as saying “the supply, design, and construction of batteries must be a core competency of GM!” The executives of GM could foresee a future where at the heart of every automobile was a simple electric motor – either as a hybrid, mated to a very small internal combustion engine, or powered exclusively by battery arrays.

Batteries, heavily leveraging much that has been pioneered in support of the lowly PC, are now to become a game-changing “core competency” within the automobile industry? And “the auto industry is not unlike the computer business … (that is) dominated by software and services!” Yes, I remember my early days with computers, where the hardware was the most critical component - but are today’s hardware choices headed down the same path as the internal combustion engine? Will there just be a simple “electric motor” powering all of IT?

There will be many skeptics I am sure, but the arrival of blades certainly represents one big step towards this potential eventuality. As I consider where blades may lead us, I have to believe the folks at GM are onto something. Subsequent releases of blade packages will see increasingly rationalized “real estate usage” where as few as two different packages will be all that will be needed. Microsoft will always require something a little different, of course. But blades, normalized to support any Unix, Linux, NonStop, zOS, OpenVMS, etc., will be game-changing for the computer business.

And not simply because they would lower the solution price but rather, exert even more pressure on Operating System (OS) pricing. Each OS would have to work hard to justify its price and, as key infrastructure components mask more of the underlying platform, lead to prices declining to commodity levels with everything freely available off the web.

In other words, what will be supporting tomorrows solutions will be determined solely by a very small set of fundamentals considered by solutions vendors as important enough to mandate a specific OS. Security, scalability, manageability implementations will all contribute to the final decisions taken by these vendors. And swapping between OS’s will become routine and be, most probably, transparent to all except for a few tasked with their oversight.

The information technology industry is no longer going to be about vendors like IBM, HP, Sun, etc. as we know them today. It’s not even going to be about Unix, Linux, Windows, or something a little more proprietary. It’s going to be about software and services but even here, it’s going to transform once more and catch many within the industry by surprise and to paraphrase the writer of the LA Times story , “not many of the incumbents (will come) out of that transformation strong.”

With the exception of a few large banks, telcos and government departments, most of us will have no idea where the computing power that we use resides or what vendor provided it. We will only see our desktop, a browser, an icon showing the strength of our wireless connection, and ubiquitous dialogues to goodness-knows-what solutions. And not much else!

Is this bad for the traditional NonStop community? It depends. Well-executed, NonStop could be a part of every HP offering – perhaps tied to clustering and virtualization in ways we haven’t even thought about. Clearly, far removed from what we know today as NonStop. I have worked with IBM mainframes. I have worked with Unix and Windows. And I have worked with NonStop. But I am in the business of information technology and I will continue to watch the industry transform; I am not tied to any one specific implementation!

And I am becoming cautious about blindly repeating the NonStop mantra of Availability! Scalability! Data Integrity! And learning something new? Not a problem either! For sure, I am not a problem child but rather, aware enough to be salivating over unbelievable computing capabilities that I will just want to use! And very soon ….


David Finnie said...

Damn ! From the lead up, I thought you were going to tell us all what the next big thing is going to be ! :-)

Very insightful, Richard, and I agree completely. I guess the caveat is that if you are going to stay in the industry, you have to pick the correct emerging technology. It's often something that is obvious in hindsight, but difficult to see when it first emerges.

Greg Old said...

Nice article, but I see you neglected to attach any years to the events, we'll have use mention of the System/360 as an age indicator :-)

You are right, players in the IT industry need to be flexible and constantly changing, thinking about 'whats next' to survive. Unfortunately that means no rest, and sometimes venturing up the wrong path.

Anonymous said...

So which reunion was it? LOL how many years...............:)

My 20th was TWO years ago. (sigh)


Richard Buckle said...

Ahh Lisa, a gentleman never tells ..

.. but to David and Greg's points, staying in the indstry and avoiding going down too many wrong paths also involves a little luck (what I pass of as experience)that, with hindsight, seems so bleedingly obvious isn't all that easy. And can be compounded horribly if vendros stray too far away from direct user engagement.

Peter Tooker said...

Lisa, while Richard said "Normanhurst Boys’ High School", we are looking forward to seeing the little bugger at our 50th reunion in a few years time.

Peter T

Richard Buckle said...

Thanks a lot Peter - maybe it's many years away rather than just a few?

Peter Tooker said...

If you count slowly, then, yes, it is maaaany years away.
Of course, some have seen your other blogging and photographic capabilities....?

The Spook