Thursday, March 5, 2009

Tough Neighborhood!

Last week I had to drive from Simi Valley, Ventura County, across Los Angeles to Irvine, Orange County. Kicked-back, and enjoying a coffee at my neighborhood Starbux very early that morning, a mate of mine, Brian stopped by and then looked at me with some concern and asked what I was thinking. “If you have to be there by 10:30 you should be leaving in about 15 minutes,” he told me.

Three hours to drive the 80 miles? Surely not! But I finished my coffee and headed for the car. It was close to 7:00 when I joined the morning traffic heading east along State Route 118 – the Ronald Reagan Freeway. The picture above is of me, many hours later, inching slowly back to LA. And it had taken me three hours to get there with just the one quick stop at MacDonalds!

The drive took me past some pretty bad areas, and some of the backstreets visible from the freeway could have even been a part of a movie studio’s back lot. These were the kind of tough neighborhoods, frequently described in popular crime thrillers – the books by Jonathan Kellerman and Michael Connelly where their heroes Harry Bosch, Dr Alex Delaware, and the likes, were inescapably drawn into the mêlées within. A few miles further on, however, the scenery changed as I passed the fanciful world of Disneyland with its imitation snow-capped peak of the Matterhorn, a Bavarian castle, and the Louisiana Bayou.

And driving past these tough neighborhoods reminded me of conversations I had only a few months back when a GoldenGate executive, explaining the heritage of the company, told us how it was similar to growing up in a tough neighborhood. As he explained it, “GoldenGate developed its first products in a tough neighborhood, Tandem, where any failure would have been disastrous for the company – there was just no place to hide. If you crashed a NonStop system for any reason, word would have spread quickly and our future business would have dried up pretty quickly. Particularly as we had some feature overlap with an existing NonStop product – the NonStop field organization can be merciless!”

Over the years I have developed a lot of pride in having been associated with Tandem – but never before had I made the association that the standards set Tandem, with its line of fault tolerant servers, could be interpreted by others as being tough. But perhaps the standards set by early Tandem products were uncompromising when it came to availability, and the GoldenGate executive’s comment wasn’t too far from the mark. After all, nothing ever grabbed the attention of Tandem management like a customer with a NonStop that had stopped!

The message that the GoldenGate executive also wanted to convey was the sense that everyone who worked on Tandem was part of a community focused on continuous availability. After all, if a product hadn’t brought the Tandem “down”, there’s every chance that other platforms and solutions will not be a problem for the GoldenGate engineers – and, with my history at Tandem, it made sense to me. Again, in terms of availability, NonStop remains atop the food-chain, and software companies with a history rooted in Tandem do bring with them elevated expectations of reliability!

I was driving to Irvine to catch up with a member of the Neoview team. It’s been a couple of years since we first heard about Neoview and of its heritage deeply intertwined with NonStop. But it’s also been an uneasy time for both the NonStop and the Neoview teams as Neoview marketing put some distance between itself and NonStop, at a time when NonStop relished the thought of Neoview as a new application on NonStop. But I did get the sense that, in some markets, Neoview’s heritage may prove to be the difference, and where ties back to NonStop may not be something that needs to be downplayed.

It reminded me of a scene from Pretty Woman where actress Julia Roberts, dressed in the best clothes Rodeo Drive can provide, was watching a horse race. As the horses passed by, Julia let loose a cheer that could only have been made by someone from the backstreets of Los Angeles! There was no mistaking her heritage, or hiding where she had been raised, and she looked more authentic than any of the other well-dressed patrons with her.

It never ceases to amaze me that whenever IT professionals greet each other, no matter the occasion or circumstances, an immediate bond is formed when it becomes known that once in their IT careers, they had both worked on Tandem. Whether for Tandem directly, or with an early user – shared experiences from those days created very strong ties, and all who have worked on Tandem easily warm to each other.

You do have to step back and consider why Tandem? Why the NonStop architecture we are familiar with today outlived just about every other architecture that emerged in the ‘70s. What was so special about it? And it’s people? And why, no matter the occasion, when given an opportunity to display our heritage then just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman we never feel constrained in any way and are happy to share anecdotes.

The ability to develop solutions that can depend on the platform being continuously available is a freedom very few other platform vendors can provide. Mirroring the sentiments of a Xerox advertisement of the ‘80s where, “almost as good as a Xerox” didn’t cut it, being almost NonStop doesn’t cut it either. And it is a testament to the architecture that so few applications that “absolutely must be available” have moved away from the platform. If your only exposure to systems has been mainframes, then it may be very hard to understand.

Different approaches have been tried – either by going down-market to rooms full of commodity platforms, with racks of redundant servers and custom code to manage the outages, or up-market with mainframes working in parallel - but the expected savings never really materialized. NonStop hides so much magic inside the box that today, many CIOs have become reluctant to move off of NonStop and aren’t prepared to compromise the uptime levels they routinely experience with NonStop!

In the play West Side Story, the setting is a tough neighborhood where the Romeo and Juliette love story is retold. Identity is very much tied to family, and these strong family ties anchor the loyalty that is fostered – with the characters depicting a value system that stay’s true to those roots! Crossing family lines is intolerable, with little patience for anyone ignoring their heritage – something we see whether it’s the Irish of Boston, the Sicilian Mafia of New York and Chicago, or even the “Core” within today’s military.

There are so many instances where we stay true to our neighborhood, and to our roots! And we do so because we just don’t see anything that’s attractive in any of the alternatives – I have lived in several countries and have been in America for twenty years but I am, and always will be, an Australian. NonStop will remain a factor within IT because being almost as good as a NonStop is not an attractive alternative.

With the growing need to be “green” or “blue”, now the fashionable color for what used to be green, there’s even more business reasons to choose the NonStop platform: it is available on industry standard, low-cost, Blades. NonStop supports Java and the run-time environments Java applications depend upon. And NonStop is proving to be a good target for any application “modernization” project, and where the legacy applications of old mainframes can easily be redeployed and supported at price points unmatched by mainframes. Without compromising the heritage developed in the toughest neighborhood.

Perhaps our roots in Tandem have given us less tolerance for the messages of other platforms. Perhaps our patience for alternate solutions has weakened with time and experience. “Almost as available” as a NonStop? Operating in “near” real time? Scalable as other MPP architectures! How meaningless this all sounds to those of us familiar with NonStop. Responses to questions I had posted earlier stress the scalability of NonStop and point at the reliability of today’s modern microprocessors as lessening the impact of continuously available platforms, but I remain dubious – it’s still very much about availability and NonStop continues to retain its leadership position.

As the Neoview team recognizes that, in some markets, it’s good to have a history with NonStop, this association has to be welcome news in our neighborhood. For those new to the NonStop world and only familiar with older legacy systems, there will be surprises over how agile, open and modern NonStop has become. And more users are beginning to see the value it truly provides.

Or, as Julia Roberts asks of Richard Gere, in an early scene from Pretty Woman and as he tries to master the manual transmission of a borrowed Lotus, “how is it you know so little about cars?” To which Richard comes back with “my first car was a limousine!” Moving into the driver’ seat, Julia then responds “I'm gonna show you what this car can really do. Are you ready? Hang on. Here we go!”

And I have to believe that nothing better than this could illustrate the value that can come out of a tough neighborhood!

4 comments:

Justin Simonds said...

Richard,

Great musings no doubt triggered by the fear and loathing expereinced on the freeways of LA. I loved it.

Justin

tvm said...

Interesting and true comments. My own take is that a very great deal is owed to the quality of the Tandem personnel and its user community. Not just their considerable technical expertise, but the quality of the person as an individual. During recent difficulties of my own, encouragment came most from former Tandem colleagues. This impressed me.

Tom McGrath

Richard Buckle said...

Justin,

Fear and loathing? Driving across LA? whatever do you mean ...

If I can avoid it in any way, I try, and most times I can't think of anything more stressful than a 100 mile journey through the freeways of LA.

But then, creeping along as it so often happens, does give me time to think and sort out stuff so it's not all that bad ... then again, om second thought, yes it is!

....and Tom,

The quality of the Tandem personnel? Absolutely. I couldn't agree more ...

Cheers,
Richard

Jim Tomaney said...

I do think that the Tandem label is more of a brand (the kind you burn onto animals) - you can't shrug it off and you do judge other systems by it. Although my current team had serious reservations about even letting me have a Guardian logon as they deem me "too management" to actually be on the Tandem, I still find myself applying the traditional logics of a Tandem thinker to the project. When another team wanted to host, on our new NS Blades, one of those very Java-based applications ported from another OS environment, my immediate response was - "not on my Tandem". Once they assured me that they had benchmarked it to 500 TPS on a Blade with no adverse impacts, I was prepared to listen, but still said "no" until they can show me 500 TPS with seamless failover after a component failure. Yes, as one of my team observed, I am prejudiced about applications, and that is as a result of 20 years in the Tandem world - but when the main application on the box is the bank's ATM network, is it such a bad thing that the new application on the block has to overcome that prejudice before it gets to coexist?