Thursday, May 28, 2009

Happy 35th, Tandem!

Anniversaries have been on my mind of late – last week I wrote the 125th posting to this blog. A total I didn’t think I would ever reach, and each time I go to the blog and see it displayed, I am surprised. And the readership has continued to climb with every posting. In a few weeks time we will be participating in HPTF&E and I am sure I will run into many of you – I am planning to drive up to Las Vegas from Simi Valley and that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

Lately, I have been drawing material from the car magazine Motor Trend as often as I have done in the past from Road and Track, as I find the editorial content addressing issues other than just cars. And with what is happening in the car industry, the heads of these car companies are certainly doing their best to generate material for them. But in this latest issue of Motor Trend, writer Arthur St. Antoine talks about the loss Formula One (F1) suffered with the passing of Graham Hill, on November 30th, ‘75.

And it took me back to the time when I lived in London. In a previous posting I have talked of my time working for the shipping company Overseas Containers Limited, but after working in Sydney for a couple of years, I moved to the head office in London for the winter of ’75 – ’76. While watching television one evening I saw the news item that told of Graham Hill being killed in an air crash. With him were members of his small F1 team – Embassy Racing – a very short-lived program. Earlier in his career Graham Hill had scaled the heights of F1 driving and had twice been crowned world champion.

While I never met Graham Hill, for a couple of weeks in the late ‘80s I was reminded of him on a regular basis. Whether it’s the same Graham Hill I’m not sure, but the highway between San Jose and Santa Cruz has an exit to Graham Hill Rd. I was in Cupertino for three weeks of sales training and every chance he had, Jim Miller rounded up a couple of us for a game of golf somewhere in Monterey, and we always seemed to drive past that exit.

It was at the end of this sales training program that Jimmy Treybig stopped by to meet us. I have never been backstage at a rock concert, and have never had the opportunity to meet the cast of a musical or film, but when Jimmy walked into the classroom it was quite an emotional experience. We had been with Tandem only a few months, but already we were aware of the presence Jimmy created whenever he greeted an audience. And the photo at the top of the page dates back to those early days and is of Jimmy presenting my wife Margo with her second TOP’s award.

Tandem Computers Incorporated received the number C0727003, following its filing to be incorporated as a business in California, on November 29th, 1974 – the year before Graham Hill died. Exactly thirty five years ago, this coming November. When ITUG celebrated it’s 25th anniversary in 2003, Jimmy, Jerry Peterson, Larry Laurich, Don Fowler, and a couple of other former Tandem executives all participated. Pauline Nist was extremely gracious in supporting the community’s interest in catching up with these folks one last time – and there are many of us with a small notebooks, on a silver chains, draped over a chair or door covered with these executives autographs.

Over the past few days I have enjoyed a brief email exchange with Jimmy who was very gracious in responding to my questions. As for his early days with HP, Jimmy told me how he has “very fond memories of HP and I am very proud to have been part of its early computers day (1967-1973).” But it was his early days at Tandem that interested me more and when I followed up with a question about those early times Jimmy simply responded “with regard to Tandem in the first year … I was amazed at the capability and drive of our people and very proud of how they met our very aggressive goals while we had great fun.”

From its earliest days, Tandem set out writing the book on Silicon Valley corporate culture. Yes, much of what Tandem did had ties back to HP, but Tandem integrated it into the way it did business unlike any other company had ever done before. And it was mostly about streamlining communication – whether with doughnuts on payday, over beer and popcorn on Friday’s, watching the monthly First Friday entertainment, whatever needed to be said was done so in a way where everyone knew immediately what it was all about. And the people of Tandem kept on delivering.

When I asked Jimmy about the business plan that was developed for Tandem and what markets they viewed as key for their success, Jimmy came back very quickly with “the original business plan was for many years presented at the Stanford Business School. The market focus was financial institutions (electronic money / ATM), manufacturing (like shop floor control), hospitality, printing and publishing … there was a list of where “turnkey” systems had penetrated … and it was very well defined. If we can design it…for sure we can sell it! The definition of the product came from the market.”

By the time I joined Tandem in the late ‘80s, Tandem computers had major presence in nearly all of these market segments. And the fundamentals of Availability, Scalability, and Data Integrity were burnt into the memories of every employee. If an opportunity could be turned to where combinations of these fundamentals were viewed as mandatory, then the business quickly came Tandem’s way. Across all these years, despite the efforts undertaken by companies large and small who tried really hard, the same levels of availability have never been reached.

However, back in those early days, it still required a lot of field attention to make sure newly-delivered Tandem computers were running properly-architected applications. In talking with Chris Palombi of Modius, who had joined Tandem in ’79, in his first meeting with the VP of a local bank Chris told me how “he informed me that he was planning on tossing the NonStop system out because it wasn’t living up to the claims of linear scalability! They had added a processor, after pushing 90%+ CPU usage, and there was little performance gain!” Turned out the applications architect was “schooled on building DEC VMS applications and had taken the same proven monolithic application structure to the Tandem system.”

In an email exchange with HP’s Martin Fink, Senior VP and General Manager, Business Critical Systems, I asked him about the role of NonStop within BCS and he replied "looking back at my time as the head of the NonStop unit for HP and now as the Sr. VP and General Manger of the Business Critical Systems, I can say that I'm excited about how much has been accomplished over the past 35 years and the future that we have in front of us. From the introduction of NonStop up until today, NonStop has represented the pinnacle of high availability. As such, NonStop is a cornerstone for financial institutions and healthcare providers. Availability and scalability are critical success factors for more and more organizations today with the trend growing stronger as we look toward the future.”

In the coming months there will be a couple of occasions where longtime Tandem supporters will get together to reminisce over a couple of adult beverages. It’s no longer cool to call it a Tandem, as today it’s the HP NonStop server. But even so, there’s a new cadre that knows of nothing other than NonStop but the spirit of Tandem lives on. I will be curious to see how many “anecdotal” comments are made to this post but I have to believe there are many stories out there. Just as I am curious about how well the name NonStop translates into other languages – I have heard some stories already that unlike Tandem, that required no translation, NonStop has proved a little more difficult.

Martin also emailed me about the future of NonStop, adding how in recent times, “the NonStop solution began an evolution based on blending three decades of proven architecture with standards-based modern hardware components and software. For example, last year we announced the Integrity NonStop BladeSystem which utilizes HP Integrity Blades powered by Intel Itanium Microprocessors. This solution provides customers with superior total cost of ownership, greater flexibility and scalability while preserving the availability level that they have come to depend on."

And it’s clear to me that the “essence of Tandem” continues to percolate within HP. Will there be another 35 years of history? Will some of us be around for the 50th anniversary? None of us that follow IT feel comfortable with making predictions for the next year to year and a half, let alone 15 or 20 or 35 years out. But when it comes to the NonStop of today, there’s probably very few of us who would bet against it. After all it remains, as Martin wrote “the pinnacle of high availability,” and you only ever reach a pinnacle’s summit, you can never progress beyond it!

Friday, May 22, 2009

The wheel in the sky keeps on turning …

It’s not as though cars dominate my private life, just as it’s not computers and information technology that dominate my public life. My colleagues, however, may argue that this is indeed the case, and that many conversations quickly turn to these subjects, but there’s been times when I was happy talking about sailing, or fine wines, or music. Readers will have seen the lines from songs, and even movies, routinely appear in these postings.

However, the association between cars and computers provides me with a wealth of content with which to work. None more so than when I read about cars in a computer publication this week shortly after I had finished reading a commentary on computers in a car magazine. The picture above was taken of Margo, under the tutelage of instructor Tom Paule, on a cool-down lap at Buttonwillow race track.

It was captured by an entrepreneur who makes a living from photographing the stream of cars and motorcycles that attend track days. And perhaps we need to enjoy driving cars on tracks like this while we can, as the future of high performance cars seems to be up in the air. The mood within governments and across the auto industry appears to be steering us back to smaller, more fuel efficient, cars but with Ford barely afloat, GM headed for the rocks, and Chrysler below the waves, these domestic manufacturers are anxiously trying to get the government to save them so that they get the chance to build these more efficient cars.

It was against this background that I recently ran across an editorial in the computer publication, InformationWeek. Rob Preston, the magazine’s editor, asked “maybe the bigger question is this: are the likes of Chrysler … even worth ‘saving,’ or are they reaching the end of their commercial viability, much as former tech titans Data General, DEC, and Prime once did?”

Ouch … it’s hard to remember how strong these computer companies were in the late ‘80s and how quickly they foundered. And yet, the fate of car companies today looks to be following a similar pattern. In a recent posting to the discussion Fast Lane in the Real Time View user group on LinkedIn, I remarked “so, how much overlap is there? As we try to ‘save the car industry’ do we also need to save the computer industry? Did anyone step in to save Wang? Prime? Data General? Nixdorf? ICL? and so forth – did we appeal to government bodies? There were some murmurings and some guidance / advice – but little else! Computer companies were simply left to collapse. And I wonder, are we quick to recognize the natural order of technology.”

In other words, businesses, no less so than technologies and products, have well defined bell-curve lifecycles and it’s as if the very foundation for the success that propelled them to fortune and fame is proving to be the engine of their demise. These bell-curves provide plenty of excitement as companies charge up the front side slope, but without navigating through technology and product opportunities and jumping onto another bell curve early, there will always be the back side slope to face, so to say. Few technology companies can develop (and adhere to) roadmaps that span more than a decade or so. And fewer still manage to reinvent themselves and to enjoy the rewards that come with the rush up a new front side slope!

Consider all the companies with which IBM competed for the hearts and minds of data center managers, back in the ‘70s – where are they today? Affectionately known as the BUNCH (for Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, and Honeywell) all were capable companies with product lines that stretched up to the mainframe class. For many years, Control Data provided the most powerful computers available, while Burroughs became world-beaters with their formable transactional / online computers. But they proved to be poor visionaries and failed to execute well in a marketplace where IBM flourished. While they all tried to reinvent their business model, even when it meant leaving behind the products that drove their early success, they simply couldn’t save themselves.

When Burroughs and Univac merged to form Unisys, they talked of the merger with references to “the power of two” but quickly, the rest of the industry suggested it was something much less – perhaps “the power of ½!” And this happened as Honeywell refocused on a smaller subset of clients – aerospace, transportation, and automation and control solutions – but only a year ago, it was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average index. NCR faded badly and simply reverted to it’s originally business model based around specialized client devices, while Control Data today is largely forgotten. Slow to react, or perhaps still reluctant to commit, meant that even after accepting the need to change their business models, they couldn’t pull out of the ride down the back side slope of the business lifecycle bell curve.

Moody’s investor services are now promoting a “Bottom Rung” list of companies. Also referred to by one financial analyst as Moody’s “Bucket List” it highlights those companies with debts they will probably not be able to repay by early 2010 – and consequently, will fail. It’s a list that covers many market segments including some that are well known these days (media, automotive, retail, manufacturing, gaming and consumer products) but what caught my attention was the presence of Unisys. While the company has refocused on services and a line of windows servers, it still supports a large population of legacy systems that date back more than a decade and that are in wide use in government agencies around the world.

The Gartner Group quickly produced a research note on Unisys making Moody’s bottom rung that suggested Unisys customers should “devise a plan to mitigate risk … calculate any potential associated exit costs (and) assess the marketplace for potential replacement service providers …” The CEO of the software company Erudine, Martin Rice, was reported to have said “events like this will force the hand of CIOs who would otherwise prefer to leave legacy systems untouched.” Of course, Erudine offers its behavior engine as a good way to exit and Rice was quick to add “this will not be the last time CIOs need to escape a burning platform!” And should Unisys founder, as Moody’s is predicting, there will be many more software vendors relishing the opportunities that will develop.

There is a second reason why I included the photo above and not just because it features a high performance car laying down fast laps on a private track. For me, the more important reason has to do with how the picture came into my hands. The photographer spends weekends at the track and sets up a kiosk at the tracks only food and beverage stand. If you like any of his pictures, he provides them immediately on disk for a small fee. A very simple business model, yet working well for the young entrepreneur!

I had mentioned of how I read commentary on the computer industry in a car magazine. In a commentary on design in the magazine Automobile, columnist Robert Cumberford writes “programming guru Sir Charles Antony Richard Hoare talked (of how) … ‘there are two ways of constructing a (software) design. One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make is so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.”

And this took me back to the April 20, ’09 email Jonathan Schwartz circulated to everyone at Sun, as the acquisition of Sun by Oracle was announced, and that was released to the press. In it he said “we’ve never walked away from the wholesale reinvention of business models … we’ve never walked away form a challenge – or an opportunity … by acquiring Sun, Oracle will be well positioned to help customers solve the most complex technology problems related to running a business.” And I was struck by how, once again, a company that in the ended up failing to reinvent its own business model now sees itself as a player in helping others with “running a business.”

I have been a strong advocateof keeping things simple and many of the posting found here reinforce this message. With simplicity comes the chance to minimize defects and to have “obviously, no deficiencies!” History is littered with computer companies that have failed to remain competitive and whether they move to new markets, revert to old practices, or merge, without a simple easy-to-communicate business model, it hasn’t halted their slide down the back side slope. And Sun doesn’t have history on its side, this time.

Following the creation of Unisys after the merger between Burroughs and Univac, there was a story doing the rounds that suggested Honeywell would be buying Fairchild Semiconductor and that the new company would be called Farewell Honeychild – what then is the likelihood Ellison will rename the new company Sunacle (rhymes with Cynical)? Which, I have to admit is a little more preferable, to Oracsun (unless you’re Swedish, of course). Probably not – but it was worth a thought!

For me, the relationship between Oracle and Sun will, almost by design, be complicated and several quarters may go by before we see the “obvious deficiencies” that Hoare spoke of. Will we see another rush to “escape (the) burning platform,” as data center managers consider their options? And will we be adding Sun to the steadily lengthening list of former technology titans? Or, has that time passed and there’s already a place reserved for them?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I think the mainframe’s too big!

Getting back into the daily routine in Simi Valley, with a cup of coffee on a warm but overcast afternoon, it’s hard to believe that only the day before I had been in Prague, the Czech Republic. The occasion had been the annual European BASE24 User Group (EBUG) meeting, and the picture is of me in the old town square.

Prague is a city I always enjoy visiting and it has been featured a number of times in this blog. In the November 9th ’07 posting, “Want to be my partner?” I wrote of how I had participated in a “Tandem Partner-to-Partner conference put on just for ISV partners,” and in the March 12th ’08 posting, “It's still the same, just different!” I wrote of how I had come “to Prague to catch up with HP BCS folks,” before adding “Prague is a very pretty city … (its) medieval architecture has been wonderfully preserved.”

EBUG has developed quite a tradition for holding its events among the more interesting cities of Europe – from Istanbul two years ago, to Vienna last year, and then this year Prague. While the attendance was a little down from last year’s Vienna event, the BASE24 user community support was still highly visible and it was clear that the support for BASE24 on NonStop across the community isn’t showing any signs of weakening.

The picture below was taken alongside of the GoldenGate, XYPRO, and HP exhibits and, as is typical for user events these days, it’s where conference delegates spend time networking over coffee. If you look carefully, you can just make out Steve Saltwick leading a user in the HP booth. Steve had just given a short update on HP NonStop’s presence in the Financial Services industry where he built on the material he had covered at last year’s event in Vienna.

In the posting of April 24th, ’08 “Vienna Dialogue!” written at EBUG Vienna and shortly after ACI announced the shift in strategic alliances from HP to IBM, I said that “there were many options open to HP – they could have simply elected to skip the event. In a very calm and measured presentation, Steve Saltwick, of HP BCS, started with the observation that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ … (and he) went on to present HP’s vision of the future, how payments are viewed by HP as a change agent, and that HP was taking clear, low-risk, short term steps with an eye on comprehensive long-term options.”

This year, Steve opened with a slide of a roundtable executive meeting and where there was an elephant standing off to one side. Steve calmly observed “yes, it’s hard to miss the elephant in the room!” In this case it wasn’t a reference to ACI’s partnership with IBM but rather to the unprecedented times all users face in terms of regulations, bail-outs, outsourcing, M&A activity!

But it was hard to ignore the elephant and not think of IBM. “HP has 586 finance industry customers in 78 countries where 79%, or some 462, of them run NonStop. In the last two quarters alone, there had been 49 BASE24 ‘upgrades’ / BASE24 eps ‘new wins’ with 3 new BASE24 / Integrity NS Blades wins.” Low risk, short term steps? And an eye on comprehensive long term options? Clearly, HP hadn’t lost any market share in the year since Vienna’s event. Despite the shift in ACI’s strategy.

Before closing, Steve made the point of how HP had enjoyed a “100% win rate with competitive tenders coming from the installed base.” In other words, almost two years into the strategic partnership with IBM, and there had been no movement across the ACI user community from NonStop to the IBM mainframe System z solution. None! Nadda! Zilch! And there it was – IBM blinked!

Those present from IBM had sat rather nonplussed through the presentation by Jim Johnson of the Standish Group that highlighted the better TCO figures for NonStop on Blades, but now only an hour later, listening to HP highlighting its success of the past years, didn’t please IBM. But was IBM struggling? Uncompetitive? Hardly.

And yet, whether symbolically or not, the picture I have included here is of a System z10 Business Class (BC) mainframe that didn’t make it onto IBM’s booth. It was a tad too big, and remained outside the room for the duration of the event. Enclosed in glass panels, as it was, its internals completely exposed and illuminated by soft green lights, it gave me something to talk about during my own presentation.

Electing to bring a System z10 BC mainframe to the event reminded me of the exchanges I have had with IBM mainframe users over the past year. The Enterprise Class (EC) package, it could be argued, justified the complexity of the “Book” package – but since the Books in the EC couldn’t be reused in the BC package, why didn’t IBM use this opportunity to embrace Blades? Aren’t they thinking anymore? Hadn’t they just bought Platform Solutions Inc that had the firmware to run zOS on Blades? And then it happened – IBM chocked!

Just as HP retains the NSAA architecture, used with the NS16200 / NS14200 for instance, and positions it as a “top-of-the-line enterprise computing solution” so too IBM positions the System z10 EC as its top of the line. However, HP has added Blades packaging and has the ability to support all of its major operating systems with the one package, whereas IBM remained the contrarian. In not pursuing the Blades option, and sticking solely to Books, I have to believe it adds to the cost of the mainframe and, even as I listen to IBM’s counter arguments, it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog – I have been public with my opinions on this matter for some time.

In previous postings to this blog I have been highly critical of the proprietary nature of IBM’s chip packaging for the mainframe and of their reliance on Books rather than Blades. In the posting of January 21st ’09, “HP and IBM? Moving in opposite directions ...” I wrote of how, “unlike the IBM mainframe, HP’s largest servers (including NonStop) now support standard blade packaging and have embraced industry-standard interfaces and controllers … (on) the other hand, IBM is continuing with its proprietary ‘book’ packaging, completely shunning the blades that are available for the System p and System i user … in this instance, maintaining a proprietary approach (and) I think they are headed down the wrong path.”

Talking with IBM earlier in the day, they had said to me that moving the BASE24 community to the IBM mainframe wasn’t proving to be as easy or as straightforward as they had thought. Other delegates that I had talked to suggested that some within IBM’s management still considered migrations as nothing more than a 30 – 90 day professional service. And there were others within IBM who thought that NonStop users considering an upgrade to Blades were facing a migration away from NonStop – not aware that NonStop was supported by Blades!

Yet many delegates were surprised by my presentation. After listening to the presentation of Steve Saltwick, and earlier to Jim Johnson’s presentation, it was clear to me that the EBUG audience remained very committed to NonStop. When Barclays gave a presentation on their move to NonStop on Blades, and on how they had migrated their ATM network from the IBM mainframe to NonStop – I sensed the mood of the audience had become a lot more positive toward NonStop on Blades and I elected to give a lot more emphasis to IBM’s platform and packaging miscues.

And it occurred to me that perhaps part of IBM’s dilemma is that it too faces choices. Perhaps my presentation only confirmed their earlier observations about how difficult it had become to convince NonStop customers to migrate to System z. Should they have been surprised – the audience was made up of NonStop users, after all.

I have written extensively on how ACI’s preference for IBM, as its sole strategic partner, exposes BASE24 users to more choices – and how it will be these users who ultimately end up deciding the fate of the relationship between ACI and IBM. In the posting on March 16th, ’08 “ACI Strategy - it's all about choice!” I noted that “(while) ACI executives still reiterate the strategic nature of the partnership with IBM, it will be the customer that controls the final outcome and will be choosing the platform that meets their needs … (everything) I now know about the strategy suggests that ACI users will be given a choice – and this cannot be a surprise for anyone.”

But is it ACI customers that are the only ones having to choose? Pursuing a strategy based solely on migrating NonStop customers to System z now appears to be a rather poorly thought-through strategy for IBM and perhaps it is time for IBM to rethink their choices. There’s such a large population of home-grown solutions on the mainframe today – surely the better choice would be to pursue migrating them to BASE24-eps.

While IBM would push back firmly, and point out how this wouldn’t generate additional mainframe sales or improve its market share, I am not sure what other options are left for them. After all, and as symbolic as it was, IBM may just have to find other rooms to accommodate the mainframe – and ensuring they retain residence in their “parents” home, where the mainframe will make it through the front doors, has to be a key consideration.

And that does make sense to me. IBM blinked, and IBM choked, but after all those folks at IBM sure are able to think, and to revise their strategy! Aren’t they?