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!


Anonymous said...

Tandem was an extremely rare occurance: Bright founders with a vision; bright employees allowed to think for themselves; and a market just waiting to be served. I think often of how lucky I was to be a part of it.

Scott Lerner Sales and Marketing Professional

Anonymous said...

What an amazing platform. I was working with Tandem Platform for 25 years worry free.

Chandra Ananth Sr. Manager at bearingpoint

Janice Cronch said...

I couldn't agree more with Scott's comments. It's been my good fortune and great pleasure to work with the best technology and people in the industry over the last 25 years. Tandem was truly unique in so many ways, one of the most important being the commitment to do the right thing for customers and employees. It's a great formula that really works.

Change is inevitable and we've seen both good and bad. But, the heart and spirit of Tandem are alive and well and the product continues to evolve, taking advantage of industry advances and the resources of HP.

Happy anniversary to all of us who've played a role and had the privilege of carrying Jimmy's ideals with us throughout our careers! And thanks to our loyal customers and partners for the continuing support! Here's to many anniversaries to come. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Hi Richard - thanks for the great post! Regards, Bob Sawyer