Friday, August 21, 2009

There’s more to the picture …

I took the Corvette to the dealer for maintenance and while it was up on the lift, we found a big hole in the panel wrapped around the windshield-washer reservoir. It’s always an adventure-land for me, whenever the car is on a lift, as I get to wander underneath and look at the “unseen components” that contribute to making the car go, corner, and stop. And I am always amazed at the almost miraculous technology that goes into today’s cars, and at how little we pay for them these days. But what punctured the panel, pictured above, is anyone’s guess!

Technology may keep changing, but maintenance remains a constant – today’s automobile requires routine servicing. Some manufacturers offer better programs than others, with longer service intervals but, no matter the program offered, all cars eventually find themselves in the service center sooner or later. Tires and brakes wear out, suspensions begin to sag and to lose their responsiveness, oils need to be changed, rust needs to be treated, chips in the glass have to be patched, and even the software managing the engine, transmission, brakes, and so forth, requires revising – nothing escapes maintenance these days.

But if the automobile didn’t work so well and it ceased being affordable, and what we find so entrancing that we just “had to have it” proved unreliable leaving us stranded by the side of the road, then all of the technology in the world wouldn’t see us rushing to write a check. No matter how much R&D was expended! Looking under the Corvette, up on the lift, I could almost hear the songs on the Neil Young album – Rust Never Sleeps!

Borrowing the marketing message of a paint manufacturer, this was a great album where most of the songs were recorded only a few miles from Silicon Valley – at the venerable Cow Palace. As I continued to poke and to pull at different components, I thought of the words of his opening song, “My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” that begins with:
“Out of the blue
and into the black
They give you this,
but you pay for that”

And I think everyone who has ever taken a car into service, and then looked at the invoice for the service, can sympathize with Neil Young and, as they begin to lose patience with their service technicians, perhaps see his lyrics in an entirely new light!

As this was taking place, I was still thinking about the financial quarterly results of IBM and HP that have been reported over the past couple of weeks. Mid July saw IBM come out with pretty good results and then last week, HP came out with its results. These too looked solid and helped HP maintain its number one rank as an IT vendor – but I have to add, thank goodness for currency fluctuations! Both scored well when the final figures were presented in US dollars!

Putting that thought to one side, what did amuse me was the comments made by IBM’s CFO Mark Loughridge: “we have operating leverage even when revenue is a headwind.” According to the ZDNet blogger Larry Dignan, “Loughridge noted that IBM’s decision to exit commodity products such as PCs and printers has allowed it to transform its business.” He also reported how Loughridge had added that “IBM is reloading for future growth and investing in cloud computing and business analytics.”

Dignan pointed out how “IBM’s positioning in software and services and away from hardware has been a boon in the downturn.” He then wrote of how “as usual, software and services paced IBM” to these better results. Revenue is a headwind? Paced, by software and services? When I paid to read this, they gave me that! Thanks, Neil Young!

But IBM doesn’t appear to be putting too much distance between itself and hardware, or shedding R&D budgets in support of hardware components. Just as HP was preparing to release its Q3 results, IBM announced it was entering Nanotechnology. Disruptive? Stealing the media limelight? Perhaps! And more evidence that IBM was reloading for the future? Yeah, right!

In an update from Zacks Investment Research, it reported that IBM had announced it will utilize DNA molecules for building next generation microchips, adding “the company’s innovative DNA molecules will shrink microchip sizes, thereby reducing manufacturing costs … it is expected that the technology will facilitate transition to sub-22 nm lithography.” And, almost as an afterthought the writer added “although manufacturing complexities are always a consideration … IBM – through its technology leadership, superior cash generation and significant investment in R&D – would be in a position to capitalize on the opportunity.

Nanotechnology! Using the DNA double helix as a kind of “scaffolds, or miniature circuit boards, for the precise assembly of computer-chip components,” according to CalTech and IBM scientists. One roadblock to the use of this technology is that the structures are made in a saltwater solution. Remember the reports, back in the early ‘90s, of how (from Stan Augarten’s book, State of the Art), “scientists at IBM have been experimenting with an exotic class of ICs called Josephson junctions, which are designed to operate in tubs of liquid helium at temperatures only a few degrees above absolute zero.”

What is it with IBM’s preoccupation with liquids? This earlier report didn’t quite have the impact initially anticipated - should we remain patient and let IBM steal the headlines with something not likely to have any impact on IT for at least ten years? And I find the timing of these announcements coming, as they did, just as HP prepared to release its Q3 results, pretty interesting. Neil Young added another verse:
“My my, hey hey …
It's better to burn out
Than to fade away
My my, hey hey.”

For many of us, the line in this song reminds us of the Highlander movie and the television series it spawned. As immortals, locked in battle until only one remained to claim the prize (which was mortality), they battled each other. And it was Kurgan, an immortal warrior of immense proportions, who berated a priest with the line “I have something to say! It's better to burn out than to fade away!” Perhaps IBM’s investment in hardware, locked as it is in a timeless battle with other, equally as powerful foes is just their latest attempt at letting us know they still have something to say!

For as long as I have been in IT, IBM had been the leader, the company so far ahead of every other vendor, that there was more discussion about who was in second place than about the possibility of IBM’s position as leader ever being challenged. Today, it’s such a different story. HP, the company that for so many years was always credited with being technologically savvy, but with work to do in marketing and sales, now has become the leading IT provider, and IBM has to contend with second place. Fading away? Not likely!

In commentary provided by the “The Motley Fool,” as HP released its Q3 results, analyst Anders Bylund reported on how HP CEO Hark Hurd had said: "HP's performance this quarter is a result of our strong business portfolio, efficient cost structure and scale." Contrast these remarks with what I had previously quoted with IBM entering “Nanotechnology.” The writer had made the observation of IBM being helped by “its technology leadership, superior cash generation and significant investment in R&D”

Whereas HP is concerned about strengthening its business portfolio and getting fully on top of its cost structures so that as business requires more from it, HP can scale up to meet the demands; IBM dwells on what it has been doing and how it’s simply generating cash to just keep doing what it has been doing. Yet, for most of us, it’s still about the budget; about what we can afford. Yes, “they give you this, but you pay for that!”

In his last column for Car and Driver (August, ’09), columnist Patrick Bedard wrapped up by observing how his “loyalty is to what works …. Man is the cleverest of the critters. Have some patience, set up the necessary incentives, lay on the teraflops, and mankind will dazzle you with invention … Patience is the key. Costs come down pennies at a time. There’s no market for miracles people can’t afford.”

So was IBM’s entry in Nanotechnology all that important or was it just another case of distracting financial analysts? And of reminding everyone that IBM remained a major force that still had to be reckoned with. Did they loose patience after all? It’s always a hard call but I am not all that convinced about where IBM’s headed. Perhaps, with both companies doing pretty well, given the economic climate everyone operates in these days, IBM is doing everything it can to stay in the limelight.

And perhaps, it can be summed up, after all, in the last verse of Neil Young’s song:
“There's more to the picture
Than meets the eye.
Hey hey, my my.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A dedicated follower of fashion ...

It was good to find time to just take it easy last weekend, and once again I relaxed by driving on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). On Saturday I had driven along four of the canyon byways that connect the valley to the coast, while on Sunday a more leisurely approach was adopted as, once again, I found myself briefly on Mulholland Drive before crossing to the coast and then heading up Sunset Boulevard. And the picture above was taken of me on Rodeo Drive, where time was found to do a little shopping and to have a late lunch.

Walking Rodeo Drive and wandering through the stores is always entertaining – but at this time of year, tourists pretty much take over the place. I thought I heard as many languages as I had on my recent trip to the Baltic region! But it wasn’t the tourists that interested me as much as number of empty stores we passed. No, it wasn’t as though every second shop had closed down but rather, I only came across three shop-fronts devoid of goods. Compared with what I have seen of late in the local suburban mall, where many retailers have gone out of business, I was surprised by just how minimal an impact from the economic downturn there had been on perhaps the most material street in the world.

This is where fashion shops of Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Ralph Lauren, and Christian Dior and the jewelry of Tiffany and Bulgari can be found; and where watches by Ulysse Nardin, Breguet, and Frank Muller tempt those already adorned in the latest styles and merely wearing Rolex’s. And the cars – nowhere else can you see Ferrari’s, Lamborghini’s, and Aston Martins all competing for the same parking spot, and Bentleys have become so common that they simply garner no second glances. An hour’s stroll down Rodeo Drive is a material “sensory overload” unlike any other I know.

It’s also somewhat surprising to see what has come back into fashion. Lamborghini had lost a lot of it’s sheen a decade ago, but with the oversight of VW it is once again stealing the limelight. Very orange Gallardo’s never go unnoticed! And likewise, the turn-around in popularity of Jaguar and even Rolls Royce have been remarkable – but not everything works, as Mercedes Benz is struggling with it’s luxury (and really, seriously over-priced) Maybach brand. What to drive, and be seen driving, is just as difficult a a choice as is deciding between a Dior or a Prada!

But it’s not just about clothes, or cars. This week, sports reporters talked of how for the 2016 Olympic Games there would be competitions for Golf and Rugby (and yes, Rugby for both men’s and women’s teams - but of the seven-a-side variety)! Long forgotten by most sports fans, on the last two occasions Rugby was part of the Olympics (in 1920 and again in 1924) it was the U.S. who took the gold, fielding a team made up of Collegiate players from Cal-Berkley, Stanford, and Santa Clara. France won the initial gold in 1900 while a full strength Australian “Wallabies” national team defeated the local county team from Cornwell representing Great Britain, and the only other team to participate, with a run-away score-line of 37–3. It’s a shame, really, but New Zealand hasn’t won an Olympic medal of any color in the Rugby competitions – and I have to believe they have been lobbying hard to have the sport reinstated!

Clothes, watches, cars, and sports events all follow cycles and not all of them will hang around long enough to make a comeback. With many, they arrive as a fad, perhaps finding niche-appeal with a small crowd, only to disappear and never be heard of again. But others, track to a different cycle, and remain with us for many years. And this can be said about computer technologies and products – like luxury goods and sporting competitions, all of us in IT can recall products we once embraced that few others can remember.

Anyone still using the database management system, Model 204? Anyone remember developing HIPO charts? And can anyone remember the Interdata 32-bit minicomputer? Great machines … history has been unkind to so many products that it’s often difficult to remember all the ones we thought so highly of, only a decade or so ago. And that’s without thinking of all the national brands that were heavily supported, and subsidized, by the governments of the day.

I was checking my email this week when a story in zJournal, a publication for the IBM mainframe community, caught my attention. In this issue there was an article by Denise Kalm, and under the heading of “The Kinder, Gentler Dinosaur” it begins with the observation “you know the mainframe is the leader in reliability, availability, scalability, secure-ability and it is even ‘green,’ offering a reasonable floor space, power and cooling proposition. The mainframe would be the front-runner in many platform decisions based on cost and performance as well …”

The writer then goes on to say “ (but) many CIOs share a concern – where can they get the trained and talented expertise to run it long term? Casting a glance over the cubicles, you see how close people are to retirement. You remember the years of training and experience needed to unleash the power of the platform. Maybe you were even one of those experts, back in the day … The great news is that as the mainframe has begun to appear ‘sexier,’ and young talent is increasingly attracted to it.”

I have been enjoying an exchange on the LinkedIn user group, Real Time View, after I started the discussion “Computer ‘fashions’ - does technology follow popular trends?” Without repeating all that has been written (and I do suggest readers with LinkedIn profiles check it out), one observation I want to make is of how the discussion had “got me thinking about this whole topic of cool, fads, trends, and popularity - I recall a colleague of mine telling me how cool it had been, in his college days, to have authority to ‘access the mainframe’ - essentially a badge of superiority back then ... but then, the IBM mainframe keeps on ebbing and flowing in the trend / fashion-ability stakes … so, is its long term popularity at risk? Is its trendiness sustainable over time ...”

A kinder, gentler dinosaur? Cubicles populated with people about to retire? The mainframe has begun to appear ‘sexier’?” For those of us who have been around large systems for several decades, cringe at the thought of these boxes ever becoming sexy! But the IBM mainframe and, just as importantly after 35 years, the NonStop (it never did attract the label dinosaur, thanks goodness) have remained popular with those who needed to anchor their business solutions to technology well-architected for reliability. Yes, clever system designers have mirrored the internal “special sauce”, peculiar to NonStop, on clusters of Unix and Windows in a pursuit of greater availability, but the long term maintainability (let alone scalability) has always been questionable.

Is this all a case of NonStop being recognized very soon after its introduction to the market as being cool, and later as a trend-setting “disruptive technology” that changed the game, fueling a popularity that sustained it for all this time? Has such popularity of these products blinded us to potential weaknesses, whether price, access to qualified staff, or software offerings, as we embraced each new model upgrade? Do our IT peers view our loyalty simply, as the Kinks used to sing, “’cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion.”

Trends, popularity, fashion, fads, whatever – when blindly followed can lead to disaster. When it comes to technology, some solutions have proven to have lives that outlive the lifecycle where they first belonged. As the pendulum swings endlessly, or so it seems, between centralized and distributed computing solutions (is cloud computing nothing more than a return to centralized, once again?), does each swing generate a new lifecycle and are the products enjoying such long lives simply because they more adept at jumping to the new lifecycle?

Is the longevity of NonStop nothing more than an acknowledgement of how successful it has been in making those jumps? If this is the case then, by their very ability to jump, is their age relevant any more? Have we seen them as cool products many times – has each new generation of IT professionals been exposed anew to the special attributes that make NonStop so enduring? Do we breed new evangelists with every swing of the pendulum?

With continued HP support, and with no new disruptive technologies on the horizon, NonStop could be around for decades to come. And should that happen, there’s every chance IT professionals will continue to rely on NonStop at the core of whatever technology model for computing emerges next. Yes, NonStop is still cool, and is more than just a passing fad, or even a short-lived trend - it has stepped beyond being fashionable. Yes, NonStop is proving to be sustainable over time!

At the very least, when Tiger Woods walks out onto the first tee at the 2016 Olympic games, all of us who bought tickets will have likely touched NonStop somewhere along the transaction path. Again. And that’s probably a safer, surer bet than thinking the US team will win the Rugby gold medal. Again. Probably, even safer than betting on New Zealand!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Throw-away" corners ....

This past weekend saw me once again driving around a race track. This time it was at the very impressive Auto Club Speedway, formerly California Speedway – the site of NASCAR and Indy Racing League events. The professionals race around the main course, which looks more like a “D” than an oval, while we ran only on a portion of the oval – the curved main straight that passed the Start / Finish line and includes NASCAR corners 1 and 2. We left the oval through a very tight left hand turn half way down the back straight, and continued around an infield road course. And the picture here is of the Infiniti coupe, prepared, and ready to leave for the track.

The designers of the track threw in a couple of surprises and those drivers new to the course took some time to figure it out. It wasn’t just that it was a mix of high-speed straights with some diabolically slow corners, but on two sections of the track, the sequence of turns forced you to look a lot further ahead. As the goal of a driver is to maximize the time spent going fast, figuring out where the business of going fast really starts becomes one of the most critical elements that need to be determined. No matter the type of car on the track, going fast is usually best achieved when you have the car pointed straight ahead!

Readers of this blog may recall how the exit from any corner is perhaps the most important element (of the track) to execute well. And that this was the subject of a blog posting I wrote in May 31, ’08 “Heading for the exit!” on how “the process of cornering was broken into four components; braking, turn-in, apex, and exit. Of these, the most important component being the exit – the car will always follow your eyes – (and then) when committed to the corner, (look) for the next corner!”

For those readers who also read the postings on my social blog (http://www.buckle-up-travel.blogspot.com/) chronicling these times on the track, may recall the story I posted on October 17, ’08 “The pedal on the right ...” where, following a session on the track, a question arose about the correct line to take through a specific corner. The instructor responded with “there’s no right way to get through it – but when you realize that you don’t gain any real advantage in these corners – you just work on minimizing your time in them … in every circuit, you will find a corner that is just there to mess with your head!”

The designers of the Auto Club Speedway “roval,” the combination road course and oval, had added several corners that “messed with our heads” - “throw-away” corners where following normal cornering disciplines didn’t apply. If you did try to follow “the racing line” you finished up being way off line for the turns that followed. Given that the most important aspect of driving on this track was to go fast down the long, banked straight, working back from the return onto the oval highlighted the one “apex” that just had to be taken correctly – all those that preceded it weren’t important!

Just as a good card player knows when to discard cards, when to hold on to others, and when to “fold” and wait for another opportunity, the good drivers in our group this weekend knew when to take what appeared to be the completely wrong line while patiently waiting for the next “real” corner where they positioned themselves to go fast. And I am reminded of how, in IT, there are so many times when we are better served recognizing throw-away products as we better position ourselves (in terms of time, and resources) to address the real product we know will provide us with much more value!

I am constantly reminded of how not every new product is going to be a game-changer, or the much-anticipated breakthrough, we all eagerly anticipate. Very few products manage to fall into these categories; most are just refinements on what has come before. Truly innovative products, that change the course of IT and propel our businesses into new and fertile marketplaces come around only so often. It is the astute CIO, who understands the business goals and is aware of the course that has been set, that recognizes these throw-away turns!

For more than a decade, the Gartner Group has used the “hype cycle” to illustrate “the maturity, adoption, and business application of specific technologies.” Comprised of five phases, the hype cycle starts out with a technology trigger followed by a rapid upward climb to the peak of inflated expectations, only to drop dramatically into the trough of disillusionment before turning upwards again, only more gradual this time, with the slope of enlightenment that leads to the plateau of productivity. While these descriptions bring a wry smile to our faces and, for many of us, recollections of past experiences, they do spin a cautionary tale.

When viewed alongside traditional product and technology bell-curves, Gartner’s hype cycle highlights how we should never get too carried away by everything we read about in the press, or have pitched to us by our favorite vendor. There are just a lot of corners that don’t need to be taken, and turns that are purely throw-away. For many of us, sighting the proverbial plateau of productivity, as we wallow in the trough of disillusionment, proves to be next to impossible.

When I became a programmer, I had a tough time figuring out which programming language I should learn next. After listening to a lot of advice, I thought that perhaps the smartest thing to do would be to start out by learning a low-level language like Assembler – so I began with IBM’s 360 Assembler language. But my next decision, in hindsight, probably wasn’t quite as smart as I then added PL/1 to my repertoire … COBOL was definitely on its last legs and all I could see was that throw away corner right in front of me. Forget about my information source being IBM, I became completely at ease with the prospect that PL/1 would dominate for decades, and it wasn’t until I came to the US in the late ‘70s that I saw how much COBOL was in use.

Much later, I was participating in development discussions over languages and sure enough, fell in with other participants and supported Modula-2 for use in a new project, as the R& D Director was well-connected with the folks developing it. No option to use C, or even Pascal, with this group and no thoughts about the longer term objective of supportability, or ease of recruiting new programmers – no, someone knew someone who was close to the author of Modula-2! And wouldn’t it be so cool to use a language almost nobody had heard of - so yes, down that path we headed!

As the 80’s came to an end – all we could talk of was CASE tools, 4GLs, and object-oriented programming! The technology bell-curve was showing how important programming languages had become, but the hype cycle was telling us that many of them were about to flame out on the peak of inflated expectations. Those that looked further afield and valued productivity were already complementing their usage of COBOL with C and would later gain more productivity “speed” as they entered the C++ and Java straight!

It isn’t only languages that have presented challenges over the decades. Much the same can be made for knowing when to invest in database management systems, when to invest in system and network management systems, as well as when to invest in just about any other application suite or infrastructure components that has come our way.

In each case, there have been many changes in direction as products mature and new incarnations arrive – but truly innovative solutions have not typically appeared with every turn. Often we end up spending too much time sticking with something that really contributes little to the longer term goal. If only getting onto the plateau of productivity was easy to do!
This past weekend was very encouraging for me – and as I finished my final session of Saturday, I was able to move up a group. No longer a member of the novice group – I was now a member of the beginner’s group! A very small step for sure, but nevertheless, progress, particularly as I know what my goal is and can clearly see where I’m headed.

Seeing how IT solutions often make turns, and that there’s really no right way through many of them – and no real advantage to be gained from mastering them either – it’s easy to see that there’s rarely any speed gained made from ignoring the goal. I see many signs that our economies are about to improve with many experts suggesting that the economic “bottom” is behind us (almost a surety that investments (in IT) are about to ramp up) – so, for many of us, the temptation to stay with a turn when there’s little to be gained will be something for which we need to be prepared.

After all, there will be others who do see past it, and have already begun to accelerate into the straight – and shouldn’t we be up there with them? The slope of enlightenment is out there – we just have to look further ahead and we should see it clearly!