Friday, October 16, 2009

Is there gas in the tank?

Just finished skimming through the October issue of NonStop Connect Now and read the item promoting an upcoming webinar (December 2, ’09) on the subject of 35 years of NonStop evolution. According to the promotion:

“Throughout these decades, NonStop has evolved continuously and has now become a standards-based, modern infrastructure that continues to meet the needs of the most demanding customers and applications … take a look at the evolution of NonStop and hear about its past, present and future.”

It occurred to me that we take so much of what NonStop has achieved over the past 35 years for granted, and often forget just how hard those 35 years have been. Today when we read of how, after 35 years, “NonStop has delivered on the promise of continuous application availability, unparalleled data integrity and industry leading scalability,” as the promotion piece above led with, how often do we simply forget all the hard work and long hours that a tightly-knit group of passionate engineers gave to the company allowing it to deliver on the promise.

The picture above came to me from Diana Cortes, after I had asked her whether she had any photos from the early days. And for sure, the fashion statements clearly suggest that this is from the seventies. But when I asked who the four men in the photo were, there was nobody who could tell me. Looking at the background, it’s evident that they are in a test facility of some sort – perhaps even manufacturing. And the systems are Tandem Computers certainly. So, leading with this photo is now symbolic for me – yes, they most probably will be recognized after this posting – as it symbolizes the generation of engineers who worked so hard to bring the Tandem Computers to market.

Last weekend I was, again, participating in a track session – this time at Buttonwillow, CA, many miles into the southern end of the San Joaquin valley. We had driven the car to the event via I5, the major interstate through the heart of the valley, and the journey to the track was uneventful. After two days of participating in the high-performance driver education sessions at the track we began the return journey late Sunday afternoon.

However, just as we were finishing for the day, the electrics inside the car failed – a fuse somewhere was blown. The car ran fine, but inside the car, we couldn’t bring the windows back up, adjust the seats, adjust the external mirrors, “pop” the trunk, or release the gas filler cover. We had no way to add gas to the car (yes, I know, Chevrolet had thought of this, I was later to find out, and Corvette’s had a manual gas filler cover release inside the rear of the car that was accessible to any who crawled through to the back!) and with the fuel range showing about 90 miles and the drive home was a little over 100 miles, I knew it was going to be a close call.

Situated between the valley and my condo, was a sharp mountain climb that is called the “Grapevine” with a summit of slightly over 4,000 feet. Not all that impressive for anyone from Colorado, mind you, but suddenly taking on the enormity of Mt Everest! Watching the fuel range drop significantly by the time we crested the summit I eased off the gas and just coasted. For nearly forty miles! Yes we made it home with less than a gallon in the tank – but all the time we were rolling down the hill, I was worried we would not have anything left if we faced another climb. There was no way we could make it back up to 4,000 feet, for instance.

And as I have been looking through early articles on Tandem Computers and at photos chronicling the events of years ago, I began to think of last weekends drive and whether NonStop still had ways to go to reach the summit, or whether it crested sometime back. And just as importantly, is there enough gas in the tank to push on and take NonStop even higher? But having written this, there’s just so much history.

Around the globe, at different regional events, the local offices of HP have been cooperating with user groups to celebrate the anniversary. Back in June at the HPTF&E event in Las Vegas, HP management ensured the date was not lost on the audience and made sure we all knew the importance of this year. In Scandinavia at VNUG a few weeks ago, as well as in India at InNUG around the same time, HP management highlighted the upcoming anniversary. CTUG will be holding an event next week and I have had a brief email exchange with Rick and Randall and perhaps there will be a cake involved.

At GTUG, in a few weeks time, there will be a lot more excitement – forget the cake, there will be a good old-fashioned, traditional beer-bust. The GTUG event will be a pan-European event drawing an audience from many NonStop strongholds: in an email exchange with Dr Michael Rossbach I asked him how he thought it would go, and about the memories he had of his early days with Tandem Computers. Dr Rossbach responded:

"I started July 1979 to work with Tandem and ever since then "je ne regrette rien" We had (still have) some critical economical times, we went through a lot of changes, but the excellent technique, the expertise and skill of the people, the commitment from everybody we were / are dealing with was something I really do not want to miss. And it is still pretty much alive and will be for the next decade. I am happy to be chair of the European NonStop event this year and to host the community. What better opportunity to celebrate the anniversary and to enjoy a beer-bust ‘Tandem style’ on Thursday evening".

The history of Tandem and NonStop, is well worth remembering, and very deserving of the celebrations being planned. But will we also be making time to consider the future, and the hopes we have, about NonStop and about its role for the next 35 years? And just as important as any celebration of its past, is NonStop evolving fast enough and aligns with what our companies are calling for – inexpensive, industry-standard, and open?

At the InNUG event, where HP management had invited the press, a report by Vishnu Anand appeared on India’s premier IT website, CIOL that referenced the 35th anniversary, and said “NonStop server technology was born 35 years back, and InNUG marks this fete at this year's event by emphasizing the need for Indian enterprises to embrace the technology to 'double the performance at half the footprint.’” CIOL then reported Santanu Ghose, Country Head, Business Critical Systems, HP India, as having said "NonStop, as a technology, has evolved with the times and the Blade offering will make tremendous business sense to enterprises operating in any possible industry vertical.”

NonStop has evolved with the times! Doubling the performance at half the footprint! There’s no question that what we are seeing today with Blades is the evolution of NonStop as it embraces commodity hardware packaging with industry-standard connectivity to storage and communications. Effectively dropping in price and shredding the old price-premium delta! And while there’s no mandate coming from HP for NonStop engineers to embrace modern, open source, software - those product managers who talked with me kept reminding me that it’s just the right thing to be doing. There’s a lot happening these days with NonStop development and the message championed by Randy Meyer “common standards, uncommon advantages” is getting more coverage from industry analysts and the press.

I had the opportunity today to enjoy a brief email exchange with Winston Prather, Vice President and General Manager of the HP NonStop Enterprise Division where I asked him about the upcoming 35th anniversary and he told me :“when I first took over the NonStop Division three years ago, I knew the technological history of NonStop – from its origins as the world’s first fault tolerant server, the evolution through various processor and form factor changes, and now our move to industry standard hardware and a modernized operating environment.”

Winston continued “what I didn’t fully understand then was the incredible passion and commitment this team has to our customers, partners, and each other; and the deep understanding of true continuous application availability that runs throughout the group. Of course this is not just limited to employees – whenever I have the opportunity to meet with our customers and partners, I see the same passion and loyalty echoed in them.”

There is a strong marketplace for servers and there’s a lot of passion remaining for the NonStop server. NonStop engineers continue to provide tangible differentiation so that the value NonStop provides still separates it from all other solutions. Uncommon advantages, for sure. Riding the Blades revolution, pretty much from the time it broke onto the IT landscape, is positioning NonStop for a lengthy future. Common standards, yes!

In closing, Winston added “whether you’re new to NonStop or have been a part of the community for more of our 35 year journey then you’d care to admit, I’d like to congratulate everyone involved with NonStop over the years. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to be part of this team for the past 3 years, and I’m truly excited for our future.”

I had serious doubts about making it home as I watched the gas tank drain away. But I made it. And for some time I had serious doubts about NonStop. But after 35 years and after listening to folks associated with NonStop for decades, I truly believe, the summit has yet to be crested! And there’s still plenty of gas in the tank.

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