Friday, November 13, 2009

Fall, a time to buy?

I just stepped back indoors after taking the motorcycle out for a 75 miles late-Fall jaunt. With the continental divide well covered by early season snow, and plenty of evidence that there had been recent snowfalls along the Colorado front ranges, with loose grit in many of the corner apexes, it was good to catch a break in the weather. Just to enjoy the autumn colors, still present, framing many of the deserted back-roads that I ride, provided a pleasant change from the routines of the past few weeks. And the picture above is of looking back at a new line of "snow clouds" descending. Oh well!

Cutting across some of the main roads to get to my favorite highway, I passed a number of motorcycle and car showrooms. I thought that it may be a good idea to stop by and walk the deserted lots on my way back – after all, there’s nothing better to do on quiet days then to check out the new models.

I subscribe to many car and bike magazines and generally read them from cover to cover. I am not sure how my mind functions, but even the smallest details on even the obscurest model I somehow seem to be able to recall. Much of what goes on in my daily life, I seem to be having a tough time recalling accurately, mind you, but knowing that the cylinders inside a Honda motorcycle cruiser are now much bigger than those lying in the engine of a Dodge Viper, for instance, is something I read somewhere. Many years ago! So, with the new model year now in full swing and show rooms beginning to fill up with the ‘10s, it is always a great way to idle away a late autumn afternoon.

I have always been puzzled why the new models always start arriving in the Fall. It so happens that this is a byproduct of the impact of the July – August summer factory shut-downs that take place each year. As they restart, the factories begin cranking out the new models. Something a city boy from the Southern Hemisphere could never figure out. But in the run-up to Christmas many suburban driveways begin to display the latest offering from the more popular manufacturers.

It’s been a while since I bought a car. And it’s been much longer since I bought a new motorcycle. The current motorcycles are both ’03 models and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, it’s kind of un-American not to be seriously considering replacements. With a couple of ’08 cars in the garage, perhaps it’s not as urgent a situation – but I may have to get the oil changed, again, on the bikes and this would be a first!

Seriously, I really like riding motorcycles and driving cars and regular readers of this blog would not be surprised to know this – rarely a month goes by when I don’t manage to work into my blog something about bikes and cars. And the motorcycles and cars I own are not “garage queens” (for the most part) as they are ridden and driven on a regular basis. But with my new career and its focus on writing, I have little need or use for them to commute to work. No, I often take to the road simply to enjoy a break from the routine. And styling aside, whether a bike is two years old or ten, these days there’s little difference in how much they cost me to maintain. These things don’t seem to break, ever!

For those of us who have responsibility for the computer systems in our data centers, however, and who have the responsibility for matching user requirements to a budget, holding on to a server for more than two years can often prove to be a liability! In the months following the beginning of this century, and with all the clean-up work that went in to ensuring the Y2K “bug” didn’t put us all out of operation, I thought we would see a slowing in technology lifecycles and a fall-off in the pace of new product developments. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

The impact of the Internet, even with the bursting of the DOT.COM bubble, and the explosion in networking bandwidth; the need to comply with all sorts of government regulations from security to reporting “down systems;” and the continued gains being made in the power of chips and the shrinking of storage have all made systems we bought this century close to being obsolete! The “greening” of the data center and with it, a much greater appreciation for how much heat is being generated, has also made systems installed only a few years ago “too expensive” to continue to be supported.

As I listen to product roadmap updates provided by product management executives at user group events, I can’t help but pick up on the reports about the number of new systems being purchased and of the length of the pipeline (for new systems) that’s developed. It’s as though all the data center managers took a look out the window and saw that the season was changing and with it, realized it was time to buy a new model! While car showrooms are crowded with hybrid models and the motorcycle showrooms are catering for a graying population, computer “showrooms” are full of new hardware packages and on the pedestal, bathed in the spotlights, the new models are heavily Blades oriented.

Today’s modern Blade chassis has come a long way from lining the dark hallways inside of telephone exchanges, where I had, in fact, first encountered similar packaging. This past summer I had attended the HPTF&E event in Las Vegas and had walked through the inside of a container full of Blade enclosures (check out the posting of July 2, ’09 Common standards, uncommon advantages!) – what HP was calling the “Performance-Optimized Datacenter” (POD). And it reminded me of the many times I had walked through telco data centers. The beauty of Blades, however, is not in the packaging, or in the choice of chip sets used, but in the way engineers can more beneficially manage the heat being generated. Dealing with “hot spots” and ensuring data center managers do not have to upgrade or reroute their HVAC “plumbing” has many advantages in today’s business climate.

And the prices have come way down. For the NonStop community in particular, the support for Blades by NonStop has changed the pricing dynamics completely. And the product management presentations highlighting the “ramp” Blades purchases have produced, can’t escape noticing how steep the upward angle of the ramp has become! Compared with the inclines of other product lines, the ramp is more akin to looking up at a modern, Olympic sky jump platform!

About the only concern I would express when it comes to considering a transition to Blades is the roadmap for the Blades chassis itself. Blades will continue to be upgraded on a regular basis and in line with the chip manufacturer’s roadmap. In the case of NonStop, this is the Intel Itanium roadmap although, I would like to add, that a complementary x86 program would be nice to see. But regardless, Intel is on a tear with the program it has for the Itanium chip and when you consider the power coming with future Tukwila and Poulson multicore packages, NonStop will be getting access to unbelievable processing power.

The big question continues to be software and, in particular, the pricing of software particularly when it is infrastructure and middleware sosftware. Having a history with ACI / Insession and, more recently, GoldenGate, I have never been far from this debate. What value is reducing the price of the hardware if the cost of the infrastructure in support of the hardware just keeps going up? And does HP decry the cost of ISV-provided software because it’s messing up the value proposition of the deal, or because they would like to be able to keep all the funding budgeted for the upgrade? For the most part, software for NonStop is as expensive as it is today because it really does cost that much to develop and maintain.

Seriously, again. I really like being in the software business. But pricing is influenced by at least two important metrics: the size of the marketplace and the cost of the (human) resources. For the moment, these metrics continue to work against NonStop infrastructure prices coming down, in the short term, at least. Many ISVs in the NonStop marketplace understand this and are pursuing avenues to ensure their products can run on other platforms, in addition to NonStop,. Others yet, are migrating to programming languages where the pool of expertise is much larger. But it will never come down to commodity levels – users have the expectation that they will be supported and that expert services will be available, and how low the pricing for this can go will depend, in the end, of how big the NonStop marketplace becomes.

The ride back home grew much colder than I expected. I never did get the chance to walk around the lots or stop in at the bike shops I knew stayed open. There’s probably a lot I could find to talk about should a salesman come by. As an aside, with my passion for cars and motorcycles and my never failing memory when it comes to the fine details differentiating one car or bike from all others, there are some family members wondering why I wouldn’t open an exotic-car dealership that included a well stacked flower shop: at the end of the day you wouldn’t want to go home with a high-priced exotic without a bunch of yellow roses, now would you?

And I will probably make a visit to the showrooms sometime soon. While there’s so much more I could add to any discussion on software licensing, if a user should ask me, I am sure in the weeks ahead as I participate in even more user events, the topic will never be far away! See you at GTUG!

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