Wednesday, March 3, 2010

No services, next exit!

I continue to squeeze in quick trips back to Simi Valley as the weather and road conditions allow. At this time of year, it can prove to be challenging with arterial highways frequently closed, blocked by wind-blown snow. These stretches of interstate highways, this far west of the Rockies, are likely to include lengthy dead-zones for travelers carrying mobile phones, so it’s always a little nerve-wracking heading out fully aware that the weather will be bad. The picture above is of an exit I frequently pass and, for one reason or another, I felt compelled this time to click off a shot. At the bottom of the sign, in blue, you can see the words, "No Srvices!"

There are two exits to the township of Cisco – and this is the western exit. I have never taken the exit but I understand Cisco lies close to the Colorado River, a little east of its junction with the Green River. To see a sign directing me to Cisco and then informing me that I would find “no services” has always generated a chuckle each time I pass it.. I wonder if the executives at Cisco are even aware of this exit sign and the warning it carries – and my amusement is not directed specifically at Cisco, but at the need to specifically advise travelers that no services will be provided. The implication being that today, every interchange on the interstate network provides one form of service or another. After all, it is this density of offerings that keeps prices low, generates competition, and allows me to select a potential service based on previous experiences.

For road warriors frequenting these lengthy stretches of the western interstate network, the sight of a MacDonald’s or Burger King, fast-food convenience shop, a Chevron or Shell gas station, and even the mighty Starbucks that have sprung up around nearly every major freeway interchange, represent the chance to enjoy a break from driving. As much as I like to drive there’s rarely a time where I pass on the opportunity to enjoy a quick break. However, it is the ubiquitous nature of these businesses that has caught my attention of late.

Other than at Starbucks, it’s the same dreadful coffee at every gas station. It’s the same unremarkable hamburger packaged in the same non-descript cardboard container at every fast-food chain outlet. And, of late, it looks to be the same staff serving me at every stop along the way. It would appear that if you can learn to pack a ‘burger, or pour a coffee, there’s an element of job security implied as you easily transition from one vendor to another! I wonder if there’s a web site somewhere that simply schedules rotations through all of these remote shops!

The town of Cisco may not have any services on offer, and the thought of the company Cisco ever hanging out a billboard saying, “sorry, no services” is unimaginable. But within IT, there’s as much ubiquity these days as can be found at any fast-food shop. As unfortunate as it became, major IT vendors destroyed any form of company and brand loyalty in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, as industry realignments brought with it thousands of lay-offs from even the best vendors. Should any vendor’s services deteriorate for any reason, I have come to observe, the standardization that has blossomed across IT allows other vendors to easily and quickly step in and fill the void.

Lower prices? Competition? Choice of service? Industry-standard hamburgers? All a byproduct of the standardization that has transformed the fast food and beverage industry! Participating in the IT vendor community for more than three decades has taught me that being able to reference a standard when selling an IT product certainly made for an easier first call to any prospect. Product positioning becomes a lot easier when the prospect is informed of how the product on offer conforms to the standards of that market segment. Now every coffee shop offers a sleeve rather than a second cup to protect us from a hot container! And every viable server alternative, including NonStop these days, supports a standard run-time environment for Unix and .Net!

Unfortunately, we are living in times where there seem to be too many standards, and where it’s proving difficult to sort through vendors’ collateral to determine exactly what standard is supported. Industry standards! Marketplace standards! De-facto standards! It’s evolving so quickly that I am sure if I look hard enough I will find “standards-de-jour”. (It so happened that I didn’t have to try all that hard; when I “googled” standards de jour, I was directed to a page on www.w3.org web site that described Web Services Standards de Jour!)

Years ago, different countries placed different emphasis on standards. Living in Australia in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I saw first-hand how IBM operating systems became de-facto industry standard just by the sheer market presence it enjoyed and, overnight, the Japanese IT industry began supplying Plug Compatible Mainframes (PCM) that could run IBM’s VM, MVS and even DOS operating systems. Fujitsu, Hitachi, even Mitsubishi all pursued this industry-standard only to implode rapidly when the global industry swung behind a new, reputedly marketplace standard, operating system - Unix.

While the Japanese IT industry suffered as a result, in Europe it was all about X.25 – a communications technology used by the phone companies that was defined by CCITT – the International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee and “finalized” in 1976 with the publication of the “Orange Book!” X.25 arrived before the OSI reference model appeared, but for a while it caused consternation among users of the other, well known communications marketplace standard, SNA.

Across North America and countries like Japan, Britain, and Australia, IBM had developed a substantial body of work behind Systems Network Architecture, and for several years it was unclear whether a vendor standard or one from such an august body as CCITT would win! Eventually, it was a tie as SNA supported SNA services over X.25 but in the end, both standards are falling victims to a less complex architecture fueling the new industry standard – the Internet Protocol, IP!

It has been my experience living in the U.S. that many vendors in this region look suspiciously at the arrival of any standard – industry, government, or de jour. For the most part this suspicion is fueled from a sense of how, yet again, another barrier to selling products has arrived. The emergence of standards today, however, is less an issue of successful work by committees, industry bodies, or even government agencies meeting twice a year, and many times not even that frequently, as it is by market acceptance. Not a barrier any more, but a signpost to what’s going to stick around! Whether we like it or not, how often do we pick up a PC to see what the chip is – Intel? AMD? And just as frequently, does the PC have a Windows “capable” sticker as well?

Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, SAP, Cisco are all names we now associate with standards, with former industry and government backed standards providing not much more than policies. How often do we hear the expression “policy conformance” for material that in former years would have simply been acknowledged as a standard? There may be nothing wrong with these developments and they may be all headed in the right direction, but I am not so sure, and I am a little bothered by some of the actions I have seen of late from those who we see “owning” a standard.

The goal of standards had always included the prospect of more “plug-and-play” options, of being able to shop for services from a variety of vendors. Standards promoted the prospect of being able to walk down aisles full of vendor offerings and simply throw any mix into a cart with the assurance they would all interoperate. There can be a downside, of course. In 1999, IBM sold its then-SNA communications business to Cisco for $2 billion. IBM sold to Cisco all their patents, products, and customers. But today, try getting Token Ring products in Cisco’s router offerings, or call them for support for Token Ring! Just as the sign at the top of the post promotes: “Cisco? No services!”,
I guess SNA really is close to being “finished” as a standard, and I am sure there are many more standards that we will just have to figure out how to live without, eventually.

For the NonStop community, nothing is as important as the NonStop Enterprise Division’s (NED) pursuit of standards. Particularly as it applies to middleware and infrastructure – a topic I have addressed in previous posts. It is very important that NED continues to recognize the value that comes with casting the net a lot wider than they may have in the past. Without revisiting comments made in those previous posts, the Java and .Net run time environments available on NonStop definitely represent a net that have been cast very wide indeed. To have applications developed for Unix, and even Windows, that can be easily ported to NonStop, is a reflection of how good a job NED development is doing – NonStop has become an option for all solutions providers, no matter the heritage!

In the end, it really is up to all of us within the NonStop community to ensure the prioritization of projects within NED continues to provide the flexible infrastructure and middleware which is so crucial to running today’s modern applications. Whether it’s strictly the implementation of a simple standard, or stretching that extra inch to ensure a well-known suite of components needed by a popular product is built, it will all depend on the calls we make.

And if I were in competition with HP NonStop today, and really understood their resurgent commitment to ensuring that broad set of workable standards were supported, then I certainly would be very cautious about how many customers I inconvenienced. After all, we are all watching for the “no services” signs to appear at any time and in any place! For any vendor!

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