Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nothing seems to last ...

It was only a few weeks ago when we took our car to the track, for the last time this year. And it was a wet weekend, raining so hard on Saturday that all events were cancelled. It was still a gamble as Sunday morning rolled around as the rain continued to come down, but intrepid drivers were not prepared to give up on the entire weekend.

The picture here is of the Corvette on grid, rain easing up just a little, but with me a tad anxious all the same. The season had started with a wet weekend and so it seemed appropriate to end on a similar note.

Ending the year at the fabulous (for Corvettes) and very wet Auto Club Speedway, a combination of an infield road course with the wide open banked oval of the NASCAR circuit (and hence the label “roval”) seemed appropriate, if not a little depressing.

When there’s water on a track however, all drivers take to the circuit with a measured sense of self preservation. No matter the kind of car on track, there’s not a driver who wants to return to pit lane with a car that’s badly bent out of shape!

Wet weather driving does encourage experimentation and a little innovation – very quickly the racing line becomes visible as the only dry section on the circuit. However, it may not be the best place to drive and early laps see drivers checking out alternate lines around the circuit and experimenting with braking zones and turn-in points. There was even a brief period where we had a dry, extremely clean, track and although it didn’t last long, I managed to eke out a couple of good laps.

In the latest issue of Time magazine that I picked up a few days ago, Richard Stengel, the magazine’s Managing Editor, wrote in his column “in our networked world, nothing ever goes away, but nothing seems to last very long either.” Certainly, applicable to the weather I faced this weekend.

Stengel then goes on to suggest “information these days is a commodity; understanding is scarce.” All of us trackside could see that it was wet but it was only a handful of wily drivers who recognized where to drive to avoid mishaps. And it can be said that all of us can get our hands on reams of publications about HP and about NonStop, but do we truly understand where NonStop is headed?

The Tandem architecture is now 35 years old and most of us have warm memories from the great times we enjoyed during the early days. Yet, to paraphrase Stengel, particularly of late as NonStop rides the Intel “curve,” nothing seems to last very long and yet, nothing ever goes away!

It was over two years ago when I posted “‘My Wish’ for NS Blades” to this blog and developed a Powerpoint slide-show around its core messages that I presented at numerous NonStop user community events. As a writer ever-willing to provide opinions, it’s a sobering thought to return to forecasts made this long ago, but before providing any further predictions, it’s none the less an important first step to take. After all, how accurate were these prior predictions?

In that post of February 12th, 2008 I suggested that my wish list was comprised of just three items - HP delivers in its message of Shared Infrastructure blades, HP commits to virtualization and provides a Hypervisor that supports NonStop as a guest operating system, and that HP acknowledges that it will also need to support middleware that interrogates incoming transactions, directing mission critical transactions to NonStop, important informational but not quite mission-critical to a Unix or Linux, and voluminous inquiries to Windows.

The first item was a request of HP BCS to deliver on the promise made in the slideware Martin Fink first unveiled as the “Shared Infrastructure Blades” package. This is where any mix of NonStop, HP-UX, Linux, and Windows Server OS’s will be supported. Shortly afterwards, the wraps came off a blades chassis populated with a mix of NonStop and Linux blades, and participants at the HPTF event that year could see demonstrations of mixed workloads running on this system hybrid.

Looked good and attracted the attention of a number of vendors but NonStop customers were a little uncertain as to what to make of it and gave little feedback to HP, and so we have not heard much more about this first attempt at hybrid.

But followers of the IBM mainframe can now point to the latest mainframe offering where zOS and Linux (with other OS images to follow, it is believed) sharing a common system bus with almost zero latency between intersystem calls! With all the talk of hybrid clusters and cloud computing, industry standard chassis populated with commodity blades running any combination of OS images is a goal being pursued by many vendors.

As for virtualization and a hypervisor, like one from VMWare, is not something I’m as aggressively proposing. It’s a bit like trying to determine what tires you need to run on a wet track – and be careful what you ask for! As so many in the community highlighted for me, there would be a cost to the level of availability offered and NonStop would lose all visibility to the underlying hardware – something very akin to the dicey situation that can develop when on a wet track with the wrong tires.

However, even as I admitted at the time of how I was going out on a limb with my last wish suggesting that with the mixed OS hybrids there would be a need for middleware products that supported real time interrogation of the incoming transactions and would direct mission critical transactions to NonStop, important informational but not quite mission-critical to a Unix or Linux, and voluminous inquiries to Windows?

Even as I see the hybrid model of my first wish building up a head of steam, this third wish – a kind of mutant mixed workload measurement and management system – remains a valid concern. Looking back, I continue to stick with two out of my three wishes which, in some small way, isn’t all that bad of a result.

Watching the sports headlines this week, TCU university, like so many other American collages of late, is switching from one conference association to another. Electing to participate with other collages with greater potential to play in major tournaments, TCU was leaving behind a program that had seen it join the elite of American football teams.

However, as well as it performed on the playing field, it was still having a tough time getting the attention of the tournament organizers and was being overlooked as potentially, the best football program in the country. "If you don't dream, you're living in a memory," Del Conte, TCU’s athletic director, said. Conte than proposed "who wants to live in a memory? Every single time we have an opportunity to think about where we're going to go (we) dare to be great academically and athletically!”

And nothing could be closer to the truth when it comes to looking at frequently overlooked NonStop – yes, memories of 35 years of Tandem architecture remain with us to this day but for me, it’s all about the future. Readers may have missed some commentary I provided in NonStop – A Running Commentary in the October issue of the eNewsletter, Tandemworld.Net and the slight variation I made on my earlier forecasts.

Gone is the pursuit of a hypervisor capable of supporting NonStop, and the availability of hybrid clusters in a box is now something I sense solutions providers will be the parties first to embrace and utilize in more creative fashion. And along with the hybrids, the need for hybrid workload management hasn’t lessened in the least, and so that remains a consideration.

New are the observations of a NonStop server becoming a smart controller! And of whether NonStop Enterprise Division (NED) will develop any of this at all, becoming a clearing house, or distribution point, for an arbitrary collection of third party infrastructure and middleware!

Will product roadmaps become nothing more than templates provided as guides and reference points to an ecosystem of ISVs investing their own nickels and dimes to populate?

My previous predictions first posted in early 2008 are all but memories for most of my readers but tallying up the scorecard and getting a two thirds pass rate I will take any time. All that I need now is one of these last two observations to prove to be correct to retain that two thirds pass rate.

Having said that, these latest projected events could prove to be extremely controversial among some users and trigger many more questions in the months ahead. On the other hand, and to paraphrase TCU’s Conte, too long with nothing but memories and it’s hard to start dreaming! And we would all be the poorer if no one dreams of future NonStop deployments!


Sunday, November 21, 2010

It's our reputation!

This week I flew to Cupertino on business, leaving LAX airport early in the morning. Pulling back from the gate and taxing to the active runway, we passed the forlorn sight of the QANTAS Airbus A380 super-jumbo standing idle alongside their hangers, pictured above (courtesy of AP, as published in the Australian newspaper).

Recent mishaps with the A380’s Rolls Royce engines have forced QANTAS to ground their fleet of super-jumbos. On a flight from Singapore to Sydney an engine failed catastrophically and the plane was very fortunate to make it safely back to Singapore.

QANTAS has for years enjoyed the reputation of never having lost a passenger to a plane crash and since the modern era of jet airlines remains alone in this category. Providing a reliable service is core to QANTAS’ business and any weakening of this message brings serious repercussions.

The Airbus A380 super-jumbo is an impressive and extremely innovative aircraft that has captured the flying public’s imagination. But gradually, as more news of the incident aboard the QANTAS flight surfaces, reliability rather than innovation, has grabbed the headlines.

According to an Associated Press (AP) article of November 18th, 2010 “Cascading failures followed airline engine blowout” Richard Woodward, a vice president of the Australian and International Pilots Association told of how “the pilots were inundated with 54 computer messages alerting them of system failures or impending failures (and) with only about eight to 10 messages able to fit on a computer screen, pilots watched as screens filled only to be replaced by new screenfuls of warnings”.

AP then added “airplanes are supposed to be designed with redundancy so that if one part or system fails, there is still another to perform the same function.”

But failure there was, as AP continued, “an electrical bus — a connection between electrical devices — on the left wing failed. The plane was designed so that a second bus on the same wing or the two buses on the opposite wing would pick up the load. That didn't happen.”

How close this came to ending QANTAS’s stellar reputation for reliability we will probably never know, but it’s looking increasingly like the crew and passengers dodged a serious bullet! It took a highly skilled team of pilots to deal with the emergency and preserve the aircraft.

Innovation has been a constant theme of postings to this blog. For the NonStop community, even after 35 years, the original architecture of NonStop is as relevant as it ever has been. The ability to continue to function after single point of failure has ensured it a place at the center of transaction processing and e-commerce applications.

The world is changing fast. Data centers are consolidating. Services are coming from multiple external suppliers. Outsourcing, off-shoring, and the increasing dependence on the internet are changing the future of the data centers.

Commoditization of hardware platforms is driving the prices down and open technologies are accelerating the adoption of new business models. Cloud computing is beginning to appear with yet to be seen ramifications for the data center.

Our everyday life is changing fast as well, and at times it seems as if we stepped onto a science fiction movie set. Checking in at an airline gate with my mobile phone, without any paperwork; loading a movie directly to my TV screen, instantly; re-mapping the tune of my car’s engine, and even its gearbox without a mechanic; remarkable! A wealth of computing power being applied in ways very few of us had considered only a few years ago.

But it’s all of little value if it isn’t reliable, and reputations developed over decades can be quickly lost from disruptions to the flow of business critical information. Perceptions can quickly change and the fall out can stay with us for a long time.

In a recent email exchange with Thomas Burg of comForte, he drew my attention to the latest data sheet on the HP NonStop iTP WebServer. This product has been available for many years, but I have to admit, it’s been some time since I read a data sheet on its capabilities.

“Designed for transaction processing and electronic commerce … implemented as a Pathway server class … (and) with Resource Locator Service (RLS), allows the iTP WebServer software to act as a front end to commodity servers based on the UNIX or Windows NT operating systems … (providing) reliability and availability to commodity Web servers by monitoring their status and selecting a server that is available and capable of processing the request.”

Front ending services and interfacing directly to the internet using the HP NonStop server raises some concerns, of course. Given the potential to improve the reliability, there’s still the issue of connectivity –NonStop as the front end for ATM and POS networks met the stringent reliability demands placed on it, but positioning NonStop as a web server and as the front end to everything within the enterprise is an entirely different proposition.

But not one that’s deterred some companies, suggests NonStop Product Manager, Sanjib Guhathakurta who emailed me a just published case study on the manufacturer, Rasselstein, a subsidiary of the steel-producing giant, ThyssenKrupp AG.

“The Integrity NonStop system integrates seamlessly with the rest of Rasselstein’s computing environment, including mainframe, UNIX system-based SAP business applications, and many Linux and Windows servers,” the company explains in the data sheet.

“Features of the HP Integrity NonStop platform are very important for us,” states Johann Pausch, Head of Application Development Manufacturing Execution and Logistics at Rasselstein, and he puts the NonStop system’s delivering the highest availability at the top of his list. “Its excellent connectivity to other IT systems and intelligent production devices, it is well suited to be the central platform for our highly automated production environment.”

The promotion by HP NonStop Enterprise Division (NED) of the use of NonStop as a web server front ending the whole internet (as they are now promoting), shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us familiar with NonStop although, I am willing to bet, such a configuration wouldn’t immediately come to mind for most CIOs.

It should also not come as a surprise to the NonStop community as this has been the theme of numerous presentations and many papers for all of this decade. The HP NonStop platform is the ideal candidate for front ending internet access, just as it has supported transactional processing and electronic commerce solutions since it first appeared in the marketplace.

In an article published in the July / August 2002 issue of The Connection, “Web Technologies on the NonStop Platform: Why Bother? Which ones?” written by Thomas Burg, he observed how “people underestimate the effort of (securely) running a Web server on other platforms and that the NonStop platform deserves some consideration as well.”

Just as importantly, comForte’s Burg notes “HP’s message about scalability and availability, and low TCO of NonStop servers, are convincing arguments in favor of a web server on the NonStop system.”

2002? Yes, 2002! Almost ten years ago. The growing interest in cloud computing and the desire to push down costs will really stress many companies’ abilities to maintain the reliability their customers will demand. For many of these companies this could prove disastrous to their business and prove to be a windfall for the competitors.

QANTAS found that they were fortunate, indeed very lucky, with the recent incident involving their superjumbo. According to AP, “it was just luck that there happened to be five experienced pilots — including three captains — aboard the plane that day. The flight's captain, Richard de Crespigny, was being given his annual check ride — a test of his piloting skills — by another captain. That captain was himself being evaluated by a third captain. There were also first and second officers, part of the normal three-pilot team. Even with five pilots working flat-out, it took 50 minutes to prioritize and work through each of the messages.”

Thomas Burg’s article written back in 2002 remains relevant, and we discussed how introducing a web server on anything less reliable than NonStop in support of the solutions we are seeing come to market can be done and, indeed, is still being done by many companies. Much of it pursued with little advanced planning and just as little insight into how to deal with growth while maintaining reliability. I have to wonder how many of them will be lucky enough to dodge potential bullets the way QANTAS managed to do.

What about their reputations? And what value do companies place on reliability? As globally economies begin to come back after several years of recession and competition begins to heat up, I have to believe HP will come to fully appreciate what they have in NonStop and we will see even greater deployment of NonStop servers playing a more prominent role in every data center!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Papers? Papers, please!

I was last in Berlin, Germany, in the early summer of 2005 and it was for the European ITUG user community event. There was much to anticipate, as Martin Fink had just been newly appointed to lead the NonStop organization, and the first new NonStop server based on the Intel Itanium chip was to be launched.

This was my last year as ITUG Chairman, and immediately following the user community event I flew to Warsaw, Poland, for a brief family vacation. However, I did take a few days out of my vacation to participate in the launch of the HP Integrity NonStop server at the Enterprise Network Storage Architecture (ENSA) conference in Copenhagen.

Also in attendance were Chris Rooke and Neil Pringle of HP, and Chris was particularly excited as he showed me a full-page advertisement from the Wall Street Journal. It featured Intel, highlighting the new HP-Intel partnership, and it welcomed the NonStop user community to a new era based on standards and commodity components.

As exciting as this event proved to be, I was anxious all the same to return to Warsaw and to continue with my vacation. However, it was papers of another kind that soon occupied my mind. Plans had changed and Margo and I would be leaving Warsaw by train to Frankfurt and I couldn’t push aside faded images from the cold war, half expecting that at any time I would be told to go back! The picture above is of the station – across the street from our hotel.

We were routed through Berlin and just prior to entry, immigration and customs agents began walking down the aisles. Then I heard it, “papers? Papers, please! I want to see your papers!” The experience felt other-worldly, almost dream-like. All I kept thinking of was the 1960’s movie “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold!”

Somehow, watching officials checking every passenger’s paperwork before allowing them to continue with their journey just didn’t do anything at all for my confidence. It would have been more enjoyable if I had been on the plane!

Whether it’s simply proof of insurance as we register a motor car, or a coupon to redeem our car from a car park or to pass through a turnstile, it often appears that our passage from one line to the next will take place only if we have the right papers!

We are seeing less of it of course, as increasingly all we need is a picture id to pass through any gateway. Even with the pressing need to enforce security as so many countries are trying to do, there’s always a fast lane, or priority queue, where with the right credentials instant passageway is assured, and in almost no time at all you can be about your business.

Papers, credentials, and certificates! All important today when it comes to substantiating or proving conformance. And with the messages coming from HP, programs are emerging and it is becoming important to know where a product line fits within HP’s strategy.

Is this solution really modern, as it’s vendor claims, and does HP acknowledge it’s presence in their modernization program? How do we recognize modern solutions and what clues is HP providing?

As participants of this year’s NonStop Symposium may have heard, HP NonStop management was musing on how, “customers have upgraded their hardware, but their applications have not evolved.” Still using COBOL and TAL as programming languages, still accessing the system via green-screens, and still using Enscribe for file management!

Vendors attending the NonStop Symposium heard of a new program, the Converged Infrastructure “Ready”, or simply, CI-ready Program, that is the first step towards assuring that a solutions suite is modern, and can be deployed on the latest blade offerings no matter the package.

Boundaries, or borders if you prefer, no longer restrict the choices available to run a solution – Linux? Windows? NonStop? All can be options where the final decision will be taken by company or business unit.

Laying out a very level playing field to all solutions and middleware providers, HP’s CI-ready program provides certification to those vendors who can demonstrate that their products run on NonStop Blades Systems (and J-series operating systems) and, uses one of more of the modern and open software infrastructure components on NonStop (e.g. Java, SASH, SOAP / Web services, SQL/MX, etc.) or, is capable of being installed with NonStop Software Essentials (e.g. can then be integrated into the installation repository for any NonStop system).

Well-known infrastructure vendor, ESQ chose to participate and was part of the initial roll-out presentations. ESQ was motivated to participate as one goal they saw was that success with the program would attract the “interest of younger software developers.”

Demonstrating the openness of their solutions was very important as ESQ’s Shridhar Venkatraman suggested in a recent email. The “proof of concept (PoC) was to pick our java based modules,” Shridhar said, and “make no changes and test them on the NonStop, which we did. In order to do this we had to make some open source modules also run on the NonStop including Apache Derby, ActiveMq, Drools and Squirrel.”

ESQ continues with the PoC and believe that one potential outcome will be that they “will make use of the unused headroom on new blades. This will provide integrated alternatives to adjunct Windows / MS SQL servers.” No more duplicating data on NonStop to off-platform MS applications but rather, creating the environment for running the same MS applications directly on the NonStop!

First to officially receive their CI-ready status has been another infrastructure vendor, IR. “For over 10 years, IR adapted their High Definition Monitoring™ software (Prognosis) to address systems beyond the HP NonStop platform,” Pierre Semaan, IR’s head of Product Management emailed me recently.

“We have gained many net new (outside HP NonStop ecosystem) customers (and) our distributed systems product line enjoyed much of its success due to customers choosing to deploy it alongside our HP NonStop solutions to provide a single view of their application ecosystem.

For vendors like IR, who are increasingly seeing deployment in a volatile mixture of platforms where the actual platform running the software frequently varies from one customer to the next, retaining the option to deploy anywhere is an important attribute of the solution.

Semaan then went on to explain “introducing the ‘CI-ready’ program highlights products that address the real customer need of deploying their mission critical applications in a heterogeneous environment.”

“It is very rare these days to see complex continuity or mission critical applications being deployed on a single platform,” Semaan acknowledged. Knowing that a platform has been recognized as a participant in a Converged Infrastructure (CI) program gives the participants the credentials they need to pass through any gateway!

“We are increasingly adding value to our customer’s systems by extending our solutions to cover the applications running on CI, not being restricted to the underlying platform manageability. Migrating across CI systems can finally move from being a dream to reality.”

Papers! When I flew to Warsaw I had forgot that I still needed paper tickets so yes, they were sitting on my desk back in America. The good folks at Lufthansa let me board the plane anyway, but there would be no such luck on the return trip. Margo and I couldn’t take the flight!

Accredited as CI-ready, solutions for NonStop will not be held back from greater participation in the business enterprise either, and their even more widespread usage may develop as a result. For creating this program, HP should be thanked. As ESQ’s Shridhar reminded me, “NonStop is suffering from a ‘Paucity of Cool’; this is NonStop's chance to get back on the plane!”