Friday, January 28, 2011

About that data ...

NonStop servers and Mercedes Benz cars have something in common, and it’s not always visible. No, it has nothing to do with pricing! NonStop is heading towards being a pure software play and it’s all about the “stack” …

Last weekend, driving west along California’s highway 101 I passed the local Mercedes Benz dealership, and a quick glance at their showroom had me heading for the exit immediately. A quick U-turn and I was in their parking lot.

The picture above captures the sight – a new Mercedes SLS “Gullwing” sports car! Alongside the SLS, a car I hadn’t seen while driving on the highway, was a Mercedes SLR “McLaren”! Both cars obvious works of art, but beneath the metal and carbon fiber skin a full complement of race-bred technology. The picture above captures the two cars, side by side, with their distinctive doors fully extended.

For years, I have viewed this marque as the benchmark when it comes to quality engineering in an enjoyable, reliable package. It was in the early ‘80s that, while I was living in Sydney, my neighbor gave me the keys to his SL350 for the day, and with the coupe’s retractable rag-top pulled back I had a blast cruising the local beachfront streets. I even used it to make a business call at a data processing service bureau I had just landed as a client.

I have never owned a Mercedes Benz, having always preferred the cars produced by their competitor in Munich, but I always valued the information that came from driving their cars. Through the years the list of features has grown enormous as has the power they have been able to generate from their engines and yet, as a benchmark, I am no longer as sure as I once was that the benefits of owning a Mercedes Benz is worth the price they charge.

It’s been hard to escape the many stories circulating of how, in the March timeframe, there will be major announcements by Leo Apotheker, HP’s newly-appointed CEO, on everything from the make-up of the board, his executive team, the products, as well as a new strategy for the company. While there has been considerable speculation on what will be addressed, we have already seen some of the details as the changes in the makeup of the board of directors became public.

When it comes to strategy and to technology and products, for many within the NonStop community, it’s as if the news being leaked has been telegraphed for some time. With the push to commodity hardware almost complete, and where very little of the hardware package that makes up today’s blades required to run NonStop is unique, it will surprise none of us should the hardware package become ubiquitous. After all, it is the full stack that is NonStop where the magic has always existed.

Along these lines, in the feature “NonStop, A Running Commentary” just published in the January 2011 issue of the Tandemworld.Net e/Newsletter, I even went so far as to suggest that, with the way the NonStop Enterprise Division (NED) R&D has handled the adjustments that had to happen with the switch of chip vendors to Intel, I have to believe NonStop could run on a pair of sardine tins, if there were any processors inside whatsoever!

Nostalgia? It’s not the hardware anymore that differentiates today’s NonStop, so let’s not get hung up on this issue, I suggested!

For the many of us relying on NonStop servers to anchor support for mission critical applications we have been aware that NonStop is about a lot more than just the hardware, and even more than just the operating system. If it had been just about the operating system, then the history of NonStop would be long over, and the 35th anniversary the stuff of imagination. Perhaps outlasting some of the better-known operating systems of the late ‘80s, all the same, but eventually losing relevance in the face of power house operating systems such as Unix and Windows.

Just as I have considered the Mercedes Benz as the benchmark for quality engineering in an enjoyable, reliable package, so it is that I view the complete stack on NonStop as the benchmark for continuous, perhaps even permanent, availability. From the transactional TS/MP (Pathway) layer of the stack on up through the Transaction Management Facility (TMF), the NonStop SQL/MX data base and even the Remote Database Facility (RDF), these layers when exploited in combination, ensure modern applications can be deployed in circumstances where downtime for any reason simply is not an option.

In the December 2010 issue of Database Trends and Applications, with its theme of “Big Data, Big Issues” in an article entitled “In Search of the Elastic Database” the author writes about the Relational Database (RDBMS) as the data management layer underpinning every popular database implementation in use for the past two decades. However, in addressing this topic, the author raises a number of concerns, among them, the ability to handle really large volumes of data.

“Unfortunately, unlike most other elements in the application stack, relational databases scale out very poorly. With a few exceptions, it’s not possible to simply cluster your database and add nodes to the cluster as workload increases. Relational databases work best when all the data is managed by a single node.” The author then observes how “shared disk clustered databases such as Oracle’s Real Application Servers (RAC) can increase or decrease cluster members faster, but have an unattractive licensing model.”

Continuing with his observations on Oracle RAC, and looking ahead to possible requirements of cloud computing, the author then remarks on how they “are generally not deployed with very large node counts, and do not solve all the issues involved with scaling I/O rates and data storage. So, purveyors of cloud-based computing infrastructures also need an elastic database.”

NonStop systems aren’t just about the hardware. They aren’t even about the operating system, or about the database management system. NonStop systems are about the collection of layers that in combination make a complete stack that leverages it all, enabling a single node to take on enormous proportions, and for the database to scale well beyond competitive implementations whose origins were in systems that maxed-out with just a few processors.

NS SQL/MX as a database system shows up on very few industry analysts radars. The list of features may even appear less than ideal when lined up against the major vendors’ offerings. However, as part of the complete stack that is NonStop, its ability to be as “elastic” as we need surpasses anything on offer today and continues to be among the best-kept secrets that today is NonStop.

As we head towards March when more information about HP’s strategy is unveiled, it’s no secret how much of the focus of this strategy will center on HP’s transition to a software, services, and integration. Building commodity boxes HP can do blindfolded but that’s not where it’s future lies.

Taking these commodity boxes, building integrated systems on top of them, and offering complete stacks to Java and .Net developers alike, is where HP hopes to excel and build a more profitable and sustainable business. That’s where the value for the user community will lie and with NonStop as part of this strategy, there will be renewed focus on the capabilities of NS SQL/MX much to the delight of a much-maligned cadre of supporters!

While my local Mercedes Benz dealer showcased the SLR with its McLaren heritage and the SLS with its (arguably) Dodge Viper influence, the technologies of these vehicles were priced well beyond the reach of most car buyers. However, alongside these two models, was the more affordable and yet in some respects more modern SL 6.3 coupe. Arguably, the value deal!

When it comes to NonStop showcasing an S-Series, or even an earlier Himalaya K-Series, alongside today’s Blade systems, it’s easy to consider them the benchmarks for reliable, continuously available servers.

However, perhaps not as readily recognized in today's modern Blade server running the full NonStop stack  is what hides beneath the covers, like the coupes from Mercedes Benz, invisible to the unknowing observer - a multi-layer stack of integrated, “mission critical” bred technology that remains unchallenged after all these years!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Let's show our colors!

“You are either red, or blue – there’s no beige on the mountain!” As the focus of NonStop turns to software, and the news spreads to the rest of HP, how can we not applaud the stories now coming out of Palo Alto?


I’ve just come back from the car wash. It’s winter in California, and yet the mercury has climbed past 80 degrees. Coming from Boulder where there’s still a lot of snow on the ground, I’m as much in shock as anyone else from these parts. The picture above was taken as I was getting the SUV out of the garage and about to depart for California.

Winter? California? Knocking back a sports drink and looking for shade, the state is finally living up to its moniker!

Perhaps it’s a sign of changing economic conditions as the cars at the car wash are a mixture of bright yellows, reds, and blues, of course! For the past year cars have been a lot less colorful with silver and beige predominating. Nothing is more depressing to a car enthusiast than the lack of color – beige? Good grief!

In an infomercial for the Great Race, at the Mount Panorama circuit in Bathurst Australia, Russell Crowe provided the voice over, and looking at a spectator crowd waving GM and Ford banners Crowe so eloquently summed up the sentiment of all those who had come to watch the spectacle: “you are either red, or blue – there’s no beige on the mountain!” Perhaps there’s no stronger or fiercer competition today than exists between Ford and GM.

In many industries there’s competition between market leaders. As the year closed, EADS, parent of Airbus was highly vocal with its message of marketplace supremacy over Boeing when it totaled up how many aircraft were shipped. As much as many in America decry the use of government subsidies (and a subject I will leave for another time), EADS still managed to roll out more planes from its factories in 2010.

Ford, GM? Boeing, Airbus? And then of course, there’s IBM and HP and where the two technology leviathans continue to compete fiercely for every business deal. The similarities between the struggles Ford has with GM and Boeing has with Airbus can be hard to escape at times.

Boeing has the high-tech 787 about to come to market, while Airbus toys with a competing 350 design. Ford competes with GM on the basis of smaller, fuel efficient cars and yet, GM is about to launch its own technologically advanced hybrid, the Volt.

Likewise, even as IBM continues to report on its growing software and services business, could we see a huge shift in focus at HP to become a more serious threat to IBM in the Software and Services marketplaces? Speculation is rife that sometime in March the new HP CEO, Leo Apotheker, will change HP’s direction in a big way.

According to the latest issue of Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal (Jan 17th, 2011), the article “New HP CEO eyes strategy change”, quoting the Wall Street Journal it reports “the new CEO is eyeing a shift towards the more profitable software, networking and storage businesses. He reportedly plans to downplay the less lucrative personal computer and server businesses.”

There could even be significant executive changes as well, as the stories speculate that Apotheker plans to further flatten the organization and have more direct reports from the executive ranks. And some familiar faces may even be leaving the company!

My early exchanges with clients and HP customers generated little more than a stifled yawn. NonStop users have been hearing a similar message for some time. The commoditization of the hardware is almost complete; sometime between the adoption of Intel’s Poulson and Kittson multi-core chips, I believe that ServerNet will be replaced by InfiniBand (IB) of one flavor or another, as the current ServerNet implementation will be simply overpowered by the demands of these multi-core chips.

With the future hardware building blocks commodity items (and yes, wouldn’t it be great to have NonStop working on x86 blades as well, just to round out the options, of course), and perhaps a variety of NonStop servers running a choice of chips, even from inventory a couple of years old, the transition of the NonStop Enterprise Division (NED) to a strictly software play would be complete.

I’m speculating, of course, as I have no inside scoop here, but the need to build specialized hardware just to retain the NonStop (or Tandem Computers) label is long gone. Hardware needed to be tweaked when it wasn’t reliable and NonStop has performed marvelously at hiding the frailty of hardware for decades.

However, today it’s almost as if we have come full circle. The NonStop “stack”, the “Guardian” of yesterday, makes sure we can keep running even if a processor fails, whether it’s the whole board, a chip, or a core (or even sardine cans if they have a processor).

It was the late, great, racing driver Mark Donohue's who wrote the book The Unfair Advantage where he “detailed, step by step, (a) record of the engineering approach he took to getting the absolute highest performance from every car he drove, always looking for that elusive ‘unfair advantage’”. For most of us associated with NonStop, the tasks performed by the NonStop Kernel (NSK), holding the “unfair advantage” strikes a very familiar chord.

But wait, there’s even more! When it comes to holding an unfair advantage, I have become more aware that a fundamental of NonStop so overlooked these days is the simplicity with which NonStop supports clusters – and clusters of enormous size.

Whether it’s deployments at Telcos, governments, or the media single-image systems, more than 100 processors is not an uncommon sight. Talking with managers deploying 100, 200 and often many more, Intel servers presents challenges, they say, often left partially ignored or at the mercy of replication and partitioning software.

In other words, the data base can often end up looking like a badly ironed quilt – horribly patched together with too many duplicate squares of the same color!

However, here’s where the speculation comes to a halt. In truth, not much of what I have described above should be a shock to any user or vendor watching NED unveil product roadmaps over the past eighteen months. Perhaps the only news that may raise an eyebrow or two is that while the hardware is headed to rock-bottom, commodity prices, the software is not. Its providing way too much value to be given away.

In the months ahead the challenge will really be for solutions and middleware / utility vendors to realign their pricing to accommodate what’s ahead. While the granularity may not be too fine, I am sure we will see systems that include mixes of single-core chips, dual-core chips, and beyond, all housed in the same blade chassis and short of returning to transaction-based pricing of the past, smarter software will need to be provided and I am hopeful we will see a degree of unprecedented cooperation between NED and the vendor community to define a reasonable yardstick.

Russell Crowe was passionate when he observed the allegiances of car supporters, perhaps still gladiatorial in his assessment that “you are either red, or blue – there’s no beige on the mountain!” Over the years, we have heard variations of this, perhaps nothing more complicated than the issue being as obvious as black or white. But beige? That’s about indifference, of not taking sides!

HP will match IBM in terms of revenue creation and the focus on software is not something HP will fail to deliver. There will be a couple of super acquisitions, I am sure, to follow in the months ahead. But in the transition to a pure Software play, NonStop will sow the seeds of longevity that otherwise may have eluded the technology.

For me, it’s good to see colors other than blue and perhaps, after 35 years, it’s time to drag out the red flags, chevron and all, and begin waiving like crazy! See you on the mountain …

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Product Roadmaps! Still required?

Its winter and a time for staying indoors; for frequent visits to the trusty wine cellar, and to just kick back and enjoy the brief time off! But even though the mind may numb from the cold, it’s not hard to miss the subtle changes occurring with NonStop!

Working in Boulder across the holiday season has given me time to check out the cellar to just make sure wines I have treasured for so many years are even drinkable. The basis of my concerns centered on a number of really good red wines from Australia that were bottled in 1996 – one of the much better years for wine coming out of Australia. And the picture above is of four such wines pulled from the cellar and opened over the days following the New Year.

Readers may recall in the post of August 29th, 2010 “NonStop? Spreading the word ...” of how it was only a couple of years earlier that I had made the terrible mistake of selecting the inexpensive wine after I said to my wife that I am off to get a special treat and of how, for the rest of the holiday week, I had opened some of the best wine I could find in the cellar so as not to be subject to any more wrath over my prior lackadaisical efforts.

Pleased to report, this time around, my efforts met with much greater appreciation and the picture above is of four of the wines I selected.

It’s been a couple of cold weeks spent in Boulder – temperatures frequently in the low teens. Looking out onto the landscape with nightfall approaching, the thermometer only managed to climb up to 14 degrees. And that’s a Fahrenheit reading! So much of the time has been spent indoors, reading, catching a few headlines, and just generally trying to stay on top of things. My clients are gradually making it back into their offices and so I am not anticipating I will be enjoying this luxury for very much longer.

In the lead up to the holiday season I worked on a feature story for the next issue of The Connection. Selecting the topic, Manageability, gave me the opportunity to once again revisit former good times working at Tandem Computers. Many of the friends I had at those times are now actively engaged in their own businesses and the fact that many of them have struck deals with HP NonStop Enterprise Division (NED) speaks volumes about how well they have addressed the needs of the NonStop community.

After all, the highly visible aspect of the NonStop server’s minimal demands on oversight personal continue to allow it to enjoy a significant cost of ownership discount, much envied by other platforms.

None of this could have happened, mind you, without NED product management assembling roadmaps identifying user requirements that gives them the requisite “feature boxes” with which to approach vendors in the manageability marketplace. Not that that’s their sole purpose, as none of us can deny how popular roadmap presentations prove to be at any user event supported by HP NED!

They continue to be the only opportunity we have to get the inside scoop on where products are headed.

Or may be headed, at least! It often comes across a little idealistic and with fingers crossed, but for the most part, the years have proved kind to those who have worked on roadmaps within HP NED. Tracking the Intel roadmap, for instance, has certainly clarified where the hardware is headed.

No NonStop customer who recalls the prices for former Tandem Computers VLX and Cyclone systems will begrudge the enormous price performance gains achievable with today’s modern NonStop platforms.

Perhaps it’s the cold, or perhaps it’s just the general trappings of winter that I have to accommodate at this time of year. I’m reluctant to leave the house and I am avoiding running errands of any sort unless it’s absolutely necessary. With snow laying everywhere and the thermometer continuing to fall, I am beginning to wonder whether worrying about what’s coming in three years’ time is really worth the effort!

Roadmaps are never set in concrete and as those in the NonStop community, with many years of experience behind them, know all too well, rarely prove infallible. So much can change, and so quickly. As I have observed in other posts, who could have guessed how successful the iPhone would have become, let alone the iPad! Mobility has now having the biggest impact on all vendors’ roadmaps, and these devices weren’t even around a short time ago.

For those of us in America, it’s been hard to escape the hoopla surrounding this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It’s perhaps the worst kept secret that shortly, Verizon will begin to sell Apple’s iPhone. Indeed, as you read this post, it may have already happen.

Verizon isn’t just getting attention because of the iPhone – its network is also grabbing the headlines and as it rolls out new consumer gadgets, according to USAToday, they’re also hyping how they now have a “wireless network that’s faster in many cases than wired broadband.”

That’s sure to influence Verizon’s competitors’ roadmaps. Whether everything that’s forecast will actually materialize remains questionable as product development never takes place in a vacuum, nor does the market ever prove to be an ideal world.

Perhaps it’s then no coincidence that there is greater vendor participation in addressing requirements identified by HP NED’s roadmaps. And perhaps we are getting a glimpse into the future – as we wonder whether traditional approaches to building roadmaps can continue, in light of the so many variables and unknowns present today, projecting what is to come next needs to see timeframes reduced, thus engaging others from within the NonStop community.

In an earlier exchange with Shaun Clowes, who heads product management for NonStop at Integrated Research (IR) he suggested that “perhaps what we really need are product radars where we plot potential new features etc. based on importance (closer to center being highest), product area (quadrants) and estimate the size of the outcome based on the size of the blip!”

Explaining this concept a little further, Clowes added “this would allow us to have open and honest discussions with customers about what we're thinking and collaborate to understand what is on their radar and why.” Maybe we could all benefit from an approach like this? Now, that could be refreshing …

So how did the four red wines from 1996 fair? There was a Lindemans Padthaway Cabernet Merlot that scored a mixed review – I didn’t care for it. From nearby vineyards of Stanley Brothers came a Shiraz we put aside for cooking. The Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon proved rather good, while Cyril Henchke’s Eden Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc blend proved outstanding, clearly the better for aging.

Unfortunately, the random choices we picked from 2006 seemed to stand up just as well. I am pleased I hung onto the older vintages but I’m also pleased that I didn’t leave their consumption for another year!

Pursuing the creation of roadmaps even as everything heads towards commoditization can’t be discounted nor can it be deemed irrelevant. That’s simply too harsh. But opening them up to greater vendor engagement and developing approaches that more aggressively court user participation, are actions, I believe, that will quickly overshadow what was done in the past.

It may be cold outside, and perhaps that numbs the mind. But I think the NonStop we see emerging later in the year, perhaps early next year, will be augmented with charts and timelines that have less to do with what may happen next, than with milestones for NonStop created packages of vendor produced products and solutions.

We may even see the emergence of NED, the wholesales / distributer; responsible for little more than stacking the shelves with “named” selections for every aisle that once was nothing more than a feature box on a roadmap!