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 …


TB said...

Well, "server businesses" is a rather broadly defined term. Look at


and - no surprise - HP is selling more server variants then one can quickly comprehend. (click on MIPS and you end up on NonStop pages which is no more correct of course).

It will be interesting to eventually learn which of these (by CPU ? by O/S ?) do not hit the "Leo Apotheker minimal profit margin"...

Richard Buckle said...

I can't be too harsh about this HP page. Under the heading "Browse servers" then, if you select NonStop within "By operating system" and then tab to News from the list provided on the left, then under the bar with the heading "Learn more" you will find a link to this very blog site, Real Time View!

But I digress, of course.

When it comes to meeting the "Leo Apotheker minimal profit margin" as you note, then I for one think NonStop should come out just fine – unlike many others in this category. We will all just have to wait and see, of course, but the list will certainly be a lot slimmer in the months to come of that I have no doubts!

Gerhard Schwartz said...

It is certainly a correct observation that hp.com is not optimized for providing comprehensive and current information about NonStop in a quick and easy way. If you need a roadmap on how to access useful NonStop information, then the net effect of that web information is next to zero.

NED might be well advised to assign a person with good NonStop background for getting the NonStop web presence optimized ...