Monday, March 28, 2011

Control, choices, and options!

It was a cold and stormy night! This is not a parody of some dreadful work of fiction – it was true and I was no longer in control and I had few choices. For the NonStop community, this may hit too close to home …

It’s taken some time, but I have finally settled back into my Boulder home and the daily routines are being re-established. However, I made a quick dash back to Northern California and to the Bay area to participate in track event, but was caught out badly on the return trip when an unexpected weather change brought with it a fierce snow storm.

As the full fury was unleashed on the Sierras I became trapped for many hours on the border with Nevada, along with every other driver on the interstate at that time. I did get the opportunity to drive my all-wheel-drive Skyline, but it proved only partially effective as the summer tires struggled for control – a most uncomfortable situation. So much so, that the only real option I had was to return to Truckee, California, and ride out the storm. The picture above is of what the car looked like the following morning as I filled it with gas, outside Reno.

Sitting in the hotel lobby gave me the opportunity to scan newspapers and it was hard to miss the headlines surrounding HP. Ever since HP’s CEO, Leo Apotheker, unveiled his strategy for the company there’s barely been a day when some aspect of it did not attract the attention of one journalist or another. Pursuing the cloud, embracing mobility, beefing up its software business and stepping up to the plate to deliver services around everything, so as to ensure a much better customer experience.

These announcements haven’t come without a little comic relief. Pursuing growth the way HP’s CEO intends will come at a cost for others already in the marketplace and the angst we have seen coming from some of them has led to some executives making unfathomable decisions. The good thing about these arbitrary decisions and the posturing that accompanied them, customers remain firmly in control, despite the prevailing conditions, and there really are plenty of options out there – IBM must be chuckling in the wings!

Earlier in the week I had received an email from Jim Johnson, Chairman of The Standish Group, who had posed the question “does supporting older technology (imply you) are right-headed or wrong-headed? Is it investment protection or long-term disaster?” Even more strikingly, Jim then suggested “wouldn’t money spent on enhancing old technology be better spent on modernization or in reducing customer cost?”

There’s not too much IT managers feel they control these days, and as they sit through one meeting after another it must get a bit depressing after a while. For many of them who have been in the industry as long as I have, there’s a mindset of just sticking with what they have and riding it out till they retire. Tough perspective, perhaps, but nonetheless, somewhat scary as sticking with old and expensive technology may only hasten their push into retirement.

A few days later I had a call with Baldwin Hackett & Meeks, Inc. (BHMI) founders, Jack Baldwin and Mike Meeks. Readers may recall that in the post of October 8, 2010 “Remove the warnings!” (one of the most widely read posts in all of 2010) I had written of BHMI developing an alternative solution for customers running ACI’s XPNET. What I didn’t address in that earlier blog piece was how BHMI has a reputation of doing really hard things, often under trying conditions and where situations called for drastic actions far outside the box! BHMI have definitely become a vendor toiling away at the coal-face of modernization and their observations carry a lot of weight with me even with all that I have been reading!

While BHMI still “takes on big, complex custom projects,” Jack Baldwin explained, “the corporation’s primary focus is on its Concourse Financial Software suite, a collection of high performance near-real time back office applications.” The product BHMI used to replace XPNET was Concourse - Transaction Messaging System (TMS) and Jack was quick to add how “it’s the latest addition to the Concourse family, which transcends the back office environment.”

“As a lot of people have noted, after ACI announced its new relationship with IBM,” Jack continued, “BASE24 clients have started considering their options. Concourse - TMS does give current BASE24 customers increased flexibility for messaging choices, going beyond what XPNET users might be considering; Concourse - TMS goes beyond NonStop and the financial services marketplace!”

In talking with Jack and Mike and about the success they were having with their Concourse product suite, the conversation returned a couple of times to their observations about the NonStop marketplace. Recognizing that there where customers giving serious thought to migrating off the NonStop platform BHMI responded to this perceived requirement by engineering Concourse, including Concourse – TMS, to run on several platforms including Windows, Unix, Linux in addition to NonStop.

While BHMI is in discussion with some NonStop customers to add new functionality on platforms complementing the HP NonStop server, both Jack and Mike added “contemplating moving completely off NonStop is no longer a priority for many of these customers. We have found a cadre of customers who absolutely will not leave NonStop and, quite the opposite to what we expected, aggressively pursue other software solutions should there be any attempt to drop support for NonStop!”

With the NonStop product roadmaps becoming better understood and the migration of NonStop systems to more modern Blades packages, there are less concerns being raised by customers of NonStop – they can clearly see for themselves where the technology is headed and are electing to make the appropriate NonStop platform for their needs. Yes, they do have real choices today.

“I think one of the biggest reasons customers are leaving NonStop is that they view it as old and expensive technology; in letting them stay on the old technology increases both their company’s costs and risk,” Jim Johnson observed before adding “it also reinforces their company’s perception of NonStop being old and expensive, because for these companies (unaware of the options and choices they have), it is!”

Spending time talking with the founders of BHMI and listening to the experiences they have accumulated by being in business for more than 25 years, then yes, they will make sure their products run on multiple platforms. They will continue to support NonStop as they have customers who will not quit!

The success of NonStop continues to be in our hands. However, just how well informed are we keeping our management? How strong an advocate have we become within our companies for the NonStop platform? Considering there are many enjoying a successful career by doing this, shouldn’t we be making modernization a priority!

Rather than sticking to the “TAL and TACL Till we’re Terminated” theme, we can embrace the modern languages and programming frameworks and gain the skills that will let us remain productive for years to come! Vendors are demonstrating strong commitments to NonStop, shouldn’t we, as users, be doing the same, in lock-step?

Modern applications developed with no knowledge that the target platform is NonStop, and yet inheriting the traditional NonStop properties of availability and scalability, are becoming more widely known within our community. The ease with which this can be carried out is “firing-up” many within the NonStop community, all to the benefit of the vendor community who continue to pursue development of solutions for NonStop.

High in the Sierras this past week, my thoughts were solely on survival and while that too is the sentiment of some within our community, it is a bit of a shame. Yes, there are choices and yes, there are many more options – but isn’t it an encouraging sign for all of us that we do retain control and that facing the mix of platforms we have today, there continues to be robust offerings for NonStop?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chance Encounters!

Like many within the NonStop community, I have received an invite to join a Webinar by Attunity - https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/686744769 and I thought it may be good to go behind the scenes and check it out!

The past couple of days have seen me rack up the miles. A quick dash back to Simi Valley was followed almost immediately by a lengthy trip Johannesburg, South Africa, for the annual SATUG event. Changes of scenery always trigger appreciation of new perspectives with me, and this trip proved to be no exception.

At first it had been difficult to convince Margo to accompany me on this trip, but eventually she succumbed. In the past few years, often something unusual and unexpected has transpired while we were away, and upon returning, Margo has been disappointed not to have participated. This trip, fortunately, didn’t disappoint – and the picture above is of Margo enjoying a rare opportunity to see a friendly Cheetah up close.

It was during my previous trip to the SATUG event where at the Emerald Casino and Resort, as part of the program, a trainer brought another Cheetah on stage and we all had photo opportunities standing alongside the fastest animal on the planet. For more detail on this encounter in 2009 at SATUG, follow the link to the post of February 24th, 2009, “Up close, and friendly ...” where I wrote of how surprised the event’s attendees were when the Cheetah did show for the occasion and where we had the opportunity for an up close encounter!

Margo had missed this chance and for the last couple of years, a framed copy of the picture used in that blog posting hung in her office.

At the CTUG user event, in Toronto, Canada, I wrote in the post of October 29th, 2010, “Reliable as the clock!” of how the architecture of NonStop in addressing the sum of many fallible components produced a better performing, more reliable platform, that remains “close to magic” even today! The photo used in that earlier blog on CTUG is a view of the exhibit area showing the booths of comForte and Attunity alongside one another.

I was representing comForte at the time, and it provided me with a chance encounter with fellow vendor, Attunity.

Representing Attunity was Itamar Ankorion, Director of Business Development and Marketing. As break-out sessions were being held, Ankorion and I found time to discuss technology and products, musing on where the HP NonStop server offerings were headed, and the prospect for growth across the user community.

Attunity has had a long association with HP NonStop and with the HP NonStop development organization. While the company’s origins were with Digital and open platforms, their expertise in data connectivity saw them port their ODBC and JDBC drivers to NonStop. In fact, they created the first SQL-based drivers for the NonStop platform.

Furthermore, Attunity had a ringside seat to the fortunes of both, Digital and Tandem, through the early days of the Compaq acquisitions and without pushing Ankorion too hard on this subject, there’s certainly much that can be said about the upside following the Compaq “merger” with HP! While Attunity’s products continue to pursue support for open platforms such as Linux, Windows, and Unix (LUW), support for NonStop and connectivity to critical NonStop subsystems, including Pathway, Enscribe and NonStop SQL, remain a priority for the company.

Chance encounters with Ankorion at the CTUG event may not be as exciting as meeting Cheetahs in South Africa. And the recent SATUG event fresher in our memories than last year’s CTUG – and yes, there will be further commentary on this latest SATUG event shortly.

However, the event in Canada brought me in touch with a key infrastructure provider. Attunity continues to be the source of a better, indeed a much faster, implementation of ODBC and JDBC drivers (products that HP highly recommends) and due to their appeal within the NonStop community Attunity continues to retain the NonStop platform on their product roadmaps.

Having subsequent discussions with users and with HP I learned more about the scope of Attunity’s product offerings, and while I make it a point in posts to this blog to track new products and technologies, it would be very remiss of me not to draw attention to solutions that may not be as well-known as others, yet are aligned with HP’s modernization initiatives.

“Our Data Federation software enables user to bring together data from across any mix of Enscribe, SQL/MP and other sources such as SQL Server and Oracle,” Ankorion explained. “HP sees how customers can benefit from such capabilities and included us in presentations at their recent shows (last year’s Las Vegas HPTF and the San Jose NonStop Summit), and had an Attunity demo running in the HP booth.”

In the white papers and articles I have written these past two years it seems I can never distance myself too far from the CIO mantra popular throughout the industry – do more with less! And there’s no escaping the reality that price plays a significant role in the selection of products. On this issue, Ankorion was as passionate as any HP executive I have talked to of late, and reiterated how keeping the costs low was imperative to his company.

“Attunity is the only vendor that enables their users to work with Enscribe as if it were a relational database without any requirements to re-host the data - a risky and costly undertaking by any measure you care to select. We are the only ones who enable the combination of data virtually (federation) and to have single views of the resultant data across NonStop and beyond. We have become the only native NonStop software that provides comprehensive, universal data connectivity, that lets you configure once and use your data anywhere, out of a single product.”

When chance encounters do occur, by happenstance mostly, and when it leaves you better infomred, as happened after meeting an Attunity representative, or when the result is a photograph you hang on the wall and smile each time you pass it, as was the case with mine and Margo’s encounters with Cheetahs - it makes traveling to user group events certainly worthwhile!

Next Tuesday, March 22nd, Attunity will be conducting a webinar, headlined as “Don’t Stop Being NonStop. Move Forward. Modernize.” A joint production involving Jim Johnson, Chairman of The Standish Group, well-known throughout the community, as well as Attunity’s Director of Technical Services, Richard Thomas. Registration can be found at:

https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/686744769

As I continue to look at vendors who may play a part in ensuring NonStop has a role in Cloud Computing and providing tools to integrate NonStop within the Cloud, Attunity will prove valuable to sections of the NonStop community concerned about the steps they need to take to have their business logic (accessing Enscribe and relying on Pathway) fully participating !

“Attunity has enjoyed its relationship with HP NED for many years and providing NonStop users with data connectivity and federation technologies has helped us cement this relationship within HP,” Ankorion acknowledged. “You could say we have had a front-row seat when it comes to the continuing dilemma users face today when interacting with multiple server platforms and where the business requires seamless aggregation of federated data from these platforms. The focus of our products in supporting these customers is positioning us well to deal with the systems in place today as well as for those of the future, many of which will evolve into private Clouds.”

Chance encounters may be easily dismissed and the promise they hold, forgotten all too quickly. I’m far from suggesting Attunity is a match for a Cheetah when it comes to personalities, but I am suggesting that when it comes to federation and where risks and costs are a great concern, perhaps they make a strong case for further consideration.

The NonStop user community has always sought innovative solutions and Attunity products show a lot of promise in this respect. And yes, I have it on good authority that they would clearly outperform the Cheetah after all!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Too much clutter!

This is not the usual ramblings on my part focused solely on issues to do with NonStop. Nor is it a pipedream on my part! All I am suggesting in this post is we give due consideration to throwing away much of what we run today …


When plans were finalized to return to Boulder and to work from the home office, it didn’t immediately occur to me that this would involve moving a lot of stuff around. So much so, that after a couple of days I gave up and called a trash collection contracting service whose truck I had passed only a few days earlier.

All the same, it was a heart-wrenching moment when it came time to make the call as I was going to be discarding not just empty boxes and packing paper, but a couple of pieces of furniture as well as a several appliances I just hadn’t used for the past ten years. Rather than just adding more stuff to a growing collection of what at one time I had valued, the time had come to take a deep breath and just throw out the lot.

Dan and Tim from 1.800.GOT.JUNK pulled up in my driveway and after I directed them to the piles of discarded former treasures I had assembled at the end of my driveway as well as outside my basement, they quickly set about tossing it all into their truck. The picture above is of the process under way with Dan and Tim carrying stuff from one of the stacks! It felt good knowing that at their regional location my “stuff” will be sorted, with items of value likely to find new homes.

Knowing I am working on a blog about clutter my wife, Margo, after visiting a hair dresser’s salon, brought home with her the March 2011 issue of the Oprah.com magazine. Oprah had written in her editorial page, “What I know for Sure” how her life was “filled with so much clutter.” As she moved on to a new project, she admitted how she was “not just cleaning my closet. I’m cleaning out my life.”

As she described how she was going about this she remarked “I’m keeping only that which delights me or embraces my well-being. That means another big ol’ garage sale coming up: clothes, shoes, dishes, furniture, stuff.”

When it comes to our work, particularly when it has to do with technology and running the complex data centers, there’s a reason why we use the expression “let’s start with a clean sheet of paper!” And it’s no wonder we all have empathy for the team that truly can “think outside the box” – as for the rest of us inside the box, there’s just too much stuff to see clearly! There’s too much clutter we have accumulated that often can get in the way of making good decisions!

It’s also an admission that what we have, and what we continue to do has become a distraction, and before we can put together any plans for new projects, we need to clean house!

While editing a posting to another blog, there were questions as to why I had introduced two storylines and over a couple of paragraphs tried to tie them together, when all that I had succeeded in doing was developing a rather confusing, and somewhat cluttered, storyline.

There’s still no escaping the value of keeping something simple and I was left wondering, whether it’s undertaking the simple task of writing or, equally, overseeing a complex data center, as Oprah had written, “enough already with the stuff!”

When we take a good look at the mix of software we run today, is it holding us back from pursuing routine upgrades? How often have we heard that a particular routine or program has to continue to be run as it’s always been a part of the solution only to have no one able to explain what it does or who even developed it! And yet, it’s too risky to pull the plug on it, as managers are very nervous should something break – a lot easier to just let it run than do forensic to uncover its history!

Of course finding the time to pursue deep investigations on all the code we support is just something we do not have time to pursue – after all, we are all contending with the mantra to do more with less and superficially, this doesn’t look like a priority. Are we expected to rewrite the whole solution? Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler to just keep running until we replace with a packaged solution?

For the most part, this is what does happen inside many data centers but the stuff we have accumulated is beginning to weigh us down. We can no longer find engineers who could even analyze what it all means should something go wrong and besides, with the little staff we have today, we are over-committed just to maintain all this stuff – we can’t touch much of it, as it’s just too important to business operations!

Today, the focus has shifted to modernization and to convergence – after all, how else we will capitalize on the benefits on offer from vendors such as HP if we can’t align with their product roadmaps . As technology leads us deeper into commodity platforms and solutions providers deliver products built with popular frameworks supported by the latest programming language offering, where will we find the time to consider and evaluate, let alone deploy. We have all this other stuff we just have to look after!

Isn’t it time we planned on throwing the whole lot out? Isn’t it time we called 1.800.GOT.CODE? But is this reasonable or even possible? I asked a recent start-up infrastructure vendor how quickly they produced code. How feasible is it to simply replace a product or solution? As this vendor has a small team of engineers with “history” at two other companies pursuing similar products, it was very important to them that everything be developed from scratch.

Inside of twelve months they had written a new product with more than 100,000 lines of code, sufficient to where Proof of Concepts (PoC) could be pursued. As this vendor moved through the PoC and completed supporting additional capabilities, as well as responding to customer requests for new features, the product grew to 250,000 lines of code. A completely new, alternative product offering written using all the latest development tools, frameworks and libraries and as modern as anything else on the market – all completed in just over a year!

Dan and Tim filled their truck and drove away but only after agreeing to come back the next day to collect even more junk. There’s something uplifting about seeing all the stuff you no longer value being taken away. Cleaning house has let me focus on what’s important to me even as it frees up so much time to get on with other things I really like to do!

It’s time we really clean out the old and give serious consideration to replacing it. With hindsight, how much of a contribution to our companies are we really making when we spend seventy percent of our time maintaining stuff we aren’t all that sure is actually doing much of anything!

Unrealistic perhaps and obviously I just don’t understand the implication of what I am saying and yet, on the other hand, how many IT departments have really tried? The tools and languages on offer today will, in most situations, allow us to unload so much stuff we may be very surprised. We will begin to see how much of a distraction it had become and how it’s very bulk had prevented us from having a clear view of where we need to be.

Imagine how much time will free up for development projects we really would like to do. And if we can just pull back on what we maintain to a lowly fifty percent, just think of the bigger contributions to the business we will be making!