Friday, March 30, 2012

Thinking SQL/MX? Rel 3.1 now delivers …

The last trip to Cupertino gave me a chance to check in with NonStop development for an update on SQL/MX and the exchange didn’t disappoint!
Last week I had the opportunity to spend time in Cupertino and to catch up with colleagues past and present. While much of my time was spent with those still working with NonStop there was also an opportunity to catch up with partners as well. And each colleague’s perspective add a lot to why I continue to be attracted to the platform and those still so very much committed to the NonStop platform always provide an interesting  view on whatever else is happening within HP.

Of course I drove to Cupertino over the previous weekend, but this time I had to add an extra night. The rain that had been a familiar presence in the Bay area the previous week had become a snow storm up in the higher altitudes of the Sierras and dumped several feet of snow onto the major interstate – I80. Cautiously navigating deteriorating roads, I soon came across two big-rigs on their sides straddling the median. Visibility dropped to near zero and what would normally take only an hour or so to pass, stretched on for most of the morning and well into the afternoon.

The picture at the top of the page is of the faithful SUV being washed at what is tantamount (dare I say, tandemount?) an institution for all who have worked at NonStop over the years. Only a few hundred yards east of the offices in Cupertino, along Stevens Creek Boulevard, a short distance after the I280 underpass, there’s barely been anyone who hasn’t washed their car at this facility and the number of discussions I have had with former managers and executives are too numerous to recall, and through the years there’s been many colleagues associated with Tandem and NonStop who have liked their cars clean as much as I do.

There’s much that’s been updated along Stevens Creek Boulevard, with car dealerships routinely changing hands and new malls rising from once vast expanses of concrete. At least the Range Rover dealership added some variety to their location, with some elevation changes to better frame the prowess of their cars. But these updates to the scenery haven’t strayed too far from the core theme of Stevens Creek – fast-food stalls and car yards.

Last year I wrote a white paper on NonStop SQL/MX that featured a number of interviews that I had conducted with many former colleagues who are still actively engaged with the NonStop platform. The white paper has now been made available on the HP web site and can be found and downloaded at
http://h20223.www2.hp.com/NonStopComputing/downloads/NonStop_SQL_The_path_to_the_always-on_easily_administered_out-of-the-box_clustered_database_server.pdf

You can also read more of my observations about NonStop SQL/MX, written at the time I wrote that paper, in the post of July 31, 2011, “It only requires a few steps!” However, in the months that have passed, just like on Stevens Creek, there’s much that has been updated with this flagship NonStop product.

At the time I was writing the white paper, referenced above, a new release was anticipated, Rel 3.0 / 3.1, and when it arrived there was considerable discussion about it, particularly in the LinkedIn group, NonStop SQL Professionals. One discussion “NonStop SQL/MX R3.1 is out now!”, started by Frans Jongma, a Senior System Software Engineer with the HP NonStop Advanced Technology Center, began by highlighting new features - table rename, additional security features (separation of duties required for PCI Compliance, change ownership – yes, another security feature), SSL support, preprocessor changes to facilitate MP migrations, support for popular Oracle functions, like TO_CHAR, DECODE, COALESCE ,etc. to make it easier to migrate from Oracle to NonStop SQL.

When I chimed in and asked Frans for even more info, he was quick to respond with "I listed the main features that appealed to me. Renaming of tables can be very useful for DBAs and developers. The feature even allows renaming the underlying Guardian (the ZSDxxxxx.xxxxxxxx) filename. This was on a specific customer request. The new supported functions make it easier for users who are used to them on other DBMSes. Call it ‘standardization of features’”.

Longtime supporter of the SQL SIG, Scott Randall, came back almost immediately with “this release is just awesome!! The ability to RENAME tables, both ANSI name and the Guardian file is critical to customers that perform table migrations and use RDF. Think PK change or column name change, etc. IMHO, this is the most important new feature available since SQL/MX was first released. GREAT JOB HP!!!” Both Scott and Frans contributed to the white paper mentioned earlier, and it was encouraging to see them this active among the social media channels I follow.

I must say, though, that there were more than just a few individuals who had doubts about whether there would ever appear anything new from HP NED development. There were certainly numerous deteriorating roads that had to be navigated. But deliver they have and the reactions following the availability of this most recent update to SQL/MX have been very encouraging. The take-up of Rel 3.1 of SQL/MX has been cause for much excitement within NED,” according to Ajaya Gummadi, SQL Product Manager, within NED. “To date the stability and quality of the product has impressed our NonStop users and they are seeing the value of the many new features."

This wasn’t all that Gummadi had to say on this topic when I caught up with her last week. “NonStop developers are excited to work on new features that add value to customers as they develop apps for SQL/MX, and we had quite a few new apps go into production just last year”, she told me. “This brings the NonStop SQL on par with competitive databases while preserving its RAS fundamentals, and does this with quality and stability that NonStop customers are used to.”

Overheard while in Cupertino was the news of how HP NonStop SQL can now serve as a database repository in an Enterprise SAP environment. SAP ERP Apps and NetWeaver middleware continue to run “as-is” on HP-UX or HP Linux/Windows servers. NonStop database server becomes the Enterprise System of Repository integrating data from numerous SAP instances and non-SAP apps running on multiple platforms in real time and serving enterprise wide business processes. Again, expect to hear more of this in the near future.

In talking to customers and partners, the biggest surprise with this release was simply how much was included and deep down the list of stated customer requirements the supported features descended. When looking at past releases, where just a single new feature or component was introduced, Rel 3.1 marked a substantial change in direction for all involved at NED – product management and development. “Quality, stability and performance, and making it easier to migrate to SQL/MX– these were key goals for all of us within NED and already customers are benefitting from what we have been able to deliver,” Gummadi was quick to highlight.

And what comes next? Will there be another big release later this year? On this point Gummadi wouldn’t go into too many specifics, other than to acknowledge work was well advanced in a number of areas and that users would again be pleasantly surprised. For more about these releases, Gummadi was encouraging me to attend HP Discover in Las Vegas this coming June, something I had planned on doing anyway, but now most definitely will – news about what is to come next typically attracts a large crowd.

The presence of a strong product offering in support of SQL is incredibly important for the ongoing future of NonStop. Probably no other middleware offering could hold as strong a potential for greater visibility of NonStop within IT than NS SQL/MX – with it, and its ability to fully leverage the fundamentals the NonStop community continue to value highly, NonStop is certainly a viable server offering.

The car wash on Stevens Creek was every bit as good as it used to be, and the SUV was in a very bad way when I arrived. More than one eyebrow was raised as I drove onto the site among the many pristine vehicles in for nothing much more than a cosmetic refresh. Surviving the snow storms and picking my way through poorly illuminated roads, as I had done, had certainly cost us. And yes, many of these metaphors carry over to what the NS SQL/MX development team has faced of late.

It may be routine to simply roll-out new releases of NS SQL/MX but in reality, these days, nothing is guaranteed and no assumptions can be made about any program within HP. So yes, I am greatly encouraged with all that has happened to NS SQL/MX and with the success and accolades now coming its way.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Distributed grills and scattered data!

There continues to be new products coming to market and for the NonStop community, when it includes the NonStop server, this is good to hear – investments being made in NonStop by parties apart from HP is definitely a topic that’s always well received!
I love to grill! I love to cook in general, but I really like to grill. While I am the junior partner in our household when it comes to cooking, as soon as there’s any talk of barbecues I am the first one to head to the butchers to pick up the meat. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as being an Australian it is all part of our heritage.

When it came time to landscape my house in Sydney and to hollow out a couple of terraces it was only natural to erect a brick retaining wall, and yes, within a bend of the wall a multi-grill barbecue was installed. And there were many opportunities to entertain the NonStop community – during the very first training session involving Tandem personnel from all over the world working on NonStop NET/MASTER it was only natural that there would be a barbecue at the house!

I am only ever one flight of stairs away from a barbecue in my home in Boulder, Colorado. The kitchen has a range in which, naturally, there’s a separate grilling rack. Outside, in the backyard by the pool, I insisted we build an outdoor kitchen with another grill - pretty much a duplicate of the one in the kitchen – surrounded by a walk up bar and this has been put to good use through the years with several ITUG Board and committee meetings held at the house.

But given the nature of the climate in Colorado, yet a third grilling area was established as we wanted an indoor “outdoor barbecue” be set up within the basement’s walkout area. And it’s proved every bit as popular as the outside, “summer only”, facility! The picture at the top of this post is of the outside barbecue and readers may recall other photos taken of this summer retreat showing it covered by a deep blanket of snow – check out the post of December 25th, 2011, Falling down? Ouch!

There were times when I took my love of the grill into the office – when Tandem Computers product managers were in building 4, Bill Heil arranged for a social gathering for all of product management and their friends in marketing and development and I grilled on the deck outside our second floor offices – not just the usual mix of hamburger patties and sausages, but a little lamb along with mushrooms, onions, bell peppers - the wafting smoke across the car parks was hard to miss. And then of course, Friday afternoons in the Tandem offices in Sydney would always feature a grill and I was never too far away.

These days, I am just one phone call away from any number of vendors I have as clients. The access may not always be as simple as traversing just a single flight of stairs, but with the option for Skype, WebEx, GoToMeetings, the ease of access is comparable. And while I am not carrying a tray of meat and vegetables, I am never too far away from my keyboard and writing pad. For the moment, I am enjoying a brief interlude as I have just completed a new opinion’s paper on “Why more corporations today depend on HP Integrity NonStop mission-critical servers!” for HP and I’m in the review cycle on a white paper on data integration for Attunity, a well-known software provider for enabling organizations to access data when and where it is needed.

The opinions paper for HP should be available for downloading from the HP web site and I will likely cover the highlights in an upcoming post – likely the very next one you will see posted. As for the Attunity white paper, I expect that to be wrapped up and available even as you are reading this post. But in both cases, the need to write these papers gave me a terrific opportunity to get a lot closed to customers and partners alike. In the research connected with both papers, I came across much that interested me and aroused my curiosity, but it was the observations about CIOs and the difficult times ahead (for many of them) that struck a chord.

In the post already referenced, “, “Falling down? Ouch! ” I wrote of how not all pursuits produce the results anticipated, and increasingly the role of CIOs, as I heard recently, is becoming less involved in technology and products and more involved in people, physical structures and security and with helping keep the business whole during increasingly uncertain times. As I cook I can sympathize here - there are times when I grilled up something that turned out to have little connection with what I had originally planned to cook.

But what really I was highlighting was how CIOs continue to move further away from the technology resources everyone else in a company may think that they are familiar with and are getting more engaged with the actual running of the business. In the white paper I am writing for Attunity (revisiting the topic of data replication and its role in data integration) I came across a special feature in the February 25th, 2010, issue of The Economist where correspondent, Kenneth Cukier, had been interviewed by other journalists from the magazine.

“CIOs have become somewhat more prominent in the executive suite, and a new kind of professional has emerged, the data scientist, who combines the skills of software programmer, statistician and storyteller/artist to extract the nuggets of gold hidden under mountains of data,” Cukier explained to the other journalists. Deeper into the special feature, even more was revealed about the CIOs and the expectation of them having skills as statisticians when Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, expressed it a little differently, predicting “that the job of statistician will become the ‘sexiest’ around. Data,” Varian then explained, “are widely available; what is scarce is the ability to extract wisdom from them.”

Storyteller/artist? Statistician? Extracting wisdom from the data? Fortunately, in the list of attributes there is still some reference back to software, but the earlier references I made to CIOs helping keep the business whole during increasingly uncertain times still holds true I suspect – company CEOs will expect them to have contingency plans for all situations, and that the data, feeding all that makes up business intelligence (BI) these days and the analytics that is a part of BI, remains accessible to all within the company looking for competitive edges.

In the post of January 30th, 2008, “CIOs? Relevancy?”, I wrote of how in good times, and in bad, CIOs will always have a list of strategic initiatives being pursued. The only difference will be the depth of the list – in bad times the list will be a lot shorter with perhaps only three of four projects making the cut. And it should come as no surprise to any vendor that the tendency, in bad times, is to stay with the incumbents and avoid all risk-taking. Then again, this was written very early in 2008.

However, does that continue to make any sense all these years later? With the financial meltdown triggered late that year CIOs were counted on to help sort it all out and whether storytellers or statisticians, sticking with the same plot and avoiding risk taking didn’t look to be the way out – continuing to do what they had done, as the adage acknowledges, will only produce similar results. Attunity is now bringing something new to market in Attunity Replicate and CIOs will now be presented with even greater choice when it comes to better integrating data – will they be inclined to take a look?

My love of the barbecue led to me distributing grills throughout the house – inside and out. No matter the prevailing conditions, the heat of summer or the cold of winter. It mattered little; I could still keep on grilling. I could take my tray of meat up or down a flight of stairs and have access to a grill no matter what.

And data, and the way it has become scattered around a company, can it be as easily accessed when it has to be? That Attunity has elected to provide support for NonStop is a big plus and one I am pleased to see, of course, but the work still needs to be done to achieve the type of company-product stickiness all vendors look for; will CIOs stick with what they have or will they check their options?

There will always be difficulties ahead for new products and vendors are I’m under no illusion as to the difficulties that come with launching something new and yet the cyclical nature of our industry assures their message will be heard. However, having written this I think they have all the ingredients that they need, on the tray, and grills are out there, beckoning!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Is membership in mission-critical still open?

With so many references being made to mission-critical applications, has its usage become too general? And is the impact being watered down from over exposure? Or is the pie getting bigger with each slice of the pie becoming more valuable?

The situation came about during my last trip to Las Vegas where I had to stop by the local airport. Friends were arriving from Burbank, California, and I had promised to pick them up. We had arranged to meet alongside a baggage carrousel, and after grabbing a coffee I headed for the one I believed was where they would first appear. Imagine my surprise then, as I approached the carrousel to find a limousine chauffer holding up an iPad (pictured above) with a Mr. Davis brightly illuminated on the tablet’s screen.

Of course I would be interested to hear from the NonStop community about other unusual uses they may have seen of the iPad, but this pretty much best sums up the appeal of these new devices – no, there isn’t any limit to what you can do with them. The all-conquering iPad has found yet another new way to help increase our productivity. Yes, I know, it may be useless when it comes to swatting a fly, so we still may want to buy a Sunday paper. But seriously, as an end-point device iPad seems to be replacing many specialized devices, including laptops, and it brings with it an unprecedented wealth of applications for business and personal use.

Across several posts to the
comForteLounge blog I have exchanged observations with comForte’s Thomas Burg. Initially, somewhat reserved about the potential opportunities the iPad might exploit, Burg soon agreed with me that any client device that could spur the creation of even more transactions just had to be good for NonStop. “But the trick, in terms of further embracing modernization,” Burg explained in the post of October 16, 2011, “Modernizing Applications? Client devices may hold some keys!”, remains “to fully and correctly understand the business requirements!”

Looking back at this comment I don’t think either of us could have second-guessed the iPads helpfulness in connecting with incoming passengers the way that I saw demonstrated in Las Vegas. On the other hand, with anticipation visible on the face of the waiting limo driver, I could easily recognize the mission-critical nature of this ad hoc application! And this is perhaps the most relevant aspect about the rise in popularity of the iPad and of their acceptance across the business community – they are increasingly being used in support of mission-critical applications.

In my most recent post to the comForteLounge blog, When did “almost” become “good enough”?, I again quoted Burg after I had asked him about the increasingly liberal use of mission-critical and where he thought the boundaries may lie. “If the service is down, and it REALLY, REALLY, hurts, and costs (you) a lot of money its operation is mission critical,” Burg began. “From an application perspective, I am thinking networks of ATMs, POSs, mobile phones and even stock exchanges prior to millisecond trading.”

I also made reference in this most recent post to the difficulties a number of Australian banks had experienced of late and of where it was reported that the National Australia Bank (NAB) CEO, Cameron Clyne, had said “unfortunately in any large organization these things happen from time to time.” It would be so easy for me to quote a line from Forrest Gump, but I will resist. Yes, it happens, from time to time – but following outages of this duration (almost 6 hours for the NAB) should we discount NAB’s ability to support mission-critical applications? And will anyone “downgrade” their IT group’s performance as a result – will a yellow “caution” flag be thrown that forces these banks to regroup?

In pursuing this further with Bill Highleyman, when it came to what I had broadly considered mission-critical, he broke apart the category into three distinct areas. In so doing he aligned closely with language I came across when reading the opinions paper by Jim Johnson, “Megaplex – an odyssey of innovation”, first published in 2009. Subsequent reading has now led me to understand that the exact origin of these terms dates back to earlier work but even so, Highleyman and Johnson were instrumental in bringing this to my attention.  “An outage of any sort is very expensive to a company in terms of dollars and reputation (such that) a prolonged outage could bring severe regulatory penalties and could even mean the demise of the company” then you have true mission-critical, or five nines of availability according to Highleyman. Above mission-critical, both Highleyman and Johnson included the category labeled safety-critical, a term that refers solely to those applications where any outage could lead to loss of property and even life and where recovery time has to be in seconds.

On the other hand, according to Highleyman, “an outage that prevents a company from operating fully, but where the company recovers painfully from the outage (then) as long as service is restored in a few hours,” Highleyman noted, you really are describing business-critical, or four nines of availability. Essentially a downgrade from a gilt-edged “AAA” status, to a lesser “AA+” status, and perhaps an indication to future IT hires that this is not a priority for this particular  bank, as well as being a response that a financial institution like the NAB would readily understand.

HP has its own perspective on categorizing “best fit solutions for critical workloads”.  According to a presentation given by
HP Senior VP and General Manager, Martin Fink, at last year’s HP Discover event, among the slides he used was one where workloads were broken into three categories – Improved reliability, Mission-Critical resiliency and then, Zero downtime. Doing a little revisionist positioning and taking into account the work done by Johnson and Highleyman, it would appear that NonStop straddles the upper levels of business-critical, much of mission-critical and all of safety-critical. Particularly in light of mission-critical embracing pretty much anything HP produces – possibly more so in the future following the launching of Project Odyssey.

These exchanges however reminded me of my most recent post to the Buckle-Up-Travel blog. In the post of February 28th, 2012, “It’s a Vette of another vintage …
” I wrote of how badly abused the word “sport” has become. As I look at the cars around me I see the word “sports” appended to just about anything – from sports sedans to sports utilities. If a sports car is really best defined as a small, two seats, two doors car designed for high speed driving and maneuverability, as I observed, how did we manage to include the mighty Chevrolet Suburban as a “sports” utility van? Or has the expression sport become simply a reference to an aspiration rather than a description of an attribute?

In other words, even where the branding of mission-critical may appear too broad, and where almost any cluster-configuration no matter the type of system included qualifies, should we be concerned? And if we are aware of this, is it all necessarily bad? Is any subsequent dilution of the meaning of mission-critical, however perceived, harmful to the message of NonStop? While I most definitely cringe a little as I read of some scenarios described as mission-critical, at the same time I keep my fingers crossed that eventually, even with the worst examples, companies may learn by their experiences and seek out more comprehensive solutions.

Mission-critical computing has never been about participating in a special group or even about becoming members of an elite club – new participants will be joining routinely, often despite themselves. It’s about a pie that is increasing in size and about the necessity of some to really push for greater levels of what only comes naturally to NonStop – availability, scalability data integrity and security. New initiates may get by with the basics, where even business-critical will suffice, but they too will eventually push up into mission-critical – perhaps even higher, as the demands of business dictate.

Marketing, and indeed advertising, does have an affinity for latching onto labels that research tells them “sells”, and for many of us seeing the application of mission-critical as broadly as it is being done today causes us to cringe. However, there’s no escaping just how prominent a role the HP NonStop System plays today in supporting businesses worldwide in their pursuit of providing their customers with the most-available applications possible. And of that, I have little I can contend with.