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.


Justin S said...

Richard some good thoughts - I agree the social media wave should be good for NonStop if we can capture the transaction wave. I have to admit to being a bit resentful of what I felt was an abuse of the term mission-critical but I see that it also may hold some benefits. It called to mind the episode during the Compaq era where they fell in love with the term NonStop and started attaching it to everything coming off the shop floor until they discovered the trademark actually implied certain capabilities and discovered the only thing that could be branded NonStop was, well NonStop. Hopefully things will progress as you suggest with added awareness of mission-critical and the various levels.

Anonymous said...

This brings to mind another Compaq era story.

It seems a certain amount of miscommunication between Tandem-side and Compaq-side was due to the Compaq folks thinking that "availability" meant that the product was on the shelf in the retail shops, available to be purchased.

Yes, a match made in heaven ... or not.