Thursday, October 11, 2012

The energy that surrounds NonStop ...

There’s no denying just how important people – users, vendors, consultants, analysts – are to NonStop. And the contributions keep on coming; without which we wouldn’t have the NonStop system of today.

I came to NonStop via a very circuitous route – one that involved several states and a couple of countries. It was 1987 and I had returned to the United States to work for the second time and it was with Netlink (or Systems Technology, as it was known when I joined the company in 1986) who had set up shop in Raleigh, North Carolina. Among the names and faces that were involved with Netlink were folks like Mark Hutchens and Terry Bishop who I was to reunite with many years later at Insession as well as Rick Ploen who many of us know from time he spent with ACI Worldwide, and more recently comForte.

It was while in Raleigh that I first came into contact with Tandem Computers. Midway through 1987, Netlink CEO Paul Wood called me to his office to outline his conversations with Tandem Computers and to ask me to manage the business relationship. The first meetings at the Netlink offices included folks well-known to the NonStop community even to this day; Andy Hall, Steve Saltwick and Suri Harish. And the list grew longer with my first visits to Cupertino where I met Roger Mathews, Chris Russell and though I only vaguely remember the incident, a presentation to the SNAX organization, Margo Holen. What I saw of Tandem impressed me to the point where I asked Suri Harish how I might be able to join Tandem.  The product, the people, the customers – the energy that surrounded Tandem in the mid-1980s was inescapable.

Unfortunately, as a US resident with an L1 visa, I would have to return to Australia, join Tandem Computers in Australia, and then apply for a position back in Cupertino. This I proceeded to do and for all of 1989, as my visa application made its way through channels, I commuted between Sydney and Cupertino – a total of 13 ½ return trips. The picture above is of me outside Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline Boulevard, Woodside a place I visited frequently during those months I was commuting although taken a couple of years later.

Much of this history came up in a recent conversation I had with Steve Saltwick who recently retired from HP but, as he reminded me of more than once, not from the NonStop community. You can read a lot more about Steve on LinkedIn and Facebook and Steve stressed that when it comes to all things NonStop, expect to see him as active in the community as he always has been – just with a slightly different focus now. And spending time conversing with Steve proved to be more than just enjoyable and entertaining but informative as well.

While many of us in the NonStop community know of the history of NonStop, perhaps few have lived so close to what transpired over the past two plus decades as has Steve. And yet, the last couple of years he has spent with HP, overseeing the team working most closely with solutions vendors, has given him considerable insight into one of the most widely discussed topics across the NonStop community – more solutions for NonStop!

“Looking back at how we first met and at the engagement with Netlink, Tandem Computers approached networking from a transactional perspective – if Tandem was going to process transactions it needed to tap into the source as a peer and hence, IBM connectivity was mandatory. Customers wanted Tandem to do this and in time, we could hold our own with IBM when it came to supporting IBM’s SNA, was how Steve began. “Netlink complemented the products we had at the time and where there was an opening to encourage a richer networking offering, Tandem was only too happy to step in and help.”

Moving past how we had met, Steve then talked about the struggles Tandem had in the mid-1990s that led to the acquisition by Compaq a circumstance that may have been good for investors but left much on the table when it came to how Tandem Computers did business. “After a fashion, Compaq just didn’t get it,” Steve then observed. “Whenever a Tandem experienced problems then, once reported, there would be people on planes immediately to make sure the problems were resolved.” And this was new to Compaq and the source for much of the disconnect that followed.

There was further disconnects too about how Tandem systems were developed but then Compaq may have been more correct about its concerns than those at Tandem may have been willing to concede. “Tandem Computers unrelenting passion for building absolutely the best server possible, in terms of availability, eventually became unaffordable. Changes had to be made and the experience with Compaq,” Steve suggested, “with its 180 degree difference in perspective (when it came to building everything yourself) better prepared developers for the new realities of the market.”

Steve’s time with Compaq was disrupted briefly when he left to work at a couple of start-ups one of which Tandem Computers founder, Jimmy Treybig, had made investments and was on the board. “The experience at these start-ups really helped me better understand the perspectives of smaller, entrepreneurial ISVs,” Steve related. “Thanks to Pauline Nist, I returned to Compaq shortly before HP acquired the company and it was with a collective sigh of relief all associated with the Tandem systems welcomed HP.” Compaq may indeed have not gotten it, but surely HP would be able to leverage all that Tandem was capable of providing.

“It didn’t happen overnight and there was considerable initial angst but under Martin Fink we worked to integrate what we now know as the NonStop system into the spectrum of products that made up the Business Critical Systems (BCS) portfolio,” Steve then explained. “HP as a whole, customers as a whole, indeed the marketplace as a whole has given NonStop its due – and it’s proving today to be a highly valuable business - both for customers and for HP. There are some categories of transactions that continue to grow that will benefit from the presence of NonStop. Now a modern hardware and software stack, NonStop finds itself well-placed in a very viable marketplace and is benefitting accordingly.”

Steve then closed with “look at just how different today’s NonStop systems are to those engineered as Tandem Computers back in 1974. The world moves on; you are either evolving to meet the needs of the day or you are dying. But some things have stayed the same when it comes to NonStop. Focus on the fundamentals, the retention of good people, and a tremendous support team to support the customer – they are as much needed today as they have ever been and as part of HP, they remain the fundamentals of the NonStop team.”

Over the past few weeks I have had the good fortune to interview a number of HP executives and senior managers – Martin Fink, Paul Miller and now Steve Saltwick. And this has been a deliberate move on my part following all that was presented at HP Discover 2012. “Make it matter” has become the central message of what Meg Whitman is hoping will propel HP to more prosperous times. However it’s also a time when there’s discussion in the marketplace of what will become core to HP’s vision for growth – and many within the NonStop community have expressed concerns about the future of the NonStop platform.

For me there are signs that NonStop will remain a force within the HP BCS portfolio. And it will be a part of the strategy that helps HP to grow. On several occasions I have written about NonStop as HP’s Halo product to make a point of just how good the platform is today – but there’s more than just a badge or logo. But I made the reference for a reason; the product, the people, the customers – the energy that surrounds NonStop even today continues to be inescapable. Steve Saltwick may have indeed retired from HP but no, he very much hasn’t retired from NonStop and with that his name is added to a long list of advocates and evangelists and the NonStop community is the richer for - and about that I make no excuses or hold any reservations!

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