Tuesday, May 19, 2015

We may want to leave a Legacy, but NonStop stands apart!

With the introduction of brand new NonStop systems – the NonStop X family – distance is being put between the modern NonStop systems of today and any lingering thoughts CIOs may still have about former legacy systems from HP and Compaq.

With the passage of time almost every important historical figure begins to muse on the legacy they will leave behind. In America, this involves a lot of discussion about philanthropy, even as it touches on the ramifications of endowing considerable fortunes on their heirs. As for Presidents, the talk is about future presidential libraries and having spent time in the Ronald Reagan library I can see why the creation of presidential library can cost a princely sum. With much work ahead of him still, I was curious to learn that President Obama is already talking about his own presidential library and the likely impact of his own legacy on the citizens of the U.S. as well as the city of Chicago.

A colleague of mine from the time when I was on the board of the IBM mainframe user group SHARE, Jim Michael, has come to terms with his own imminent retirement and has elected to document it in a novel and somewhat sobering manner – via a blog he is simply calling, Last 100 Mondays. This is in recognition that, with his first post to the blog, there is only 100 more weeks before he retires. As for the best quote from his first post, it is Jim’s acknowledgment that his “emotional intelligence has been an asset and I believe it has helped me as a leader. One of the things I have most enjoyed in my work is helping people to come together by exploring how their diverse points of view can lead to better outcomes.” What Jim’s blog so poignantly reminded me of is that like life itself, technology has very well defined beginning and ending points  and what was once considered highly creative, perhaps even disruptive (even by today’s standards), can lose its sheen pretty quickly.  

“There is an ongoing dynamic tension between seeking input and choosing action,” Jim writes in his most recent post.  “With good quality information flowing between the IT staff and those we serve, moderated by managers to help ensure clear communication, we can avoid the pitfalls of both top-down and bottom-up design.” Not forgetting, of course, the need to keep it all in historical perspective. When it comes to IT there seems to be little attention given to that famous quote of the philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, George Santayana, who admonished us with, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. A case in point?  As we rush headlong into cloud computing those of us with more years in IT than they care to recount, see many similarities with past models for IT.

Whenever the topic of Legacy comes up there’s so much emotion involved, but is the label, Legacy, being unfairly applied today? We don’t doubt that a system is Legacy when we see that its I/O is limited to punched cards and paper tape but are we misusing our emotional intelligence assets?  The picture above is just one representation of the vendor ecosystem supporting NonStop and the good news is that there’s many more vendors represented than just a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, whenever we talk of middleware and solutions, the waters become even murkier – one vendor’s brilliance may be viewed by another vendor as nothing more than ho-hum, same-o! Same-o! Perhaps Legacy is best defined by how we find it being used and perhaps, it is the environment that speaks volumes about what’s Legacy!

All too often I have had correspondence with individuals who have dismissed a product or solution on the grounds that they considered it and found it to be less than leading edge. Ouch; you mean there’s no market for something that addresses a real business need without resorting to usage of a just-emerging programming model, framework or language? For data center managers, charged with the oversight of multiple generations of systems and servers, unwilling to pull that cable when they aren’t sure what is on the other end, Legacy may not be a label as much as it is a reflection on the decisions made over many decades. It’s simply not possible to “rip and replace” every time something new comes along so balancing the investment in what’s new with what’s needed requires considerable skill.

When it comes to Legacy, the question is whether we are captains of our data center, or captives of our environment?  And what of vendors, too, balancing investments in new solutions and middleware against reluctance on the part of users not to be on the bleeding-edge even as they want to appear innovative? Yet, can we put a stake in the ground, dig our heels in, and say this is good enough?  For the NonStop community  not a week goes by where there aren’t similar challenges and the number of times I have been quizzed about the future of NonStop – just this year – I don’t care to recall.

The investment HP has made in the new NonStop X family has given me new opportunities to direct the spotlight onto a system that is industry standard and every bit as modern as any other system in the data center. And yet, I really have to work hard to convey this message to IT professionals, be they data center managers or CIOs. However, for most vendors developing solutions and middleware it is the view of these IT professionals that determines these vendors’ actions and without a doubt, dictates the pace of change they are prepared to embrace. We may not be relying on punched cards and paper tape anymore but we still have to connect to terminals, we still have to move files offsite, and we still have to batch up data and churn out reports in order to meet regulatory mandates. In the view of many who work day in, day out, supplying innovative solutions to the NonStop community, Legacy remains colored in many shades of grey.

I have often thought that perhaps the use-by date for the NonStop brand has expired and that it is time to move on from Tandem and NonStop to something a lot more appropriate for the times, perhaps even associating it with the trend towards hubs and appliances. When you walk into a home for sale and see brass fittings everywhere, you form an immediate opinion that the house was built in the 1980s but should the sellers swap out the brass for chrome, impressions change instantly. Has the time come to swap out the name NonStop for something else?  Should HP be actively seeking input and choosing action? “The NonStop brand is a very strong brand” said a good friend and client quite candidly. “If I were to look at changing anything perhaps I would look to change the marketing strategy around NonStop.”

On the other hand, the opposite of Legacy surely must be modern. If that is the case then no IT professional can make a case for NonStop X not being modern. NonStop X embraces the Intel x86 architecture, utilizes InifinBand for processor and peripheral interconnect, and is capable of supporting the current brace of popular platforms including Web services / SOA, REST/JSON, SQL, Java and JavaScript – what more is required? Few IT Professionals will argue any longer that, after installing NonStop X, they remain captive of this component of their environment – they are indeed levelling the playing field in a way that sees them moving beyond today’s vision of what’s modern and put distance between NonStop X and their otherwise less reliable racks of energy consuming commodity boxes. Changing the marketing strategy necessitates a big rethink not just by HP, but by every stakeholder in the NonStop community. That’s right – it needs us to voice our appreciation for the modern NonStop we have today.

“We remain firmly customer drive as it’s the customer who sets the requirements for a solution; if an industry body or government agency mandates a daily file transfer, then so be it,” said OmniPayments, Inc. CEO, Yash Kapadia. “But it hardly qualifies any platform as being Legacy. Likewise with languages – if critical business logic is written in COBOL it is not up to others to deem the platform old.” Sharing a similar sentiment, WebAction, Inc. Marketing Director, Jonathan Geraci, notes that, “I think our play in ‘Legacy’ is that we are agnostic to sources and targets, which makes WebAction a great place to bring all of your heterogeneous streaming and static (context) data together in one place for analytics.”

Customer driven is also a theme of DataExpress. “I think we’re driven by our customers, and they are driven by their customers in turn, it’s a lifecycle in which the software vendor is the bottom feeder,” said Michelle Marost, President of DataExpress. “In all honesty, in an economy which, despite what Wall Street is telling us, is still under stress, and flooded with software vendors trying to catch a break, we have no choice but to be customer driven. If Bank A has a customer who is happy with their dial up connection they have no choice but to support them, and we have no choice but to support Bank A.” And yet, Marost wasn’t prepared to take a backward step for a single enterprise. “I’ll temper that statement with a note that if a customer tries to drive us away from our capabilities to an area which would cause harm to that core, we will have to make a stand,” she said. “We can’t dilute our resources too greatly to please one customer.”

According to comForte CTO, Thomas Burg, who puts a lot of energy into their company’s modernization messages, “Of course, the NonStop ‘platform’ is not Legacy! That should be “Duh!”, but not everyone is prepared to accept that even with NonStop X,” said Burg. “However, many ‘applications’ on HP NonStop are very much legacy. There is no point in beating around the bush here and we sustain a thriving business rectifying that situation by using a 'lean and mean' approach that makes legacy applications no-more-so.” In features and webinars, comForte is making a major investment in highlighting how important it is for CIOs and data center managers to know that the Legacy label may only be attached with Velcro.

Committed to customers and being responsive to their needs even as we fully realizing that the environment may hold us captive (and often, for very good reasons), there’s no truth whatsoever in the thought of NonStop itself being Legacy. The exception here perhaps is that the NonStop today is most definitely a positive aspect of Jimmy Treybig’s legacy to us all. But just as there’s nothing to sustain the idea that a data center is Legacy because of a modem, a file transfer or anything else that comes as a result of a customer or partners “special request”. Legacy hardware is easy to spot even as legacy tools, middleware and solutions quickly reveal themselves but in a world revolving around an always-on, instant gratification, need it right now, today’s modern NonStop system is sitting squarely in the cross hairs of those with the intelligence assets charged with ensuring a business keeps moving forward. 

Our choice of language and platform may suggest there’s room for improvement but even here, the waters remain murky. Let’s not let CIOs, or data center managers, be too quick in mislabeling NonStop given how far it has come these past forty years. Repetition of references to the Legacy moniker, with respect to NonStop, no matter the conversation or publication is a grave disservice to all who make up the NonStop community! 


Jim Michael said...

Richard, I very much like the point you are making about the power of branding and the words we choose to use. "Legacy" is a label that, much like other common labels, can lead us to quick, and false, conclusions. I appreciate the way you work to parse how this label is being applied and to consider where it might accurately apply to some applications but not to the platform.

I hope that most of us who care about the real value of the IT services we provide will set labels like "legacy" aside and engage in real, thoughtful, consideration of and conversation about the value we deliver. It's great to challenge ourselves, and each other, to improve that value!

As to my legacy, I hope it will prove to be positive and I appreciate your mentioning "Last 100 Mondays".

All the best, Jim

Richard Buckle said...

Thanks, Jim and as for your observation, "I hope that most of us who care about the real value of the IT services we provide will set labels like "legacy" aside and engage in real, thoughtful, consideration of and conversation about the value we deliver" then that is the message of this post but you expressed it so much better than I have done. Many thanks ... Richard