Sunday, July 24, 2016

I am in your mirrors and am about to pass …

Could it be, after so many years, that NonStop systems are catching the venerable mainframe? Is it even conceivable that NonStop offers a better technology solution than its long time arch-rival? Possible? Well perhaps yes … the gap between the two is definitely being bridged!

I was only recently writing to my clients about the work being done on our track Corvette. After nearly a two year hiatus we hope to have the C5 Z06 track ready by the end of the month, with perhaps an outing or two in the fall,  just as driving in winter is out of the question in Colorado so too is driving in the heat of summer. The ‘Vette looks terrific even after all these years – thirteen years old but only a little over 20,000 miles on the odometer even if almost a third of those were spent on the track as well as in and around the pits and paddocks you find at every race track. Yes, former head of NonStop development, Hal Massey, has a lot to answer for (as does Mike Plum, also formerly of NonStop development) for having steered Margo and I down this path.

But it’s not really what the eye first glimpses – a shiny red paint and a nice leather interior – that is the important consideration. It most definitely is all about the state of the engineering that counts for almost everything. There are key components and then literally a raft of proprietary infrastructure that ensures a track car circulates quickly and safely around any racing track. I have written of this for the NonStop community on many occasions and I never tire from drawing comparisons between cars and computers, as the language and imagery is so similar.

So much is standardized on cars today and yes, so much is standardized on computers and for the NonStop community, the changes of the past couple of years couldn’t have come at a more opportune time – the industry is changing and while others are beginning to struggle, the roadmap for NonStop is now liberally sprinkled with industry standard conforming hardware and software that it is putting distance between itself and its competitors.

In road racing there a very important saying, “If I am in your mirrors, then I am faster than you!” In a sense, if you can see me behind you and a short time ago, you had nothing but clear track, then the saying makes a whole lot of sense and so it is that drivers at every level of experience are instructed on track protocols and respect the saying. Well, the analogy holds true for NonStop – following years of clear sailing, so as to speak, NonStop is now clearly in everyone’s rear view mirror. And, in many cases, NonStop is already executing a passing maneuver.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been looking into the overall performance of IBM. In particular, I have been looking at both IBM mainframes and IBM Power Systems. The latter is how IBM now sells it’s former AS/400 – System i servers, where IBM Power Systems have the ability to run any or all of OS/400, AIX and even GNU Linux. No longer separate System i or System p, today there is just a single system and just like their bigger brother, you configure LPARs (Logical Partitions) in order to run a required OS and you no longer have the option to run real. It’s all virtual today – just as we are watching the demise of manual transmissions it would seem that automatics dominate today and running virtually is akin to running an automatic. Don’t you worry yourselves about the specifics of matching requirements with power on hand!

Will IBM add support for zOS in Power Systems? In other words, will the Mainframe become just another LPAR on a Power System? This is a very loaded question as boundaries get crossed and the outcome is not related either to technology or even business as much as it is related to culture – the “mainframe crowd” would simply choke if they had to co-reside with the other crowd – the System i and the System p! However, it may happen. And it is against this background that the moves by HPE for NonStop to bring to market virtual NonStop (vNonStop) running on commercial, off-the-shelf x86 hardware, essentially “completes the circle.” Windows, Linux and NonStop will be running on exactly the same inexpensive hardware – take your pick. And it will run “automatically” atop a virtual machine.

But how long will IBM and the mainframe remain competition for NonStop? If you had an opportunity to read the many analyst reports following the latest quarterly results from IBM, you have to start wondering just how viable the mainframe will remain? I know my colleagues and good friends working with mainframes will likely choke when they read this but I am still struggling to comprehend why IBM didn’t embrace blades as did their other development teams and why is it sticking with Power? So much was expected from the latest Power 8 chips that when they started shipping (with support for mainframes), their performance wasn’t anything stellar and talk quickly reverted to discussions about the next chip, the Power 9.

Back to the latest quarterly results from IBM and to a couple of highlights. “Revenue for the quarter came in at $20.24 billion against the comparable year-ago figure of $20.81 billion. IBM's second quarter results mark the company's 17th straight quarter decline.” And then there is “Sales in the systems segment, which includes mainframes and the operating software that helps run them, declined 23.2 percent to $2 billion.” Almost immediately, questions began to be raised as to whether IBM was going to sell off the mainframe business. After all, IBM has sold off almost everything else from communications and networking to PCs and servers.

“IBM would probably sell the mainframe business if it could, but I'm not convinced that anyone wants to buy it. Mainframes may have more value as a continuing source of cash than what IBM could realize in an outright purchase.” As for that cash, just how many mainframe users know just how much cash is going back to IBM with each sale of a mainframe? “IBM's gross margins declined as well in all of its divisions, with the exception of its Systems division, where the gross margin remained stable at 56.5%.” That’s one big reason as to why IBM isn’t as upset as it otherwise might have been in not being able to find a buyer for the mainframe. No, customers are going to be led by the nose till the very end. Perhaps the rose in those rose-colored glasses worn by IBM mainframe salesman are simply a reflection of the very bloodshot eyes of increasingly enraged customers.

It’s absolutely time for every member of the NonStop community to push back on the mainframe protagonists – their arguments are wearing extremely thin. The above quotes were drawn mostly from a July 20, 2016, article by Mark Hibben and published in the electronic publication, Seeking Alpha. However, in that article was a chart produced by IDC that every member of the NonStop community should be aware of that is IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker, June 2016:


The more I look at the data in this chart, the more I have come to appreciate the predicament IBM finds itself in today. Now, there are parties within IBM that point to how the new z13 gained another 13 new customers in the quarter bringing to 70 the number of new customers that the z13 has generated – a stat that can be found in posts to the LinkedIn group, Mainframe Experts Network. But if I happened to be working at IBM, I would be appalled at these figures based on previous history. What’s missing is just how many customers have left System z in the same period. And just how many of these new customers happen to be international subsidiaries of existing users? Bottom line, with less than 10% of the server “systems,” this is an embarrassing figure for IBM and one every CIOs would fancy flashing before their boards of directors. Coupled with almost a 33% decline, year over year, embarrassment may be the least of these CIOs concerns – properly managing risk comes to mind.

And yet the myths about the invulnerability of the mainframe persist. The mainframe protagonists are proving to be a hardy lot to shake but here’s the good news. Once viewed as being on the endangered species list, following the support for the Intel x86 architecture, NonStop systems have made it back onto the strategic list of one major bank and I am expecting more to follow in the near time and be something that is openly discussed by HPE management at this year’s NonStop Technical Boot Camp. No, NonStop is going to continue to thrive as a system and as a platform. It’s about time CIOs reliant on the performance of their mainframes to check their mirrors – NonStop is approaching and yes, with the commitment to the Intel x86 architecture, it is catching the mainframe and as we all know when it comes to market share, overall performance and yes, that all-important price consideration, it is now squarely in your mirrors!  



Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Yes, once again, I ask – are our wishes truly important?

Once again, I am writing a preview of what will follow next February as my update to My Three Wishes for NonStop will be posted. Like my previous preview, I am keeping a few items close to my chest … 

Over the past two week I have been on the road and for nearly all of that time the heavens have opened up and it’s been a hard rain for more days that I care to recall. Driving was erratic at times even as setting up camp proved challenging – the drive into the RV facility on North Carolina’s Outer Banks happened just 30 minutes after a tremendous deluge that left the facility flooded. But the opportunity to discuss business with numerous folks made it worthwhile and overall it all added to a growing impression that the software industry is heading for tough times and that, without a few more concessions coming from major hardware vendors, our future choices may be greatly reduced even as users may be tempted to return to writing critical middleware and tools themselves.

Driving all of this is the simple fact that there’s just very little money heading towards traditional software vendors. Well, almost all software vendors. Those providing solutions remain optimistic of course as there is a direct line between the business problems they address and their own ability to charge accordingly. There continues to be significant discrepancies between the many solutions on offer but the actual price paid for any given solution ultimately rests with the users themselves – they can walk from deals and consider alternatives. However, when it comes to middleware and tools there are usually only one or two choices and for the NonStop community this is particularly true.

It’s unfortunate that with the rightsizing of NonStop system prices that has led to NonStop being priced as competitively as it is now – on par with almost every other server cluster offering and streets ahead of equivalent mainframe offerings – a new pricing expectation is being set for middleware and tools. And yet, we expect our preferred middleware and tools vendor to accelerate the level of investment in their products to cater for changing hardware architecture. Throw into this mix the availability of NonStop as Software, capable of running virtually, and the expectations of users are beginning to step beyond the lines of reasonability. HPE NonStop expects these vendors to remain part of the NonStop ecosystem but I am not sure how many NonStop vendors will be motivated to do so and this may be to the detriment of everyone in the NonStop community.

Every three years I update my three wishes for NonStop. It all started back on February 12, 2008, in the post,
"My Wish" for NS Blades. Since then I have published successive Wishes for NonStop posts in 2011, 2014 and now 2017 is fast approaching when I will once again be publishing my next three Wishes for NonStop. However, given how quickly events can turn on a dime, with my post of July 19, 2013, Are our wishes still important? I set the scene in terms of what to expect next and this year, I am continuing that pattern. The post of 2017 may be fast approaching but it may be useful if I provided you with a sneak preview about what is yet to be posted. And yes, there is lots to discuss.

But here’s the catch. Are making three wishes for NonStop still relevant today? I have asked the same question every time and each time, the responses have been positive. It would seem that we all have our private list of Wishes for NonStop and consider them important. On the other hand, can we say NonStop has now caught up with the industry to where we are all prepared to go with the flow? Is same-o, same-o, become acceptable and in fact, become the new norm? Is NonStop differentiation even relevant in 2016?

My first response is one of gratitude that HPE stuck with NonStop where today the investments HPE is making, in NonStop systems, are hard to ignore. Who could have imagined that NonStop would be where it is today, on the verge of being available pretty much any way we want it – running on HPE hardware, on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and potentially, not just in private clouds but possibly in public clouds underpinning a selection of services including database. Making three wishes for NonStop is still relevant but given how much is changing of late, I will leave it till that post of February 2017 what I think my next three wishes should be.

In the meantime, and as a precursor to what may follow, when I look at how best to characterize the NonStop ecosystem as it exists today, then there are three items that stand out – transparency, cooperation and engagement. These are very important topics for the NonStop community today given all we are hearing from HPE. Change upon change upon change – the reshaping of an industry stalwart to better address the conditions of the day. Not a cliché, but reality. It’s so easy for us these days to drift back to memories of former times and wish for their return. But IT is a thriving, multi-faceted industry that only knows progress. IT is like a powerful car that only has forward gears.

Transparency? Overriding every discussion I have had with my clients of late is the urgency for greater transparency with respect to their dialogue with HPE and I have to believe the same holds true for NonStop users. C’mon, HPE – we can’t just be forced to read the Wall Street Journal to find out what HPE is up to – a briefing call on the day (or yes, a little in advance) would be great. Having said this, I do have to say I admire the steps that HPE NonStop Product Management have taken of late to be more transparent with the vendor community and I want to see this develop further – quarterly calls, if it’s possible! And yes, I know all about the SEC rules – but as they say so often in the movies and on television these days, “read us in!” And when it comes to transparency, how about letting us all know just how many NonStop customers exist today and just how many NonStop systems are deployed.

Cooperation? Quite simply, there is so much to do and HPE R&D cannot do it all. Numerous steps have been taken already with select partners and again, this is good news. But develop a program that is more comprehensive and don’t push back each time with observations that well, yes we have something already in the works. Don’t do that – it just doesn’t win you any friends and quite frankly you don’t have the breadth any longer to be competitive on every front. Let the specialists who are prepared to invest their own dime in bringing a tool, utility or major feature to market, take the lead. It’s not that big a concession to make but cooperation will buy HPE NonStop an awful lot of good friends in many of the right places.

Engagement? The tricky element! You may already ask whether this has been covered with transparency and cooperation but I want to call it out as its own challenge. Let’s start with partner programs. For the most part, the NonStop vendor community doesn’t want to be lumped into a generic all-encompassing partner program. I know, I have been there! More than once! The needs of the NonStop vendor community vary significantly from those of your typical Unix or Linux or even Windows development shop. For starters, the marketplace for NonStop is finite and tightly focused – we don’t need to be given access to a couple of PCs or a Linux server. The Advanced technology Center (ATC) has been a godsend to many NonStop vendors – explore ways to broaden its engagement with the NonStop vendor community. For free! The NonStop Technical Boot Camp has been a surprise windfall for all involved – let’s keep it up and somehow manage to find resources to export it to EMEA and AP-J.

There is also one more thing – related, but more on the periphery of everyone’s radar screens. The freelancer! The time of having job security, working for a large organization, is long gone – those very same large organizations have seen to that. I don’t know of any other IT segment where the skills lie with as many freelancers as exists today across the NonStop community. Freelancers should not be ignored even as they don’t have the backing of a large corporation but having said that, they are more likely to be better equipped and motivated. It’s a huge resource around the planet that just needs greater recognition. 

Returning to my opening comments; HPE does expect the NonStop vendor community to remain part of the NonStop ecosystem. It’s very important for HPE and indeed, the expectation is that new vendors will be found and brought into the NonStop fold. But it’s a two way street with many one-way side streets leading NonStop vendors away from the main thoroughfare. Keeping everyone engaged is not a nice-to-have but rather the biggest imperative of all for HPE NonStop. The NonStop vendor community is heading for tough times and truly needs concessions from HPE. Yes, we would all benefit from new solutions for NonStop even as we would all benefit from making it even easier to port what we like to NonStop. But we absolutely must find the right way to sustain a thriving software industry that will remain focused on NonStop!

If you were at all curious about what my first three Wishes for NonStop were back in 2008, while the words were a little different they called for industry standard blades capable of running not just NonStop but Linux, Unix and even Windows; they called out the need to embrace virtualization and the benefits that would likely come if we could programmatically provision NonStop. If you want to read these three previous posts, then follow the link, Wishes that is listed under Labels. There is also now a label for Wishes – Preview where you will find this post included as well. 

But I have to admit, before wrapping up this post, that in the years since 2008, HPE NonStop has taken incredible strides to bring NonStop into the mainstream and with the new NonStop X family has succeeded in a manner that has taken me by surprise. There’s a saying that you need to be careful about making wishes in case they come true, but I have to admit, I wish big! So, look for the post of February 2017 to read more about my wishes for where I would like to see NonStop head over the course of the next three years. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Misconceptions – all computers will never be the same!

There are numerous misconceptions about many things we routinely come into contact with but as NonStop becomes capable of running on commercial, off-the-shelf hardware and yes, even from within a cloud, I turned to one solutions vendor to gauge just how big an impact this may have on future NonStop sales …

It’s a common misconception that America’s interstate freeways provide a speedy and stress-free way to drive across the country, but they are neither free nor fast, or even stress free. Denoted speed limits change frequently, portions of the freeway have become toll-roads and many miles of freeway are under repair and have been turned into unforgiving cone-surrounded autocross courses. And then there are the freeway interchanges to contend with – oftentimes beautiful, yet terrifying to the uninitiated. The photo above was taken by the award-winning commercial and fine art photographer, Peter Andrew, who has turned many of these high interchanges into works of art.  No, it’s simply a shortsighted mistake to think sticking to America’s interstate freeways will be the best route to take.

It’s also a common misconception that we are headed down a road where all computer systems will be the same, that, in their eventual ubiquitousness, we will find a kind of Valhalla. In other words, price parity will be reached and vendor differentiation will be marginalized, perhaps differing only in the chosen color schemes of the metalwork, but Valhalla may not be all that we envision, or even welcoming site, with its doors wide open. We may be heading to a box sameness, but there will always be at least two competing architectures, for as far out into the future that I can see, competing x86 and Power architectures, for instance – such that the doors to Valhalla will remain firmly shut. No, it’s just as shortsighted a mistake to think that all computers will be the same. 

This topic came up in numerous discussions of late. Fueled by observations made at recent user and industry events, passing kiosks that populate exhibit halls, you get a superficial sense that it’s all the same and resorting to photo reproductions plastered onto the same cut-out frames as if they were advertising on a NASCAR race car, doesn’t help one bit. When did we move away from exhibiting real computers? I must have missed the memo, but quite frankly, it’s not helping. However, there’s more going on inside today’s computers than we may realize – you can’t really identify a computer by what covers it – this is not about technology that is only skin deep. What lies inside makes all the difference in the world!

There has never been any misconception among the NonStop community about what lies within the cabinets. NonStop systems are just different and will always be different, or, is this not really true anymore? Will a NonStop systems manager be able to tell the difference when all the basic components are commercial, off-the-shelf, hardware? Fortunately, HPE is investing in NonStop at a rapid rate such that today’s image of a NonStop system is shifting in some very important ways, all of which are being discussed with a level of fervor among the NonStop vendor community and these vendors are more excited than I can recall in a long time.

Recently I wrote in my client weekly update of NonStop the system, NonStop the software and NonStop the service, each of which provided the highest level of availability even as it is capable of scaling up as well as out in a manner that meets the needs of any user. If you want to be able to put your arms around a NonStop system that is delivered in a crate to your loading dock then yes, you can get it from HPE. If you want to download NonStop from a web site to run on your Dell x86 servers interconnected by multiple Mellanox InfiniBand switches, well yes, you can get that software too from HPE (or shortly will be able to, in my opinion). If you want to provision on your private cloud that consists of generic x86 servers then that too shouldn’t be a problem and will likely be the way many applications get to access the best database on the planet, NS SQL/MX. And for those prepared to wait just a little longer, if you really need to run in a public cloud I fully expect that too will be possible.

You only want to deploy open source? Indeed, stay tuned as again, it is my opinion that NonStop (in part of in whole) is headed for open source so yes, you may need additional services from knowledgeable folks but go right ahead. Watch for a NonStop distribution being floated by the NonStop community in a year or two! Although following the retirement of HPE CTO, Martin Fink, the potential for the NonStop operating system heading to open source may have lessened. What is not a misconception by anyone tracking technology trends is the price of hardware is dropping (some would say, sinking) with the acceptance of commercial, off the shelf hardware. Middleware, tools and infrastructure are following this downward trend as well. But solutions? Well, this is where the value is provided and while there may be some steading in the price of solutions, the impact is less noticeable.

In the post of June 3, 2016, Burgers for cash ... or burgers and cash? published on the ATMmarketplace site, I turned to OmniPayments, Inc. CEO, Yash Kapadia, for his views on payments solutions and possible integration with robotics but I also asked him for comments on Hybrids and vNonStop. In that post I quoted Yash after he had told me of how, "For more than a year, we have been building our own systems around NonStop and ProLiant Unix processors with Atalla boxes included (as well, for security). After we build and test them, we ship the complete package to our customers and for the most part, all they see is OmniPayments via a browser to the extent the underlying technology is invisible.”

According to Yash, "HPE is demonstrating NonStop and Linux hybrids with InfiniBand and NSADI (formerly, Yuma) connecting the two and we are watching this development with keen interest. If HPE provides packaging that reduces the work we currently need to do then that will keep our costs down and that will be a big plus for our customers. Furthermore,  if we can now build our systems from any x86 servers on offer, applying our own skillsets to properly install and deploy it all, and run NonStop virtually, then I can see this allowing us to deliver a true payments solution to even the smallest of FI.”

Of all the payments solutions on offer today that run on NonStop, OmniPayments has been developed as a pure NonStop play capitalizing on all the features NonStop has to offer. Whereas all but one other payments solutions has been ported to NonStop, OmniPayments leverages NonStop to be as big or as small as the customer situation dictates but there’s even more on the horizon. As Yash so often highlights at customer events, OmniPayments is already embracing cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS), and has multiple in-house sites up and running.

"For some time now we have been successful with our OmniCloudX offering whereby we provision OmniPayments as a Service for our customers. Now that HPE has demonstrated virtual NonStop systems running on commodity, off-the-shelf x86 servers this opens the door to a vastly different environment for NonStop and one where we will need to devote time to fully understand all the ramifications. The priority for OmniPayments will be not to detract from the levels of availability NonStop provides even as we need to consider what additional tools might be required as now there will be additional systems software to support. However, this said, we view the emergence of vNonStop as a positive outcome and one that will help OmniPayments keep the costs low for our customers," concluded Yash. 

As for the potential move of NonStop into the open source arena, Yash is just as bullish about the prospects for OmniPayments with any such distribution that may eventuate from HPE. “In my opinion - open sourcing of Nonstop will lead to more vNonStop sales,” Yash told me. “That is good for us because our software will run on more machines, giving us even more customers. What’s wrong with that?” Some of what I have covered in this post will come to fruition and some may not. For those who have been attending recent user and industry events and entered into discussions with their peers, there seems to be very few limitations as to where NonStop will head and this possibly is the most exciting news about NonStop of all!

Of course this is just the perspective of one solutions vendor but in the coming months I will be working with other vendors in order to gain further insight. Clouds and offering NonStop from within clouds is an entirely new game for OmniPayments so it will be very interesting to watch. However, preliminary feedback is that indeed, there is a growing list of new sales for NonStop X systems as a result.

Misconceptions abound in all walks of life. They are not limited to taking the freeway or buying a computer system. Sticking too long with a misconception can prove dangerous as well – I cannot count how many systems have passed from the technology landscape where the fields are littered with the relics of once prosperous architectures. No, Valhalla as enticing as it may sound is nowhere to be found but the good news is that very soon, you will be able to order up a NonStop variation exactly the way you need it and it may be all the good news anyone in the NonStop community really cares about. And make no mistake, that’s not a misconception at all no matter what your initial reaction on hearing the news from HPE may have been!