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!  

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