Wednesday, August 29, 2018

NonStop community in its journey to virtualization values service providers!

From products, hardware and software, for the NonStop community conversations turn to solutions and staffing as services!

Looking out over this vista in Utah’s Capital Reef National Park I immediately thought of the saying “between a rock and a hard place.” Can’t imagine why this came to me, but then again, the barren landscape stretching to the horizon was certainly not a pleasant place in which to become lost – the river beds are mostly dry, with the vegetation providing little by way of shelter. No, best to take it all in from alongside the roadways that run across the ridges! If you have ever traversed Utah state highway 24 to the junction with Utah state highway 12 and then continued on to pick up US highway 89, you would see some amazing sights. And yet, as this picture captures so well, the desolation that you would face, should you leave the well-travelled highways that traverse the park, would definitely place you between a rock and a very hard place!

These past few days Margo and I have had the good fortune of enjoying the company of some very knowledgeable NonStop folks. You probably all know them very well as they have been part of the NonStop community for decades, with some of them responsible for bringing into the NonStop marketplace some very useful middleware and tools. Part of the NonStop landscape today, but back in the early days of Tandem Computers, it was just as barren a landscape as depicted here. Practically every tool needed by a NonStop systems manager had to be developed from scratch – a situation no user today embracing NonStop has to face. Almost every requirement systems managers or operations personnel have today can be satisfied with at least two, often times three or four, quality products. Needless to say, the NonStop community has continued to support new vendors arriving on the scene with a regulatory that defies the odds.

During an informal meeting with Striim cofounder, Sami Akbay, just a short time ago, talk quickly turned to commoditization and openness. “When you look at what we are working with today,” said Sami, “it’s no longer about the hardware. It’s now not even about the software, even though NonStop product managers are strongly evangelizing the benefits that come from NonStop now being strictly a software play, but rather, services. By this I mean, all the action is taking place ensuring functionality is on offer as a service whether it be Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or Platform as a Service (Paas) the expectation among enterprise users is that they can turn to providers of services for nearly every component up and down the stack that they used to have to develop from scratch!”

Is this putting traditional vendors between a rock and a hard place? “Certainly some of the biggest traditional providers of software think so,” said Sami. “Just look at how they have to cannibalize their own customer base just to stay in the game and that’s a tough act to follow if you have committed your business to growth!” Anyone following the financial reports coming from major vendors including the likes of IBM and Oracle, know what is a stake for them and the difficulty they are facing now that their competitors are Amazon, Microsoft and even Google. But this is just one part of the story about services. For most readers, when the topic of services comes up, thoughts turn to those vendors providing consulting, management and operational services.

What galvanizes NonStop users today is the many choices that they face – and the fear that some of these users are expressing to us over who is going to help them plot a course is palpable. Could HPE have come up with too many options? Has the path that HPE has elected to follow with NonStop opened the door to less than optimal choices being made by the user community? And perhaps more importantly, with the aggressive rollout program HPE is pursuing with NonStop – NonStop X and now virtualized NonStop (vNS) – how deep is the services bench capable of helping out NonStop customers moving to completely new systems, traditional and virtualized? One way to assess this is to look at what one managed services provider is already tooling up to support and to this end, I engaged in an email exchange this week with Daniel Craig, Operations Director for TCM.

“For the moment and based on what we have been responding to on an almost daily basis,” Craig began, “Most of our customers are looking to go with NonStop X systems and are sticking pretty closely to configurations that HPE is proposing. When you look at the nature of the solutions these NonStop customers have deployed, it is completely understandable that they are risk averse. There really isn’t an upside for them to be too adventurous at this stage.” This is not all that surprising, as the change to x86 wasn’t anticipated by many NonStop users. Although there had been rumors for quite some time, HPE kept a tight lid on the project to port NonStop to x86.

The subsequent development effort to support virtual machines with vNS, on the other hand, proved to be a much bigger surprise for the NonStop community – how was this going to work and how was HPE going to ensure no lessening in availability? Was it even going to run NonStop the way NonStop users were used to seeing NonStop running on traditional systems? The conservative nature of the NonStop community is now only just beginning to think about the value proposition of NonStop running on off the shelf commodity hardware and once again, access to managed services providers becomes an important consideration for those planning on adopting vNS.

“For now, we aren’t being overwhelmed with requests for vNS implementations - though it is becoming an increasing part of the dialogue we are having with the NonStop community,” said Craig. “Most of our NonStop users, with well-established solutions in place, are more than happy to upgrade to NonStop X systems – taking delivery of systems they are familiar with seems to be dominating the conversations we have been having with them. As for vNS, they recognize that they will need a lot of help as virtualization is new for all of them. They also recognize that there isn’t a wealth of services talent to be had at this time and so they have turned to us. We are already experiencing more questions than we have previously experienced with the introduction of new NonStop product families.”

On the other hand, according to Craig, maybe it isn’t the existing NonStop users that will drive major deployments of vNS. “When it comes to rolling out vNS, it very well my turn out to be the role of solutions vendors, introducing new solutions into the marketplace that drive adoption of vNS,” said Craig. “Obviously, a little more risky for NonStop vendors, but also more likely to gain traction with a very risk-averse audience. We believe that if we can build not just a system, but a solution around this that can be delivered as a simple call on/off service, that we remove the risk of the unknown.” Now that NonStop development has introduced a reference platform with NS2, some of the unknowns have been addressed but even so, questions about the degree of NonStop-ness continue to come up.

“Yes, we are always being asked about this. I think we are still some way away from there being the necessary amount of NonStop expertise out there in the market for NonStop users to tap into and therefore coming to a service provider and product expert like TCM is key,” added Craig. “Even if this is just to get over the initial ‘lack of experience’ hump and to be present should things go wrong, vNS is still a vital piece of the NonStop puzzle.” This isn’t unexpected and for the next couple of years it will be normal for enterprises to question every step along the path to running virtualized NonStop workloads in environments apart from traditional NonStop systems including NonStop X. “One thing has become clear to TCM is that this is very much an area where we plan on investing and while this is very much in its infancy, as far as products and services are concerned, our plan is to build something that can be adapted to provide an array of services to NonStop users and then see which options have the greatest uptake, and go from there!”

Hand-holding is one way to traverse a barren landscape. Having an experienced guide by your side goes a long way to minimize risks that may arise. There is no question about it, turning to a virtualized NonStop running somewhere in a server farm or even a private cloud isn’t without its downside in terms of making sure it is still every bit as NonStop as running on a  traditional NonStop system would represent. And yet, there are commitments being made among the managed services providers to be able to be that experienced guide and, with their help, maybe there is no need to worry about ever being caught between a rock and a hard place. Even so, it definitely isn’t going to hurt to know that managed services providers are aware of the situations we face and are taking the first steps to better serve the NonStop community and maybe, just maybe, the transition to a landscape that is virtual will proceed virtually as effortlessly as any NonStop migration the NonStop community has faced before!      

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