Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Starting with a blank …

This morning I went to the local shopping center to have a duplicate door key cut. The process was simple; the shop assistant took my key and selected a similar one from an array of blanks hanging from a pegboard and then inserted both my door key and the blank in a cutting machine. Within seconds my unique door key had been duplicated, the blank “shaped” to meet my access needs!

I can remember as a child paying visits to locksmiths and how it took a long time to get a duplicate key made, as locksmith searched for a similar blank – the variety of locks in the marketplace all those years ago made the process difficult. Today, there doesn’t seem to be any fewer lock manufacturers, but the standardization that has taken place has reduced the time to produce a copy and kept the prices competitive – for less than $2.00 today, I walked away with a working duplicate key. Looking this morning at the shop assistant scanning the pegboard for the appropriate blank I couldn’t help noticing that I was in the hardware section of the store.

I just attended this year’s HP Technical Forum (HPTF), a major showcase for the latest technology offerings from Hewlett Packard. While HP has grown into a diversified technology company, I still spend a lot of my time in their hardware section. Focused on the needs of enterprise business users, this years HPTF was held only a short time after HP had announced its mission critical “converged infrastructure” initiative and taken the wraps off its Superdome 2 servers. These new servers feature the first deployment of the Intel quad-core “Tukwila” chip, which gives HP a standard “blade” offering that meets user demands across a very broad spectrum of application scenarios, irrespective of the choice of operating systems.

It’s not surprising that the session that attracted me the most was one featuring this new hardware! Held late in the day, as a “Supersession,” it was called “New Integrity systems optimized for your mission critical converged infrastructure” and featured Martin Fink, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Business Critical Systems (BCS), as the speaker. It was a repeat of a demonstration that Martin had provided to key HP executives and managers only a few weeks earlier. The picture at the top of this page is of Martin standing alongside of a Superdome 2 with an agile photographer behind the system making sure everyone in the audience had the opportunity to keep up with Martin as he pulled at different elements from the back as well as the front of the cabinet.

LinkedIn users who are members of the Real Time View group may have already seen a discussion I started as HPTF came to a close that I labeled “HPTF wrap-up!” In that early post I described much of what Martin demonstrated during the session, including the observation of how “standing in front of a regular rack, he showed off the new Superdome 2!” I then described of how “running in the regular chassis were older form factor blades including Proliant, Linux, and NonStop … pulling out the new blades with the taller form factor from the new chassis didn’t prevent Martin from swapping in older Proliant and Linux blades” from the older chassis located at the top of the Superdome 2 cabinet. Are blades only taking on “shape” following the loading of an operating system? As with keys, are today’s blades nothing more the blanks which we then shape in order to provide business solutions? Have we really advanced this far towards commoditization?

It was easy to spot the presence of NonStop blades in the Superdome 2 cabinet. Martin even pointed directly to them during his presentation. Their presence from what I could tell, and as reflected in the many conversations that followed, clearly demonstrated a future for NonStop. In the presentation earlier that day by Winston Prather, Vice President and General Manager, NonStop Enterprise Division, “It's a Nonstop ... Not a Tandem,” he added the interesting tag line “The difference is real. The fundamentals remain.” The subtlety of this didn’t escape the audience – yes, the hardware that NonStop relies on today is almost identical to the hardware used by other packages, whether Linux, Uinx, or Windows. It’s different from what was used in the past most assuredly, but in NonStop servers utilizing blade package, “the fundamentals remain!”

With budgets for events extremely tight everywhere, I had initially thought of skipping HPTF and only going to the NonStop Symposium to be held in San Jose – two events in the one year just didn’t sound viable. However, following a couple of calls with Steve Saltwick of HP BCS marketing I thought I should attend HPTF, after all. As it turned out, the support by executives from the NonStop vendor community came as a reminder that whenever HP executives are showcased at an event en-masse, as was the case with this years HPTF, there will always be those in the NonStop community prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.

"At first, I wasn't sure about the value the conference would provide for a solutions vendor like ECS. However, after discussing it further with HP, we decided to participate and to take a look for ourselves," explained Ramesh Mengawade CEO, Opus Software and Electracard Services. Present at HPTF were Chetan Naik, President, Sales & Marketing and COO as well as Paresh Banerjee, Senior Vice President, US Operations. Both executives took time to meet with HP one-on-one, and Paresh was given the opportunity to share the stage with Arun Gaur of HP BCS Marketing for the presentation “NonStop Solutions for the Financial Services Industry.” As best as I can tell, one of the better examples of HP NonStop demonstrating the degree of cooperation that has emerged of late between HP and key industry solutions providers.

In a later exchange with Ramesh, he best summed up the opportunities to meet with HP execs when he commented on how “perhaps the value for us came with the warm and open access we had to HP executives as well as to the CEO's of other NonStop partners. This certainly gave us the opportunity to promote the core message of ECS and to help develop broader support for our new offering on NonStop. While we will also be supporting the NonStop Symposium later this year, we think HPTF will continue to develop its own presence within the HP community and will be hard to ignore in the future.”

Chetan Naik had flown in from India but then again, he wasn’t the only long-distance attendee. The CEO of Integrated Research had been in Las Vegas only two weeks earlier for the ACE gathering of BASE24 users and, following a meeting with Steve Saltwick during the ACE event, had elected to turn right around and fly back for HPTF. Joining Mark was Andre Cuenin, President, Global Sales. I happened to run into them on several occasions and Mark was with me for Martin’s presentation. Seeing NonStop as part of the bigger HP and getting first-hand insight into the strategy of “Converge! Transform! Innovate!” proved to be well-worth the effort these executives made in order to participate.

I am often asked about which event a user or vendor should elect to attend just as I am often asked about my insight into the future of different HP platforms. And what I have found over the years is that listening to HP executives talk about the industry, the marketplace, customer deployments, and then having them walk through product roadmaps and directions often removes any uncertainty I may have entertained. There’s really no substitute for hearing specifics from those directly responsible.

“I did like the information about NonStop very much, especially being put into the overall HP strategy. I also do think that a focus on high-level presentations and where the story of openness and standards is laid out, and the good TCO that this then provides, can bring the business people from existing customers to the event. It should also attract the attention of other HP customers apart from NonStop users,” Dr Michael Rossbach, CEO of comForte, expressed to me as the event began to wind down.

In what can be clearly seen as a complement to those who worked hard to put on the event, Dr Rossbach then told me “I can easily see how this could become a good event again, even for NonStop - a more technical focused NonStop day would perfectly round up the conference for NED. The right focus has to be set, and the time has to be right so people will come to Las Vegas again. After all, three weeks earlier the BASE24 community came together for ACE, and there were some 50 banks present!” Perhaps aware of this sentiment, Winston Prather didn’t miss a beat as he wrapped up his presentation with the closing remark “the heart of Nonstop is, and will always be, ‘the Tandem fundamentals.’”

NonStop enjoys a long history of providing solutions to those users who really appreciate the “continuity critical” properties originating in Tandem some 35 years ago. But NonStop today is no longer flying solo – its part of a much bigger picture within HP’s converged infrastructure initiative. It leverages new technology at a pace that was unthinkable a decade ago, and it reaps the financial benefits that come with using the same industry-standard “blanks” as all other BCS platforms.

Considering the technology that goes into today’s blades as little more than provisioning a blank may not fully describe the real value that comes with commodity blades, and I have to believe there could be some resistance to this image, but no one can escape leaving HPTF aware that they now need to think about picking up on the blades story more aggressively. Having now attended HPTF, and seeing the value of participating in this event, I can easily see how those of us in the NonStop community will be giving serious consideration to going back to a “Symposium at HPTF” model, perhaps modified to include a dedicated day of in-depth technical sessions on NonStop, as Dr Rossbach suggested. After all blades, running NonStop, push the continuity critical message unlike anything else in HP’s hardware store!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Modernize? Evangelize!

At this time of year I have always spent a week or so vacationing in Europe, and on a number of occasions, this has included memorable times out on yachts sailing the Mediterranean. There’s something very special about pulling into the small fishing ports that dot the coastlines from Spain to Greece. My own personal choice has always been the strip of coastline stretching from Cannes through Nice, France then Monte Carlo, and on down to Portofino, Italy. Of course squeezing in a few days at the film festival, and arranging is so that it’s back-to-back with a weekend of F1 racing in Monte Carlo, isn’t something to be missed. But for me, perhaps the one place everyone needs to find time to sail into is Portofino and the picture above is one that I shot during my last trip to the ancient fishing port!

When in this part of the world, it’s always very easy to forget about the routines of business and to just soak up the atmosphere. Listening to tour guides trying their best to excite you about 3,000 year old ruins, or whatever, and the impact they had on all of civilization only holds my attention for a short while but then I’m off looking for the town square and for a quiet table near a fountain or clock tower, just to soak it all in. A simple shot of espresso, a glass of bitter Campari and Soda, or even just a glass of the local white wine with an assortment of cold seafood has me quickly succumbing to natural beauty of the place, wherever I happen to find myself.

You certainly cannot miss pictures of Portofino. I suspect there’s not a tour shop without at least one poster featuring the classic horseshoe-shaped harbor with the multicolored facades of the buildings lining the promenade. Anchored nearby are an eclectic mix of fishing dinghies and multi-million dollar yachts. The port had served English crusaders as they had passed by and the church on top of the hill, San Giorgio, is reputed to have relics that St George brought back from the Holy Land!

The antiquity of the place certainly overwhelms you as does much that is on display in this part of the world. It’s had to think that nearby, the renaissance started and somewhere, on the other side of the Italian hills, Leonardo da Vinci was messing with parachutes and helicopters. Contrary to the popular opinion of the day, others were even suggesting that the earth was not really the center of the universe. Ahhh – another glass of vino, please!

Before I completely drift away thinking about European vacations and of warm days in the Mediterranean, I return to what really prompted these thoughts. I was printing out flyers for the upcoming HP Technical Forum (HPTF) featuring the night skyline of Las Vegas and all I could think of was the Bellagio with its fountains and across the street, the Hotel Paris with the Eiffel Tower. In only a week or so, those of us IT with HP servers, will begin heading to the annual gathering of HP’s enterprise community.

HPTF brings together solutions and infrastructure vendors, a substantial mix of customers from all the major platforms, as well as a liberal smattering of HP executives and senior management. If you really want to know what’s happening inside HP, then this continues to be the place to go! As for me, this is my third HPTF and while I was a little hesitant in supporting this years event only a few months back, the more I talked with HP the more I just couldn’t resist turning up one more time!

This is not a NonStop event. In September, there will be the NonStop Summit and it is anticipated that it will be the place to go to enjoy the usual NonStop love-fest that has been going on for nearly 30 years. The program will be entirely NonStop-centric and the chance to continue many years of conversations with product managers and developers will go on as it always does. HPTF, on the other hand, will be an event for a much broader community and one where I will be liberally covered with every badge I can find that screams NonStop!

As I look down the program for HPTF, there’ll be goodly number of NonStop break-out sessions. Last count? Some 21 sessions – 13 product-focused, 4 that will be vertical-solution focused, as well as the traditional overview / plenary session we always expect. There are a couple of user presentations that are planned that I am only vaguely familiar with – one from Wake Forest University and the other from Easycash. And then there’s the socializing with the possibility of impromptu one-on-one exchanges with HP executives that I always find entertaining.

This year, however, and speaking bluntly, the event has divided much of the community. Coming as it has done only after the NonStop Summit was announced, the focus of HPTF and the audience it was attracting wasn’t all that clear to me. Debate raged across LinkedIn groups, online discussion forums, and via email. What was the message? Who would be attending? Will it detract from the event in September? Will HP pull back on its commitment to the NonStop Summit. Why should I even consider going – tow events in one year is a tough call given the current economic conditions! Las Vegas – our bank took TARP funding and I don’t think we are allowed to go!

As these very spirited exchanges developed, I changed my position several times and even advised some of my clients to exercise some caution. Several lengthy calls with Steve Saltwick, of HP BCS/NED Marketing, however, finally convinced me of the value proposition. “Just think about it,” I recall Steve advising, “this event in June will be the best opportunity we will have to impress on a much larger community the value that comes from using NonStop!”

There have been so many messages exchanged of late over the need for HP to do more to market NonStop. If only they did this, or they talked about that, or they developed support for something or other, then the NonStop would be so much better positioned in the marketplace. And through many of these discussions, I bought in just as much as the next commentator. However, it’s all too easy to talk about what we expect HP to do when, in most respects, a lot of it’s up to us. Nothing breads excitement faster than a bunch of enthusiastic users! Evangelists, with numbers already on the wall – visible success recognizable everywhere! If everywhere a Unix or Windows user turns, there’s a discussion on what’s new with NonStop, eventually some of them may start to pay attention and ask questions. For me, this is the attraction of HPTF – share the value proposition of NonStop with a community that just isn’t familiar with what NonStop can provide. Infiltration has always been the best strategy!

What will capture attention? What will generate discussion? As I read the flyer I just printed off, with its banner promoting “Accelerate outcomes and convergence” it was hard to miss the bullet points on the NonStop advantage that included one stating “Modern, open software ecosystem” or the HPTF NonStop highlights promoting the key demo of “the modern NonStop application software stack”. While regular attendees of HPTF will be familiar with previous themes of consolidation and even convergence, when it comes to NonStop, not all attendees will immediately associate the NonStop server with modernization, or even be aware of how modern the NonStop technology has become.

I asked Randy Meyer, who heads HP NED product management about what modernization means for NonStop today and he described two elements. “It allows ‘existing function’ – usually in COBOL or C – to easily participate in the modern application world,” a reference to the ease with which existing applications can be externalized via SOAP as Web services, as well as access data bases via industry-standard SQL calls. Modernization, also “makes it easy to build new applications and functions using modern toolsets – Java, Eclipse, Hibernate, etc,” a reference in part to the availability of industry-standard software-stacks, such as SASH, that meet the runtime requirements of applications developed with these tools.

In a subsequent exchange with Keith Evens, of HP NED product management and closely associated with modernization efforts, he directed my attention to bullet points in his latest presentation. Among the items he addressed were “applications using modern paradigms inherit the same NonStop fundamentals as classic applications”, as well as “modern application containers (NonStop SOAP server and NSJSP) use the same scalable and available server process infrastructure as Pathway applications”. Essentially, reinforcing the notion that modern applications deployed on NonStop become as scalable and as available as any other NonStop application. You can do this, Keith included in an opening slide “incrementally, leveraging your existing business logic and data investments, while maintaining NonStop levels of availability and scalability – transparently”!

Portofino will always be high on my list of must-go-to places; I will never tire of sitting dock-side watching yachts pull into the bay. Espresso just seems to taste so much better. While convention coffee may not be to the same standards, for NonStop users HPTF still ranks as a must-go-to place to promote our own support of NonStop to a broader audience.

It may not be the event we attend for more detailed info about what interests us most – but it will be the place we should all plan on attending to ensure NonStop continues to be as visible and as viable a solution as it has ever been. HP really does depend on us to evangelize the technology as much as looks to its own marketing teams! There really isn’t any substitute to a bunch of enthusiastic supporters fervently waving the NonStop flag!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What’s in your garage?

Over coffee with neighbors the other morning the discussion turned to innovation and to how ideas moved from just being sketches on napkins to becoming viable products. Our neighbor, Kevin, has seen several of his ideas turned into products and when he invited some of us to come and take a look at what he was currently developing, I jumped at the opportunity. Sure enough, inside his garage, there was a laboratory with prototypes and testing equipment of all types spread out along a number of benches. The picture above is of us gathered in his garage, sections of the roll-up garage door clearly visible.

In case this looks unimpressive, what he was developing, and had already taken to a prototype stage, proved to be pretty sophisticated. Kevin was working on a way to measure potential impurities that could find their way into the fuel onboard satellites, and where after reaching orbit, there’s very little opportunity to perform any maintenance. By using light, and measuring disruptions in the light as the propellant passes through his measuring device, microscopic particles can be detected. Kevin has developed a reputation within military circles with previous inventions, and this latest device looks likely to be snapped up as well.

Why such space-age creations are in the hands of “garage inventors” like Kevin? And why would government agencies within the United States have expectations that such inventions would come from suburban garages? Time and time again, when something innovative is called for, it’s the cadre of small inventors who routinely sort through the technological possibilities, often far-removed from mainstream consideration, and yet come up with affordable products. It’s no surprise then that so much of the technology we have come to rely upon has had it’s origins in small garages along the Californian coastline.

It’s hard for any of us to ignore the history of Apple with the fabrication of their first PC in a Silicon Valley garage, just as it’s hard for anyone to ignore perhaps the most famous garage of all, the one used by the founders of HP that is now listed on the national registry of historic places. Even though I knew of these very famous garages, it wasn’t until I stepped into Kevin’s garage and listened to his passionate description of the research he was doing, that I really had a sense of how literal garage-research and garage-prototyping was and that so much could be engineered from basic items you could buy from your local store. It’s hard to imagine that the device to be used to measure particles in satellite fuel started out with an outdoor low-wattage light bulb, a couple of discs made from aluminum foil, and some round mirrors from a beauty salon!

Recently I had an email exchange with Jimmy Treybig, founder of Tandem Computers back in the mid ‘70s. For those who have seen the recent comments posted to the discussion “Scale? Not a fishy subject ...” in the Real Time View group on LinkedIn, a complementary social channel to this blog, would have seen that I was revisiting the “Tandem Fundamentals”. This discussion started following the remark of how “a few days ago, a comment posted elsewhere by Nigel Baker has had me thinking - scalability, the oft-forgotten, attribute of NonStop.” After all, with the emphasis on availability, what about scalability? And, just as importantly, with all the discussions about virtualization and cloud computing, is scalability becoming even more important than availability? After thirty-five years, should we rethink the attributes that first surfaced when Tandem Computers were little more that sketches on beer coasters?

In the email exchange with Jimmy, he explained that “scalability is the same as on-line repair which was there in the beginning (with Tandem). If some part fails, you must be able to repair it on line and then the system must expand while it is running to reincorporate the failed part.” In other words, while addressing the ability to provide a truly fault tolerant computer, and where a failed part (including a complete processor) could be taken offline, worked upon, and returned to service without disrupting the application that was running, scalability played an integral part in ensuring Tandem was fault tolerant!

In the article I posted on April 29th, 2010 “Adding tow hooks?” that covered the news release on HP’s mission-critical “converged infrastructure”, where HP had made the decision to beef-up the redundancy and resiliency of the cross-bar fabric, I suggested that “NonStop users will recognize that this is exactly what ServerNet provides today. However, improving redundancy and reliability doesn’t create a fault tolerant system!” In that post I went on to add that “the difference between redundancy and resilience, to the fault tolerance NonStop provides, is similar to comparing a tow hook to the electronic aids of a modern car.”

From my earliest times at Tandem Computers, I have known that at the core of the Tandem Fundamentals there had always been Fault Tolerance, Scalability, and Data Integrity. Applications developers were quick to exploit these capabilities despite the lack of tools and infrastructure. Dr Michael Rossbach told me of how he “was approached in 1978 by a friend … (as) at the time, there was a lack of skills about Tandem among software vendors – they were all looking for resources to be trained in Guardian / TAL; there was no Pathway at that time … so I started training in the early spring of 1979 and started my own business in July 1979!” Dr Rossbach wasn’t alone and over the next three decades, solutions leveraging the availability attributes of Tandem appeared from every part of the planet!

However, while very few within the industry question the NonStop’s availability properties, even as competitors continue to hype how they continue to bridge the gap between their server offerings and the HP NonStop server, is it also time to look more closely at what really separates the NonStop server from all other server offerings, particularly as it plays such a significant role in the support of today’s mission-critical applications. Perhaps it was time to check in with Martin Fink, Senior VP and General Manager, HP Business Critical Systems and get his take on what were the key attributes of NonStop today!

In hid response, and somewhat of a surprise, Martin was quick to list scalability first stating “there are two general types of scale: Scale-up and Scale-out. Nonstop excels at Scale-out. Why is that important? Because when customers (like banks) need to deploy tens of thousands of ATM machines, they need to know that ATM machine #1 and #50,000 will perform the same way and deliver the same customer experience. That’s what NonStop does. Extreme scale, with consistent performance across the scale spectrum. Nothing else can do it as well as NonStop.”

Martin then added real-time performance as an attribute, pointing out to me “when a cellular operator needs to decide in less than second that a subscriber is authorized to make a call, NonStop delivers that. But, the real point is that NonStop does it in real-time when millions of subscribers are trying to connect calls all at the same time. I don’t know of anything else out there that can deliver that kind of real-time results on the scale of millions of transactions the way NonStop does.”

Having read the blog post already referenced here, Martin agreed with me, adding “as you point out in your article, there’s more to fault-tolerance than redundancy. While most systems out there (including Unix, Linux, Windows) operate under the concept of ‘Fail-Over’, Nonstop combines a shared-nothing hardware infrastructure with a software ‘Take-Over’. The Nonstop take-over system operates at the process level and is near instantaneous. The point here is that not only does NonStop deliver extreme resiliency, it does it in a transparent way, and with the simplest of configurations.”

Finally, rounding out the list of key attributes, Martin didn’t miss the chance to talk about open standards, and finished with “that was the point of bringing NonStop to the blades world. NonStop now uses standard blades (the same ones used in the Integrity portfolio). Where others develop fault-tolerant systems thinking proprietary from the ground up, we think about standards from the outset and focus our innovation on things that really matter to customers. Things like NSK take-over, extreme scale-out, shared nothing, etc.”

As Kevin guided us around his garage laboratory, new projects were already starting. Kevin’s enthusiasm never missed a beat and it was certainly contagious. In my exchange with Jimmy I asked him whether Tandem Computers had it’s origins in a garage as well. Unfortunately, when it came to full-fledged computer system such as a Tandem, starting in a garage was not an option. As Jimmy explained “a garage start-up was not possible (as it) took too much money ($3 million), and there was not a product that could generate revenue before the total was finished.” Tandem Computers gave us the Friday beer-bust, First Friday reviews, the TOPS club, but no, there wasn’t a garage.

And yet, I have to believe there were many people, like Kevin, every bit as enthusiastic about what they were building. That there is a readership today still interested in commenting about the attributes of NonStop and about the Tandem Fundamentals is testament to the material impact the technology continues to have on the way we support applications. Garage or not, the innovation that surfaced with Tandem and that still intrigues so many of us in the industry, is as relevant today as it was those thirty-five years ago!

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