Friday, October 29, 2010

Reliable as the clock!

Anyone who has faced the prospect of driving on California’s Interstate 405 (I405), that bypasses downtown Los Angeles but represents a major arterial highway in and out of Los Angeles (LAX) airport, cannot escape the nervous twitches that develop or the sense of dread that begins to overwhelm them.

Ignore the big green signs that direct you to popular tourist destinations of Santa Monica and San Diego and forget about the prestige and glamor that may lie beyond the exits to Wilshire Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, and Sunset Boulevard, this freeway that can grow to be as wide as 12 lanes in some sections, is among the most dangerous freeways to traverse in America.

Hard pressed to catch a flight out of LAX there’s never any assurances that an accident will not occur only a mile or so ahead, or that construction workers will not close a lane or two, and what should take less than an hour ends up taking a lot longer, as every car comes to a stop, reluctantly joining everyone else in an impromptu stationary parking lot!

I had the opportunity to travel to Toronto, Canada, this week to attend the Fall Canadian Tandem User Group (CTUG) event, a view of the vendor area featured in the picture above. And with an 8:00 a.m. flight out of LAX, I was apprehensive about the pre-dawn dash down I405. There’s been days driving out of the pits and onto a race track that have proved far less stressful, but armed with a cup of strong coffee I ventured out all the same.

I have a good friend that takes this route on a daily basis and I often see him back in Simi Valley, early in the afternoon, and with a strong espresso in hand, still shaking and with a dazed expression on his face as if his very presence, unscathed, at the local Starbucks was as much of a surprise to him as to any of his friends! The distractions along I405 can overwhelm you and can become disastrous, as is so often the case!

However, it turned out to be manageable – there were the usual Police drama’s underway in the emergency lanes, as cars had been pulled over and everyone slowed to take a look, and bridge overpasses were being worked on with the usual lane closures creating additional choke points, but I made it to the airport safely and was soon standing in line with everyone else.

It was while passing through the security check points that I noticed just how many passengers were removing their watches. I’m not sure whether it’s a case of there being less tolerant settings on the passenger X-Ray equipment in effect, or it’s a reflection on today’s watches having become much larger than I recall seeing in previous trips down the security lines?

In the past, I used to check out the watches of those seated near me and look at the high-end models to see if they were real or just cheap knock-offs.

Good watches of course, depend upon complex mechanical movements and their seconds hand would sweep around the watch-face in a continuous, fluid motion. Less expensive watches employ a simple microprocessor “chip” that cannot match this movement and instead, generate a series of jerky motions, as seconds hands step from one second to the next.

So whenever I see a Breitling, or a Rolex, or even a Patek Philippe exhibiting such a movement I begin to wonder about the heritage of the watch being worn. It is the engineering where the differences originate and no matter the craftsmanship engaged with the production of the less-expensive movements, the manufacturers can never completely eliminate the visible jerkiness of the hand moving in increments, a second at a time.

My first thoughts when I looked at the various watches being worn was that there was a very similar comparison that could be made between IT systems that have been engineered to run in real time, versus those whose origins are in batch. Not that batch systems can be viewed as jerky, but rather, irrespective of how much faster the chips become, and how much multitasking is pursued, they are still batch applications.

There’s many of us who cringe as we recall some of the earlier labels associated with the NonStop server not the least being, On-Line Transaction Processing. This label was affixed during the time when the earliest online systems were appearing on mainframes and helped position the then-Tandem computer in a very specific marketplace.

As the market for NonStop grew and as data base support was introduced, this label was pushed to one side – but the label remains as relevant today as it ever was. We live in an on-line world dominated by real time access to information from around the globe. And the original architecture in support of NonStop is little changed from the time the very first Tandem computers were introduced.

I walked in a little late to the final Q & A session at CTUG as I had just finished up my own presentation on modernizing networks. I missed the question asked but Dick Bird was in the process of handing the microphone to Randy Meyer who heads product management for NonStop.

As best as I could tell, the question was in three part, and spanned the full history of Nonstop: what was the key product / service that most benefited NonStop; what could have been done better; and what were the challenges that lay ahead for NonStop?

These were all good questions and perhaps ones that we have all been asking the management of NonStop for some time, one way or the other. “The original architecture of NonStop, as it was expressed in the mid ‘70s,” was the response from Randy to the first question however turned out to be an excellent response. “Computer Science students will often discuss the architecture even today,” Randy later told the CTUG community.

How often we forget. NonStop is not something that can be added to a system, although the likes of IBM and Microsoft have tried and come close. Even Digital did a pretty good job at blurring the lines for a while, but the architecture of NonStop in addressing the sum of many fallible components in a way that produced a better performing, more reliable platform, remains close to magic even today.

Fault tolerance, another label that’s not used as frequently these days, has to be engineered into the original architecture and cannot be an afterthought or something layered on top of the Operating System (OS). Batch intervals can be reduced to where there are only absurdly small microseconds of gap, but truly on-line and indeed, real-time, systems have been engineered that way from the start.

Time is really on the side of NonStop! Who could have imagined!

Just as the I405 can prove to be a distraction, and the wreckage from previous disasters clearly visible on the side of the freeway, there have been a lot of distractions for users of the NonStop server. Attending CTUG and simply hearing of the recent successes being enjoyed by the platform proved to be a welcome “refresher” on what the platform can provide.

“We are modernizing the Tandem world,” Randy quipped as he kicked off his session on the product roadmap, Java and .Net solutions can run today as easily on NonStop as on any other less-reliable platforms and yet, as relevant today as at any time in its history.

Probably more so with the arrival of the internet, and the globally-connected world we all work in today. Peel back the commodity and standards based infrastructure and middleware and you will find what lies beneath reflects the architecture first embraced thirty-five years ago.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

We don't need no $#@% badges!

My trip home to Boulder took me past Breckenridge, Colorado. Its late fall and the leaves are falling rapidly, with only a sprinkling of yellow remaining on small groves of Aspens. Even though it was late Sunday afternoon the streets of Breckenridge were pretty much deserted, as the town wrestled with catering to an in-between-seasons crowd. As I looked in shop windows however, I couldn’t help but notice how snowboards had completely overtaken skis, and how, even with clothing, the impact of the younger generation and their passion for boarding had relegated almost everything else to the back shelf.

I recall overhearing, just a few years ago, a group of ski fanatics, outfitted in their color coordinated gear, expressing a disgust at the young people who wore jeans fashionably slipping of their hips, snowboards under their arms, messing the fashionable scene of winter sports … clearly, fashions change. But the move away from the difficult to control and just plain scary skis to the simpler, more direct, snowboard represents recognition that in order to grow and attract new adherents, skiing had to accommodate modernization. After all, for our hard-texting youth, its tough to do and hang onto ski poles at the same time!

The picture at the top of the page is of the view from my front porch where the reds of maple trees can be clearly seen between the yellows of nearby snowberry trees. Nothing more dramatic is representative of change than an autumn day. As the temperature dropped I took advantage of the opportunity to page back through older issues of magazines and to catch up on my reading. Liberally sprinkled through the piles of magazines were many car and motorcycle publications and with memories of Breckenridge, and the prevalence of snowboards in evidence around the town, a couple of editorials caught my attention.

In a September 2008 issue of Motor Trend there was a “spy-cam” photo of a new Ford that clearly showed the presence of a paddle shift manual transmission. The writer then waxed lyrical over the potential for “a rear drive 2013 Mustang with a 415-horse EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6, independent suspension, and a six- or seven-speed dual clutch paddle shift transmission. Where do we sign?” However, in the editorial of the September 2010 issue of Car and Driver, the column started with the observation “I noticed an alarming paucity of vehicles offering fully manual transmissions. Even sports-car stalwart Ferrari, of gated-shifter fame, isn’t providing a three-pedal option on the new 458 Italia.”

And then, with a related thought from out of nowhere, the Car and Driver editor adds “Equally distressing, I read in the Washington Post that our nation’s hard-texting youth have pronounced driving seriously lame.” However, the picture becomes a little more clear when the same editor suggests “if teens learned to operate the entire car, not just the steering wheel and occasionally the brakes, I’d bet they’d like driving better. If they knew the sense of control imparted by that third pedal, I’d bet they would strive for its mastery and conquer their fear!” His closing comment? Simply put “let’s train our offspring in the ancient ways of the stick shift.”

Across society there were obviously those who not only didn’t see progress for what it really is, but continued to push hard for legacy technology. This led to another editorial, this time in the latest issue of Vette magazine. In this column, the writer identified with many of us in IT when he wrote “I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of advancing technology, especially when it applies to the automobile. Even so, I think it’s important to distinguish between needlessly complex luxury features that muddle the man/machine interface and well-designed performance- or convenience-based hardware that actually improves the driving experience.” Reminiscent of early impressions about the iPhone, for sure!

What generated this response by the editor of Vette were the very same editorials I had come across. “The initial thrust (of these columns) is that conventional manual transmissions are on the wane, increasingly pushed aside by advanced sequential and dual-clutch automated gearboxes … and the surprising culprit for the old-tech manuals demise: today’s gadget-crazed youth.” In the last statement on the issue of progress, the editor comments “the implication is that manufacturers have taken notice of this generational shift and have retooled their offerings to emphasize visual style over tactile satisfaction (who knew Lamborghini was so well attuned to the buying preferences of 16-year-olds?)”

Readers who may have thought I have spent too much time on the issue of older, legacy, manual transmissions and the school of thought that suggests real drivers only drive manuals, can surely sense where I am going with this. When it comes to programming I can recall many discussions where the talk turned to the programming languages of choice. It’s been a long time since anyone paid me to write code (my last lines of code were in June, 1979 when I was assisting with the installation of a Fujitsu FACOM IBM “plug-compatible mainframe” and I was writing routines for their equivalent of IBM’s BTAM in 370 Assembler) and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to suggest I return to that discipline within our profession. As enthusiastic as I was at the time about the usefulness and precision of Assembler, I would never champion a return to usage of any of these languages.

The reason there’s so much discussion on the subject of languages within the NonStop community perplexes me somewhat, and I often come away amused by it all – within a community viewed by the population at large as being on the forefront of technology, why would any time be spent on waxing eloquently over the use of languages long past their “use-by dates.” To be specific, why are there so many within our community passionate over Tandem languages such as TAL and even TACL. “I’ve written this neat TAL routine!” Wow! “I just created this wickedly powerful TACL macro!” Even wower!

The story that get’s lost in these discussions is the drive to greater productivity and to greater maintainability. There will always be arguments over the precision and control that can be exercised using these languages, and there will always be a place for them I suspect deep in the bowels of the system – but for the majority of us who need to meet deadlines, there’s little to be said in continuing to pursue projects using these languages.

There are only two reasons why anyone in the NonStop community would still want to work with legacy languages and tools such as TAL and TACL. I’m sorry, and this will hurt some of my closest friends, TAL and TACL supporters either refrain from learning anything modern because they don’t feel there’s any real value from doing so this late in their life, or they view it in part as job security. With the downsizing and off-shoring that’s taken place over the past couple of decades, someone has to keep the lights on and support the many lines of code that’s still in operations and until the system is replaced, “I can hang in there doing what I’ve always done.” The kids coming in from college know nothing of these languages and will be loathe to be assigned to supporting them, so “it’s cool! I will be alright! Pass the diet mountain dew!”

Seriously, the energy being exerted in the pursuit of modernization isn’t happenstance. It’s a serious subject that generates so much analysis at so many companies. We have moved way beyond any need for inline macros, subroutines, procedures, and even objects. Looking at a modern simulation game I have no idea how they manipulate as much data as they do in real time, but the languages in use today cater for a richness of experience unimagined just a few years ago. And the amount of data that’s coming from the enormous transaction flow we see today calls for languages that are capable of manipulating so many dimensions, it’s beyond comprehension. And the capabilities of these legacy programming environments!  

There’s no badges issued at NonStop events that proudly promote skills in legacy languages. And that’s a good thing. Change is going to keep coming at us even faster and there’s just no way we can cut enough code to process all that must be addressed if we stick with the languages and tools of the past. Even if we could, there would be no resources available to properly QA it all, time and time again, for every little change. I’m not suggesting that Java or C# are in and of themselves the ultimate answer – new languages will continue to surface. The real story is to not dwell too long over anything we have mastered. All of us within the NonStop community need to be aware that improvements in this area will continue to appear.

I have driven cars with modern automated clutches and I have been active on a number of forums strongly advocating wider adoption in cars that I like. I still have cars with stick-shifts but my preference as a daily drive, and indeed, for use on the track, quickly transitioned in support of the newer products. Want to feel like a race car driver? Get a manual transmission. Want to be a race car driver? Get a modern automated manual!

And this is how it should, indeed, must be. No more so than when it comes to IT and programming languages. There’s little to be gained from being the last man standing, when it comes to programming. And there’s no future in training our programming offspring in the ancient ways of Assembler!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Remove the warnings!

It was great to see the general air of optimism surrounding last week’s NonStop Symposium. There were more attendees than expected, and most of the late arrivals were NonStop users. Nothing exemplified the upbeat atmosphere more than the very crowded Monday morning general session where there wasn’t a spare seat in the house, with many standing against the back wall. I even saw a wry smile on the faces of Winston Prather and Randy Meyer as the prepared to take to the stage. You could be forgiven if you thought that the former glory days of Tandem had returned and that once again, the community was taking flight!
Now, this is NonStop, not Tandem. And this is HP and no longer Tandem Computers. The transition from what I remembered from decades past couldn’t have been more seamless, and the sense of community more pervasive. As the week progressed and the activities of each day wound down, it became increasingly more difficult to penetrate the gathering throng around the Fairmont Lobby bar for a much needed refreshment. And the buzz arising from the ballroom level of the hotel, where sessions and exhibits were being well supported, couldn’t be missed by anyone passing by.

Why the picture at the top of the page? I couldn’t resist, as the timing was perfect. I had just purchased the vanity plates “uLinga”, which is a name of the new networking solution from Infrasoft, when I came across a roadster sporting a red warning tag normally seen attached to the armaments on fighter planes – “remove before flight” After all, even with the terrible market conditions faced by modern car manufacturers, there’s still some incredibly exotic vehicles coming off the production line and the fierce competition that all of them face is pushing them all the harder to deliver product that entices enthusiasts into the showroom. uLinga is Australian aboriginal for “to fly” and when it came time to reflect on the Symposium, I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate!

A quick check of the exhibition hall at the Symposium revealed something very similar to previous events held in San Jose – vendors were solidly behind the program and they were excited to be a part of the program focused on NonStop. A couple of new vendors participated for the very first time, and even a long-time friend of the community returned after an absence of several years. Again, all contributing to the sense of community renewal that gave the atmosphere within the hotel a palpable sense of rejuvenation.  From all that I saw, and with the messages I heard, the NonStop community is alive, the red warning tags torn away, and rearing to fly!

Against this background, it was good to welcome back ACI Worldwide to the Symposium after an absence of several years. Some of the faces were very familiar – Jim Bowers and Doug Grote are well known to most in the NonSop community – but there were a couple of new faces as well. ACI was promoting their infrastructure and middleware products and looked hopeful as they fielded questions from the hallway traffic.

So much has changed, however, since ACI last participated at a community event, and the playing field had changed considerably - it’s now NonStop and not Tandem. After nearly three decades of facing only minor competition, ACI customers are now looking at a variety of product options that include support for low level protocols, infrastructure, and even replacement payment platform solutions. Of these a number of vendor offerings caught my eye and I had the opportunity to talk to several energized individuals as the week progressed.

Perhaps the biggest surprise I had, from talking to vendors, came about following the suggestion of some good friends at HP. Mike Meeks, Senior Vice President of Baldwin Hackett & Meeks, Inc (BHMI) was talking about a new product just introduced to the financial services marketplace. BHMI has developed a product for MasterCard that is a replacement for ACI’s XPNET transaction processor. For those who may not be familiar with the role played by XPNET at BASE24 sites, it’s the equivalent of Pathway although a highly specialized and optimized offering – look for more detailed coverage in a future blog posting.

All the same, it’s the very heart of BASE24 and for me, as a former ACI employee, XPNET is infrastructure of a type I never thought would see it facing a competitive product offering. MasterCard have completed an evaluation and the product is in production. There are many stand alone users of XPNET (also known as NET24), and even though the marketplace isn’t that large, in some countries XPNET is the most prevalent product deployed at customer sites.

Also attending the Symposium was Peter Shell of Infrasoft Pty Limited. Peter had travelled from Sydney Australia before the start of the event as Infrasoft’s new product, uLinga, had just begun a Proof of Concept (PoC) and the anticipation of success could be clearly seen on Peter’s face. Developed as a replacement for ACI’s ICE product, as well as a replacement for some of the functions supported in HP’s SNAX products, and again, carrying with it the potential to dig even deeper into the ACI customer base. uLinga is not another SNA solution but rather, a way to modernize on TCP/IP and yet, allow SNA application to communicate as if SNA was still present.  

The work being done by BHMI and Infrasoft is not news to ACI who have been aware of these developments for some time. The decision of ACI to attend the Symposium should be applauded even more, as ACI now recognizes the need to compete. Readers of this blog already know of my close ties to Infrasoft and to its product uLinga – hence the vanity plates for my car. However, providing infrastructure and middleware to the NonStop community represents only a small percentage of ACI’s business. It is another client of mine, also present at the Symposium, however, that could prove to be more troublesome to ACI than BHMI or Infrasoft. Opus Software Solutions and its subsidiary, ElectraCard Services (ECS) have focused on the application itself and that has to hurt.

Paresh Banerjee, who heads the America’s operation of Opus, had been visiting Denver when he decided to fly to the Symposium to check it out for himself. Opus, through ECS, has now successfully completed a pilot implementation of their electraSWITCH product at State Bank of India (SBI), where the potential exists for Opus to support one of the largest deployments of ATMs and POS terminals in the world. Utilizing NonStop on Blade servers across two data centers, the payments product has been deployed as a replacement for ACI’s BASE24. This too is known within ACI and yes, it’s proving to be extremely competitive.

In the days that followed the Symposium ECS issued a press release in which it announced that MasterCard had made an investment in the company. “MasterCard is committed to bringing the greatest value to our customers, who are increasingly looking to enhance the depth of their product offering and differentiate themselves in the marketplace. We are impressed with ECS’ capabilities and look forward to further enabling our mutual customers with customized and differentiated options,”  according to T.V. Seshadri, General Manager, South Asia, MasterCard Worldwide. Again, look for even more commentary on this subject in future blog posts!

Also present at the Symposium was AJB Canada, who isn’t quite as far down the prospect / customer path as BHMI or Opus, or even Infrasoft. Their new payments platform offering, targeting the retail business, should be starting a PoC shortly with a second PoC in the works for early 2011. In a couple of weeks time I will be attending the CTUG user event at HP’s offices in Toronto and anticipate a further update at that time. I have covered the offering from AJB Canada in an earlier posting and I am continuing to track it and, hopefully, will have more to report later in the year.

In returning to the Symposium, however, ACI faces competition all across the board and, with their participation, it’s a testament to their willingness to compete. It would have been very easy for ACI to ignore the Symposium, but taking a booth and having folks actively participate, I found particularly encouraging. If everyone else is electing to take flight, then clearly, they weren’t prepared to be left behind!

This week, I took my car to the local Chevrolet dealership. Across the street there is a Ford showroom and down the street, there’s a Dodge dealership. As I talked to the management at each dealership, it was evident how anxious they were to compete again after what, for all involved, was a very uncertain future. While I am not suggesting the IT marketplace is suffering anywhere near the angst that the auto industry has suffered, or that the competition between the manufacturers we all witness daily on our television sets is on par with what happens between IT vendors, however, all industries benefit through competition.

Even though much has changed within the NonStop vendor community, where there’s far more competition than ever before, I continue to view it as a very healthy sign. There can be no downplaying how tough it will be for ACI to compete – they are the incumbent, of course, at the majority of sites, and that still counts given today’s tough economic conditions.

It’s good to see them back! It’s also good that, in their absence, so much has been developed and we have seen a renewed focus on NonStop as a result, as one HP sales executive recalled for me, adding “there’s never been a situation quite like this before where there’s been as many software houses approaching HP for help with porting!” And I, for one, have to admit – I’m pleased to see ACI supporting the user community once again just as I’m pleased with the interest in NonStop it’s sparked and the competition that this has generated!

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