Friday, January 26, 2018

Las Vegas once again and yes, it is the annual ATMIA event – will you be watching what happens?

The installation of a RING doorbell made it a lot easier to see who’s at the door. When it comes to detecting movement across an industry, wouldn’t it be nice to have a RING for NonStop!

As we slowly put the holiday season behind us, with all the gifts unwrapped  as is so often the case at times like this, one gift stood out for us more than any other. Maybe it was the surprise the gift generated or simply the relevance of it – either way, we ended up being very thankful for the gift. This time, it turned out to be the gift from our daughter – a RING digital doorbell. On her visit to our new home she was surprised to see our door did not have a glass panel or even a peep hole so there was no way we could tell who was at the door. We have now had the RING installed and we loaded the app to both of our smartphones and we simply don’t know how we lived without the RING!

Like many of you, we suspect, we overdid it this year with our online shopping. It was just so easy to do and for us, the timing was such that for all sakes and purposes, it was simply an extension of what we had been doing for the past couple of months buying furniture and furnishings for our new home. Whether it was a new rug for the living room, a box full of vital supplies to be loaded to our pantry or even a set of tires, they all arrived on our doorstep and in many ways, online shopping became our new addiction. It was just so easy to shop from our kitchen and the inventory we perused appeared infinite to us. As for the RING device, no matter where we are, we can see who was at the door and, more importantly, what special delivery awaits us on the other side of the door. 

In a matter of just a few days we will be heading back down to Las Vegas. At this time of year, we will not be taking the company command center as the weather across the Rockies isn’t something you want to tackle in an RV. Even as we still harbor memories from the last time we drove the RV to Las Vegas and lived through a monumental mechanical melt-down that left the RV crippled for more than a month, this time we are hoping for a much better outcome. The reason for our return to Las Vegas is the upcoming ATM Industry Association (ATMIA) US Conference. This will the fifth time in six years that I have made it to the event that has taken us as far afield as Orlando and New Orleans. However, when the topic is ATMs and cash, there is not a place more appropriate for talking about these topics than Las Vegas where cash has always been king! 

Just recently Margo and I were at a venue where our room door key was all we needed to take into the Casino. Just insert the card key into the slot machine, select an amount, and yes, bingo! You were up and running. As the venue had already tied the key to a credit card, as is the case at most venues these days, completing the transaction was all too easy to do. No cash, no wallet, no problem! Your door key will be the only key you need! Cruise ships too have embraced this model t make it a lot easier to spend cash. I am not expecting to have the same option at the hotel we have selected for this conference as it doesn’t have a Casino, but I can see a time coming when all impediments to spending cash in Vegas will be completely eliminated. This feature however may be lost on those attending the conference, but no matter, cash will continue to dominate the agenda and for a very good reason. For many Americans no matter their social standing or where they reside, cash is king!

For the NonStop community it isn’t cash that is king but rather, transactions! No matter the preferred interface, whether it’s being seated in front of a laptop, walking and talking via a smartphone or standing across a counter from a real person, there is no end to the way we carry out transactions and behind all of these transactions, there is almost always going to be a NonStop system. What are the facts these days when it comes to transactions? If you access an ATM then some 70+ percent of all ATM transactions go through at least one NonStop system. If you are standing at a POS then the percentage only drops slightly, to about 60+ percent. Texting on a mobile phone – when it comes to North America, once again, your transaction will hit at least one NonStop system on its way to completion. These are not insignificant data points - remember, too, these NonStop systems have been part of hybrid IT deployments long before cloud computing arrived!

Some readers may see this as a stretch, but from the time we decided to deploy intelligent front-end computers in our data centers we stepped up to running a heterogeneous, hybrid, IT infrastructure. Whether there were IBM, Burroughs or Univac mainframes behind these NonStop systems ATM and POS networks were more readily terminated at a NonStop than any other processor and for good reason. Fault tolerance was just then becoming appreciated, and there was little argument to be made against having a system running 24 x 7 in support of your user access points open 24 x 7. However, so much has changed since that time and yet, there are the NonStop systems still terminating the ATM and POS networks.

The upcoming ATMIA US Conference will see several members of the NonStop vendor community displaying their wares. A quick glance at the exhibition guide tells me that I can expect to see ESQ and Paragon as well as familiar names like Visa and MasterCard together with Pulse and First Data. And yet, among the latest ATM offerings being displayed and the discussions on network security and monitoring, you will hear very little spoken about NonStop even as we all know – it’s NonStop that the majority of financial institutions depend upon. Unless you have a RING app on your smartphone, how can you be expected to see what’s on the other side of almost everything being showcased? After so many years of boosting the significance of commodity solutions, there still are so many transactions passing through NonStop that the absence of any reference to NonStop is rather stunning!

The RING device not only gives us a visual update as to who may be at the door but it also notifies us whenever it detects movement. RING device alerts us when someone is walking up to the door and with as many of us as there were this year worried about the number of “porch pirates” helping themselves to our freshly delivered packages, this has proved to be a god-send. And so it is with the ATMIA US Conference as I look for movement behind the scenes. NonStop today has come a long way since it first entered the scene and even as it has grown in capability in lockstep with the growth in transaction volume and richness, you really do need something special to detect any movement in the market awareness of NonStop.

Hopefully, though, as more and more members of the NonStop community participate in events like this upcoming ATMIA US Conference, we will see an increase in the number of conversations, presentations, forums, etc. where NonStop is featured. As we continue to become even more comfortable shopping online and even more dependent on the infrastructure in support of our transactions, the fault tolerance provided by NonStop systems and the solutions they support will be drawn closer to the spotlight. We may not know of every topic that will be covered and even as we know that there isn’t the equivalent of a RING to alert us whenever something special is delivered, when it comes to the tightly knit ATM community, I have to believe that as cash continues to be king, NonStop will continue to be there, behind the scenes, making sure we can always get our hands on the cash. Whenever that need arises, of course! Ka-ching!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Summer in the Southern Hemisphere means cricket – and there are lessons for the NonStop community!

Someone once told me watching cricket was like watching baseball on Valium. It’s not that bad, really: But there is something to be said about the fervor of each team’s supporters that the NonStop community may want to consider …

For the past couple of months I have spent sleepless nights hunched over my laptop looking at the BBC web site and watching line-by-line updates coming from a cricket match in Australia. It is now summer in the southern hemisphere so that means days spent playing or watching cricket. Not just any cricket matches, mind you, but later-day warfare between two otherwise closest of friends. Whenever the English cricket team tours Australia the ultimate prize is ownership of a very humble urn – the repository of “The Ashes.” Dating back more than a century, following the earliest cricket match between the two countries where England lost, it was The Times that printed a match report in the Obituary column claiming the loss was tantamount to the death of cricket in England.

Equipment used in the match was ceremoniously burnt, the ashes collected and placed in the urn, and the greatest of all trophies has come to symbolize the height of competitiveness between the countries, but of late, each time England tours Australia, they falter and yet again, after five “test matches” over five days each, Australia has captured the urn.  Cricket is a funny game and there is not enough time to explain the many nuances of this game of chess played by flannel fools on a patchwork of brilliant grass but suffice to say, viewers from both sides go to extraordinary lengths to support their team. And nowhere in the world is there a more vocal group of supporters than England’s famous fan base, their Barmy Army!

Reading each line as they appeared on my laptop and relishing every run scored by the Aussies even as I barely had time to make a cup of coffee between the falling wickets of the English, life was as it should be – an English cricket team being skewered under some of the hottest sunshine ever endured by any touring side. Yes, they had to call it quits over at the tennis championship but not so for the cricketers. But the heat haze rising from the center of the pitch gave new meaning to these cricketers being toast! But enough of the cricket as it reminded me of groups and the communities that come together to support a person, team or event.

There was a time when being called a groupie came with nothing but negative connotations as in silly or mindless. A sense of blindly following and indeed adoring someone else whether they be an entertainer, a sports person or even a religious leader. Never anything good ever came out of being a groupie, or so the popular sentiment of the day seemed to believe. However, there are times when belonging to a group is more valuable and that’s where that value comes from information. 

Each time I come away from a major vendor event I am struck by how over the course of just a few days, a sense of community develops even as everyone is only too excited to tell you how to do something completely different, only better! Later in the day, fierce competitors can all be found propping up a bar somewhere exchanging pleasantries as if they knew all along that all of their product lines did much the same thing. And each time they gather there is always an update or two on who now works for whom and where their latest travels had taken them. There is absolutely nothing wrong or out of the ordinary with any of this, save for the fact that they all want your business and by themselves, would readily point out all the weaknesses of the product you may have been considering purchasing just an hour or so earlier from their competitor.

When the events are held by major vendors, like HPE, the audience is keenly attuned to the electricity in the air – if participants sense a developing buzz around the event, the buzz will continue to grow as the event proceeds. However, if the body language of key participants exudes anything but confidence in the future then “all bets are off” with the bars filling more quickly than usual. Whenever HPE Discover events are held and general sessions are about to start, I always pay attention to the music being played and if you haven’t done the same, you may be amused to know that major vendors rarely pay attention to the selection of songs in advance of the event – all they want is something high-octane to get the audience pumped up for the show!

On one occasion, the music selection stunned us all. As I was recalling the titles and quoting lines from the songs, it was very clear someone was having some fun somewhere out there in the darkness of the dimmed rapidly-filling auditorium. Looking back at it all, it was kind of funny to hear: “Wake me up (when it’s all over)” followed by Here's to the damned, to the lost and forgotten; It's hard to get high when you're living on the bottom” and then, “If your lips are moving, then you're lyin', lyin', lyin' …” before closing with, “Well we rushed it, Moving way too fast. That we crushed it, But it's in the past.” When it comes to local events, such as those aimed at the NonStop community there is neither high octane music with catchy lines or opening acts but rather, an almost immediate cut to what attendees want to hear – all the news about NonStop! Nor would I expect that those in attendance would have been mindless about what was being played – they would have caught on quickly!

I have been involved with user groups since well, forever. In 1979 I attended my first ever, IBM Mainframe user group, SHARE, at the time of its Australian foundation, when rules concerning participation had yet to be finalized. But it was my time with ITUG where I really came to appreciate the value of community and where my future path pretty much was determined. Am I NonStop groupie? Am I part of some informal NonStop supporters “army?”  Am I that last man standing at the bar long after “last call” for drinks? Maybe the answers to all of these questions could include maybe, could have happened and yes, could be totally true.

Point is, the history of NonStop and, before that, Tandem Computers, is populated by folks who know and understand the true value of fault tolerant computing and find all other platforms a step backwards.  On FaceBook I am a member of the public group. Tandem Computers. Recently, participants began sharing photos of coffee mugs, clothing and even pins – mementos of their time at the company.

But the one that struck me that came out towards the end of Tandem’s independence as a vendor was the one depicted above: YCDBWYCID. In case you cannot recall what it meant, it simply reminded folks that “You can't do business when your computer is down" … yes, I want to belong to that club? Yes, count me in as a follower! Here’s the thing though – I am neither barmy, nor mindless. And I checked with my wife Margo before writing these words, just to be sure. NonStop today is often being talked about as undergoing significant changes as it transforms to meet the needs of today’s hybrid IT but what hasn’t changed and indeed continues to be its redeeming grace is its undiluted support for fault tolerance. 

You don’t have to necessarily go to FaceBook to read about NonStop or the community. If you subscribe to LinkedIn, for instance, there are many LinkedIn groups that are either industry related or vendor specific and they contain a wealth of information. For the NonStop community there are a lot of choices and no matter which LinkedIn group you are a member of, there will always be a willing contingent of knowledgeable people prepared to answer any question you may have. If it has been a while since you searched through the groups, among the most popular are the Tandem User Group and Connect HPE User Group Community. As for my own tastes, I continue to monitor both Real Time View and yes, of course, Fools for NonStop.

To many cricket may be numbing if not mindless and those that are prepared to spend seven or more hours a day for five days straight watching a test match between countries, a little odd. And yet the game has such fervent followers that it begs the question – would these same people be just as prepared to watch two cockroaches, one from each country, race up a wall? Perhaps not! Enthusiastic, almost evangelical in their fervor but willing to spend time talking about their systems and solutions, the NonStop community remains somewhat unique. Less fickle for sure and more focused, clearly, but this is good news for the NonStop community. There is always a place to turn to for information and there is always someone to call and whether you make it to the more popular big-tent events or not, be assured – the NonStop community will continue as long as they know, YCDBWYCID!   

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The folly that was Tandem Computers and the path that led me to NonStop ...

With the arrival of 2018 I am celebrating thirty years of association with NonStop and before that, Tandem Computers. And yes, a lot has changed but the fundamentals are still very much intact!

The arrival of 2018 has a lot of meaning for me, but perhaps nothing more significant than my journey with Tandem and later NonStop can be traced all the way back to 1988 – yes, some thirty years ago. But I am getting a little ahead of myself and there is much to tell before that eventful year came around. And a lot was happening well before 1988.

For nearly ten years I had really enjoyed working with Nixdorf Computers and before that, with The Computer Software Company (TCSC) out of Richmond Virginia. It was back in 1979 that I first heard about Nixdorf’s interests in acquiring TCSC which they eventually did and in so doing, thrust me headlong into a turbulent period where I was barely at home – flying to meetings after meetings in Europe and the US.

All those years ago there was a widely read publication called Datamation – a publication I swear was written, with some subterfuge, by IBM folks who wanted to communicate details about their projects to the rest of IBM. However, it was the advertisement on the very back page of that magazine that caught my eye – a picture of a Tandem Computer complete with Mackie Diagram showing what a truly fault tolerant system looked like. Datamation was my go to reading material while I flew so each time I stuffed the magazine back into the pocket of the seat in front of me, there was that Tandem advertisement.

So, imagine my surprise when I went to the Hannover Fair for the first time (before technology split from the primary event) only to see being constructed across the aisle from Nixdorf, a rather large exhibition booth housing a team from Tandem Computers. This was back in either 1983 or 1984, I cannot recall exactly. But at the time, fault tolerant computers were getting a lot of attention – IBM was reselling Stratus as their own System/88 and even Olivetti, a fierce rival of Nixdorf, was reselling Stratus.

A short time later and after the Hanover Fair wrapped up, Nixdorf revealed it was working with the New Jersey company building fault tolerant computers - Auragen Computers. The plan was for Nixdorf to rebadge and sell right alongside its other platforms, which at this time included a range of IBM Plug Compatible Mainframes (PCM) called the 8890. However, it didn’t go so well and at one point, it was reported that Nixdorf founder, Heinz Nixdorf, totally frustrated by the progress being made to create a fault tolerant system utilizing Unix, told an audience that the only thing fault tolerant about the system was the sales team!

As I recall those days, I am quite sure thoughts of Tandem were gradually entering my subconscious. But having worked with mainframes for such a long time, my colleagues thought it foolish of me to change course and to them, getting involved with Tandem was sheer folly! Which brings me back to the photo at the top of this post – a double magnum of a 1998 vintage of Lake’s Folly bought for me just as it was released!

It was a wedding present given to me by my wife of only a few weeks, Margo Holen. According to Max Lake, owner of the vineyard, the wine would need another twenty to twenty five years before it could be consumed. You see Max had pursued a highly successful career in medicine but reached a point where he too wanted to change course. As he announced his plans to open a winery, his friends called it foolish so of course, he named his new endeavor, Lake’s Folly!

It was in 1987, when living in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was working for an SNA networking company Netlink, Inc. that I ran into folks from Tandem – people like Jerry Held, Andy Hall, Jeff Tonkel and Suri Harish. At the time, Tandem was interested in the SNA_Hub product that eventually found its way into the Tandem price book and featured in the Tandem Update publication. It struck me at the time just how innovative Tandem was and how well they were doing pursuing a completely different approach to solving business issues to do with maintaining uptime.

These folks that I came into contact with were Tandem evangelists of the highest order and over an adult beverage or two, Suri convinced me that it was time for me to consider joining Tandem. I couldn’t really do that in 1987 as there were visa issues so, returning to Sydney around this time in 1988, after almost three months of interviews with the local Tandem operation in Australia, I was given an opportunity to work for Tandem out of the Sydney offices.

The journey to Tandem had been circuitous – with stops in Richmond, VA, and Raleigh, NC, together with weeks spent in Germany as well as in Cupertino, CA. But the camaraderie and openness across the entire Tandem organization was unlike anything I had previously experienced.

It wasn’t simply the infamous beer busts or the swimming pool. It wasn’t the creativity behind the Tandem Television Network and the filming of First Friday. It wasn’t even the sight of such a sprawling campus that has now been ploughed under to make way for Apple. What it really came down to where a group of people who simply said that there was a better way to compute and that you could build these better ways to compute where no single point of failure could disrupt the processes - cool! The world could indeed be changed and yes, for a very long time, Tandem changed the world!

Long before Tandem became NonStop, the stars aligned in a way that was unique to the late 1970s – every financial institution wanted to own a network of ATMs but none of them wanted their ATMs directly connected to their mainframes. Traditional front-end-processors weren’t capable of running the software needed for payments processing so essentially, Tandem got its big start in life as an intelligent front-end. And they redefined the world of commercial front-end processing. I saw the impact that made on IT when I was at the Hannover Fair and I read about it so many times in the pages of Datamation.

Looking back at thirty years of association with Tandem and now, NonStop, that little spark of magic that saw the earliest Tandems carve out a niche as an intelligent front-end processor is about to be revisited. And in a way that could prove to have an even bigger impact on the marketplace than simply connecting to ATMs – blockchain. We hear the term “disruptive” so often nowadays that we no longer really react to it. Everything that makes it past the critical reviews of venture capitalists is disruptive in one way or another.

However, NonStop and blockchain is almost like a marriage made in heaven – if the distributed immutable ledger is to anchor commerce in the future, you don’t want to see copies of that ledger off-line for any period of time. True, the architecture really has an element of consensus about it but even so, when the underlying blockchain is used to support just a small finite group of entities – say just two or three nodes – then trust may indeed be jeopardized if it comes down to just two or even one working copy of the ledger.

NonStop with NonStop SQL underpinning blockchain has so much upside the likes of which I haven’t seen in a very long time – but is this just another foolish observation or wish? Is it a return to the days when jumping ship and joining Tandem was considered Buckle’s Folly? The jury will be out on this topic, debating the issue for quite some time, and yet I see all the signs that HPE may just have had good fortune fall right into its lap.

The year has only just begun but somehow, someway, after being around Tandem for thirty years I have a sense that, just as the first use-case scenario featuring blockchain on NonStop is being developed even as I blog – and yes, back down in Sydney as I understand it – a very positive chain reaction is likely to occur. And while I may not be able to track how this all pans out for the next thirty years, at least I will know that sometimes, folly can be a very good thing for not just me but for anyone in the NonStop community!

Happy New Year!    

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