Archive for the 'ibm' Category



HTML5 Demo code

For those of us that grew up using teletypes, in my case a 3215 IBM golfball typewriter, and later 3270 green on black IBM terminals, where GDDM and the IBM 3279 was a state of the art graphics terminal, the HTML5 demo app in the above tweet is indeed a reminder of how far computer graphics, and more importantly, the Internet has come.

If you start the link/demo, don’t just sit there, click! The irony is I don’t really know Andrew, I worked with his Dad on said IBM 327x terminals ūüėČ

Moving to Dell Software Group

Yesterday was a big day for Dell Software Group under the direction of new Senior Vice President, John Swainson, as Dell announced the acquisition of Quest Software. And in other news, I’m moving from Enterprise Systems Group at Dell, to work for VP and CTO of Dell Software Group, Don Ferguson.

I previously worked with Don at IBM, we overlapped in a couple of roles, in my early work on the Java connector architecture, and later in IBMs corporate On Demand initiative. We also worked together in the IBM Academy of Technology and the Systems Group Advanced e-business Council. Another former IBM colleague also emailed me this morning to confirm he had resigned and would be coming to work with us. Exciting times.

More later.

Simplicity – It’s a confidence trick

My friend, foil and friendly adversary James Governor posted an blog entry today entitled “What if IBM Software Got Simple?

It’s an interesting and appealing topic. It was in some respects what got in our way last year, it was also what was behind the 1999 IBM Autonomic computing initiative, lets just make things that work. It’s simple to blame the architects and engineers for complexity, and James is bang-on when he says “When I have spoken to IBM Distinguished Engineers and senior managers in the past they have tended to believe that complexity could be abstracted”.

There are two things at play here, both apply equally to many companies, especially in the systems management space, but also in the established software marketplace. I’m sure James knows this, or at least had it explained. If not, let me have a go.

On Complexity

Yes, in the past software had to be complex. It was widely used and installed on hundreds of thousands of computers, often as much as ten years older than the current range of hardware. It was used by customers who had grown up over decades with specific needs, specific tools and specific ways of doing things. Software had to be upgraded pretty much non-disruptively, even at release and version boundaries you pretty much had to continue to support most if not all of the old interfaces, applications, internal data formats and API’s.

If you didn’t you had a revolt on your hands in your own customer base. I can cite a few outstanding examples of where the software provider misunderstood this and learn an important lesson both times, I would also go as far as far as to suggest, the product release marked the¬†beginning¬†of the end. VM/SP R5 where IBM introduced a new, non-compatible, non-customer lead UI; VM/XA Migration Aid, where IBM introduced a new, non-compatible CMS lightweight VM OS; and of course, from the X86 world, Microsoft Vista.

For those products a descision was taken at some point in the design to be non-compatible, drop old interfaces or deliberately break them to support the new function or architecture. This is one example where change brings complexity, the other is where you chose to remain compatible, and carry the old interfaces and API’s. This means that everything from the progamming interface, to the tools, compilers, debuggers etc. now has to support either two versions of the same thing, or one version that performs differently.

Either way, when asked to solve a problem introduced by these changes over a number of years, the only real option is to abstract. As I’ve said here many times, automating complexity doesn’t make things simple, it simply makes them more complex,.

On Simplicity

Simplicity is easy when you have nothing. Get two sticks, rub them together and you have a fire. It’s not so easy when you’ve spent 25-years designing and building a¬†nuclear¬†power station. What do I need to start a fire?

Simplicity is a confidence trick. Know your customers, know your market, ask for what it will take to satisfy both, and stick to this. The less confident your are about either, the more scope creep you’ll get, the less specific you’ll be about pretty much every phase of the architecture, the design and ultimately the product. In the cloud software business this is less of an issue, you don’t have releases per se. You roll out¬†function¬†and even if you are not in “google perpetual beta mode”¬†you don’t really have customers on back releases of your product, and you are mostly not waiting for them to upgrade.

If you have a public API you have to protect and migrate that, but otherwise you take care of the customers data, and as you push out new function, they come with you. Since they don’t have to do anything, and for many of the web 2.0 sites we’ve all become used to, don’t have any choice or advance notice, it’s mostly no big deal. However, there is still a requirement that someone that has to know the customer, and know what they want. In the web 2.0 world that’s still the purview of a small cadre of top talent, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Williams, Page, Schmidt, Brin et al.

The same isn’t true for those old world companies, mine included. There are powerful groups and executives who have a vested interest in what and how products are designed,¬†architected¬†and delivered. ¬†They know their customers, their markets and what it will takes to make them. This is how old school software was envisasaged, a legacy, a profit line, even a control point.

The alternative to complexity is to stop and either start over, or at least over multiple product cycles go back and take out all the complexity. This brings with-it a multi-year technical debt, and often a negative op-ex that ,most businesses and product managers are not prepared to carry. It’s simpler, easier and often quicker to acquire and abandon. In with the new, out with the old.

Happy New Year! I Need…

VM Master Class

As is the way, the older you get the more entangled your life becomes. My ex-Wife, Wendy Cathcart, nee Foster, died of cancer recently, such a waste, a fantastic, vibrant woman and great Mother to our children. After the funeral the kids were saying how they’d hardly got any video of her. I had on my shelf, unwatched for probably 10-years or more a stack of VCR tapes. I’d meant to do something with them, but never got around to it.

I put the tapes into Expressions in video here in Austin, they were ever so helpful and were able to go from UK PAL format VCR tapes to DVD, to MPEG-4. Two of the tapes contained the summary videos from the 1992 and 1993, IBM VM Master Class conferences. And, here’s were the entanglement comes in. Wendy never much got involved in my work, we went on many business trips together, one of the most memorable was driving from North London to Cannes in the South of France. I had a number of presentations to give, and the first one was after lunch on Monday, the first day. I went to do registration and other related stuff Monday morning. I came back to the room to get the car keys and go and collect my overhead transparencies and handout copies from the car. Unfortunately for me, Wendy had set off in the car with a number of the other wives to go visit Nice, France and my slides and handouts were in the trunk/boot. D’oh.

Unlike this week where my twitter stream has been tweet bombed by #VMWorld, back in the 1980’s there were almost no VM conferences. IBM had held a couple of internal conferences, and the SHARE User group in the USA had a very active virtual machine group, there really wasn’t anything in Europe except 1-day user group meetings. My UK VM User Group, had been inspirational for me and I wanted to give something back and give other virtual machine systems programmers and administrators and chance to get together over an extended period, talk with each other, learn about the latest technologies and hear from some of the masters in the field.

And so it was that I worked through 1990 and 1991 with Paul Maceke to plan, and deliver the first ever VM Master Class. We held it at an IBM Education facility, La Hulpe, which was in a forest outside of Brussels, Belgium. As I recall, we had people met at the airport and bused them in in Sunday and the conference ran through Friday lunchtime, when we bused them back to the airport.¬†Everything¬†was done on site, meals, classes and hotel rooms. Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s in was required for computer systems to be represented by something iconic, for VM it was the bear. You can read why and almost everything else about the history of VM here on Melinda Varians web page, heck you can even get kindle format version¬†of the history.

So, when it came to the Master Class we needed a bear related logo. Thats where Wendy came in. She drew the “graduate bear”, for which Paul got not only included in the folders, but also metal pins, what a star. Come the 1993 VM Master Class, Wendy did the artwork for the VM Bear and it’s Client/Server Cousin sitting on top of the world and as I remember, this time Paul actually got real soft toy bears. Thanks for all the great memories Wendy, the videos on youtube also remind me of many great people from the community, who came you name? Please feel free to add with comments here to avoid the Youtube comment minefield.

I’ll start with Dick Newson, and John Hartman, couldn’t be two different people, both totally innovative, great software developers and designers.

Simplicity versus, well non-simplicity

I’ve had an interesting week, last Friday my corporate Blackberry Torch that was only 2-months old, was put in a ziploc bag with my name on it, and I was given a Dell Venue Pro phone with Windows Phone 7 in it’s place. I’ve written a detailed breakdown of what I liked and didn’t like. The phone itself is pretty rock solid, well designed, nice size, weight etc. and a great screen. Here is a video review which captures my views on the phone itself, a great piece of work from Dell.

What is interesting though is the Windows Phone software. Microsoft have obviously put a lot of time and effort into the User Interface and design experience.¬†Although¬†it features the usual finger touch actions we’ve come to expect, the UI itself, and the features it exposes have been carefully designed to make it simple to do simple things. There really are very few things you can change, alter, almost no settings, only very minimal menu choices etc.

What makes this interesting for me is this is exactly the approach we’ve taken with our UI. When trying to take 79-steps, involving 7x different products and simplify and automate it, it would be easy to make every step really complicated, and just reduce the number of steps. However, all that does is mean that there would be more chance of getting something wrong with each step; my experience with this type of design is that not only is the human operator more likely to make a mistake, but the number of options, configurations and choices drive up the complexity and testing costs become prohibitive, and eventually mistakes are made. Combinations not expected are not tested, tests are run in orthogonal configurations.

Back when the autonomic computing initiative was launched some 10-years ago at IBM, there seemed to be these two diametrically opposed desires. One desire was to simplify technology, the other was to make systems self managing. The problem with self managing is that it introduces an additional layer, in many cases, to automate and manage the existing complexity. To make this automation more flexible and to make it more adaptable, the automation was made more sophisticated and thus, more complex. The IBM Autonomic Computing website still exists and while I’m sure the research has moved on, as have the products, the mission and objectives are the same.

Our Virtual Integrated System work isn’t anywhere near as grandiose. Yet, in a small way it attempts to address whats at the core of IBMs’ Autonomic Computing, how to change the way we do things, how to be more efficient and effective with what we have. And that takes me back to Windows Phone 7. It’s great at what it does, but as a power user, it doesn’t do enough for me. I guess what I’m hoping at this point is that we’ll create a new category of system, it is neither simple, nor complex, it does what you want, the way you want it, but with flexibility. We’ll see.

Hot News: Paint drys

I’m guessing I’m not so different from most people, the first time someone explains groundhog day, you laugh, but don’t believe what you are seeing. It’s kinda “n’ah, your kidding right!” but some take it seriously.

The same for the pronouncement that IBM makes regularly about server migrations to the Power Systems platforms and mainframes, you take a step back and say seriously, you are kidding, you are taking this seriously?

And that was my reaction when I saw this weeks piece from¬†Timothy Prickett Morgan at The Register aka Vulcher central under the tagline “IBM gloats over HP, Oracle takeouts” – really, seriously, you are kidding right? Prickett Morgan covers IBM’s most recent claims that they migrated “286 customers, 182 were using Oracle (formerly Sun Microsystems) servers and 95 were using machines from Hewlett-Packard” Unix to IBMs AIX.

What surprises me is not that IBM made the claims, hey paint drys, but Prickette Morgan felt it worth writing up(The Register, tag line “Biting the Hand that feeds IT”), really, seriously?

AIX and Power Systems are great, it’s just not newsworthy at those¬†minuscule¬†rates compared to the inexorable rise of the x86 architecture in both private and cloud data centers, it really won’t be long before IBM can no longer afford to design and manufacture those systems. And there’s the clue to the migrations.

You stick your neck and go with Sun, now Oracle, or HP Unix systems, it’s a battle but either genuinely believe you were right, or you were just hoodwinked or cajoled into doing it for one reason or another. So, now they are both in terminal declines, whats a Data Center manager to do? Yep, the¬†easiest¬†thing is to claim you were right with the platform, and by doing so were part of a movement that forced IBM to lower it’s prices, and now the right thing to do is migrate to IBM as they have the best Unix solution. Phew thats alright, no one noticed and everyone goes on collecting their paychecks.

Prickett Morgan ends by wondering “why Oracle, HP, and Fujitsu don’t hit back every time IBM opens its mouth with takeout figures of their own to show they are getting traction against Big Blue with their iron.” – because frankly, no one cares except IBM. Everyone else is too busy building resilient, innovative, and cost effective solutions based on x86 Linux, either in their own data center, or in the “cloud”.

An old man and money

I was just sent a link to this ConnectedPlanet article by Susana Schwartz, and given my background in mainframes and x86 asked what I thought of the central premise. The analogy that came to mind almost immediately was too good not share.

The question the article was addressing was “will the IBM zEnterprise make mainframes sexy again?” My analogy, Hugh Hefner! Do you think Hugh Hefner is sexy? He has all the money, is a great revenue generator has some good products, but mostly while they do the same stuff they’ve always done, are looking a bit long in the tooth. What’s interesting is what surrounds Hugh. Same with zEnterprise, only there are much better ways to get that smart technology.

After a few miss-starts with a google search for “old man and young girls” – that will have set off some alarm bells in Dell IT, I set Google safesearch to strict and search for “old man with young women” and here we have it, my analogy for the IBM zEnterprise.

Image courtesy and copyright of the sun.co.uk

Image courtesy and copyright of the sun.co.uk

Do you want Hugh Hefner in the middle? He’s worth loads of money…

Any similarity between Hugh Hefner and an IBM mainframe is entirely coincidental, after all we all know mainframes are older and come from New York. Hugh is from Chicago.

Feel free to use the analogy to argue either way… just be careful to keep the discussion work safe. I’ve still got that J3000 spoof press release somewhere as well.


About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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