Last week, I spoke with Alan Arnold, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Vision Solutions, about Vision's historic acquisition of high availability player Lakeview Technology. From a competitive standpoint in the high availability market niche, the advantages of the Lakeview acquisition were obvious.
But I was more intrigued by how Vision Solutions was going to manage the combined technical resources of the organizations and how those resources were going to impact current and potential customers of high availability products. After all, it's one thing to consolidate a market by purchasing your competitors, but it's quite another to manage and deliver the rigorous services required by a diverse customer base.
Questions, Questions, Questions
- How would a much-larger Vision Solutions organization, with a much broader portfolio of HA offerings, manage its product lines in the future?
- How would those diverse—and sometimes overlapping—HA solutions be maintained and upgraded in the future?
- Would some products be phased out?
- Would some products be merged?
- How would the customers that own the current products from iTera and Lakeview Technology be impacted on a day-to-day support level?
Finally, I wanted to know about Vision's relationship with IBM's technical crew. HA is, of course, not a trivial technology, and the System i's resilience and leadership in this particular area is, in large part, the result of a long heritage of technical investment.
How would the newly consolidated Vision Solutions organization maintain and sustain its key technology exchanges with IBM's team in Rochester, Minnesota?
These were the questions that concerned me personally because, in my past life as an IT manager, I witnessed many mergers and acquisitions and experienced the chaos that often resulted in obtaining service and support. And quite honestly, while Vision Solutions has a great track record in providing customer support, when it comes to the vital requirements of high availability, no one wants surprises.
Reliability vs. Managed Availability and the Evolution of HA
The evolution of the technology that we now term "high availability," has a long IBM heritage, stretching back to the initial problem-solving strategies that IBM deployed with the System/38. Back then, the System/38 was revolutionary in its use of virtual memory and single-level store, as well as its integrated relational database. The problem was that, in many respects, the advanced nature of the operating system (from which i5/OS is derived) far outstripped the reliability of the hardware that supported it.
The great forte of the System/38 was that when things went right, the availability and the resilience of the entire system was a masterpiece, offering unparalleled access and usability. But when things went bump in the night—when a memory chip flaked out or a disk drive burped or a power surge caused an unplanned outage—restoring the availability of that system could take it out of production for days. This was the great crisis of reliability that IBM faced with the architecture at that time.
One consequence of this System/38 Achilles heel was a revitalized commitment by IBM to improve its overall hardware reliability. The other was the development of operating system strategies that could better position the information system's overall availability. These strategies became customized solutions that began to be known as "managed availability" solutions and included, among other things, the first implementation of database journaling as a hedge against unreliability.
These two technologies merged with the introduction of the IBM AS/400. As the AS/400 hardware achieved greater and greater reliability—achieving 99.999% reliability against unanticipated downtime—some IBM Business Partners worked closely with Rochester to package their managed availability strategies into solution packages that could be deployed commercially.
Thus was launched the IT technology that today we call high availability, or HA. It is a solution that merges the known metrics of hardware reliability with the system's software strategies and services to achieve the specific availability requirements of the customer. And these requirements vary, significantly, from customer to customer.
Alan Arnold is definitely the right person within Vision to best address my questions. Because Alan is both an executive vice president at Vision Solutions and its chief technology officer, it's his responsibility to use his expertise to chart the technical course of the overall organization. Alan is also a well-known entity in the System i technical sphere, having written a number of books during his various careers about managing information systems.
I'd recently worked with Alan on a Webcast entitled "Operations Recovery: How to Improve Your Tape Save Process," and I was incredibly impressed with how open and straightforward Alan was about both the technology of HA and the opportunities that the company's merger with iTera had opened for customers. In fact, if you missed that MC Press Webcast, you can still check it out at http://webcasts.mcpressonline.com. It's one of the best educational pieces you'll find about how the issues of HA extend beyond simple hardware reliability.
Now, Alan is in charge of merging yet another highly technical team, from Lakeview, into Vision's armada, and I wanted to get a feel about how this was going to be managed.
Satisfying Current Customer Support Levels
So I posed my first question to Alan: "How is Vision Solutions going to satisfy current customer support requirements with customers running so many solutions from the merged companies of Vision, iTera, and now Lakeview?"
"Current customers don't have to worry at all," Alan said. "We are not going to do away with any of the support centers or partners. Nothing is going away. We are not consolidating support at all. For instance, Lakeview has a team in Rochester, Minnesota, which will remain in place. Instead, Vision will have an expanded global reach. Where there is overlap in support, that's OK.
"In addition, we will continue support for all three product portfolios in Manchester, England, and Belgium with 24x7 live customer support," he continued. "And this includes the Lakeview data management products as well.
"Our intention is to grow each of the product lines: MIMIX, iTera HA, and Orion HA. Each product line has tremendous customer acceptance in different geographical regions around the world, though the fastest growing now is the SMB, where we will lead with the iTera HA product."
The Customer Environment and Internal Marketing Competition
One of the problems that I could foresee is the kind of internal competitive environment that once created great confusion for IBM customers, with different sales staff and different support structures. I wondered if Alan considered this as a possible conflict in the newly merged and acquired organization. How was Vision going to clarify the choices of feature sets offered by such a wide array of HA products?
"The first step is to understand the customer's environment," he said. "For the majority of customers in the SMB arena, iTera HA is a cut-and-dried first choice. But customers have a wide range of differing availability needs. And as those needs become more refined and the customer's requirements grow in sophistication, we will also have the opportunity to support them with MIMIX and Orion. That's what makes this a win/win opportunity for customers considering HA."
Strategic Goals for Product Development
One of the fears that I had with such a broad spectrum of HA products was the future development of the products. How was Vision going to manage the upgrades, refreshment, and maintenance of the product portfolios?
"Our development centers are still intact," Alan said. "And they are not going away. In fact, we've already seen how one development team's ideas can cross-pollinate and create new opportunities for another. A good example is a feature in MIMIX called Runbook. We see the advantages of that feature and we're considering releasing that in one of the other product lines.
"One thing you probably weren't aware of is that we began the process of assessing how we were going to merge Lakeview's team months before we made the announcement of the acquisition. The development teams are very similar, with deep expertise, and quite often we were already in the labs together in Rochester, working with their engineers. We had deep mutual respect for the development teams going into the acquisition process, and that continues. And a new version of MIMIX—Version 6—was released, and new patches will continue to happen. So, again, from a customer perspective, nothing is going away."
The IBM Relationship
One question that intrigued me was how the merged organizations were going to work with the IBM labs as i5/OS continues to be improved. Will the increased strength of the Vision organization have a significant impact on the features and functions that IBM provides for the System i?
"We see our relationship with IBM as a true partnership," Alan explained. "The people in Rochester are wonderful, and we have lots of respect. As I've said, Lakeview has an office right in Rochester now, and we see that as an important means to keep the visibility and effectiveness of our entire organization's R&D momentum going."
Orion Cross-Platform Architecture
Several years ago, Vision was working hard on Orion's cross-platform monitor in order to take advantage of the System i's ability to run UNIX, Linux, and Windows—as well as i5/OS. How will that be manifested in the company's future strategies for HA?
"We did a lot of work with Orion's cross-platform monitor early on," Alan said. "But one of the things that we learned by watching iTera in the market space was that very few System i customers were really interested in the requirements of implementing it. This caused us to examine what our customers really wanted, and we learned that most everyone had Windows alongside the System i, and some were running Linux or had associated UNIX implementations. But the expertise and the responsibilities within those organizations for those different implementations were not centralized, and the requirements for each group were different. So we stopped development on the cross-platform focus. What we realized was that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 thousand System i installations around the world, and only a small percentage were utilizing HA. So that is where our focus in R&D has evolved."
Biggest Challenges Facing the New Vision Solutions
I had one final question for Alan: "What are the biggest challenges facing Vision Solutions?" I had noticed that, in press releases and in talks, the organization hasn't been talking about "consolidation" of the HA market but "solidification" instead. So I asked Alan, organizationally, where he was finding the stiffest challenge so far.
Alan paused for a moment to consider this question, seeming to run through a long mental list of things that he'd been facing.
"I know it's hard to believe, but I think we haven't seen a challenge yet that we haven't been able to handle within Vision," he said. "We need to continue to grow the market for high availability. And a lot of that is going to be educating the SMB customer about the tremendous opportunities that are now available.
"So I think our greatest challenge going forward will be educating the customer base. There's a preconception out there that HA is a major project that's going to require IT to get additional people, that it's something their companies can't afford! And that's no longer true.
"At the same time, there have been tremendous increases in regulatory requirements creating potential issues for governmental compliance, things that we covered in our Webcast last April. And IT is starting to see itself in a bind to meet those requirements.
"Fortunately, IBM has created some great incentives with the new models of System i that are very affordable, and those opportunities are leading customers to realize that today HA is quite affordable as well. So that's the challenge: getting customers to take a look.
"Now, with our combined strength, our message is that we are probably the largest System i development organization and one of IBM's largest—if not the largest— Business Partner. If we are facing a challenge, it's the challenge of how to educate our potential customers about the tremendous opportunities that are available for them in HA solutions. And with our combined portfolios of product lines, Vision Solutions is the obvious first place to look. We have proven products with tremendous track records and exceptional support to help them make that choice."
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.