Stability and innovation

Two days ago, I attended a conference in Paris on the future of virtualization in mission-critical environments. There was a presentation from Intel about the roadmap for Itanium and virtualization.

Stability vs. Innovation

Two things in this presentation reminded me of what Martin Fink calls the Unix paradox:

  1. Intel pointed out that Itanium is mission-critical, so they tend to be more conservative. For example, they use processes for Itanium that have already been proven on the x86 side. Like for Unix, there is a similar paradox for mission-critical processors.
  2. The cost equation is very different for mission-critical systems. For commodity hardware, the acquisition cost tends to dominate your thinking; for mission-critical hardware, it’s the (potential) cost of losing the system that drives you. So whereas in volume systems, you are ready to pay more for innovation, e.g. features or performance, in mission-critical systems, it’s for stability that you pay more.

Following the recent discussion with Eric Raymond, I thought that was yet another interesting angle about what “innovation” means to different people.

One step at a time, or “TIC-TAC-TOC”

Intel also reminded us of the TIC-TOC model they now use to release CPUs:

  • TIC: change the process on a stable micro-architecture
  • TOC: change the micro-architecture on a stable process

I think that a similar approach applies to how our customers want to upgrade their mission-critical software, something that I would call TIC-TAC-TOC:

  • TIC: Change the infrastructure (e.g. machines, disks), keep OS and applications the same
  • TAC: Change the applications, keep infrastructure and OS the same
  • TOC: Change the OS, keep infrastructure and applications the same

Customers may, at their discretion, decide to do multiple steps at the same time. For example, they may use an infrastructure change as an opportunity to also upgrade their OS and applications. But as a vendor, we should be careful not to force them to de-stabilize more than one thing at once. It should be their choice, not ours.

When innovation is the problem

Historically, HP has been good at this. TIC: You update from PA-RISC to Itanium, and you can still run the same OS, still run your PA-RISC applications. TAC: Upgrade the applications, keeping everything else the same, and you get a healthy speed boost. TOC: Upgrade to 11iv3, another speed boost; Install HP Integrity Virtual Machines and you get the latest in virtualization features, even on 2002-vintage Itanium hardware. As far as I know, you can’t virtualize a POWER4, and you can’t get Live Partition Mobility on a POWER5 system.

But TIC-TAC-TOC is not a perfect solution. That model is painless for customers only if we can convince them to stay reasonably current in two out of three dimensions at any given time. That model breaks down for a customer who runs HP-UX 10.20 on PA-RISC and obsolete applications. Such customers feel left behind, and the leap of faith to move to current technology is so big that they are an easy prey for competitors.

So here is my interpretation of Martin Fink’s Unix paradox:

Stability + Innovation = Disruption

How to solve that equation is left as an exercise for the reader🙂

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