Shield Finds Success Through Simplicity With HA4i
February 15, 2017 Alex Woodie
IBM i shops that have shied away from implementing high availability software due the high level of complexity may want to take another look at the market. One HA vendor that’s finding traction with its message of simplicity is Shield Advanced Solutions, which has about 100 customers of its C-based HA4i product.
High availability doesn’t have to be rocket science, according to Shield CEO Chris Hird, who has been navigating the HA waters since his early days selling MIMIX for IBM in the United Kingdom during the 1990s, before MIMIX was acquired by Lakeview Technology (now part of Vision Solutions).
“Why complicate something that doesn’t need to be complicated?” Hird tells IT Jungle. “That’s one of the things I see more than anything–we get too wrapped up in making it complicated, instead of saying, ‘OK, what’s the minimum we have to do and then what else do we need to do on top of that?'”
Hird, who is the primary developer for HA4i, says he has actually removed functionality from HA4i in recent years. For example, he added a multi-node replication capability to the product, which would allow customers to replicate data and objects from two or more IBM i source machines to a single backup machine. In a subsequent release, he removed it.
“Nobody needed it,” he says. “All our customers are one-to-one. The majority of customers are going to be one-to-one. Therefore, it was making everybody suffer with a multi-node configuration when they didn’t need it. It became too complex.”
Functionality creep is a big problem in the IT business, and contributes its share to overbearing complexity (although it’s not the only source of complexity). The IBM i community may be a little more resistant to functionality creep than other communities, if only because IBM i shops happily run a server the rest of the world considers old and archaic. (You probably know a hardcore IBM i admin or two who will give up their green screens when the CIO pries it from their cold, dead hands.)
With IBM’s remote journaling technology underpinning all software-based IBM i HA products except for the Quick-EDD line from Trader’s, there’s a common foundation of simplicity upon which most of the HA market is based. That technology is tried and true, and Shield doesn’t want to stray too far away from that base.
Hird likens it to consumer technology that was once expensive and cutting edge, and which is now common place and inexpensive. “You’ve got a DVD player. It’s got all these bells and whistles on it, but at the end of the day, you never use them,” he says. “All you do is basically shove a DVD in and play it.”
HA can work the same way, he says. While a small percentage of customers will need more advanced functions, like WebSphere MQ (or MQ Series) support, that additional functionality must be weighed against the additional complexity it will bring.
GUIs are all the rage among HA products today and all of them–except perhaps Vision’s iTera HA – have fancy, colorful screens, including HA4i. “It has a PHP-based interface,” Hird says. “Nobody wants it … The people we’re dealing with aren’t users–they’re admins and techies. They know their way around a green screen and a command line far better than they do a GUI interface.”
In the old days, the higher-end HA products could claim to automatically replicate more IBM i objects than newcomers. But Hird says HA4i can replicate any IBM i object that other HA products can (objects, as a rule, can’t be replicated via remote journaling).
But Hird maintains the object replication functionality claim is a misnomer, since most IBM i shops don’t need to replicate obscure objects. “If you can save it and restore it, we can replicate it,” he says.
Other HA vendors do offer multi-node replication and support WebSphere MQ, and Hird is happy to let them chase customers who need their HA product to support those things. He says he’s happy to chase deals for the 90 percent of the market that don’t actually require those functions.
However, he admits that the focus on simplicity can sometimes backfire. Hird has heard the warnings from larger HA providers about trusting the “one-man shops.” For the record, Shield has five employees, and 1.5 FTEs working on HA4i.
“That’s one of the things that we have to be wary of: How do we actually say we’re a lot less costly than the others?” he says. “Does that mean we have less functionality, less capability? The answer is no. But we’ve got a lot less overhead. That puts some people off. They think, less overhead, smaller company. They’re going to go out of business. Well, 20 years later we haven’t gone out of business.”
Hird takes fewer than 20 calls per quarter from the 100 HA4i customers on maintenance, he says. “Nine times out of 10 it’s not a problem with the HA. It’s a problem with their system. That’s a different kettle of fish than HA support,” he says. “If they have a problem where the HA isn’t working–if they need to do a switch over–generally they know what they they’re doing before they’ve got to that stage. And if they do, they call us, We pick up the phone and talk to them.”
Last week, Shield announced that it’s entered into a partnership with Proxmity, the UK-based IBM business partner that sells IBM i servers, services, and software. The company plans to sell licenses for HA4i to its base of Infor LX and BPCS customers in the UK, as well as offer it as a cloud service through its managed service provider (MSP) business
“We are delighted to become Shield’s partner in the UK and Ireland,” Proximity director Dave Pickburn says in a press release. “The partnership has been grown from a practical requirement for a premium high availability solution for our IBM i-based delivery and transport management application, STREAM. Following an exhaustive search across a number of solutions partners, we selected HA4i to meet our own needs. It was a natural step to then become a Shield partner and provide value-added services to new and existing customers alike.”
Proximity will provide support for HA4i customers in the UK, which is a business model that Hird prefers. “Obviously the partner knows the client. He knows what the real requirements are,” Hird says. “While we know our product really, really well, we don’t know every single application out there, so having the partner involved in terms of selling the HA and understanding the application makes it better for everybody all around.”
Hird seems to relish his role as the underdog in the HA market, going up against companies like Rocket Software, Vision Solutions, and HelpSystems that are 100 times bigger than Shield, as well as smaller firms like Trader’s and Maxava, which are nonetheless bigger than Shield. He’s been approached by one of them about a possible deal. He may eventually take one up them up on an offer, but not yet.
“We have around 100 paying maintenance customers. It’s good but it’s not as good as we want it to be, to be honest,” he says. “But what we’ll do in terms of the future of the company, I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to keep on going.”