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HP flies its Fink just as Poulson pokes up

FinkMartin Fink because a lightning rod among HP enterprise users over the past year. The former general manager of the Business Critical Systems unit, which has led the HP enterprise sales slide for the last five quarters, was bumped into HP's top engineer spot this month. HP named the man who'd battled Oracle over Itanium, and won, the leader of HP Labs and the company's CTO. Those are two positions which have never been combined at HP until this month. Personnel moves at HP can spark head-scratching in 2012, but this one baffles me in a way that says something about the HP Way.

Fink took the reins of HP's R&D empire just as Intel rolled out its latest -- and maybe the last -- upgrade to the Itanium chipset. Poulson arrives as the Itanium 9500 Series for Mission-Critical Computing. Way back in the history of HP, the HP Labs once worked on the keystone of VLIW architecture, which it once called HP Wide Word. That work was turned over to the Intel Labs while the two companies partnered. Of late, the HP Labs output runs to the world's greatest device fans (and I'm not kidding about the greatness) and experimental designs for chips that couldn't be built in 10 years of continued research and design.

Although Fink's unit will likely spill even more sales blood in the figures to be released at the start of Thanksgiving Week, he's the man that HP's Board of Directors has assigned to lift up R&D in the company. The CEO Meg Whitman has spent much of 2012 saying HP ought to be building tech instead of buying it. Perhaps, since Fink's line of business relied upon a chip and an OS that were built out of HP's wizardry, he'll get the budget to demonstrate a new R&D gusto required for enterprises.

But to start off, he'll want to backpedal on one of his 2011 predictions on HP technology development. It may not be an HP Labs-caliber project, but you'd think he'd head for his engineering throne with a mission to make HP-UX run on Intel's Xeon chips which power the ProLiant series. In other words, to make HP's Unix an industry standard product. Long before Fink grew into a GM, HP-UX was touted as a standard by Hewlett-Packard. A migrating HP 3000 site would do a lot better with a Unix investment if it became a standard. HP calls the successful part of its enterprise lineup the Industry Standard Servers.

Poulson is not a standard, not any more than its predecessors were. It might not be the final generation of Itanium, but it could be the last one that will get a chance to win a new customer or two for HP enterprise datacenters. Adoption of HP-UX in new sites is running close to nil, and so the denizens of VMS and NonStop lands (where there is least scant growth) are left to add customers to Itanium ranks. Like the user groups and HP marketers insisted all through the previous decade, technologists don't hold sway over the industry anymore. This is why Fink will go to lead the Labs following a far more technical set of predecessors.

Just in my era covering HP, here's the list.

1984-1986 Joel Birnbaum: A pioneer in the development of distributed computer system architecture; real-time data acquisition, analysis and control systems, and Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture. Birnbaum joined HP Labs in 1980 and became director in 1984. He was a top-flight director plucked from IBM's R&D efforts at RISC.

1987-1991 Frank Carrubba: An inventor of Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) architecture. Led work on the first single-chip implementation of HP's Spectrum precision architecture, which powered HP 3000s and HP 9000s for the next two decades.

1991-1999 Joel Birnbaum: Under his '84-'86 guidance the company further developed PA-RISC, the first commercial RISC processor, and the client-server architecture. In this later term of service, Birnbaum returned as senior VP of research and development. Researchers developed the architecture and much of the technology for pervasive computing, as well as the Wide-Word architecture that became the basis of a partnership with Intel.

1999-2007 Dick Lampman After 35 years at HP, Lampman took over the Labs to manage key research efforts as PA-Wide Word, which was the basis for Itanium, as well as the development of technologies like digital photography that launched new businesses for HP. Under his leadership, the lab played an integral role in transforming HP from an instrument- and hardware-based company to one focused on software, systems and services.

This was a period, however, when HP Software and Services didn't change the landscape the way those chips and environments had. HP's tech word turns away from very wide research, because by 2007 the Labs and HP R&D spending has been eviscerated by CEOs Carly Fiorina and Mark Hurd. So HP Labs gets the message to stop inventing things that will change and direct alliances by putting Hewlett-Packard in a tech-leadership role which others want to follow. By 2007, the Labs are headed by a "serial entrepreneur."

Unlike his forebears, Prith Banerjeee (2007-present) became Labs leader as soon as he joined HP. He was "charged with reorganizing HP Labs to better align its research agenda with HP's overall business goals." And since those goals now deferred operating environments and computer architectures to outside companies, HP-UX and Itanium became minimized players in the tech world. Linux, Windows, Intel's Xeon -- all were preferred by the Board of Directors as enterprise choices. To create, the Labs went even further afield of what its everyday customers needed in research. Instead, Labs delivered "breakthroughs such as memristor research, sensing solutions (CeNSE), optical connections (photonics) and nanostores." 

Whether any of that work makes its way into product lines might be Fink's challenge. The emphasis on software and cloud technology will doubtless occupy his plans. How HP promoted a general manager of a skidding business unit, with some unit-level R&D management, into a storied position of HP's DNA is boggling. You can say this much: winning that Oracle lawsuit didn't hurt. But since software is now HP's first love, and the customers Fink's left behind at BCS could really use an HP-UX port, perhaps he'll have an easy and early success at he called a $100 million project in furtive emails about Oracle's Itanium boycott.

It was a non-starter just a year ago by his reckoning. "At this point there are no plans," he said "and I predict that it will never happen. The big problem is the software support and the ISV support for the 5,000 current HP-UX ISV applications. The better model is to bring the HP-UX capabilities to Linux, rather than port HP-UX to x86." And what in the world will happen to those HP-UX ISVs? They'd better be porting to Linux, starting about last year.

HP's press release says that Fink will report directly to his CEO, and "as part of his role, Fink will be responsible for looking holistically at how innovation is created and commercialized at HP." It's not your father's Hewlett-Packard anymore, but that's not news for a 3000 community which might recall moments like Birnbaum's in 1987: When the Spectrum Series 930 3000 and MPE/XL was way overdue, Birnbaum stood in a circle of industry reporters and said that bugs and failures of the new-gen 3000s "will yield to engineering discipline." And not a word was said in reply after that, because HP'ers and even jaded reporters heard the resolve in his voice. Birnbaum was an IBMer before he served HP.

Fink doesn't arrive with zero HP experience like his predecessor Banerjeee. He's 27 years along on Hewlett-Packard assignments, but his battle scars trying to sell Itanium in a Xeon world are part of what his CEO likes about him in this research role.

“Martin’s experience on the front lines with customers combined with his experience in the business units will be invaluable as we work to focus our innovation agenda at HP,” said Whitman. “Martin will ensure that our research and development activity is aligned with our steady focus of anticipating and delivering on the future needs of our customers.”

Fewer memristors, and more engineering that will become distinguishing products. That's the best that the migrated customer now on HP-UX can hope for from a director who graduated with an EE degree from Canada's Loyalist College. By 1995 he'd made his way out of HP Canada and "a variety of positions in hardware and software support, consulting and telecom sales. In '95 he moved to HP’s Ft. Collins, Colo., site to work in HP OpenView telecom, where "he managed small business startup activities for HP OpenView telecom." Here's some R&D management in his CV: Verifone Software Business, and then the R&D manager in the Customer Solutions Organization, "with responsibility for HP-UX, Linux and the patch program."

HP reported on the current bio page for Fink -- it's still listing him as BCS chief -- that he's co-inventor on two patents related to online e-commerce and is the author of The Business and Economics of Linux and Open Source. If a customer had any doubts about what software research in HP Labs might lead toward, the title of that book would give a clue.

The company could use more R&D for enterprise customers, but not necessarily another boost of Realism and Domestication. It's a different world for technology creators that the one which Birnbaum, Carruba and Lampman led. But in the face of the WebOS flameout of just last summer, the need for software superiority seems more likely to revive HP than integrating inventions with commercial craving.