IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat has some interesting ramifications for System z. My last four articles on this blog were about Porting an Enterprise App to the mainframe. I provided details on the downside of using the mainframe for Linux. In particular, there are few binaries available and the user has to build their own code instead of acquiring the binaries from others. The main reason for this problem is that IBM has been afraid of being a distributor of open source since they first announced support for Linux in May 2000. This has been especially true for the mainframe. Heaven forbid that someone would make an IP or patent claim against open source code that came from IBM, regardless of the open source license that was distributed.
And even with that difficulty, the open source movement on the mainframe is succeeding very nicely. Rocket Software, where I am now working, has the Ported Tools for z/OS. They provide open source binaries because IBM wouldn’t do that. Better yet, they’ve been keeping those binaries up to date with the open source industry. At one point, there was a Redbook for Open Source on z/OS that included binaries, but those sample pieces of code were removed. This is what motivated Rocket to become the distributor. IBM has also used other sites, such as Marist College, to host any binary versions of code, in order to put a buffer between them and potential IP issues.
Red Hat is the largest supplier of open source code in the world. Most important to me, they include binary distros for the mainframe. This will mean that IBM will become a distributor of open source binaries for the mainframe. Now, if they only take that attitude and apply it to the other areas that they support. For example, the Linux Community team maintains a Github library for open source on the mainframe. Today, it’s mainly about source code changes and leaving it up to the user to build the binary, which can take hours, instead of the seconds needed on x86 platforms to download a binary. Wouldn’t it be great if this acquisition of Redhat led to IBM’s ability to create and post binaries for open source for the mainframe? The unintended consequence of this acquisition could actually make the mainframe even easier to use and deploy. That would be a fantastic next chapter in the amazing mainframe’s legacy!
At the end of 2016 and lasting a few months into 2017, I completed a proof of concept port of a large Enterprise Application that had been running on the Amazon Web Service Cloud to Linux for System z. This was a Docker based application written in Java…so of course, it would be trivial to port. WRONG. While the application is in Java, it called many pieces of open source code. Much of that code hadn’t been ported to System z yet or wasn’t widely adopted. What I thought was a very simple exercise turned into a six month effort.
What I’d like to do, via a series of blog entries, is share my experience in the hope this might help some other organization decide to do a similar porting task. While I’ve been working with mainframes for decades, this was my first Linux porting experience. So I’ll be describing how this experience helped me to Master the Mainframe, though that title seems reserved for university students.
This could be a book, but by breaking it up, it might be easier to understand.
The Basics: High level overview of the application, the development environment, the system set up required to begin the porting exercise and the scope of the port.
The Good: The people who assisted and taught me, the things that ported easily and the simplicity of getting started via the Linux Community Developers system.
The Bad: the new open source for System z, the modifications necessary to open source to run on z, the debug experience and the time necessary to complete the porting process.
The Future and Value. Regardless of the bad experience, there is a great business value in getting these types of Enterprise Apps on System z.
This entry is more about the basic desktop development environment and targeted production on x86 based cloud servers. This is the traditional development environment and primary target of the applications. I needed to fit in and work with this environment before I could ever consider doing the unique activities necessary for success on Linux for System z.
Because of the proprietary nature of the application and intellectual property, I’m not going to name the vendor or application. This overview of the workflow is simplistic, at best, so as to not give away any trade secrets. The vendor is an early start up with an application to handle biometric authentication in a marvelous way. This application has a callable interface to start a request and then, using cloud based services, does some communication with the end-user, does some analytics based on a number of system defined characteristics, logs a number of things for diagnostics, audits and future analytics, provides a go/no-go decision back to the original caller and has a number of applications and user interface applications to manage the cloud deployment. Finally, they have an enormous test suite to emulate and automate the entire end to end workflow.
This vendor was doing all of their development for the x86 platform and originally with any Linux version supported by Amazon Web Services. This included Centos/Red Hat versions. Their first development environment used Maven tooling and pom.xml scripts that targeted deployment into Docker containers. They used Github capabilities to clone and manage the source code libraries within their business.
The first major effort was for me to establish a development environment on my computer and prove that I could work with and build a workable x86 version of the code. My computer of choice was a MacBook Pro 2010 model running the latest MacOS at the time. First thing to do was turn my MacOS into a real developers machine. I installed xcode, Atom, SourceTree, Filezilla and Docker which enabled me to look like a Linux system, edit source files intelligently, manage access to the source files, facilitate cloning of source and execute the code. There were other local variant software that I needed to install using a script that was provided to me. I love the Mac, as did the vendor, who’s entire team used it, so that was really helpful. I then needed a VPN into their system and I was off and running. I used this set up for about two months. One thing I learned, painfully, that the 2010 Mac was SLOOOOOWWWW. What would take 15 minutes to do for them might take me over an hour. So I decided to upgrade to the MacBook Pro Touch Bar quad-core 16GB memory laptop. Now my work completed faster than their 15 minutes, which was a blessing. I can’t stress enough the value of a good starting point on the desktop or laptop for this type of development! It was life changing to me.
Open Source and Operating System Dependencies
The first version of the vendor code used Centos/Red Hat as the target deployment environment. This code runs over 50 Docker containers. Each container is intended to be as small, memory wise, as possible, so it is scalable in a largely virtualized environment. As mentioned earlier, they also used Maven and pom.xml scripts to do their container builds. Each container had a script that would gather necessary pre-requisite open source parts, their Java code and then do the build so there was an executable container. Naming conventions, versioning and more were part of these Maven scripts. 90% of the open source code used was available in a binary form as either an RPG, ZIP or TAR file. Those binaries were either copied into the vendor’s library system or accessed via a URL and dynamically downloaded from the internet during the build process. I’ll get into the System z ramifications of this in the Good and Bad blog entries.
This is the development environment I began my first phase of the port. The prototype I was building was only for a functional test to prove the code could work. We intended to accomplish our test goal with only 40 of the 50 containers being ported. We completed what we thought was a good test level of code after a few weeks of my porting. But then we identified some critical test containers were missing. Unfortunately, the vendor didn’t use the same library management rigor for their test suite and I was going to have to re-base my code.
Rebasing the code and changing Development environments
Unfortunately, that was the tip of the iceberg in changes. I mentioned this was a startup vendor. They had two very large customers that were testing the code when I started. They realized they had a scaling problem, early on. They also realized they had some development inefficiencies. When you get a RedHat, SUSE or Ubuntu distribution, there is a lot of software in the package, like getting the z/OS operating system, MacOS or Windows. As such, the kernel of the large distribution Linux systems can start at 250MB and easily be over 750 MB’s. When you add 100’s of virtualized containers, each having that size as the basic footprint, the overall system runs out of memory pretty quickly. However, if the kernel can start at 18MB and run about 50MB, then greater scale is possible. As development of this application began, the Alpine Linux distribution began and it met the small size requirement. The vendor began to rebase all of their test code and as much of the open source code as they could on Alpine to take advantage of this reduced memory benefit. That was and is an excellent business decision on their part.
Maven is a fairly complex environment for building docker containers. It works. Both the vendor and I proved that it could work. However, in addition to open source code, there are now open docker containers that can be leveraged, as is, to be included in place of an open source binary. However, in order to do that with Maven, the Docker definition files of these open containers must be cut and paste and then modified as part of the Maven script syntax. And each time the container definition changes in the open source world, the Maven scripts need to be hand modified. So the vendor dropped Maven as the base for their container build environment and switched to using Docker build definitions directly. Again, I applaud the vendor for doing this. It simplified the development environment, it gave them access to additional open source code repositories and made everything easier to manage.
The unintended consequences of the vendor’s change from Maven to pure Docker and Centos/RedHat to Alpine was I had to start all over on the port. I’m going to save the details of that for the Good and Bad statements as they are directly applicable to System z.
As far as Linux for x86 cloud environments, this vendor has a world-class development environment, working to create the most reliable, secure and efficient application possible. Ultimately, those attributes must apply to System z deployment as well. I’ll be covering that status in the other blog entires.
I provided a simplistic overview of what I intended to port to Linux for System z in Part 1. The original application was built for x86 systems. As such, all binaries are built to run on x86 systems. The Docker containers that these applications run in are x86 binaries as well. So my job was to create the Linux for System z (aka S390X) binaries, with as little change as possible.
I also mentioned that this was a start up vendor with whom I was working. I had done some business work to show them the value of porting the application to System z, but they were neither skilled in, nor able to afford their own System z. So I gave them the challenge to let me prove to them this could be successful and they took me up on it and agreed to work with me.
Vendor Development Team
While a small development organization, they still had over 25 very proficient programmers and testers. I was extremely fortunate to have their lead developer as my mentor. He and I would meet at the same time, for an hour every day to check on progress, educate me or diagnose any problems I might have so that I could make progress for the next day. Most important is he was learning about the mainframe and intrigued by the possibility of business success as I was, so it was a great experience for both of us. I greatly appreciate the time and effort he put in to make this a success.
Linux Community Development System for z
Where do you find a mainframe? You ask the Community Development team. Eva Yan at IBM was instrumental in approving the vendor and I to get access to Docker containers on the mainframe. Cindy Lee at IBM was fantastic, with her team, to help show me where all the open source for z was available in the community and Martha McConaghy at Marist College, the host for vendor access to the LCDS was terrific in helping me to keep the system running.
Docker is a great place to work with portable code. My development environment was an x86 Docker container environment that pointed to the S390X Docker on the LCDS system as the target deployment environment. I’m not going to spend time giving you the details on the set up, but suffice to say it all works well.
I didn’t mention before that the vendor is on a different continent. So imagine from my laptop, a VPN to the vendor’s libraries where some code is downloaded, merged with code on my desktop, Docker on my desktop puts all the parts together, ships it securely to the Docker on the mainframe image, does the build and sends results back to me. So if this process took 10-15 minutes to do on my laptop, suffice to say, when you add up the networks and bulk distribution of code between systems and do the build, it’s going to take more time than a single system. Doing a single container build, for the first time, was never correct. My mantra, for years, has been “Next time for sure!”. I’d fix what needed fixing, get a little farther the next time, repeat the mantra and try again, until finally, I’d get a successful build. The time or performance isn’t a problem when building a single container. It’s when you build 40-50 containers at once, or as I liked to call it “The Big Bang”. Then it was hours to do the build on the mainframe, instead of an hour on x86. You’d think that was the bad, right? It was good, because a call to Eva, requesting some more memory and processors and I moved to a very competitive deployment environment. For just like my MacBook 2010, which was under configured for this scale of development, the initial Linux system I was given was an under configured virtual machine. With a simple config change, within moments of my request, and literally no down time, I was up on a larger Linux image, due to the magic and wonders of the underlying scalable z/VM server image.
Open Source Access
The LCDS virtual images came with RedHat kernel as the base, with some optional software included, but that was all. I need several dozen pieces of open source software to add to my environment to build my S390X binaries. Again, I don’t want to spend the money to buy a supported Linux distro for this Proof of Concept. I’m directed to Sine Nomine Associates, and in particular to Neale Ferguson. He could not have been a better ally in this effort. First and foremost, he pointed to libraries on their servers where I could retrieve many of the binaries that were necessary. It was such a relief to find many of the rpm’s I needed on their website. As mentioned earlier, I was a newbie to this kind of porting. He spent considerable time mentoring me on both basic Linux and System z specifics to keep me moving along. As important, Neale was on the Docker band wagon. He’d begun building docker containers with specific functionality. I was able to take several of his containers and imbed them into the containers I was building to simplify my deployment.
The Linux Community also has Github repositories of System z ready open source code. I bookmarked those pages and visited them often. I’m pointing links in a Bibliography in Part 4.
The real dilemma came when the vendor switched from Centos to Alpine as the base Linux kernel. Alpine was so new in late 2016, early 2017. While both are Linux derivatives, the syntax of packaging applications is different. As such, Docker builds for Centos are different from Alpine. Because I was doing a proof of concept, it really didn’t matter whether I used Centos or Alpine. However, the longer my porting took, the faster the vendor was converting their code to Alpine, so now, I would have to make “throw away” changes to support Centos.
Worse than that, there was only one person even trying Alpine on the mainframe and that was “some college kid” as a research project. How could I build an enterprise application on a system that one unpaid person was supporting? That person was Tuan Hoang and I am indebted to him. He was a Marist College student. I began contacting him late in 2016. While he had the kernel ported, there were very few packages for Alpine ported to S390X. He was quickly up to the task. I gave him a list of high priority packages. Each night, I’d get an update of what he completed. Each day, I’d build some more containers off his evening’s work. It got to the point that only third-party open source packages were not done by him. This really got my development effort going. But the best news of all was at the end of my project. Tuan had worked so hard to get his “prototype” of Alpine for System z going that the Alpine community accepted S390X as a primary target platform. All Alpine packages would be available on S390X, simultaneously to their deployment on other hardware architectures. It was painful, but it was wonderful at the same time.
Good people make life easier
What I found throughout this porting effort is there is a wonderful community of people dedicated to the support and value of System z. They were very accommodating and helped reduce my efforts greatly.
As I’ve explained in Part 1 Basics and Part 2 Good, I did a proof of concept port of an Enterprise Application from Amazon Web Services on x86 to Linux on System z in 2017. The good news was I got to the point I needed to, the bad news was it was more than difficult to get there.
Linux is not Linux
Open Source is open source…available to anyone. The story goes that Linux is Linux. Close, but not quite. Unfortunately, architectural chip bits (Big Endian vs Little Endian) is one of many differences and there is code that needs to change to handle these differences. There are also supported platforms, “tolerated platforms” and unsupported platforms. This is the problem with Linux on System z. The marketing hype is that all of Linux is supported on z. The reality is somewhat different. Not necessarily insurmountable, but you better know what you are getting into.
When Linux on z is a supported platform, then the packages for System z are supported in binary format, such as an RPM file for Centos/RedHat or an APK file for Alpine. This is the best case and makes development of S390X on par with other platforms like x86 and ARM.
In this case, the code may work on S390X, but it’s a source code build. You can find instructions on Github for S390X as to how to modify the code to get it to work on the platform. But if you want to use that code, it could take a long time to
Do all the things necessary to manually modify the code
execute the code to create a binary.
BTW, when I complained to IBM leadership about the lack of support for Couchbase, they suggested I use a different, easier product that was available on z. Since I was porting and not a true developer, this was not a possibility for me. I had begun negotiations with Couchbase toward this goal, but stopped working on it when the prototype ended.
There were two cases where neither the open source community nor the Linux on z community had guidance on how to get a particular open source program on the mainframe. In those two cases, I was able to get through the code, successfully and get a binary for System z. The good news was it was pretty simple to do. I was quite fortunate. If it hadn’t been easy, this could have ended the project earlier than I had hoped.
Docker containers are not portable across hardware architectures
I’ve seen some hype that once you get it in Docker, it’s portable to any Docker. I’ve heard a few mainframe customers believe any Docker container can run on System z. I’ve also seen articles in IBM sponsored magazines that purport this to be true. This is a combination of marketing hype and misunderstanding. It all depends on the container architecture/binary and source code. Typically, a container binary for a particular architecture, such as x86, should run in a Docker container on any x86 platform, even if it’s a different operating system running Docker. For example, Docker running on x86 version of RedHat 7.3 could be running containers with RedHat, SUSE, Alpine, Ubuntu, etc, as long as they were built for x86. Similarly, I ran Docker on a RedHat 7.3 image for Linux on System z, and had containers with Centos and Alpine running with binaries for S390X.
The only containers with source code that were portable were built exclusively with interpretive languages, such as Java or Python. Those could be portable across hardware architectures. Many of the test cases used by this vendor fit into that category. However, as soon as one of those interpretative languages makes a call to open source code middleware (e.g. Couchbase), then the container is no longer portable across architectures because the middleware is not supported across architectures.
When I started this project, Docker on z was pretty new. Once in a while, it would have issues. Only a couple of times did it require Marist College to restart my z/VM guest. The other times, it would automatically recycle itself and get running again. I believe it’s improved since we began the port effort until now, but it’s been a few months since I tried it. I’ve heard from others, though, that the experience is better. During our Big Bang builds, we would peg each of our System z processors at 100% busy for a few hours. The fact that it would stay up and continue processing is a testament to the reliability of those large code tests.
Ultimately, I have a wishlist for the Open Source Community on z:
Where source code changes are necessary, such as with Couchbase described earlier, supply a Docker build file to automate it for anyone that wants to do the build. It would be so much faster.
Continue to lobby third-party open source middleware providers to support system z. In many cases, it takes a vendor, such as I was working with, to create that business case jointly to get it done, but doing that will lead to more usage on the platform. If you build it, they will come.
Create more binary packages instead of source code update files. It greatly reduces the development time necessary for z unique porting. The more extra work necessary to support z, the less likely the x86 people will move there.
The net of all this bad is the initial effort to support the mainframe is longer than it would be on x86. However, if you have the patience to get to Part 4: The Future and Value, you’ll find that you should be rewarded for the effort.
In Part 1 The Basics, Part 2 The Good and Part 3 The Bad, I’ve explained I did a proof of concept port of an Enterprise Application from Amazon Web Services on x86 to Linux on System z in 2017. The good news was I got to the point I needed to, the bad news was it was more than difficult to get there. But why did I go there in the first place?
The vendor for the Enterprise application was targeting the Financial Services industry for their initial deployments. This is the primary customer for IBM System z. Their beta customer is running z/OS transaction processing via CICS, but wants to authenticate customers using this vendor’s product running on Amazon Web Services. In order for CICS to call the AWS Cloud, it has to launch Websphere on z/OS to call the vendor’s service on AWS. The vendor’s application has to do it’s task of authenticating users and get all the way back to CICS in less than 18 seconds so the transaction doesn’t time out. It’s a really powerful use of the vendor’s application and valuable to both the consumer and financial institution to avoid potential fraud or cybersecurity scams.
Java and Analytics run better on z/OS
I was told this vendor wrote all their code in Java, so I immediately began a plan to get this running within z/OS, since Java runs so well there, especially on the z14 systems. I also knew that in the time allotted to run on AWS for those 18 seconds, only three biometric/analytic tests could be completed on behalf of the consumer. I hypothesized that if the vendor app ran within z/OS perhaps up to ten analytic tests could be completed using the outstanding analytics and Java performance. However, once I learned of the number of open source middleware programs required and the complexity of porting them to z/OS, I went to Linux on System z as the target port.
Linux on z as a private cloud has more value than a public cloud
Using RDMA as the memory based communication between z/OS and Linux LPARs, I know it will take a bit more time than running inside z/OS, but much less time than going to a public cloud, so I hypothesized that eight analytics tests could be done instead of the three on AWS. And regardless of z/OS or Linux on z implementation, the vendor agreed that the software price would be the same as AWS. The net is, z would have additional analytic value, and given it’s hardware and software integrity and reliability, it would offer better security and business resilience than any public cloud provider.
So that’s what I set out to prove. Sadly, I got so close and the vendor changed their mind on their business strategy. They received a significant new round of venture capital investment, signed up several new financial firms to try their code and they decided to stick to their current cloud plan and stay off the mainframe, for now.
I still believe that my hypotheses as to the performance and value were correct. But the activity ended just before I was able to prove that. However, the exercise did confirm the possibility of getting the product on the mainframe successfully.
Docker inside z/OS? That would simplify things!
But what else is possible? I said in Part 3 that Docker containers are not portable across architectures. However, they are portable within the same architecture. There are some prototypes underway for Docker to run within z/OS. Given the way Docker works on other platforms, it would infer than any Linux on z containers could run unmodified within z/OS. If Docker for z/OS were to run on a zIIP processor, there would be no software license hits for z/OS. If that all comes to pass, that could lead to significant transaction and analytic value within z/OS and greatly simplify the system management requirements for these types of hybrid workloads, while improving the overall security, resilience and performance and reducing the operational costs. I would hope that a public announcement of this capability is not too far in the future.
Savings and Operational Strengths
That, my IT friends is a win for everyone. Any of the bad associated with a slightly more complex development environment can quickly be eradicated with a greatly reduced operational expense that has greater operational benefits than any alternative architectures might try to demonstrate. This type of workload makes for a very compelling end to end benchmark comparison as well. So while I didn’t succeed in getting the enterprise application to market, that was because of a business decision rather than a technological impediment. And the business decision was tactical, based on their new financials.
I learned a lot and documented many of the short cuts I took and set up required to make this development effort possible. I’m happy to share the experience if you’d like to undertake your own development effort. While I thought the end of the project was a failure, it’s unintended consequence, with the efforts of the great Linux for z community identified in Part 2, is that this will be easier porting for everyone that follows.
What’s a bottleneck? From Dictionary.com, it’s “a narrowentrance,spotwheretrafficbecomescongested”. In IT terms, it’s something causing slower operations or that inhibits a Service Level Agreement (SLA) from being met. The worst case scenario is a lot of IT shops are absolutely confident that they don’t have bottlenecks as they are meeting or exceeding their SLA’s. They couldn’t be more wrong!!!
Yet, none of these will find the modern IT system bottleneck. When you have an IT system bottleneck, there’s always someone to blame. But who is it? Is it the System Programmer’s fault? Is it the Application Developer’s fault? Is it the asphalt? Oops, wrong punchline. No, it’s the System Architecture’s fault. It’s a 1990’s mentality that looks at IT in operational silo’s and independently manages the systems. But hang in there for another moment. There is a cure.
The 1990’s methodology bases IT operations on server silos. The mainframe is independently managed from the Unix servers, which are independent of x86 servers, which are separate from cloud and mobile and desktop and network. Security is done for each domain. Business resilience is done for each domain. Budget’s are created and departments compete for more spend in their particular area. Some areas might claim they have a bottleneck and warrant more spending to resolve it. Next budget cycle, they’ll still have issues and want more.
Another type of silo-ed operation is looking at separate systems for Record, Insight and Engagement. Systems of Record are the master database and transactional systems that update those databases (e.g. credit/debit, stock sales, claims, inventory, payments, etc). Systems of Insight are the analytic systems (e.g fraud detection, sales opportunity, continuous flow delivery, tracking). Systems of Engagement are the human computer or Internet of Things (IoT) interfaces (e.g. mobile, IoT device, tablet, browser). Many businesses create silos to manage each of these areas independently because if you had ever tried to do this in the 1990’s, you’d hit a bottleneck or drive up IT costs too high. Funny how the systems of the 1990’s actually created the hidden bottleneck today! But it can be fixed.
Where can you buy the “fix” for this? Is it via a software product? No. Hardware product? No. Cloud? No. Consulting services? Maybe. But the reality is every business can solve this pretty easily within their own environment. I guarantee that your business can far exceed current SLA’s and establish new business goals. In the process, your business can save tremendously in IT expense, while improving security and business resilience. The solution is pretty simple.
Stop copying data between systems! In the new API economy, all of the systems have been modified to allow for direct access to applications and data from other systems. The change is either philosophical and/or organizational for most enterprises. It’s all about managing the IT systems together instead of separate silos. That starts at an architectural level, with hybrid development systems and extends to hybrid operational systems that address end to end security, business resilience and performance.
If you’ve moved data to another server to keep the Systems of Record separate from the Systems of Insight. Stop the move. Keep the data together. Systems like IBM’s mainframe are now capable of hosting both databases and analytics in a single system and improving analytic performance many times over separate Systems of Insight without impacting the SLA’s of the transactional systems. The applications that access the Systems of Insight can be easily modified to point to the Systems of Record instead via updated device drivers without changing any code logic. This changes things like batch analytics, which might be used for fraud detection into real time analytics that can be used for fraud prevention. And in the process, businesses will save with reduction in storage, network bandwidth and system utilization, costs and time associated with copying the data. Products such as Rocket’s Data Virtualization Studio can provide the device drivers and mappings necessary for applications to share data from a variety of Systems of Record, across platforms. And new apps can be developed to join the data from different sources, including partner organizations or from “the cloud” to solve business problems in new and creative ways. These applications wouldn’t be possible without sharing data. Apache Spark technology is one means for collaboration across data sources.
There is no reason to copy data to move it closer to or tailor it for a specific System of Engagement. The API economy allows for applications to directly access the data or transactions on other systems via the API economy. New pricing options are available that allow for increased transaction rates, due to direct access to mobile, at a lower cost than traditional access methods. zOS Connect is one of the tools for making the API connection between mobile and transactional systems.
Regardless of how you might transform your business, the unintended consequence of standing still on current IT silo-ed operations is there are bottlenecks and slow downs in business systems that depend on heavily copying data and batch windows to facilitate copying. Direct access to data and devices is the future. The future is now. Begin the migration to hybrid operations management. If you need help in deciding how to look at your architecture differently, don’t hesitate to ask me.
In an earlier post, I wrote about some of the things to know before and during a trip to Cuba. It was a unique experience for my three travel companions and I. Everyone has a different experience, depending on their expectations going in. We expected a bit more “touristy” stuff, given that Europeans and Canadians have been going to Cuba for many years. But we also expected it would not be like any other experience and were not disappointed. The following is a summary of my experience there. The ratings of the experiences are my own and may not be shared by my travel companions.
The Very Good
I’d classify this category as I’d be happy to do it again and at any time. Each of these offers a good reason to return.
Meeting The People of Cuba
In general, we found all the people that we had conversations with to be extremely pleasant and courteous to us. Hotel employees, restaurant servers, people we asked directions of, including police, farmers and small town residents. This is a very poor country. Education is free and good, going right through to graduate and medical school. There are many talented people in the country. But those jobs don’t pay well. An engineer or optometrist might make 30 CUC a month. (1 CUC = 1 us $). A doctor might make 40 CUC a month….a month….It’s not a mistake. And they might only work 2 days a week at those jobs. So they take tourist related jobs where they can get additional income and tips. We met an optometrist that cleans apartments. Engineers and doctors that drive taxi’s. It was heart breaking to see this and hear their stories. They were genuinely nice people. Food there is expensive. Many live day to day on rice and beans. They work in hotels and restaurants so they can get better meals and maybe even bring food home.
There were many beggars in Havana. There were also people that would be extremely nice, only on the hope that they could receive a tip from you or a commission from the person that they brought new business too. However, the good far outweighed the bad here. We generally felt very comfortable, regardless of where we were traveling.
I mistakenly left the B&B with one of the two sets of keys. There were three keys to the apartment. I was in Varadero when I realized the error. I texted our host and she told me to leave the keys are the rental car stand at the airport. Honestly, I’d have a hard time doing this in the US. My prejudice would say to never do that in Cuba. At the counter, which is more like a glorified lemonade stand with a main person and several others hanging out to move cars, the counter person took the keys, put a label on them, stapled them to a rental car brochure. I wrote the host name and phone number down. He told me his name and said to pass it on to her. Four hours later, she stopped at the airport and got her keys. A wonderful example of the kindness of the people of Cuba.
Airbnb – Casa Colon in Vieja Habana
There are three parts of this review. 1. Apartment. 2. Location and 3. Host. The Apartment was wonderful. Two queen size beds, a lovely living room, patio and kitchen. It was very clean, well stocked with snacks and drinks with a mini-bar hotel quality that made us very comfortable to be there. It was located on the fringe of Vieja Habana (Old Havana) and allowed us to walk throughout this area. We could also easily find cabs to and from the apartment. Cab drivers can easily find the apartment as it is next to the Parkview Hotel, which we used as our reference point.
Our host, Ana Travieso, and her staff of cooks and cleaners were phenomenal. Ana picked us up at the airport on our arrival and then took us back to the airport and our next hotels on this trip. The breakfasts were very large and wonderfully prepared. There was something, or better said, a lot of things available for any type of breakfast that someone can imagine. Ana also provided us with local tourist and restaurant recommendations that were extremely valuable and spot-on to what we were looking for on this trip. Havana is a great experience but not a paradise. Ana provided us with the knowledge to make it an excellent experience. Note: Leave your computers behind when traveling to Cuba. Wifi is a paid utility via cards that you pre-purchase. Price varies from $1.50 -$3 per hour. That’s everywhere and not unique to Casa Colon. We were able to use the wifi here when we wanted.
Living Room at Casa Colon
Bedroom at Casa Colon
ChaChaCha’ Restaurant in Vieja Habana
At Ana’s recommendation, our first meal, a late lunch, was here, just two blocks from the apartment. It was tremendous. The Shrimp in Garlic was delicious. Another winner was the Lobster salad. A huge and delicious portion. This was our second favorite restaurant.
Lobster Salad at ChaChaCha’
Dessert at ChaChaCha’: Chocolate sausage. Go figure.
El Del Frente Restaurant in Vieja Habana
We were trying to get to the restaurant known as 304 O’Reilly or O’Reilly 304. It’s #304 on Calle O’Reilly. As American’s this looks to be a good Irish name. However, to locals, it is pronounced closer to Orelia. Thank goodness for the hard copy map. Well, we couldn’t get in. But the server suggested the restaurant across the street at #303 and owned by the same company. The server there said if we were willing to eat fast and be done before their reservation in 50 minutes, we could stay. He agreed to serve us quickly and then did just that. It was a phenomenal dinner. There was a watermelon mojito that was fantastic and ordered by two of us. The others got Pina Colada’s. In a second round the Colada drinkers ordered the mojito’s. They came without Rum. When we notified the server, he came with the bottle and gave it to us. Three of us got three different varieties of delicious Taco’s. The menu only says Taco’s. However, when asked, there were Lobster, mixed seafood and meat Taco’s. We got one of each and shared. All great.
Mojito’s – the drink
When in Cuba, the Mojito is king. We had them everywhere of the basic variety, with one exception for a Watermelon flavored one. All were good. We generally had no problem ordering four mojito’s at a time, other than breakfast. They take a bit more time to prepare, but it’s worth it.
Mojito. National drink of Cuba
Watermelon mojito at El Del Fuente restaurant.
Bridge at Mirador de Bacunayagua
This is a rest area overlooking a bridge that spans a very large valley. It is on Via Blanca, the main road between Havana and Matanza’s along the shore, en-route to Varadero. The real attraction was the Pina Colada’s they serve at the stop. They give you the bottle of rum to mix to your own consistency….Excellent! We acquired some souvenirs here as well. Parking was 1 CUC, but worth it.
At the scenic vista, there were a number of large birds, probably vultures, riding the air waves. They were above and below us. It was a spectacular vista.
Beach in Varadero
I’m no beach expert, but this was the nicest beach I’ve ever experienced. I was told that this is true of the North shore of Varadero, so other hotels would be like this too. And I’m not talking about bars and sailboats and the extras a hotel might offer. This is pure sand: no rocks, no shells. It’s got a gentle slope into the water where you can walk out quite a bit. There was some surf for occasional body surfing, but nothing scary. There was a wind that blew this fine sand along the beach. We were told that’s abnormal for the area. You’d better cover any food and drink to avoid chewing sand. The air temp was 85 F. The sun was out. But the sand wasn’t blistering hot. It was very comfortable. The downside? We brought a lot of that fine sand into our hotel room.
Panoramic view of Varadero beach at Barcelo Solymar Hotel
Palapas. Palm umbrellas at Varadero
Buying Rum to bring home
There was a Rum store in Varadero close to our hotel. It was a substantial discount to the rum and cigar store at the hotel. We got 5 half shots of rum to taste test. I never knew there was chocolate and coffee rum…well, I guess if you can do that with Vodka, you can do it with anything. Needless to say, we bought several bottles for the trip home. Don’t forget you’ll need extra time, and maybe money, to check the bag with the bottles and then wait 30 minutes at the carousel at your destination.
Our other experiences – the Good
I guess I’d have to say that these were good enough to do again, but not necessarily the reason to do it all again.
Museo de Bella Artes in Vieja Habana
Interesting museum across 3 levels. Very large spaces. Most of the art was post 1959. Many of the styles mimicked those of the US during the same period. There was also some “ancient” art from the 18th century on. Works similar to Gilbert Stuart, so matching that timeframe as well. A lot of pro-Castro and Che Guevara in this collection. It was a reasonable cost and interesting viewing. It was conveniently located one block from our Airbnb.
Museo de la Revolucion
This was more of a military museum. Missile launchers, tanks, helicopters, Jeeps (Willys) and other instruments of destruction outside. Inside a glass enclosed building was Fidel Castro’s yacht. Supposedly, for 8 CUC, you can walk into this park/museum to see it. If you walk around the park, you’ll see it all for free. Note: at night, there are soldiers on each of the four sides of the park to protect the museum. Interesting. After reading the weblink I added, I see there was a palace next door that we could have visited as well. That would have been more interesting than the military equipment.
Plaza Vieja for the Cuerdo Vive concert
It’s a nice old plaza, in a European mold. A nice restaurant, Factoria Plaza Vieja on one side. Street vendors in the corners. I love the Maiz – corn on the cob nicely seasoned and on a skewer to eat. Didn’t get one this trip, but I was drooling for one…The lines were too long. While there, they were setting up for a concert: Cuerda Vive 15th Anniversary. It translates to Cord lives, but featured acoustic guitars. That was on Thursday. On Friday afternoon, we saw them broadcasting on TV. Each performer got two songs. We arrived four hours later and the plaza was packed and the music continued.
Hotel Nacional – Malecon Havana
The treat here was to see the sunset on the Malecon and have a mojito from one of several outdoor bars on the property. This is the most famous hotel in Cuba. Celebrities and dignitaries stay here. It was very well maintained as it has never gone out of favor. The drinks were good, but pricier than elsewhere. We arrived 5 minutes late as it is not a trivial place to drive into. However, two drinks later and we were well prepared for dinner.
lawn at the Nationale on the Malecon at Sunset
Paladar Vistamar in Miramar Havana
This was highly recommended. A Paladar is typically a family owned restaurant in a home. This was a traditional restaurant with three floors. It was attached to what appeared to be a defunct hotel. One level surrounded the empty hotel pool. We ate on the top floor, outside. This is situated just above the north shore of Cuba. It was a beautiful evening and a decent meal. We had to make a reservation here. It was packed.
Barcelo Solymar hotel in Varadero
We originally booked our trip, via GalaHotels at Be Live Experience Las Morlas. In early February, we were informed, via a cryptic note, that we’d been moved to Barcelo Arenas Blancas which adjoined the Solymar. We decided to stop at Las Morlas to see why we’d moved. It seems someone had cancelled the reservation in December. I’m guessing GalaHotels scrambled to get us a new place in early February. We showed up at Arenas Blancas and were told we were booked next door. Well, we lucked out. The quality of the pool, bars and facilities of Solymar were superior to Arenas Blancas.
Like the rest of Cuba, this hotel was aged and needed some repairs. However, it did seem to be getting some attention, though not soon enough to cover all the blemishes it had. The lobby had vines growing that were five floors long and provided wall to wall covering. That must have required a lot of maintenance. However, the hallway lights going to our room were out for the entire corridor. I could imagine a single woman getting a bit nervous going through there themselves.
The room had two queen beds. Our shower needed three door panels to keep water out. It only had two of the three and the missing one was closest to the shower head, so unless you removed the head and stood behind the second panel, water went all over the floor. There were three pools between the two Barcelo hotels. The pool directly by Solymar was the best and the only one we used. It was nice and comfortable. The beach was a short hike from our room. The beach itself: sand and water, was one of the best tropical beaches we have ever been at. The sand is fine, there are no rocks or shells. There is a gentle slope in the water and you can walk out quite a way. While there, we had a decent surf and fairly strong wind. This was wonderful. The beach has a number of “palm umbrellas” known as palapas. These were pretty old and poorly maintained. They weren’t much of a sun blocker due to the number of missing palms. The beach bar was terrific and there were a number of recreational activities to take advantage of at the beach. The hotel is all inclusive. There is a large buffet restaurant, with plenty of seating, in each hotel and five separate restaurants that require reservations. Book reservations early, if you want to go to one. We went to the Seafood restaurant once. There were three main courses to choose from, a soup, salad buffet and dessert. Honestly, when we left, we all agreed that the buffet would probably have been better. The buffet covered three meals a day. There were many, many choices. The servers were terrific. The hot food stations, were food was cooked to order, was probably the best, as the food was hot. Other stations, where the food was in pans, was not so hot. And you’d recognize some of the food from the evening before. Fruit, breads and drinks were very good. All of the hotel employees provided fantastic service to us and answered any questions we had. We greatly appreciated their efforts.
Pina Colada’s – the drink
We figured this is a tropical island, so Pina Colada’s would be native. Cuban’s consider this an international drink. So they charge a little more. The important thing to note is how they are made. Several use powder mixes. Ugh. Some didn’t use creme de coco, so it was just Pineapple juice and rum. Not bad, but not too sweet. Others were fantastic. And a variety of places split an cored a pineapple, put the drink in the core, cut and notch in the top and provided the whole thing to you. In one case, they gave you the rum bottle to “season to taste”. That meant drinking the virgin Colada enough to add room for the rum. If all of them were as good as those, this would be in the Very Good category.
While I didn’t participate in this activity, those that I was with did quite effectively. No hidden Picasso’s but there are plenty of prints to acquire in Cuba. Just make sure they aren’t the factory models that are mass produced by forgers/copiers of the realm thing.
Again, I didn’t participate, but we got tremendous advice from some large cigar shops to some small ones. There were always people on the street trying to sell us “local varieties” that were rummage sale carryovers/forgeries of name brands. Ultimately, we acquired some premium brands, but they were not cheap. As much as 25CUC per cigar.
Walking along Paseo di Marti (aka Prado)
This is the main drag that separates Old Havana from central Havana. The Capitol is there, a number of museums, restaurants and other tourist attractions. It’s a divided boulevard.
Easy to walk, wide open and lots of picture opportunities.
In Cuba, automobiles have the right of way. If you plan on crossing a street, beware. The drivers seem out to get you. If the light is green ahead of you and you feel it is safe to cross a side street, you’d be wrong. A turning vehicle could hit you. This is a sharp contrast to NYC where the pedestrian has the right of way. It takes a bit to get used to.
Our other experiences – the not so Good
Not the sole reason for not returning to Cuba, but these are things that catch you attention in a negative way.
Through out the cities and country side are billboards claiming, in large print, that Castro will forever be with us. Long Live the Revolution. Che (Guevara) and Fidel.My guess is Fidel was beloved when the revolution occurred. But given the income and environment today, most people weren’t too pleased with the results.
One local told us there were 2 million people in Havana. 1 million residents and 1 million policemen. Everywhere we went, there were National, City, local and military personnel. One the highway, there was a motorcycle policeman about every 10 kilometers. It was both intimidating (we didn’t speed) and reassuring in large crowds. But it did give us pause as we saw so many of them.
Sloppy Joe’s Restaurant
This is a tourist trap that’s very well done and close to the National Capitol (Capitolio). It was also close to our apartment. The drinks were okay and the food was passable. But it was also more expensive. It wasn’t worth a second visit. But lots of celebrities have been there.
San Jose Market – Vieja Habana
This is a huge market with many cubicles, similar to some of the open air markets of NYC. However, you could classify the cubicles. Wooden toys. Clothing. Cuban memorabilia. And the contents of each were the same as a dozen other cubes. This merchandise was all mass produced. It was the same stuff that we saw in markets and private home stairwells throughout the city. None of it was worth it.
Walking along Calle Muralla to Plaza Vieja
One of our party got very nervous walking down the street. It’s a run down street. Many private homes selling wares and begging you to come inside. A mass of people going up and down the street with the majority being locals and not tourists. It’s easy to see how intimidating such a place can be, given concerns going into the trip. However, as stated earlier, it was a very safe area. Locals are punished heavily if they do anything negative to tourists. So the reality is, it’s a tolerance. But if large crowds of locals concern you, head down the parallel streets of Obispo (large market dedicated to tourists) and O’Reilly instead. More tourists than locals there. Maybe even less crowded.
Hotel Copacabana – Miramar Havana
This was a functional hotel. Kind of like Hotel 6. Not a lot of frills. It is located on the Malecon, with direct access to the shoreline. It was very different from what we expected. The hotel itself, was similar to much of what we found in Havana: time has passed and there were a lot of cosmetic updates that could be made. The rooms themselves were large enough and beds comfortable. The bathroom worked well. Overall, the interior of the building looked dirty and paint was peeling and doors were rusty. There are two pools. The fresh water, in-ground pool is large enough and comfortable while in it. However, it’s old, you need to be careful around the edges and the cement statues in the center of the pool have worn down, with age, to the point they are no longer recognizable.
The “natural pool” is a seaside salt water pool. It is aged and somewhat difficult to enter, due to a sharp drop off and slippery algae. You’ll need to use the attached rope to lower yourself into it. However, once in it, it was actually warmer than the fresh water pool. This really looked like a Roman ruin. However, it was still enjoyable to the people that took advantage of it.
The breakfast buffet was passable. Much of the food had been sitting awhile and was cool. This is something we found “typical” at other hotels we visited. I’d look for something else before staying there again. However, I would stay there again, if necessary, as at least I’d have a proper expectation for next time.
I was going to put this and car rentals under a category of bad – something you never want to do again. However, the reality is, if you ever want to travel in Cuba, you need to be able to navigate. Do not under estimate the value of detailed paper maps. Reality is, you need multiple maps of the same area. One with a high level view to show street navigation. And then multiple levels smaller that show the details of shops, restaurants and tourist destinations so that there is a frame of reference to easily find them. When driving a distance, you must come up with turn by turn directions that are better than the text of Google Maps. Even their mini maps don’t show the details necessary to navigate. So plot out some basic things you want to do. Once behind the wheel, you’ll need a good navigator or plan to stop often to check if you are traveling in the correct direction.
Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. As such, this can’t be bad, but it doesn’t have to be good either!
The problem here was the wait time to get the car and the quality of the transmission. Otherwise, we had a pretty big car, compared to what I thought we’d get. We got where we needed to get to, eventually. With the alternative being buses for long distance driving, the car rental was terrific. Know in advance that the wait can be terrible.