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Volume 17, Number 2 -- January 14, 2008

Bracing for i5/OS V6R1 and the Winding Down of V5

Published: January 14, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

In the two decades I have been watching the systems and server racket, the OS/400 and i5/OS family of operating systems have probably given their nearly 300,000 or so unique customers the least amount of trouble possible for a complex computer system running mission-critical applications. While some people have crabbed about bugs in particular releases since 1988 or were upset in 1995 and 1996 by the troubles they had making the CISC-to-RISC jump, software upgrades have been a comparatively easy process.

And so, as we look ahead this year to the launch of i5/OS V6R1, which is in final best testing now, we hope for a similarly successful transition. And I am specifically hoping that the transition from OS/400 and i5/OS V5 operating systems is relatively painless, but that IBM makes some effort to get the substantial base of OS/400 V4 machines to move to new iron and the new operating system.

While IBM previewed i5/OS V6R1 back in July 2007, this was not the company's normal practice. It could be that IBM is going to be more open to the general public, not just key customers and application software partners, about its i5/OS roadmaps. Or, it could just be that IBM was trying to put out some positive news to assure customers that it was going to continue to invest in the i5/OS platform as it was splitting the former System i division in two and leaving the System i platform without a single leader in its Systems and Technology Group, which manages the development and marketing of its server and storage platforms. The preview was also necessary because with V6R1, IBM is making changes to the way applications are compiled inside the virtualized computing environment that has always existed below OS/400 and i5/OS and in its microcode. There is an automatic program conversion process, much as there was in the CISC-to-RISC conversion, and you do not need to recompile or have access to source code to accomplish this conversion (with some minor exceptions). This process was detailed in this newsletter last year in a story called i5/OS V6R1: The TIMI, It Is A-Changing, and I am not going to get into that here, except to say that IBM has only changed this program environment twice before--the jump from the System/38 to the AS/400 in 1988 and the jump from CISC to RISC in 1995. For more information, you can check out this FAQ IBM has put together or the Redpaper, called i5/OS Program Conversion: Getting Ready for V6R1, to give OS/400 and i5/OS shops some guidance on what is involved in the conversion process.

The impending launch of V6R1 has been clouded by all of the recent changes in the Systems and Technology Group, which were announced on January 3 internally at IBM by Bill Zeitler, the general manager in charge of this key IBM group. It is hard to say if the reorganization of the group will affect planned launch dates for i5/OS V6R1 and their related Business Systems and Power Systems machines. IBM is expected to launch a completely refreshed Power6 server line this year, and we know from the reorganization that Big Blue wants to double down on the SMB space and that the System i is a key component of its SMB push. But it is hard to say at this point of i5/OS V6R1 will be launched separately from refreshed products. It certainly could be. I have heard plenty of speculation in the rumor mill, and I have also heard too many different possible dates for launches to be sure. There are rumors of January announcements swirling around, but I think that is just regarding an impending System z mainframe launch with the new quad-core z6 processor and the delivery of the JS22 Power6-based blade server and the BladeCenter S chassis for small business, which was launched last year but without support for i5/OS. I head rumors earlier last fall about V6R1 coming out in late February or March, some with very precise dates that I have not been able to get a second confirmation on.

Suffice it to say, i5/OS V6R1 is coming and is very likely, if I know the Rochester development team, ready to ship right now with a very low bug count. What we also know is that when IBM does announce V6R1, it will also shed some light on when OS/400 V5R3 and i5/OS V5R4 will have their support cut off and when OS/400 V5R2 and V5R3 will have their upgrade paths turned off. If you look in the OS/400 and i5/OS release support schedule, IBM just killed off upgrades from V5R1 and V5R2 to V5R3 on January 4 of this year, and also stopped selling V5R3 at that time to new customers. IBM has yet to announce an end of support date for V5R3 or V5R4, and it has not announced when it will kill off upgrades from V5R2 and V5R3 to V5R4, either. The odds favor these latter upgrades being available for a couple more years--maybe until January 2010 or 2011, depending on how generous IBM wants to be. It is harder to figure when V5R3 and V5R4 will get the ax, as a review of the operating system release cycle for the AS/400, iSeries, and System i platform since 1988 will show. IBM used to do a new version or release every year or so, with some exceptions, but all operating system makers are slowing down the pace at the behest of their customers, who want to apply new features as patches to existing code or who do not want to be bothered every year with messing with upgrades. If I had to guess, I would say that IBM will sell i5/OS V5R4 for 12 months after V6R1 is announced, but it could push it out to 18 to 24 months if customers have been grumbling about the move to V6R1. V5R3 had nearly four years in the field, and if V5R4 had the same life span, it would be sold through January 2010.

What every system and operating system maker (if they do not control the underlying hardware as Microsoft, Red Hat, Novell, and a handful of other commercial operating system sellers do not) wants customers to do is get current and keep current. This obviously cuts against the grain of the basic IT philosophy of if it works, leave it alone.

It is hard to say what the composition of the OS/400 and i5/OS installed base looks like, since IBM doesn't provide any sales statistics. But the company could have sold anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 new V5R4 licenses on new iron in 2006, and it should have done better volumes in 2007 if what I heard from two different general managers last year--Mark Shearer, the GM of the former System i division, and Marc Dupaquier, the former GM of the Business Systems division--is correct. Let's be generous and say that there are maybe 45,000 V5R4 licenses out there. If there are around 200,000 or so i5/OS and OS/400 shops out there with maybe 350,000 to 400,000 machines--if virtualization has not collapsed that number down to 275,000 to 300,000 machines, as I think it might have--then there is a vast installed base of earlier generations of V5 boxes and even older V4 boxes out there.

As Erich Clementi takes over as GM of Business Systems, that large installed base of vintage operating systems and even older iron (since many companies run newer software on older gear) has to be something he is thinking long and hard about. And as new Power6 systems and V6R1 come to market this year, there is a perfect opportunity to give these customers such good deals that they make the jump, much as IBM did back in 1995 and 1996 with the first generation of Power-based AS/400s. This will be the last good time in a decade to make such a generous offer and get the base current and work on keeping it current. The health of the i5/OS base and IBM's own fortunes depends on the deals that the vendor is cooking up right now. My advice is to add a lot of spice and make it taste good.


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