Taking the Pulse of the iSeries Base
by Mary Lou Roberts
Now and then, it's interesting to take the pulse of what the iSeries base is thinking. It's particularly interesting to engage in this exercise as we head into a COMMON conference, the next one of which will take place in Orlando, Fla., from September 18 through 22. Regardless of what one thinks of the value of COMMON's bi-annual meetings (and opinions on that are decidedly varied), it is, after all, an occasion for the iSeries faithful to congregate, educate, and meditate.
Executives from IBM will, naturally, stand on the stage and tell the audience how great things are, and how they are going to get better. They will most certainly put forth statistics on how well the iSeries Innovation program is going, and, for the first time in ages, they'll be able to boast about the 10 percent second quarter 2005 increase in iSeries revenue. It's a pretty sure bet, though, that they won't underscore the point that the welcome increase is measured over the same second quarter in 2004 which was, as a quarter and as a year in general, nothing short of a disaster for the platform.
Be that as it may, iSeries die-hards take their doses of good news wherever and whenever they can get them, and up is up. Who's complaining?
Frequently, one of the most interesting events of COMMON is the iSeries Nation Town Hall Meeting, not because of the IBM party line that's offered from the stage in the early phases of that congregation, but because of the open-mike session that follows the scripted portion of the program. There, IBM business partners and end users alike have an opportunity to pose questions to the Blue Suits on the stage, and they don't even wear blue suits any more. Sometimes the questions and statements are testy (though the answers are always polite albeit sometimes unenlightening). But frequently they show what's on the minds of the audience at large. While certainly not a scientific measure of the pulse of the iSeries base, it does offer a sampling of opinion, at least of those who don't mind standing front and center in a large audience and facing off against IBM.
I've always wondered, in fact, just how accurate a sampling these comments at the Town Hall meeting really are. After all, to stand there, you must first attend. And, truth be known, a lot of the iSeries folks--users and ISVs alike--do not attend COMMON, and never did. Can we, then, assume that the comments of COMMON attendees are representative of the community as a whole? Or are they just the more active, more involved members of the iSeries community? It is hard to say for certain.
In an attempt to find out what's really on the minds of the iSeries base, I contacted a variety of end users and ISVs. I certainly acknowledge that this is a not scientific survey either. However, it does offer some additional insight into what folks are thinking--and, perhaps, a preview of topics that might resound from the open mike at the Town Hall Meeting.
Several themes came through from the people I talked to. But I admit that the most vociferously expressed one--the marketing of the platform--surprised me. The biggest promise from IBM at the last COMMON meeting was to market, market, and market the iSeries. This included print, TV, and radio advertisements as well as greatly enhanced support programs for ISVs, designed to bolster the platform and position it to move forward as a growth platform. IBM delivered on the marketing promise, both in terms of programs and numbers. Wouldn't this guarantee that the iSeries community's biggest criticism of IBM in the past--lack of marketing of the platform--would be a non-starter today? Well, not exactly.
Pete Elliot, director of marketing for Key Information Systems, believes it's too little, too late. "Most companies have moved on," he says. "The skill set to understand and manage the iSeries has evaporated. The ISV community is the last strength of the box, and that is diminishing. The only marketing IBM really does--or is interested in--is server consolidation, which unto itself continues to shrink the footprint, making it their vanishing cash cow."
What topic will replace marketing this year? Elliot expects that "a lot of the noise you'll hear from the ISVs will result from their market share changing and closing. Software in general has experienced deep discounts, and no one knows how to make money selling or creating Linux software."
Also skeptical about the effects of IBM's recent marketing efforts is John Ball, marketing executive for ASNA. "ASNA could not, in good conscience, conclude that IBM has turned around the tepid marketing efforts of the past. Our prospects and clients are neither encouraged nor fortified by IBM's recent efforts and remain largely skeptical about the future, despite their nearly religious zeal for the platform. The appointment of stronger management and the upfront availability of senior management may avail the press, but it has not translated into newly formed market development or renewed market momentum. ASNA witnesses some excitement among ISVs marketing to the hardware platform with Linux and open source solutions, while continuing to see that largely the OS/400 community of ISVs and customers remains disenfranchised."
John Matelski, chief security officer and deputy chief information officer for the City of Orlando, Fla., adds: "It is imperative that IBM markets to overcome the common misperception that the iSeries is a legacy system and/or that it is 'old technology.' As it relates to IBM's ISV Advantage Initiative, this program is designed to provide independent software vendors with technical and marketing support to help meet the specific information technology needs of small and medium businesses. Customers are always seeking solutions that help them better integrate processes and applications internally and externally and allow them to quickly respond to changing market opportunities on demand . . . so making people aware of this is a good thing."
"The challenge for organizations such as ours is not so much the amount of marketing that is being implemented, but the ease with which we can utilize it and leverage it," explains Simon O'Sullivan, director of sales for iSeries high availability software maker Maximum Availability. "For example, I'm impressed with some of the new program initiatives coming out, such as Galaxy in the United Kingdom, but I am mindful that these programs need to be quickly deployed and evolved to meet rapidly changing requirements and needs."
Another topic of concern for IBM to address is the issue of hardware problems with the new i5s. One user, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, hopes that the "serious quality issues" he is experiencing with his recent i5 550 installation will be addressed, and he wants to know if his situation is unique or if others are experiencing this problem. In the past, he has been able to count on a 30-day cycle from planning to full operation, but not in this case. Seven to eight weeks after delivery they still aren't in full operation. "Every single tape drive," he says, "was defective on delivery and had to be replaced. And there were lots of other hardware issues as well. God forbid this would happen to a first-time iSeries user. They'd walk away immediately. IBM's trying hard, but there are definitely hardware issues."
Perhaps this individual's experience was an anomaly. Let's hope so. Another recent installer of an i5 550, who also wishes to remain unnamed, reports having had no problems at all with his installation, except for a relatively minor problem with one tape drive.
A more general concern expressed by several respondees centered on the lack of clarity about the future of the iSeries and IBM's long-term vision for it. Brian Henry, iSeries system administrator for Bell Techlogix, hopes that IBM will address "questions about the future of the platform and about supporting customers that aren't on the leading edge of technology and who maintain legacy applications."
Angela Doolittle, iSeries product manager for ACOM Solutions, also hopes that IBM will address the future of the iSeries. "We seem to hear a lot of buzz amongst our customers and at shows about people moving to other platforms or consolidating all of their servers into one system which may or may not be the iSeries platform. We attend about 20-plus shows a year as a company, and people just seem to say, 'We just don't know what is going to become of the iSeries,' and that may be a hesitation to invest a lot of money with an ISV."
Key's Elliot hopes (but is not entirely optimistic) that the COMMON organization can serve as an independent force to demand that IBM address some of these issues. Here's his advice to COMMON: "Become a real user group and reestablish itself as an independent force against IBM. Demand re-invention of the box. Force the IBM iSeries to become truly open--tear it open! Make IBM aggressively encourage and openly support external disk. Technically challenge and change the single-level storage architecture of the iSeries. Open choice beyond DB2. Integrate all storage products aggressively into the iSeries architecture and out-maneuver EMC. Offer unique Tivoli virtualization software throughout the iSeries. Force IBM to close ranks around the iSeries and/or support the iSeries community and openly provide a roadmap out of the iSeries to the next generation box."
When all's said and done, Elliot points out, "It's still difficult to integrate the iSeries with other technology. It's still expensive in relationship to where the marketplace places current and future value. It's still a minor player in technology circles. And it still lacks performance, especially in relation to mission-critical applications."
The message, then, that seems to come through loud and clear, is one of a continuing high FUD factor--although in this case the F is for Frustration, not Fear. (FUD is historically short for fear, uncertainty, and doubt.) The ads and the many new programs IBM has put into place and the expanded marketing are great. But clearly there continues to be an undercurrent of serious doubt that the iSeries--and perhaps that's better phrased OS/400 and RPG--will survive.
Nothing yet seems to have convinced the base that OS/400 is, indeed, an operating system that can move companies into the future. Nothing yet has quelled the fears that support--and more importantly, enhancement--will exist for long for those who don't want to move to Java. And while we may believe and respect Mark Shearer, the iSeries general manager, and his team, nothing yet has convinced many that IBM's commitment is to gain market share by pricing systems correctly for the 'S' part of the SMB market.
IBM sat still for a long time while Microsoft and the X86 server makers--mostly Hewlett-Packard by virtue of Compaq and then Dell--snared the market. That's the world we now live in, and it's become very difficult (perhaps impossible) for IBM to maneuver in the fast-growing SMB market. Its PC business is now gone. Can IBM effectively fight its way back into the SMB with a system at a price point that most "small" and even "small/medium" companies can't even consider it? Is the fate of the iSeries to be a consolidation server for large enterprises? Are we destined to watch as Linux and AIX applications run on the iSeries, but no new or enhanced OS/400 applications find their way there?
These are some of the questions IBM needs to answer if the frustration and fear factors among the iSeries faithful are going to be reduced.
Mary Lou Roberts, a 35-year veteran of the information systems industry, is a new contributor to IT Jungle. In addition to her work as a reporter in the iSeries space, she has spent her career as a marketing and communications professional working exclusively with information technology publications and companies. She can be reached at WriterNewf@aol.com.