iSeries Execs Talk Up the Future of the Platform at COMMON
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
As the largest iSeries user group and certainly the one that is most heavily attended by IBM and the iSeries business partner community, the semi-annual COMMON iSeries user group gathering has always been a place where IBM gets to tell the OS/400 community where the platform is going and where it has been, and vocal end users get to tell Big Blue a thing or two. The latest COMMON in Orlando, Fla., was no different, and the top brass in the iSeries Division as well as some guests from other IBM divisions were on hand to talk up the iSeries.
A year ago, at the Fall COMMON meeting in Toronto, Ontario, attendees lashed into IBM's the then brand new iSeries general manager, Mike Borman, for the lack of iSeries marketing and difficulties with the i5 server rollout, particularly the Hardware Management Console. The iSeries had hit an all-time low in sales at IBM, and people were, quite frankly, blue in the face from telling IBM to get out there and actually sell the iSeries. Borman made commitments to improve the quality of the i5 boxes and to get a marketing plan together that would show off the iSeries, but only a little more than two months later after a management shakeup, Borman was moved to Software Group and Mark Shearer, the current iSeries general manager who has made a three-year commitment to stay in his job to see the iSeries revival though, came out and actually did a lot of things that Borman's team had promised. More important than anything else, Shearer has put together an energized iSeries team, who we were all introduced to at the Spring COMMON show in Chicago in March, that quickly put together television, radio, Web, and print advertising campaigns that sold the iSeries not as some generic box with no name, but as the iSeries, IBM's integrated server platform for small and medium businesses. That team also launched initiatives to open up the iSeries Developer's Roadmap to lots of new solutions and established new criteria for channel selling that stopped the infighting and price slashing among resellers that was causing the profitability of business partners to be diminished.
At the COMMON event in Orlando, Shearer and Peter Bingaman, the vice president of iSeries marketing, together made the case that these changes have helped, in part, to make the iSeries business start growing again, with modest 1 percent growth in the first quarter and 10 percent growth in the second quarter. It is hard to say how much of the growth in revenue is just due to new products and a natural upgrade cycle--customers have probably burned through any excess AS/400 and iSeries capacity they have, and with the economy growing decently (at least until energy prices and hurricanes start taking their toll), companies that use the iSeries as a strategic platform are spending money again to support new software projects and server consolidation. What can be honestly said is that IBM is reaching out to customers and partners, is investing in marketing more than it has in years, and even if it is just an accident of timing, people in the iSeries community sure do feel a little bit better than they did a year or two ago. In the computer business, perceptions have a habit of becoming reality (just like in other aspects of life that deal with human beings), and an improving iSeries business is a reality we would all like to inhabit.
Before Shearer and Bingaman gave their presentations at the iSeries Town Hall Meeting, though, they brought out Frank Soltis, the iSeries chief architect, to muse about the iSeries, game machines, and how this all fits into a coherent theme--well, sort of--concerning the future of the iSeries platform. Soltis gave a few amusing anecdotes about the confusion in the general public about what RPG means--is it Report Program Generator or Role Playing Game? (He forgot Rocket Propelled Grenade, and that is probably a good thing.) He used this as a segue into talking about how IBM and its partners had created various Power processor variants to be used in all of the forthcoming game machines from Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, which we have covered at length in this newsletter. He hinted that many of the technologies that are going into these game processors, like the "Cell" chip IBM is creating with Sony and Toshiba, will come full circle, being based on ideas in the AS/400 and then ending up, possibly a few years from now, back in IBM's Power-based server platforms.
"Well, the chip itself is fairly simple to describe," said Soltis. "It has a Power processor on it, and it's got eight special purpose processors on there specifically geared toward things like visual kinds of activities, visual processing. So you can mentally think of this as a central processor and eight IOPs. Anybody recognize the model? Where do you suppose all the interfaces and so forth for that structure were designed, as far as the interfaces for those IOPs, they don't call them IOPs, but those special processors? Where do you suppose the technology expertise exists in the IBM Company? Rochester, Minnesota. I often point out to audiences that, if the answer were Poughkeepsie, I wouldn't bring it up." This is classic Soltis, which is why IBM is always pressing him to speak at events like COMMON. Soltis talked about how the virtualization technologies that IBM is crowing about in the Power5 servers have always been at the heart of the System/38-AS/400-iSeries line of machines, which are completely virtualized boxes. And he said that many of ideas that go into chips like Cell and the Xbox 360 processor will end up in future machines. "So we're starting to look at a lot of these strange things, like the Cell chip. Well, most of us feel that this particular Cell chip--by the way, the reason it's called Cell is you can put multiple of these things together to create a complete systems--is this will be the basis of our hardware technology for our products probably starting in the 2008 to 2009 timeframe. And we feel this stuff is really pretty awesome. It's some of the highest performance stuff you're ever going to see out there, but also has all of the reliability that goes along with that. So a lot of the characteristics that we've all come to know and love with an iSeries, as far as high availability and reliability and so forth, we're investing very heavily in those kinds of things. Certainly the game industry in a very real sense is leading the way."
Soltis also made fun of the fact that IBM has a new five-year plan that it has announced internally for its server lines, which are now going to be called systems. A project called "Mach 1," started back in 1997 to get IBM's various units to start sharing technology, eventually lead to the October 2000 rebranding of the IBM server lines to eServers with the now-familiar iSeries, pSeries, xSeries, and zSeries lines, with a certain amount of commonality in terms of their support of Linux, capacity on demand, logical partitioning, mainframe-class reliability, and support for Java, XML, and other open technologies. I am not sure when it was started, but a project called "Polaris" takes the eServer-Mach 1 ideas one step further, and was internally announced as the IBM System Agenda. IBM has not talked publicly about this, and Soltis joked around that IBM actually announced the System Agenda that was the end result of the Polaris project at the end of July--and cleverly did not say that this was part of the new System z9 mainframe announcement. (He did not even mention the Polaris project by name, either. I have that from other sources, and I will be digging into exactly what the System Agenda is in a future issue of this newsletter.)
"We're very excited as far as the iSeries is concerned," explained Soltis. "It's not just a business proposition of 10 percent growth, things like that. The iSeries is right in the center today of IBM's future plans. If you take a look at future technology, future systems that you're going to be buying from IBM from all of our different product lines, you're going to start recognize a lot of the capabilities and characteristics of what you known in an AS/400 and you know in the iSeries. And I think that's good news."
(You can read the full transcript of the remarks made by Frank Soltis at COMMON by clicking here.)
Shearer said again, as he did back in March, that the server industry was moving over the sweet spot of integration that is the hallmark of the iSeries platform, which leads me to believe that Shearer might have been one of the chief architects of the IBM System Agenda, working on the Polaris project, before he took the job as the iSeries general manager. "I think, more than ever, some of the classic strengths of the iSeries and the AS/400, some of the benefits that may have drawn you to the platform in the fist place, are becoming more and more relevant again in the industry," Shearer said in his keynote address. "From everything that I see, the industry is moving to a place where solutions is more important, integration of infrastructure, simplicity is more important, and that is one of the things that gives me great personal confidence in the future of the iSeries platform, because it's so well geared to provide the capabilities that I think more and more of our clients are asking for."
Shearer also talked up the momentum in the business partner community, as new independent software developers are moving their code to the platform, as well as the sales momentum that has occurred on his watch. "I view this as an indicator that the value proposition is more relevant again," he said. Shearer also said that it was a "personal project" of his to improve the presence of the iSeries at universities and colleges in the world--and hopefully not just in India and China.
(You can read the full transcript of the remarks made by Mark Shearer at COMMON by clicking here.)
After that, Bingaman took the stage to talk about how the presence of the iSeries out there in the world was on the rise after the $125 million marketing campaign that he had put together as part of the iSeries Initiative for Innovation, which was announced in late February. He said that IBM had run 178 iSeries-specific advertisements in conjunction with its ISVs so far this year, and they are running worldwide. He said that somewhere between 450 and 500 iSeries-related stories had appeared in the press so far in 2005 (up by a factor of two). He said further that IBM had commissioned 20 different analyst reports on the iSeries so far this year, too, and that based on survey data, the "awareness" of the iSeries platform had gone up by 20 percent in the first six months of 2005. Equally significantly, there are 300 new iSeries applications, and there are another 540 sitting in the pipeline waiting to be modernized, and business partner profitability is on the rise again.
(You can read the full transcript of the remarks made by Peter Bingaman at COMMON by clicking here.)
Bingaman also said that IBM has hired an advertising agency called Plan B, which does grassroots and viral marketing campaigns, to help it do what he called "open source marketing" for the iSeries. (Not to toot my horn too much, but I think I have been doing this for about 16 years now, IBM. It's a newsletter called The Four Hundred, its readership is your customer base, and the price--free--is a hell of a lot lower than Plan B.) While I wholeheartedly approve of soliciting the advice of the iSeries community to help shape the iSeries marketing plans and advertising campaigns, looking at the transcripts of the past dozen COMMONs will suffice. They all say the same thing: Say the iSeries is the best IBM computer for SMBs for supporting core business applications. Just say it.
Bingaman showed two short TV ad spots--I would guess they were about 15 seconds long--that talked about server sprawl and how the iSeries could kill it. I am not able to describe the spots accurately, because I was laughing too much, but I do recall that they ended with the phrase "aye yi yi," emphasizing the "i" in iSeries, which as we all know is short for Integration. I hope IBM actually runs these ads, and not some generic ad that just touts IBM servers, in your town and mine. They actually said iSeries, and in a memorable way. They were perfect, in fact. And if I don't see them on the Sci Fi channel--like I am already seeing BladeCenter ads in the same new ad campaign--I am going to be, like other iSeries enthusiasts, disappointed.
Transcription: Remarks by Frank Soltis, iSeries Town Hall Meeting
Transcription: Remarks by Mark Shearer, iSeries Town Hall Meeting
Transcription: Remarks by Peter Bingaman, iSeries Town Hall Meeting