Move iSeries Forward and Adapt, or Die, Zeitler Says
by Alex Woodie
In the IT industry, standing still can be deadly. That is the message that Bill Zeitler, IBM's server chief, drove home during his keynote speech at the COMMON conference last week. While change can be difficult, IBM is working to keep the iSeries alive and vibrant by continuing its evolution and by adding support for new technologies, like Java, WebSphere, Domino, and Linux, he said. New iSeries General Manager Mike Borman also made his first public appearance since taking over the job.
Bill Zeitler, who held the AS/400 general manager post in the late 1990s and is now the senior vice president and group executive of IBM's Systems and Technology Group, began his speech by paying homage to COMMON and recalling some of the good old days at past shows. He recalled the time they brought tigers onstage to announce some hardware in Las Vegas, and the last time COMMON was held in Toronto, in the fall of 1988, just after the AS/400 had been first launched. At that time, it was Zeitler's job to oversee the roll-out in North America. "The product had been greeted with enormous excitement," he said. "People at COMMON brought them back to earth. It's kind of a tough-love thing, you know. They love the product; they hate us. But that's okay."
IBM followed the recommendations of COMMON members to increase the memory in first-generation AS/400s, Zeitler says, and the rest, as they say, is history. "It became, of course, the most popular business computer of all time," Zeitler said. "The reason it became so popular is, we listened to the people from COMMON, and we built an enormous set of applications."
While the title of "most popular business computer of all time" is great to have, it doesn't say much for the future of the box. Users today are rightly concerned about the future of their beloved OS/400 server, and last week's COMMON, which carried the theme "Enterprise Application Modernization," was a suitable place to for Zeitler to discuss his view of the future.
"The last time I addressed COMMON, at Baltimore [in the fall of 2000], I believed then, as I do now, that if you don't bring these products forward, the world won't stay with you," he said. "When we brought the AS/400 out, the biggest competitor we had was Digital Equipment. They didn't move forward to adapt to what happened with Intel servers and other parts of the market, and they were gone. Compaq was a very large PC provider. They didn't move forward, and they were gone. It's not just those folks. When you think back--Data General, Wang, Wixdorf--a whole bunch of people who, if they didn't move forward, keep up with changes in the market, they would be gone."
"We have now, of course, moved to the i5 program of products, and a lot of you now are already seeing the benefits of these products, as we once again move forward," Zeitler said. "And that's the message here: If we didn't move these products forward, if we didn't make them equipped for Linux, WebSphere, Java, and different types of workloads, if we didn't modernize applications with things, then this franchise, this business, would have gone the way of Digital Equipment, Compaq, Data General, and the rest."
While Zeitler declined to predict what the OS/400 server will look like in another 16 years, he did give some insight into what market forces and technology factors will influence computing when the AS/400 turns 32, in 2020. "First, everything's going to be different," he said. "I think open standards are one of the prime drivers, and if there's one message out of this, it's that the open movement is not going to be stopped. The power of so many people around the world contributing is going to change the way innovation is done."
"I think the second thing is the ubiquitous connectivity of the Internet isn't going to be stopped. Third thing, the laws of physics aren't going to be repealed. You've seen Intel recently cancel most of the high-end of the roadmap of their chips. Why? Because we've reached the point where just scaling the devices doesn't matter as much. What matters now? Integration, how many things we integrate on a particular piece of technology. That's why the Power5 is so strong, as was the Power4 before it. Because they were the first products in the world that put multiple cores, caches, and other things, acceleration, onto a single device. And it's going to clearly be the way that all microchips are developed in the future."
"The fourth thing: the laws of economics won't be repealed. Customers aren't going to stand the kind of complexity that's been associated with multiple-tier environment with thousands of servers. Openness, the Internet, integrated technology, simplicity and ease of use, and economics will be driving forces for what we see going forward."
It may be trite, but it's inevitably true: while everything will be different in the future, the one constant you can count on is change. "And I think one of the major lessons that I'd like to leave you with," Zeitler said, "is to keep moving forward. If you don't move forward, then it's over."
BORMAN'S ISERIES PLANS
Zeitler assisted the new iSeries general manager, Mike Borman, in officially unveiling the eServer i5 Model 595, which represents a huge leap forward in terms of processing power and scalability. With up to 64 Power5 processors and more than 165,000 CPWs of raw processing power, the Model 595 represents the state-of-the-art in server technology, not just within IBM, but for the broader market as a whole.
For many in the OS/400 community, however, the question isn't so much about new technology as it is about IBM's treatment of the iSeries and the health of the OS/400 ecosystem overall. The iSeries market did not do very well in the third quarter, with a 26 percent drop in revenue, compared with last year (see "IBM's Third Quarter Is Decent; iSeries Sales Down but Improving").
The strength of the ecosystem is an area that IBM is addressing. During the iSeries Nation Town Hall meeting last Sunday, Borman discussed two new iSeries-specific campaigns. The aim of these programs is to make IBM marketing and technical resources available to two distinct groups of ISVs and business partners. The i300 program is for the top 300 ISVs and business partners, who will get hands-on treatment from IBM. And the i3000 program is for the other ISVs and partners, who will also have access to IBM resources, but not at the same level. The i300 and i3000 campaigns are the latest to use IBM's favored iSeries marketing strategy of passing the bulk of the responsibility onto its business partners.
"We have a set of business partners that are really good, and then we have a set of business partners that we need to improve their skills," Borman said. But business partner aren't the only ones that need better skills, he added. IBM's own customer engineers, or CEs, also need to beef up their skills. "That person needs to be trained perfectly, so they don't screw anything up, and get you back up and running as quickly as possible," Borman said.
In addition to skills, Borman focused on the need for better high availability, which was a recurring theme at the Toronto COMMON conference. "We're taking a number of pSeries and zSeries attributes that we think are helpful to reliability and performance, and putting them into the iSeries technology, and one of the things that we announced at the [recent Large User Group] meeting is that we're going to form a high availability design center, and we're going to put it in Poughkeepsie," in New York, home of IBM's zSeries design team. "So we're going to get the world's best experts to make sure that we have bullet-proof systems for you that will run 100 percent of the time."
Overall, Borman appeared very receptive to his iSeries audience at COMMON and thankful for their business. He also came across as somebody who is willing to listen and to be an advocate for the iSeries within IBM. "To a certain extent, we took our eye off the ball on this, and we're getting back to the roots of the AS/400," he said. "The key is to keep the value proposition, or what I think of as the personality of the AS/400, and now the iSeries. That's what really set it apart in the industry. And that you'll see through our extensive image work and the work we're doing with our solutions teams."
At the same time, Borman was cautious, as he freely admits that, in coming over from the channel side of the business, he has a lot to learn about the iSeries product. "That's all I had planned," he said. "I think if I talk anymore about the product, I might start making it up, because I don't know that much about the product yet. I have some learning to do, although I'm excited about the learning. I know that as I walk into data centers, small and large, one thing I find is customers happy with the box."
Borman took ownership of the iSeries at a difficult time in the history of the platform, as the transition from the iSeries to the i5 has had a negative impact on sales in the past two quarters. He has a tough task navigating the iSeries through its necessary periods of change, but if he focuses on keeping customers happy, that will make his job much easier.