Analysts, Users, and ISVs React to the System i5
February 20, 2006 Mary Lou Roberts
IBM‘s System i5 announcements on January 31 have neither shattered expectations nor set the IT industry in a tailspin. The specifics of the announcement are not cause for either alarm or for great celebration. They do, however, represent steady progress in what platform believers have come to expect in a continuing evolution as IBM attempts to hold onto its large installed base and capture new customers at the same time.
But, as always, reactions to Big Blue’s announcements are varied. To gauge the reaction of the OS/400 community, I contacted several analysts, end users, and ISVs to get their impressions of the System i5 launch now that the machines have started shipping.
Al Barsa, president of Barsa Consulting Group and an early tester of both the new hardware and software, is extremely positive about what he’s seeing–so much so that one wonders what he’ll find to comment on at the upcoming COMMON Town Hall meeting at the end of March.
For one thing, Barsa is impressed by the Accelerator golden screwdriver upgrade for the entry i5 520 machines, which he says “will simply pack more power per dollar so that the product can be more competitive.” Further, he reports there are significantly fewer bugs in the release of i5/OS V5R4 than he has seen in previous releases. “Our regression tests, in which we normally find lots of errors, only found one, and that was a trivial error.”
Barsa praises other new features as well. “Virtual tape is hot, it’s fast, and it’s another save/restore alternative. It could be expensive and use a lot of disk. But if you are searching for 24×7 uptime, virtual tape is a play that you could be looking for. And another good thing is that you can now save spool files. There have been a variety of ways to save spool files through the years, and they’ve gotten better and better. But they’ve always been hokey. The bad thing was that, unless you are a BRMS [Backup Recovery Media Services] customer, you lost the identity of the job that created the spool file. In V5R4, it keeps the job identity and the date and time it was created, and that’s a good thing.”
Barsa also notes that IBM is now talking about chip speeds. He points out that, although AS/400 customers, for the most part, could not care less about chip speeds, prospects who aren’t already on an AS/400 platform want to hear about them.
Bob Djurdevic, president of Annex Research, calls the announcement “a real shot in the arm,” but he believes the benefits that will be gleaned from the announcement will come more from a marketing standpoint than from any of the technology components in the announcements. “This will again give IBM a big soap box and the ability to talk to new potential customers.”
Like Barsa, Djurdevic believes the Accelerator is an extremely important part of the announcement because it “will make it possible for some 70 to 80 percent of customers to take advantage of Web-based applications. This broadens the appeal that much of the new technology will have to potential customers.” In addition, he points out that “all customers will benefit from a 15 to 20 percent performance boost from the new Power5+ chips.”
In the first quarter, IBM claimed that iSeries sales declined after three quarters of growth because buyers were waiting for the new announcement. Djurdevic isn’t quite buying that (“There’s always an announcement coming”), but says that if it’s true, this quarter should be great as the market should like what they’ve just heard. He further applauds IBM for the choice of Elaine Lennox as the new vice president of marketing, and the emphasis IBM seems to be putting on both SMB and marketing in Eastern Europe and Russia. “These are the two biggest emerging markets, and IBM’s willingness to try to ignite those markets is laudable. Any smart business will go where the money is.”
Also impressed with the Accelerator is Doug Piper, director of solutions management for Vision Solutions, who believes it enables capacity upgrades at affordable prices without requiring a box swap to get more CPWs of performance. And, he adds, “The fact that the Hardware Management Console (HMC) is not required to turn on the i5 Accelerator is a nice bonus.”
Piper also comments that, “IBM is gently trying to move the legacy application ecosystem forward with the announcement on the one hand that V5R4 will be the last release to ship with RPG II and COBOL compilers that are compatible with the System/38, while at the same time offering WDSC Lite to cater to the green-screen community who said ‘no thanks’ to the original WebSphere Development Studio (WDS). WDSC Lite will accommodate those who are quite content with the native application development environment. It’s also interesting to note that Linux continues to gain traction and that IBM is making consistent enhancements to its System i5 access for Linux products.”
Nigel Fortlage, vice president of information technology for GHY International sees the announcement as forward progress in all areas, with no earth-shattering news. As for specific features of interest, he believes that, “The IOP-less technology is great for smaller boxes, allowing more in one box due to fewer slots for IOPs,” He also applauds V5R4 for having “more focus on my favorite iSeries topic: virtualization. The more we get parity across all OS platforms, regardless of the virtualization (iSeries versus pSeries scenarios for AIX and Linux), the stronger the iSeries story becomes as its overall value increases in management and legendary low cost to operate.”
Tom Huntington, vice president of technical services for Help/Systems, believes this announcement was important to carry forward the momentum the iSeries platform had in the third quarter of last year, but lost in the fourth quarter, due to the anticipation of new hardware. “How can you argue with bigger, faster hardware with more features and lower or equal costs?”
Because Help/Systems is in the automation business, Huntington finds the announcement of the elimination of tape mounts with virtual tape to be exciting, opening up “some additional automation opportunities for our Robot product line.”
Prashant Bhatia, senior director, product management for Manhattan Associates, is very interested in the integrated XML features of the announcement, and notes that his company is investigating how they take advantage of these features in its supply chain solutions. He also believes the overall impact of the announcement will be positive. “First, it offers systems flexibility and an upgrade path for the customer base, at a reasonable price. Second, IBM’s System i5 support reinforces the point that IBM is dedicated to the long-term success of the platform.”
As a vendor whose bread and butter comes from the legacy community, Pete Isaksson, business development manager for looksoftware is encouraged because IBM is continuing to deliver enhancements that will play a positive role in customer-retention rates. He says the inclusion WDSC Lite in this release “seems like a concession of sorts, but it may be less of a panacea for developers who are unhappy with the bloated version of WDSC and more of a hook to draw them closer to the acceptance of an eventual dependence on the Rational Suite.”
Isaksson summarizes, “While the product announcement is important, the features and new naming that the announcement highlights will probably not impact new sales noticeably. It’s good news for the installed base, but the important issue for sales is going to be how well Elaine Lennox carries the torch in the wake of Peter Bingaman’s departure. Continuing a strong marketing campaign that recognizes the history of the platform’s benefits and strengths–manageability, stability, and security–will carry more weight than a single product announcement focused on enhancements and yet another new name.”
And speaking of WDSC Lite, Duncan Kenzie, president of Excel Systems, the development and technical support arm of BCD Software, predictably has thoughts on that topic. “WDSC Lite suffers from branding problems. The RPG community is still not likely to understand that anything with ‘WebSphere’ in the name (or initials) can be used for editing RPG code. WDSC has also proven to be a resource hog up until now, requiring very powerful PCs to run on. It will be interesting to see if IBM can overcome users’ previous bad experiences with this to make it a success this time around.”
Kenzie comments on other aspects of the announcement as well. He believes that the integrated XML parsing functions of RPG are great and will help promote the use of SOA and Web services. “This is tacit recognition by IBM that WebSphere (Java) has largely been a failure–and a reinvestment in the RPG approach to building powerful web applications. This will allow RPG programs to easily communicate with Web services customers or providers, regardless of what server language the other side of the conversation uses. Any improvements to iSeries Access for the Web are welcome, but it is hampered by the requirement that you must run WebSphere Application Server to use it. It is a little like the problems encountered with OpsNav: great concept, costly implementation.”
With regards to WebFacing and HATS, Kensie believes that IBM has just created more confusion. Will IBM charge for it in the future, or not? What is the difference between this solution and the previous ones? “In the past, WebFacing has not lived up to expectations, primarily because those expectations were not realistic. You cannot just press a button and convert a green-screen app to anything resembling a professional-looking Web page. The two visual and user-interface programs are worlds apart. So really, any changes to WebFacing and HATS are just putting a different shade of lipstick on the same ol’ pig.”
Overall, Kenzie is optimistic that the announcements will encourage the current installed base to pursue modernizing legacy applications, and he notes that the continued commitment to RPG acknowledges the continued importance of the language. He was, however, disappointed that there was no announcement about PHP, which he says might have attracted more Linux and Unix types to the platform.
Also commenting on WDSC Lite is Steve Gapp, president of SoftLanding Systems, who believes it will indeed be a good solution for transitioning many traditional developers. “Any steps to assist with transition and provide new tooling to help with ongoing development and modernization are to be welcomed,” says Gapp. “The current installed base will welcome these changes because they all move towards enabling easier modernization or our RPG-based apps to participate in the modern world, specifically in terms of Web enablement and SOA support. What’s exciting is that it’s becoming easier and easier to see a strategic path for application modernization while preserving the investment in our legacy RPG and COBOL apps. The iSeries community has struggled with this. Now their choices are becoming a lot easier.”
One end user, who wishes to remain anonymous, still has a big problem with IBM’s pricing. “The hardware is nice, but the ‘interactive tax’ is still taking too big a bite out of the customer wallet. The Enterprise Edition should not cost any more than the Standard Edition; it is to IBM’s advantage to have 5250 apps developed and deployed on the (pick your name of the month) platform, and IBM should encourage it with its pricing. I see us doing everything we can to avoid adding workload to an i5 server, stretching out our existing investment as long as possible by offloading Web processing to Linux servers, for example, instead of consolidating them onto a single box which, if you run out of CPWs, forces you to upgrade at Enterprise Edition pricing. It seems to me that we’re much better off reducing external Web workloads and reserving Enterprise-priced capacity for only 5250 apps.”
Aside from pricing, this user does applaud some parts of the announcement. Specifically, he believes the virtual tape support will probably be the most used feature. Further, he expects the updates to the CL to enhance API calls and subroutines will make that language much more useful. And, “Depending on how they have added free format support for SQL inside RPG, that may be nice as well. But they still need to ‘free’ the procedure and ‘D’ specs so that an entire program can be written in free format code.”
But Clay Ryder, industry analyst with Sageza Group is positive about the pricing changes he sees. “In this market, it is essential to monitor price/performance continuously, since a year is a long time in this business,” says Ryder. “This realignment will help the i5 stay in the median of price/performance–not necessarily the cheapest solution, but one with a good value relative to price paid.”
In fact, Ryder believes the biggest positive impact of this announcement will be improved pricing, along with broadening of the range of Capacity on Demand offerings, Java and SOA improvements, and better Windows integration through the forthcoming iSCSI attachment, that all make the platform more compelling for newer workloads.
Summing up his feelings about the announcement, Leon Stewart, CEO of WorksRight Software believes the platform’s many options can prove confusing for potential new customers. “Small businesses need simplicity and their idea of simplicity is a lot different from IBM’s. When you buy a drill press, you don’t have 129 options. A business owner who is working on selling and shipping a product doesn’t really care too much about the technology inside the black box.”
Wayne Kernochen, president of Infostructure Associates, believes the two most significant themes of the announcement are first, a strong focus on vertical ISVs as a part of a new push in the medium-sized business (MB) market, and second, a new System i5 value proposition. “Over the last two years, IBM has been aiming a special push at MB customers, using the System i5’s past experience with this market segment. This announcement highlighted new ISV solutions and tools; tighter BladeCenter integration via iSCSI communications, integrated storage management, and integrated backup; more pricing and capacity flexibility; and simplified database performance management and index management.” His conclusion is that, “The System i5 folks really are beginning to demonstrate that they ‘get’ the MB market. Because this market remains relatively untapped, the upside potential for the System i5 is large.”
Kernochen borrows from Winston Churchill in calling the announcement “not the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning.”
“The System i5 has for so long been relegated to one corner of the IT market that it will take time and continued effort to make it a dominant brand,” says Kernochen. “IBM now appears committed to putting forth a long-term, focused effort, and to embrace a new value proposition for the System i5, although whether its marketing will focus on tight flexibility has yet to be seen. As a result, these announcements sound more like meeting the concerns of the general IT user than has usually been the case in the past–and that can only be good news for System i5 partners and IBM users.”
While many System i5 stalwarts attach different levels of significance and importance to the elements of this announcement, GHY’s Fortlage perhaps sums up the collective feeling best: “We know that this set of announcements is expected as a part of an ongoing evolution of just about every 18 months, moving the bar higher as far as system definition and price/performance gains. The changes already being discussed in IT Jungle articles about Power6 appear to open the door to much greater and exciting changes. The underlying message is clear: It is a great system (hardware and software) today, it is only going to get better tomorrow, and the right time to join this community is now.”