IBM Executives’ iSociety Chat: Direct Sales and a Developer Price Point
April 16, 2007 Timothy Prickett Morgan
As part of the user-priced System i 515 and 525 announcement festivities last week, Jim Herring, director of System i products and business operations, and Ian Jarman, System i product manager, hosted a chat with the iSociety user organization last Thursday. The consensus among Herring, Jarman, and presumably other IBMers is that the new products were well received by the market, and they conveyed that message in the chat.
If you were unable to participate (as I was not last week), you can read a transcript of the chat that is posted in the iSociety site. If you don’t have time to do that, I can give you two of the more interesting points that came up in the chat, and my reaction to it.
Jarman was asked if IBM had considered selling a basic i5 515 online, directly from IBM, much as Hewlett-Packard and Dell do with their servers. HP, of course, has a vast reseller channel as well as selling directly to some customers, while Dell sells most of its iron directly (but has a few resellers outside the United States). As for considering a direct approach Jarman says that IBM did consider it, “but our partners and ISVs add so much value that we feel most benefit from their experience.” He added that if customers really wanted one from IBM directly, they could get one, but that missed the point the user was trying to make. When HP and Dell sell something directly, it is immediately configurable and orderable by the user, and often at a lower price than list price.
The other interesting question that was asked is whether or not IBM was considering offering a single-user version of the i5 515 that would be geared specifically for developers rather than production application environments. “That’s an interesting idea,” said Herring. “For now, we have very attractive developer lease terms for ISVs to get a 515.”
At $7,995 for a five-user i5 515 system, this is a bit steep as a development environment. And, in my opinion, it is the wrong thing to do anyway. What developers need is a workstation with the complete V5R4 software stack, including compilers, for a much lower price than the entry i5 515. Developers do not need all the I/O expansion in that box, even if they do need a reasonably faster processor with lots of cache memory and main memory to write and test code.
IBM’s IntelliStation Power 185 workstation uses the PowerPC 970 processor, which cannot support OS/400 V5R4, and the IntelliStation Power 285 workstation, which supports one or two 1.9 GHz or 2.1 GHz Power5+ processor cores, is $8,099 through the IBM online store with 2 GB of main memory and a single 1.9 GHz core, and is no cheaper than the i5 515 itself. A Power 285 workstation with two 2.1 GHz cores, 4 GB of main memory, and two 73 GB disks sells for $14,719 online. That is far too much money for a development workstation. The Power workstations are aimed at scientific applications, where access to very fast graphics co-processors is as important as a fast CPU and lots of memory. All of this graphics is lost on the i5 applications and the developers that create them.
What IBM needs is to step back and create a workstation specifically for the i5 developer that has the GTX4500P graphics card ripped out and an X64 co-processor plugged into a PCI slot so it can run Windows. (Sun Microsystems used to sell a similar card, called the SunPCi III coprocessor, which sported an Athlon XP 1600+ processor, 1 GB of memory, an AGP 8X graphics card that plugged into a 64-bit PCI slot.) This hybrid workstation would support WDSc development tools on the co-processor and link directly back to the i5 developer brain through the PCI bus or through an external Ethernet link, much as the Integrated xSeries Server does on the AS/400, iSeries, and i5 servers. And, when it is all said and done, such a machine might still end up costing $8,000 or more. But, it would do the job of two machines instead of just one, which has some value.
While there has been much talk about converting an Xbox to an i5 workstation, it seems highly unlikely that such a thing can be done, since the “Xenon” PowerPC variant that IBM designed for Microsoft almost certainly does not have the PowerPC AS instructions and memory tags required by OS/400 and i5/OS. Ditto for the PowerPC 970 and PowerPC 970MP, to my great chagrin.
Of course, if IBM had stuck with the PowerPC-based desktop plans it had back in 1991 and kept Windows alive on the Power chips, IBM would by now have had a volume, 64-bit workstation that competed against high-end Intel Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices Opteron workstations. Such a PowerPC workstation would have 64-bit capabilities and integrated virtualization that would allow Windows, Linux, and AIX to run side-by-side with i5/OS. And this story would not exist.
I would have much preferred writing a story about what IBM did right 15 years ago than about the pretzel twisting moves it might have to make to fix the problem that developers cannot afford to buy a server to use in place of workstation to develop i5 products. Cheap lease rates cannot make up for the fact that a configured machine at $12,000 cannot be acquired by small i5 shops for a single user. Many i5/OS and OS/400 shops grouse about paying that much for a server that is shared by tens of users.
Maybe the real answer is to compile a special developer version of i5/OS and the related application development toolset for the X64 platform. I am going to noodle that idea and share my thoughts on it in a few weeks.