The System i Loses One Big Account and a Mid-Sized One, Too
February 11, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Somewhere, deep in the heart of Georgia, there is a System i sales rep whose is none too happy. And just a little further north, up in America’s capital, there is another sales rep who is also probably not feeling too chipper. Two long-time AS/400 shops–the billing operations of cellular phone service provider AT&T Wireless and the United States Mint, the division of the U.S. Treasury department that prints and sells money–are both rumored to be ditching their iSeries and System i machines for alternative platforms.
First, the smaller i5/OS shop that IBM has let get away. That the U.S. Mint, which presumably could just grab a few sheets of Uncle Bens and hand them to IBM to pay for maintenance on its three i5/OS and OS/400 servers and upgrade them with more processing capacity, has made the decision to move to an Oracle database platform is a shame. The Mint uses its iSeries machines, I am told, to run its online catalog, which sells expensive collectibles to numismatics all over the world. As you might imagine, the government is pretty secretive about its computers, but I am told that the Mint site runs on an eight-core System i box and that the IT department at the Treasury supporting the Mint has two smaller iSeries boxes. The decision was apparently just made to move the Oracle databases, and that presumably means a jump to another platform. No word if IBM is keeping the account or if the Mint is moving to iron from another vendor. If Oracle is involved and the Mint is like other shops, it is almost certainly bringing in Hewlett-Packard to help soften up IBM to get good pricing on System p or System x iron.
According to a posting at the Mint done under the Freedom of Information Act, the Mint has a Die Information System–yes, I laughed like heck at that too, despite being mad–that is written in Visual Basic and run against an Oracle database. The Mint also uses a Documentum document management system for its own internal use and its coders also put together a single-user system called FITS that manages Freedom of Information Act requests. (This makes me wonder where the STARTS system is lurking in the government bowels in Washington, D.C., but I digress. Frequently, and with enthusiasm.) I am amazed that FOIA requests are handled by a single person. That has to be a bit of a bottleneck, eh? Wonder if that was on purpose. . . . Anyway, the Mint also has a call management system called HEAT, and a data collection system based on bar codes and handhelds called ADCS. Oracle was a bit of a shoe-in for the back-end systems since the Mint’s ERP system is a set of PeopleSoft manufacturing software, presumably not running on an i5/OS or OS/400 server. That software, dubbed COINS, short for Consolidated Information System, was installed at the end of 1998 and replaced a set of three different applications; it was expected to have a 10-year life span and a budget of $40 million over that decade. Interestingly, back in 1998, the Mint was the first Federal agency to install commercial ERP software to run its operations, which at the time spanned four different locations that had over 1,200 employees. It apparently takes a lot of people to make money.
Now, the big fish that got away. The former Cingular side of AT&T Wireless, which is based in Atlanta, seems to have lost out in a battle with the larger AT&T parent about which platform to use for customer billing. Cingular was, of course, a joint venture between SBC Communications and BellSouth, both of which were spun out of Ma Bell back in 1984 as two of the original regional Bell operating companies. SBC was known as Southwestern Bell and was originally based in St. Louis back then, but moved its headquarters to San Antonio in 1993. SBC then went on to eat Pacific Telesis, Southern New England Telephone, and Ameritech (two of which were other Baby Bells), and then it ate Ma Bell in 2005 and then BellSouth in 2006. Interestingly, of the 22 companies that were the result of the AT&T breakup in 1984, half ended up in SBC, which we now know as the “new” AT&T. (A lot of the other pieces ended up in Verizon, which is also an amalgam of Baby Bells.) Anyway, the SBC-BellSouth angle is important in so far as these two companies had different billing systems running on different platforms.
According to sources familiar with AT&T Wireless’ plans, the Atlanta facility uses a billing system known as Care, which runs on a dozen–yes, a dozen–System i 595 servers. The shop also has six 570-class machines, a couple of 840s, and probably a few others they have stashed in some corner somewhere doing something. This is one of the largest System i data centers in the world, spanning a total of 70 logical partitions. Some of those partitions apparently had as many as 32 processor cores in them, and were running out of gas, so AT&T was in the process of upgrading to Power6-based machines and i5/OS V5R4M5 and looking ahead to V6R1.
Not any more. You see, the Care system running on the System i platform apparently only accounts for about 40 percent of the billing that AT&T Wireless does, and the other 60 percent is done on a network of HP Superdome boxes, presumably running HP-UX Unix, and supporting a different billing system called Telegence. The plan, I hear, is to run the Care system on the 595s and 570s until the fall of 2009 after getting an extended support contract from IBM for OS/400 V5R3, which is the release the Care application is running on. Before that support runs out, say my sources, AT&T Wireless will be acquiring 16 Superdomes to run another set of Telegence applications to cover the 40 percent of billing that system already doesn’t do at the wireless carrier (presumably from a San Antonio data center). Apparently the idea of using AIX and DB2 on Power-based systems to support the Telegence applications was not considered.
You have to figure that Big Blue has to be annoyed about the AT&T Wireless loss. These deals fell apart while IBM was busy mixing up its divisions and executives precisely to prevent these kinds of deals from being lost. Without a System i division and no general manager, it is not like there is someone to directly blame or hold accountable. But there sure ought to be.