We’re Listening About and Acting For the i Platform, Says IBM
April 7, 2008 Timothy Prickett Morgan and Alex Woodie
If there is one thing that a system vendor doesn’t want–particularly one selling a premium product at a premium price–it is to leave the impression with current and prospective customers that it is not listening to them. The reliability of the AS/400 and follow-on platforms is legendary, and in manufacturing quality and tech support circles, the IBM Rochester Labs where the AS/400, iSeries, System i, and now the Power Systems-i 6.1 combo are developed and supported is also legendary.
At the COMMON user conference last week in Nashville, Tennessee, IBM wanted to make it clear that most of the changes it has made in the hardware and the rebranding of the Power-based server platforms to create the unified Power Systems product line for i, AIX, and Linux were driven by customers, as was the rebranding of the i5/OS operating system itself. (Features in the operating system are usually driven by customers, but sometimes IBM does get out ahead and offer advanced features that customers had not thought of yet.) To be fair, no other IBM platform has ever been given the focus of the AS/400 and its successors when it comes to input from the installed base and no other product division has put its top brass out there, in public forums, to get what is often heated and direct feedback from customers, software vendors, and resellers. And I can personally attest to the even more heated and frank feedback that general managers, product managers, and sales reps get from industry watchers and customers. As a matter of fact, in my experience, no other server vendor in the world makes their executives sit on the hot seat like the AS/400 platform has. (Commercial Linux distributor Red Hat has a very active community as well, and executives do take some heat each year at the Red Hat Summit.) That access and that heat are probably why customer loyalty, product quality, and customer satisfaction is lower.
Getting frank feedback and having executive participation is important, and Mark Shearer, vice president of marketing and offerings for the Business Systems division at IBM, told a story during the COMMON opening session last Sunday (March 30) that proves he is involved. Shearer described a conversation he had with a Swedish student who was having difficulty configuring his System i, but that student didn’t know that Shearer was one of the top executives in the System i business at IBM because Shearer was going undercover. (A bit like Henry V before the battle of Agincourt.)
“He just went on and on,” Shearer said. “He told me that he installed on the System i i5/OS, AIX, and Linux, and he told me how hard it was to set this all up, and how unintelligible some of our manuals are. He graphically demonstrated the height of the manuals,” Shearer said, raising his arms over his head, to show how big the manuals are.
The frank discussion with the student had an impact on Shearer, who decided to see if it was really that hard to configure the server. So during a trip to Rochester, Shearer stopped by the usability lab, where he would configure a System i 520–or at least try to. Suffice it to say, Shearer’s attempt to configure the System i 520 didn’t go entirely smoothly, he told the audience. As a result, he will be providing the technical writers in Rochester some constructive feedback on how to make the manuals more easily understandable.
Ian Jarman, who has been given the job of manager of Power Systems Software at the Power Systems division, explained in an interview at COMMON last week that the name change for the operating system from i5/OS V6R1 to i 6.1 was also done on the basis of lots of feedback. Under that new job, Jarman is in charge of the Power implementations of i, AIX, and Linux as well as for the iCluster, HASM, and HACMP high availability tools for the i and AIX platforms, and the PowerVM hypervisor and its extensions.
“We did some in-depth research to look at that question,” Jarman explained in reference to changing the name of the i5/OS V6R1 operating system only a few months after it was launched and only two weeks after it started shipping. “The feedback from the community was that they did not want IBM to keep changing the name from i5 to i6 to i7 as we change hardware and release level. Really, what we wanted to find out was what the people think of the current operating system, what they think of OS/400. We tested this with advisory council in United States, with the advisory council in Europe, the Large User Group, and with business partners, ISVs, key influencers, and analysts. i5/OS V6R1 means something to us, but actually all of this is inside baseball. It doesn’t mean that much to people outside. So when you think of the structure, having a slash in there doesn’t make sense in the outside world. I’m personally exceptionally comfortable with this V6R1. But the more I’m using this 6.1, the more I think this is good. It’s just cleaner, simpler. If my daughter was looking at this, she wouldn’t think it was weird.”
That is, in fact, a test. My own kids know what servers are because we have lots of them around the house [this is TPM speaking here], but when I say AS/400 (which I still do from time to time), they look at me with the same cocked head of the beloved Australian Shepherd-Border Collie mix who herds us all around the house. Seeing my frazzled running around as servers do bad things (or have had things done to them), they understand what IT Jungle is. They get that intuitively, especially since I also built and do tech support on their own PCs. But they have no idea what I am saying when I talk about “The Four Hundred,” to which my daughter has asked, “Four hundred what?”
IBM is, of course, very keen on positioning the Power Systems convergence and the i rebranding as the mainstreaming of the product line, moving it from the waters around an isolated island to the roaring rapids of the server space. “I deeply believe what we need to do as a product, as a community, as customers, and as IBMers is to move into the mainstream,” said Jarman. “Because what this announcement is all about is securing the future of our applications, our community–all the value that we have–and taking that into the mainstream of IBM, the mainstream of the industry, on competitive servers, on blades, and really setting ourselves in a position so that wherever the mainstream goes, we can go, too. This is about as big a moment as you can have in a career in this type of business.”
This mainstreaming talk is, of course, stretching the truth just a tiny bit. And if you want to be really fair, it was the AS/400 that mainstreamed 64-bit RISC processing (along with Digital Equipment’s Alpha chip) in the late 1990s and that the RS/6000 line road the AS/400’s coattails until 2001, when IBM artificially put the RS/6000 ahead of the AS/400 to try to take on Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems in the Unix space. (If the Unix market has declined in the past decade, it is because IBM drastically reduced Unix iron prices as it ate market share, forcing its competitors to do the same. Pressure from the X64 market was secondary until the recession in IT spending in the wake of the dot-com bubble bursting.)
As you well know, the AS/400 and its progeny have been on 64-bit PowerPC hardware since late 1995, and the AS/400 and RS/6000 product lines started converging even before that. One could credibly argue that the basic hardware converged many years ago, and the shift away from IOPs with the AS/400-style product (and its very smart asymmetrical multiprocessing, and I swear that we will see this technology come around on the guitar again with X64 systems–you watch and see) could have been accomplished years ago if IBM wanted to get the job done fully sooner. The Power platform, formerly known as the System i and System p separately and now embodied in the single Power System line, is not exactly mainstream. The volume servers in this world all use X64 chips, and they are generally processors that are made by Intel and they generally run Windows and sometimes Linux. If IBM wanted to mainstream the System i platform, it would port the i operating system to these chips, or at the very least rejigger Power processors so they plug into Opteron or Xeon sockets equipped with their respective HyperTransport and QuickPath interconnection schemes. This may yet happen, and it is far more likely to happen than a port of the i operating system to X64 iron, excepting possible through QuickTransit emulation from Transitive.
The point is, the System i is now mainstreamed at IBM, if not at the market at large, in as much as there is now no longer a distinct product line to talk about and that the i for Business operating system runs on the same iron as AIX and Linux. No exceptions going forward. (We presume. And it better be true.) And being mainstreamed at IBM and having the i platform virtualized atop PowerVM and running on Power Systems means it has its best chance of surviving as a product going forward within IBM, and therefore it has a chance to become more mainstream in the server market provided it is sold at a fair price against other platforms.
While IBM is not saying it that way, most of us on the outside of the walls at Big Blue get it, and get it intuitively. “There’s always going to be one or two people who throw up their hands and say, whatever,” said Jarman. “But when we listen to Gartner, when we listen to IDC, when we listen to the analyst community, when we listen to the COMMON board, without exception the feedback here has been this is a strong positive move, and one that they’ve anticipated. I haven’t gotten anything but very strong positive feeling at this point.”