AS/400 LUG: Friends in High Places
January 19, 2009 Timothy Prickett Morgan
As members of the AS/400 and successor communities, you all exercise a certain amount of influence over IBM and its i platform, just by virtue of the checkbook that you, your CIOs, or the owners of your companies have in their desk drawers. This influence is, of course, distributed across the 200,000-plus i community. It is diffuse, even if it is bright. But the candle power of an organization called the AS/400 Large User Group is quite a bit higher, and focused like a laser beam on IBM and its i platform.
Over the years, we’ve all heard about the LUG second-hand–in my case, usually from AS/400, iSeries, and System i general managers when the product line had its own division within Big Blue–but not much is known about the organization. The LUG is not big on publicity because secrecy is part of its influence, but also because the companies from which the LUG members come all think of IT, and in particular their i-based IT, as strategic. But, I know a few people of my own in high places, and convinced Lynne Benedict, the business analyst in charge of the group, and Dave Holland, a LUG member from an unnamed company, to spend some time on the phone telling me, and therefore you, a bit more about the LUG and what it does.
If you want to amuse yourself for a moment, you can take a look at the LUG’s minimalist Website at as400lug.com. You’ll notice two things immediately. First, it still has AS/400 in the domain name, and like The Four Hundred, this is not going to change no matter what IBM calls a server supporting an OS/400 operating system with RPG applications hitting a DB2/400 database. The second thing is that the LUG has a sense of humor, in that it has chosen a lug nut as its logo. A more appropriate logo would probably be a lever, but that is a much tougher acronym to make work.
The LUG got an informal start back in 1994 at the COMMON user group (the one the rest of us get to use) when IT executives at six big AS/400 shops got together and all realized that they had big boxes and that they also had a totally different class of problems from most of the AS/400 midrange. So they formed a group and hosted meetings with each other to talk shop. In 1995, they came up with a list of 11 handwritten requirements for the AS/400 platform that they handed Big Blue–and you will remember that this was the height of the transition from CISC to PowerPC AS RISC processors and from 48-bit to 64-bit OS/400, a time of great change. Over time, the requirements submission process became more formalized, and eventually, in 1999, the LUG incorporated as a business in Minnesota and started charging an admission fee to be in the group. Soon after that, they hired Benedict, who runs the business and who makes sure the three meetings that the LUG hosts each year in Rochester, Minnesota, have lots of food. Members pay $2,500 a year to be in the LUG, and they have to pay for their own travel and lodging for the meetings, which are hosted at IBM’s Rochester Labs these days.
The keyword in Large User Group is, of course, Large. And this is the case because large AS/400 shops have always had very different kinds of problems than small and midrange ones. (IBM had 9404 and 9406 boxes from the beginning for this very reason, and even added smaller 9402 machines to further differentiate the products aimed at very different classes of customers.) A few years ago, when the LUG site was last updated, the ante to even apply to be in the LUG was to have at least 25,000 CPWs worth of aggregate, OS/400-based capacity in production. The capacity in development machines or in secondary machines whose primary use is for disaster recovery do not count. In 2008, the limit to get into the LUG was 30,000 CPWs and Benedict says that it will soon be upgraded to 50,000 CPWs. Considering that the largest Power System i machine, the Power 595 using Power6 processors, is rated at 300,000 CPWs, this 50,000 CPW level doesn’t seem like a huge upper limit. Holland, for instance, is an application design engineer at an AS/400 shop that has over 800,000 CPWs in production with i workloads (and lots in test, development, and disaster recovery). Currently, there are 112 companies in the LUG, and there is a waiting list to get in. Once you are in, you can send as many people in your company to the LUG meetings as you want to buy plane tickets and lodging for.
Size is not, however, everything. The LUG board of directors, which is comprised of seven members and which decides who is in and who is not, likes complexity, too. “The board does look at complexity,” explains Benedict. “Someone with a loaded checkbook and a 595 is not going to get in because they are not going to benefit. We strive for members who will give as well as get perspective.”
About 80 percent of the LUG’s members are from the United States, but there are members from the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Denmark, Venezuela, the Czech Republic, Italy, and Canada. Companies in the financial services industry, travel and transportation, manufacturing, retail and distribution, healthcare, and hotel/casino industries are represented in the LUG; financial services is the industry with the most representation these days.
The LUG meets three times a year, and aside from eating well, they do what we all wish we could do: talk directly and bluntly with all the i top brass. Since 2001, the GM of the AS/400 and successor product lines has been at each LUG meeting except for one meeting when the GM was in transition.
Every year, LUG members create a document that is presented to and received by the top dogs at IBM outlining technical requirements and long-term strategies (over a two- to five-year timeframe) for the i platform. The next LUG strategy meeting starts on January 26, and by the end of the week, the LUG members will have hammered out the issues facing the largest shops and what they expect IBM to do about it. And throughout this process, as they have questions, LUG members have access to the top technical, sales, and marketing people in the Rochester organization, and they can get immediate and honest answers to their questions. Everyone is under a non-disclosure agreement, so IBM is not worried about information leaking out of the LUG. The fact that no one knows who the members are sure helps keep a lid on things, too. Here’s a fuzzy photo of LUG members, visiting Minnesota in February:
Since the establishment of the LUG, the organization has presented over 1,000 requirements to IBM for the i platform, and thus far, Benedict reckons that close to 700 requirements have been met and another 160 requirements are open and being actively worked on at Big Blue. (Holland says that the i 6.1 release had about 50 requirements from the LUG in it.) That’s a pretty good batting average, which is no surprise when you consider that LUG members are among IBM’s largest i shops, cutting the largest checks.
“The benefits of being in the LUG are well worth the cost of admission,” says Holland. “IBM’s developers are in the room and they can tell you how a piece of code works or why they can’t implement or change that code in a certain way you might think they ought to. This is well worth the trip to Rochester, although that February meeting is always tough.” Holland adds that the other benefit is that LUG is all large users, who have their own issues. “We are all large customers, and the problems we face and the politics of our organizations are different from smaller midrange shops. We can just decide to take a system down at night or on a long weekend. The issues we face are different from when I was in a midrange company, and the people in the LUG all understand this.”
The other benefit, of course, is that IBM briefs the LUG members on what is coming down the pike in the next six to 12 months at these meetings, which is enough ahead of time to actually allow LUG members to have influence over IBM’s plans. The rest of us tend to be reacting after the fact to what IBM has planned, or what wiseguys like me are speculating about what might happen. LUG members actually know.
Membership does indeed have its privileges.