Help Wanted: AS/400 Advocate
June 22, 2009 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The iManifest coming out of a group of business partners is Japan, which you can read about elsewhere in this edition of The Four Hundred, has stirred up a lot of thought and talk in the AS/400 market (yes, I said it that way on purpose) concerning who is to be responsible for the safeguarding of the present and the future of the AS/400 platform. This is all healthy and good, but it doesn’t solve the central problem the AS/400 faces: It has no advocate inside of IBM.
As we know all too well, IBM has made many, many changes in the AS/400 platform over the years to suit its needs, much as it did when it created the AS/400 in the first place, merging two similar but incompatible minicomputer lines on a single hardware and software platform in such a way that the vast majority of the base (System/36 customers) were highly displeased with the machine (which resembled a System/38 more than anything else).
It has been particularly tough on the AS/400, both inside of IBM and in customer data centers and the market large, in recent years, but if you want to be honest, the troubles really began a long time ago. I think the last time the AS/400 was truly an AS/400 as we knew and loved it was with the 1995 launch of the original PowerPC-based AS/400 lineup. That was an all-Rochester product line, well engineered and IBM’s first 64-bit operating system running on 64-bit iron. And it was also pretty much the last time the Rochester team had its own iron and had full authority to create a system that suited its customers needs, IBM Corporate be damned. And, not surprisingly, it was a hugely successful product line, offering customers a big increase in performance (like twice as much) for the same money.
The slide to the homogenized Power Systems began shortly after this, and mainly because the RS/6000 team in Austin messed up its 64-bit implementation of the Power processor. But somehow–and I don’t work at IBM, so I don’t know how–after the 1997 launch of the “Raven” Northstar PowerPC servers, Austin took over Power server designs and the input of people like Frank Soltis, the chief architect of the System/38 and AS/400, didn’t seem to get much of a hearing. IBM started homogenizing long before the “Mach II” eServer rebranding that gave us the iSeries, pSeries, xSeries, and zSeries lines. AS/400 shops hated this campaign because IBM stopped saying why you needed an AS/400 and stopped marketing the AS/400 at all, pretty much. When the downturn in IT spending came in late 2000, IBM was best positioned to storm the market with a converged Power4 “Regatta” server line, but the pricing was set to screw iSeries shops to extract profits out of them so IBM could afford to buy market share with its pSeries line. More than one AS/400 general manager has told me that they wanted to do some sort of violence to me (half-joking, of course), but when I think about what these short-term decisions by IBM’s bigwigs did to my life and your lives, it is hard not to have violent thoughts myself.
I have watched so many AS/400 general managers come and go, key advocates of the platform retire or die, in the past several years that it can be depressing. You know this as well as I do. There hasn’t actually been an AS/400 Division (well, a System i division) for two years now, and executive responsibility for the line is spread across the Power Systems division and the Business Systems division. One does system development (Power Systems) and some marketing and the other does marketing and some system development (Smart Cube). But they have different missions, different employees, and different agendas. It is like IBM wanted to merge its server lines, but then couldn’t stand it and then ripped the System x and System i lines in half and smashed bits of them together.
So who speaks for the AS/400? Who defends it? Who has power to say: “No. Not with my platform you don’t, mister.”
COMMON, COMMON Europe, and a bunch of regional user groups do the best that grassroots organizations can. But they are as beholden to IBM’s assistance as they are independent from Big Blue. They have to criticize carefully and tread lightly to secure their own existence. Ditto for reseller and independent software vendors. The master resellers, Arrow Electronics and Avnet do the best that they can for themselves and their reseller partners, but their short-term, quarter-to-quarter interests have typically been considered and adopted by IBM ahead of what Big Blue has needed to do to remain competitive. IBM and resellers are concerned with maximizing profits over the short term, while Microsoft and its X64 server partners have been interested only in world domination and making profits through volume server sales. It takes no genius to see which strategy rules the midrange.
Nothing is focusing the power of the customers, the resellers, and the ISVs in such a way that IBM can be compelled to think in a different way, to restore the AS/400 to its rightful dignity. That, as far as I can tell, is the central problem with the AS/400, and has been for nearly a decade. What we need now–what we have needed for so long–is an AS/400 advocate that is imbued with the power of the users and the channel and the software partners that counterbalances IBM’s ownership of the platform. IBM may control the roadmaps for the AS/400 platform, but good people of the midrange, you buy the boxes.
So we need an advocate with power. Maybe it comes through a buyers co-operative, something like the AS/400 Large User Group, which I told you about in detail in January. (Well, as much detail as you can get out of the LUG.) The LUG is an aggregation of 112 of the biggest AS/400 shops in the world, and IBM hosts them in Rochester and listens to their needs. Why? Because money talks. And if you want the kind of power that the LUG wields, you need to bring the buying power and needs of 100,000 active i shops together and nail the Four Hundred Theses to the doors at IBM Somers and Armonk HQ.
I hear Frank Soltis has some time on his hands these days. If Soltis doesn’t have an axe to grind, then he can borrow my black steel broadsword.