Power Systems i: The Word From On High
January 11, 2010 Timothy Prickett Morgan
I have been shooting my mouth off about the issues facing the Power Systems i for the past month, and now it is time to let IBM have the stage for a bit while I catch my breath. Over the holiday, Big Blue posted a white paper outlining the strategy and roadmap for the i product line, which our intrepid reporter, Alex Woodie, spotted before IBM even let the trade press know it existed. This white paper has some tidbits of information that are new, which why I bring it up.
The 14-page white paper, which you can read here, starts out with an introduction from Ross Mauri, general manager of the Power Systems division. Mauri reminded i shops who don’t read The Four Hundred–there must be a few of them, somewhere in a remote corner of the Internet–that there is a major release of the i/OS software platform due in the first half of 2010, and that Power7-based machines running i/OS will be available in 2010. That’s as precise as IBM has been about delivery schedules, but the expectation is that IBM will show off i 7.1 and Power7 servers at the COMMON midrange user group meeting in Orlando, Florida, in May. Both software and hardware could be announced then, but shipments could take longer.
The document is meant to be comforting at a time when many customers and business partners are questioning IBM’s commitment to the AS/400, er, i platform. Such questions persisted for more than a decade, and the box has survived two recessions in that time, albeit with diminished revenues. As I have said many times in the past, the declining revenues for the AS/400 and its progeny over the past decade have as much to do with Moore’s Law and competition with other platforms and a relatively stagnant back-office workload as people move off the platform to Windows and sometimes Unix boxes. And I have also said, and will say right now, that as long as IBM has a Power-based server line, there will be some kind of environment for it that supports DB2 for i databases being tickled by RPG and COBOL applications. So long as IBM has to create Power Systems for its AIX and Linux customers, it may as well plunk i/OS on there and make that incremental money. And that is precisely what it will do.
“You will find that our commitment to our IBM i clients, ISVs, and business partners is solid and unchanged,” Mauri’s opening letter says. “With our clearly defined processor and software roadmap, we are making substantial investments in the future of IBM i as an important, strategic element in the IBM systems portfolio.”
Now for the nuggets of real data captured in the white paper. First, relating to application software. IBM says that the i platform has over 2,500 active ISVs with over 5,000 applications that run natively on the various versions of the platform. As of the end of the year, some 850 ISVs have ported some 2,300 applications to i 6.1, the most current release. I am not counting the i 6.1.1 release announced last October (see IBM Rolls Up an i 6.1.1 Dot Release for all you want to know about that), and I doubt IBM is in these numbers, either.
The white paper also goes through the feature list for the next release, which everyone is starting to call i 7.1 and maybe IBM should drop the whole dot release pretense and just call it i7 and get into a nice lawsuit with Intel and Apple over who owns the right to use the “i” in their product names. I am not going to rattle off the feature list again, so read The Curtain Rises a Bit on the Next i OS, Due in 2010 to get the scoop on what is in i 7.1.
IBM said in the white paper that i 6.1.1 and later versions will be supported on Power7 machines, which implies that it will be required on Power7 boxes. The company also said that the Rochester development team is working with advisory councils related to user groups to prioritize requirements for the major release that comes after i 7.1; that release is expected in the first half of 2012 if IBM’s roadmap is drawn to scale. That would probably roughly coincide with a Power7+ kicker or maybe even Power8 processors. IBM has not said anything much about its Power chip roadmap. IBM reiterated that support for i5/OS V5R4 is planned to at least 2012, which is two years after i 7.1 comes out. OS/400 V5R3 is already technically dead, and has been since early 2009. It looks like i 6.1 will get support until at least early 2014, and i 7.1 will be supported until early 2016.
The second interesting collection of facts related to the demographics of i shops. The data is pretty skinny, but here’s what IBM said in the white paper. “IBM i is used by 100,000s of companies in over 115 countries around the world to run their business applications. It is almost always used for transaction processing workloads that exploit its integrated database; it is never used for high performance computing workloads like weather forecasting or oil exploration analysis, which would not exploit its integrated database. IBM i is typically used in industries like wholesale distribution, retail, banking, financial services, insurance, travel & transportation, and automotive.”
Yes, that “100,000s of companies” is pretty vague. As best I can figure, the AS/400 market peaked at around 275,000 unique customers in 1998, and fell to somewhere around 220,000 in the early 2000s. I don’t think IBM actually knows how many boxes are out there in the field and how many customers are using it. In the mid-1990s, when Big Blue was trying to move System/36 and System/38 customers to the Power-based Advanced/36 (remember that?) and then tried to get them to go native a few years later, I got calls from IBM’s top brass asking me if I had better numbers than they had. The answer, by the way, was a resounding, “No.” But I added I was perfectly happy to take any data they had and build a model.
IBM said that 30 percent of the AS/400-iSeries-i shops out there today are large enterprises with over 1,000 employees, and that the remaining 70 percent are small and medium businesses. Some 80 percent of sales–which can mean revenue or shipments, depending on how you interpret that word, which is why I never use it–came from North America, Western Europe, and Japan in 2009, and IBM added quickly that the box was successful in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Asia/Pacific region outside of Japan, too. IBM said that China was a “growth market strongly dominated by Unix,” but added that the i platform had a “strong presence” in banking and finance in China.
Finally, IBM said that approximately 90 percent of the total System i and Power Systems i machinery shipped in 2009 had the 520 label on it. This is consistent with the past several years–sometimes it has been as high as 95 percent–but in years gone by, the customer base was more of a pyramid, with a few customers at the top, lots more in the midrange, and a slew of companies across a wider range of entry boxes. Part of the reason why so many AS/400 companies can get by on a Power 520 is that it spans a pretty broad capacity range in a single, small system, but the other reason the distribution of boxes is concentrated in the Power 520 of late is that OS/400 and i/OS workloads have relatively modest computing requirements and low or no growth at many shops. The Web and infrastructure layers–usually on Windows boxes at i shops–is where the workload growth is. Which is why I argued last week that IBM has to do something about Windows at i shops and turn it to the Power Systems’ advantage.