In Orlando, Optimism Returns
May 10, 2010 Alex Woodie
It would be tempting to say that things couldn’t have gotten much worse for COMMON following the dreadful conference in Reno this time last year, when the global economy was melting down. In reality, things could have gotten much, much worse for the 50-year-old user group. But thanks to a variety of reasons–including a better economic climate and the impressive announcements from IBM–the optimism was as obvious as the Florida humidity during last week’s show at the Orlando Hilton.
Before Y2K, COMMON routinely attracted more than 4,000 attendees to its bi-annual shows. For the next five years, attendance gradually declined to about 2,000, and dipped under the 2,000-person level permanently in 2005 (see the accompanying table below). Things improved slightly in 2007, when the group decided to host only one show per year. But total attendance (a number that includes ISVs, IBMers, and the press, who typically do not pay registration fees) collapsed to under 1,000 total attendees during last year’s dismal show in Reno. Total paying attendance was likely around 700.
For last week’s show in Orlando, COMMON reported a total attendance of about 1,150, which marks a 20 percent improvement over the show in Reno. Attendance for the IT Executive Conference, which ran in parallel to the main COMMON show, also increased. While the bigger numbers allowed COMMON’s board to take a collective sigh of relief, the organization is not out of the woods yet. It still faces pressure from other sources of education, such as virtual conferences, large gatherings of major LUGs in Southern California, Toronto, and New York, and other conference organizations.
But the evidence suggests that COMMON’s slide has bottomed out. Now we’ll see whether tough decisions by the COMMON board–including ending the practice of providing free registration to all speakers (they must do five sessions to have their reg fees comped) and nixing the free booze in the expo–will help drive the organization closer to the black.
System i types were also buoyed by the strong showing by IBM executives, in particular, Power Systems general manager, Ross Mauri. During his keynote address, Mauri impressed a crowd of about 800 with his humor and knowledge of the IBM server history, in particular the genesis of the term “core” and the name “common” as they pertain to IBM 1401 and 1620 tabulating equipment. It was a refreshing change from the button-downed approach that most general managers have taken in the past, and demonstrated that Mauri really knows his stuff.
Mauri explained that he worked on a 1401 as a student operator at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the late 1970s. After the full-time staffers quit between his freshman and sophomore years, he was put in charge of running the 1401 in support of all the college’s administrative functions, including accounts receivable, payroll, and grades. “We operated that system for a year-and-a-half,” he said. “You can imagine [how we looked]–long hair, shorts, Pink Floyd T-shirt on. I have pictures but I’m not going to show you,” he said to laughter from the audience.
When the college upgraded the machine, Mauri and the other students purchased the old 1401 with the other students for $2.95, “so we could take it apart.” Mauri kept one the core planes as a keepsake, and displayed the piece of IBM memorabilia to fascinated COMMON attendees after his keynote. “If you’ve ever heard the term core and wondered where it came from, it actually came from these little tiny magnetic donuts that are in here that are interwoven with copper wire,” he said. (As for COMMON, the name came from the “common area” in the Model 1620 that allowed multiple FORTRAN programs to communicate with each other. You learn something new every day.)
But it wasn’t all reminiscing for Mauri, a former programmer who cut his teeth as an executive in the mainframe side of the house and is now making a name for himself as head of Power Systems. Mauri spent a bit of time talking about recent Power7 accomplishments, including the four new low-end Power Systems servers that will eventually replace the Power Systems 520, and at least one high-end replacement for the current Power Systems 595 that will debut during the second half of this year, sporting 256 cores in a single system image. The new high-end machine is currently being tested in IBM’s Austin, Texas, labs and runs “very fast,” he said.
“We’re especially proud of what we’ve done” with Power7, Mauri said during his keynote. “We did something that no other chip vendor or system vendor had ever done. We increased the number of cores on the chip, increased number of threads per core, and we increased the performance of the core. Nobody had ever done all three at once.”
It was also good to hear Mauri talk a little smack about the X86 competition, including Hewlett-Packard and Oracle (which now owns Sun Microsystems) during a roundtable with the System i press held just before his keynote last Monday.
“You saw Alpha die. We’re watching Itanium die. If you don’t think it’s dead, keep watching,” Mauri said. “Larry [Ellison, Oracle’s CEO] says he’s going to keep Sparc going. I’m not sure I believe all that. They can’t show a roadmap. Most of their thought leaders from a hardware point of view have left the company. And Larry’s flagship system is built on X86. So I’m not sure if I believe him that he’s going to keep Sparc around forever. But I guess we’ll see. He is Larry. He’s got a lot of money.”
But What About i?
While IBM is understandably excited about improvement in Power Systems hardware–which helps drive its continued dominance of the Unix market–COMMON goers are more interested in hearing about the System i platform, and in particular the i/OS operating system. It’s become a sport of sorts to gauge a general manager’s commitment to the i/OS platform, and to that extent, Mauri obtained a passing score with comments such as this:
“One of the things that I’ve been asked several times since I’ve been here is ‘Do you have a strategy for i? Are you committed to i?’ And over and over I’ve said yes. [The platform] is a fundamental part of Power Systems business, now and into the future,” Mauri said.
Mauri isn’t the first IBM general manager to speak highly of the platform at COMMON. And while IBM appears to be sticking to its guns regarding the hot-button issue of marketing (no, there will be no Super Bowl ads for System i next year, thank you very much), it appears that IBM is taking more steps to position the product strongly against the competition.
To that end, Mauri encouraged COMMON attendees to download the new IBM i Strategy and Roadmap whitepaper and show it to their CEOs and CFOs. The white paper can be downloaded from Mauri’s Power of i Web page. The Four Hundred walked you through this document back in January.
COMMON attendees also gave a warm response to a new IBM Power Systems video shown during the opening session. That video can be accessed here. IBM CEO Sam Palmisano also appeared via a pre-recorded video message, but it was nothing to write home about.
System i software vendors were particularly pleased with last week’s showing in Orlando. While the number of vendors exhibiting in Orlando was actually down from Reno, the vendors who did attend last week’s show are sure glad they did, because it had been several years since COMMON attendees displayed the high level of interest in third-party i/OS wares that they showed during the five expo sessions held last Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Many company representatives attributed it to an improved economy and a backlog of projects at System i shops.
COMMON attendees paid a particularly high level of attention to the new RPG Open Access technology that IBM added with i/OS 7.1. Profound Logic and looksoftware, two of the third-party i/OS vendors committed to delivering I/O “handlers” that enable RPG Open Access, reported an extremely high level of interest in their technology. Their booths were flooded with attendees last Monday night. Demand for information about the new technology was so great that COMMON added an extra session on Profound’s technology last Wednesday.
But RPG OA wasn’t the only technology getting attention last week. Nearly all vendors said their contacts with customers in the expo were more fruitful than in past years. Attendees’ desire to fill their bags with free schwag–many vendors gave away Apple iPads this year–appeared to play second fiddle to figuring out how they could make their businesses run better. Traffic among the booths was so high that some vendors reported that they almost ran out of forms to take down attendee contact information.
John Dominic, the U.S. channel manager for systems management software vendor Halcyon Software, said COMMON attendees displayed a fresh willingness to move forward with new projects. “The show was great for us. It was business-positive this year,” he said. “It would have been a bad year to skip [the show]. The attendees are serious and don’t want to screw around.”
Eager to get that COMMON bump, some vendors, such as i/OS business intelligence software provider New Generation Software, have already committed to attending the new fall conference that COMMON will hold this October in San Antonio. That show, which is slated for October 4 through 6, will not be a full conference, but it will give vendors more of a chance to display their wares in the expo and in sessions. However, some vendors said they did not have enough notice to work the new fall show into their 2010 budgets.
Among all the sessions and meetings and drinks by the pool, attendees found time to vote for COMMON’s new board. Pete Helgren and Kevin Mort were elected to the board for the first time, and Jim Oberholtzer was re-elected. As far as COMMON’s executive leadership goes, Pete Massiello was elected the new president of COMMON, Trevor Perry was elected executive vice president, Jim Oberholtzer was elected treasurer, and Dan Kimmel was elected secretary. Wayne Madden also has a seat on the board as immediate past president, while two other board members, Randy Dufault and Jeff Carey, are no longer on the executive panel.
Madden handed out several awards during last Monday’s opening session. Sandy Cureton, the IBM liaison to COMMON, received a Distinguished Service Award for her work. Cureton is retiring soon. Larry Bolhuis, who goes by the nickname “Dr. Franken” for his creative approach to working with i/OS hardware, received the Al Barsa Memorial Scholarship. Madden also highlighted the work of Richard Ogbechie, an RPG programmer in South Africa who heads up the Young i Professionals (YiPS) group in that country. Ogbechie was one of the first students to take advantage of IBM’s Academic Initiative, and took RPG classes at the Vaal University of Technology.
If you want some more video from COMMON 2010, check out Scott Klement’s excellent vlogs at his YouTube site at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_vDa59I93Hs.