IBM i Chief Architect Tells Us Where We’re At
May 23, 2011 Timothy Prickett Morgan
When you are the IBM i chief architect, you are not just the top techie in charge of the platform, but you are also the unofficial and sometimes the official spokesperson for the platform to the outside world. That job was handled by Frank Soltis, the father of the System/38 and the grandfather of the AS/400, for more than three decades. And for the past couple of years, Steve Will has been chief architect and spokesperson, and has lately been making the rounds talking about where the IBM i platform is and where it is going.
Will took the IBM i: Today, Tomorrow & Beyond show on the road at the COMMON midrange trade show and expo earlier this month. I was unable to attend the session at COMMON since it was later in the week and I had to get back to take care of my own business as well as hold down my other job over at The Register. But Will was gracious enough to give me some time and go over where we’re at and where we’re going with IBM i, and now I can share it with you. Think of it as our own personal session.
All told, IBM has spent $3.2 billion in its investment in Power7-based systems and software, according to Will. And like most IBMers these days, everybody is thrilled about the benefits of Big Blue’s converged Power Systems product line. As far as I can tell, the lines were for all intents and purposes converged back in 1997, with the Northstar PowerPC machines. The big differences were bogus green screen capacity features, some I/O feature cards, and the fact that AIX didn’t have server virtualization and OS/400 soon did. The formal convergence of the product lines means that the list prices for Power Systems servers and features are the same, which is progress of course, but I can assure you that the discounted prices that AIX shops pay is lower than what their IBM i brethren pay in indirect proportion to the proximity of an Oracle Solaris or Hewlett-Packard . (The further that Oracle or HP rep is away from the AIX customer, the more the price resembles an IBM i system price.)
Having said that, Will is, like myself, happy that IBM’s Power Systems revenues were up 6 percent in the fourth quarter and is similarly pleased that IBM sold out of Power 720 and 740 machines then. And it is still good news that Power Systems sales were up 19 percent in the first quarter of this year, with operating system sales rebounding even more strongly thanks to IBM i sales kicking in.
It is hard to say if the hardware is driving the software or the software is driving the hardware; it is probably a little of both, differing by customer case. Some customers have run out of processing or memory or storage capacity and need new hardware and therefore move up to IBM i 6.1, 6.1.1, or 7.1 to do so. Some customers have run out of support for OS/400 V5R3 or are worried about support for i5/OS V5R4, and they get new hardware as they upgrade their systems software. The important thing, as far as we all are concerned, is that there is some movement in the base.
The program conversion issue that affects anyone at V5R4 or earlier releases as they try to move to IBM I 6.1. 6.1.1, or 7.1 is a problem, but increasingly less of one as more and more people move to newer releases and ISVs get their applications certified. As IBM’s top brass in the Power Systems division told us at COMMON, in many cases it is an ISVs higher pricing on software as customers move from older iron to newer Power7-based machines and IBM i 6.1.1 or 7.1 that is the real barrier, not program conversion.
The pace of change for releases is slowing for IBM i, just as it is for other operating systems. Will says that customers wanted fewer versions and releases and longer support cycles. Major version changes can be disruptive, like the jump from V5R4 to 6.1. And customers also wanted a different mechanism for adding support for new hardware function without disrupting the rest of the software, which is why IBM has instituted a Technology Refresh (TR) mechanism starting with IBM i 7.1
The TR for IBM i operating systems is similar to the Technology Release interim release method that IBM’s AIX has used for years, but with one big difference. IBM Technology Refreshes are cumulative, meaning TR3 has all the functionality of TR2 and TR1 packaged into it, while AIX Technology Releases are sequential, which means customers can apply them individually and have to apply them sequentially to build the most current release.
Here’s what it looks like conceptually:
The big circles are versions and the little ones are Technology Releases. The Technology Releases are changes to the SLIC microcode that sits underneath OS/400 and i and allows for new processors, I/O peripherals, and virtualization hypervisor features to be added without changing the operating system that rides on top of that. This means ISVs and customers don’t have to do an upgrade, in the traditional sense, and recertify their applications for a new version or release. You just slip in a new SLIC with some PTF groups and off you go. Big Blue had one IBM i 7.1 refresh last October and another one that was available this month. Another one is slated between now and when the next version of IBM i comes out, and my guess is that this will be used to support Power7+ processors and some new peripherals and interconnects.
Customers seemed to be pretty pleased with the quality of the IBM i 7.1 release, by the way, as it was going through its early release testing. Check out this chart:
The letters in the legend stand for Very Dissatisfied, Dissatisfied, Neutral, Satisfied, and Very Satisfied. It looks like IBM i 7.1 doesn’t have VD–which is a good thing, I suppose. And generally speaking, it got very high grades by week 13. Better than most of you got in your programming classes.
What I wanted to know, and what was not in the charts, was how many people are moving to the new releases.
“There are a lot of IBM i 6.1 orders right now,” Will told me. “And adoption rates for IBM i 7.1 is higher than IBM has seen for a new release in many years.”
IBM i 6.1 is still going strong because you can upgrade from OS/400 V5R3 to i 6.1 in a single step. With V5R3 losing its support last year, customers who need to get ahead and who don’t mind running on Power6 or Power6+ hardware can make the jump all at once to i 6.1. And many are doing just that.
Will said that there were nearly 3,500 people who have adopted the first Technology Refresh, and that implies that there are somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 customers who are on IBM i 7.1 right now. By the numbers that Will has seen, about half of active customers are on IBM i 6.1, 6.1.1, or 7.1 or plan to be soon. The bulk of the remainder of active customers are on V5R4 with a smattering of V5R3.
It is hard to figure who is an active customer and who isn’t, and IBM is not saying. If you think there are around 120,000 unique OS/400 and i shops out there, that would suggest that IBM has the potential to move a large number of customers to more modern iron and operating systems in the next two years.
Not that they have any reason to be in a hurry. Look at the support matrix for IBM i releases:
IBM i 6.1 will be supported into 2015, and 7.1 is out into 2017. IBM i Next, no doubt to be called i 8.1 or perhaps something silly like OS/400 V8R1, will stretch out into 2020. That’s as long as any other operating system support roadmap out there today.
In the next issue, Will walks us through where the IBM i platform is going.