COMMON Fights Off The Blues In Austin
April 15, 2013 Alex Woodie
There’s no denying that the IBM i server ecosystem is not what it used to be. The number of customers and users is far down from its heyday over a decade ago, when COMMON could attract 3,000 to 4,000 attendees to its conferences twice a year. The good old days are gone, but nobody was singing The Sky is Crying in Austin last week. In fact, COMMON-goers got revved up for the AS/400’s 25th birthday, which meant passionate reflections on the longevity of this amazing platform and, of course, cake.
COMMON kicked off its 2013 Annual Conference and Exposition by showing a video that IBM put together in celebration of the anniversary of the AS/400–which shortens to IBMi25 in our memory-compressed, Twitter-obsessed world. That video, titled “It started as a simple idea,” featured AS/400 chief scientist Frank Soltis, IBM i chief architect Steve Will, and others, and garnered wide applause from the audience of 400 or so in a ballroom at the Austin Conference Center.
“IBM was willing to take a risk on a rather revolutionary system,” Soltis says in the video. “I’m not sure there was any other vendor in the industry that was willing to take that much of a risk. The idea was to bring together the S/36 and S/38 into a brand new system. We worked after hours and on weekends to actually take a S/38 and run S/36 applications on top of it. We called this Silverlake. It eventually became the AS/400, and of course the rest is history.” IBM has posted the video here, and will post more videos as we get closer to AS/400’s actual birthday on June 21.
Soltis was on assignment for IBM, traveling in Asia and Australia during the show, so he wasn’t able to partake of the kick off to the 25th birthday of the creation he is widely credited with bringing into the world. (Although, apparently, not credited in the eyes of IBM, which has never made him an IBM Fellow, but that’s another story.)
Soltis wasn’t there, but the current IBM i and Power Systems brain trust was on hand for the show, including Power Systems general manager Colin Parris, who delivered the keynote address during the opening session last Sunday, spoke about the passion he holds for the platform.
“This year is a very, very special year for all of us,” Parris said. “I’ve been here for last couple of keynotes, but even before that, I spent time in development myself on System i in a couple different capacities, so this is really a time of passion, a time of delight for me because of the 25th anniversary.”
Parris didn’t get into his contributions to the platform, but instead spoke about how technological trends will reshape entire industries. Much of the 35-minute speech was spent on the problems and opportunities presented by big data and the proliferation of mobile devices and social computing.
For example, Parris said that, by 2015, the world will be swimming in 8 zetabytes (ZB) of data–90 percent of it unstructured–collected from more than a trillion mobile endpoints on the “Internet of things.”
“This industry is moving at the fastest possible pace,” he said. “We’re at point at which the amount of data is so vast, it’s unstructured, so the content is totally unclassifiable.”
Well, perhaps unclassifiable using yesterday’s tools. In the near future, making sense of the data will require new Watson-style applications that can literally learn by themselves, Parris said. “You’ve got to build a system that actually learns and adapts, that can look at the data, look at the situation, and understand the context,” he says. “These are what we call cognitive systems….The notion is, if we know what’s going to happen with big data….and if you can get ahead of that, entire industries will be transformed.”
At this point in the lecture, it wasn’t clear how the good doctor was going to bring this back home for the salt-of-the-earth IBM i professionals before him, who work at shops that don’t typically have computer scientists on the payroll. IBM i has never been a popular data warehouse machine. (Not for any good technical reason, mind you, and there are plenty of companies that do complex queries on the machine.) Its strength has always been transaction processing, not analytical workloads. The types of in-memory analytic databases that Parris was talking about simply do not exist on the IBM i at this time. IBM is expected to launch a big push on PowerLinux later this year, which might coincide with making next-generation analytic tools available to the traditional AS/400 shop. (IBM is also working with business partner SAP to see if it makes sense to port its HANA in-memory database to the Power Systems platform, but that, too, is another story.)
But Parris did make the connection, by laying out this sequence of events that follows the gleaning of that single actionable business insight from the unholy mounds of unstructured data (which nobody really expects to occur on the IBM i server). “Find the actionable insight, quickly provide the new service that uniquely differentiates my business, then quickly grab share, scale it, stabilize it, and secure it,” he said. “That’s the pathway that we see quite a bit.”
These next-generation business workloads will be able to take advantage of the IBM i platform’s traditional strengths in the areas of manageability, scalability, and low maintenance. “The less systems you buy, the more you can invest in new workloads,” Parris said.
The GM then uttered the “L” word, which took some guts, especially after getting into a back and forth in the press over Oracle’s claims to Unix server supremacy, by saying performance just isn’t as important today as availability and security. “Legacy means proven. New means unproven,” he said. “It’s interesting: As you begin to think about things that way, the world begins to shape itself very differently, especially as we go into this new environment, in which proven is going to be one of the most important things to have.”
Parris also reminisced about the launch of the AS/400 back in 1988, which actually featured an AS/400 commercial with the characters from the TV show MASH. You can see the TV show at the IBMi25 Facebook page at www.facebook.com/IBMi25?fref=ts. (Is it possible that this was the first, and last, AS/400 commercial?)
Even if Parris was speaking to the converted and not to a broader audience of non-believers (or not-yet-believers), it is good to see Power Systems executives giving the AS/400 some credit, and talking about the innovations in that platform made it one of IBM’s best success stories over the last quarter of a century. “This is the journey we have been on to deliver something that is proven,” Parris said. “How many things last 25 years? It’s an amazing journey we’ve been on.”
Attendance at the show seemed smaller than the official figure released by COMMON, which was “about 1,000” and is a number that includes all attendees, including those who paid and those who got free passes (such as IBMers, the vendors, and the press). Just the same, 1,000 is quite a bit lower than the official tallies for the last two COMMONs, in Anaheim, California, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Those two shows attracted 1,200 total attendees each, according to COMMON.
Foot traffic was visibly light in the Expo, and even the promise of free food (and free wine and beer in the evening) didn’t seem to attract many paying attendees to see the vendors’ wares. However, while attendance was spotty, many of the vendors reported getting solid leads. Many COMMON goers were also spotted in the fine eating and drinking establishments lining nearby 6th Street, where the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and other blues legends got their start, so it is possible that attendees were siphoned out of the Expo by the unique (weird?) culture that Austin offers.
The IBM i Innovation Award was given to Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. of Lincoln, Nebraska, for its use of LANSA‘s LongRange mobile application development tool to create an eKanban system that is saving the company considerable amounts of time and money. (See our February news brief on the implementation: Kawasaki Saves a Bundle with LANSA-Based eKanban System.) The runner up was Baker College of Flint, Michigan, for its use of Profound Logic‘s Profound UI application modernization tool.
In other business, several scholarships were handed out. The COMMON Education Foundation scholarships went to Kris Coan and Gigi Simonsen, both from Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska, and to Ted Tucker, of the Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. Pete Massiello, a longtime member of the IBM i community, received the Al Barsa Memorial Scholarship. Drew Dekreon, one of the newest speakers at the COMMON conference, was awarded the new John Earl Memorial Scholarship, which was established by Earl’s former company, PowerTech, in his honor. Earl died earlier this year. The Distinguished Service Award was given to IBM i community member Dan Kimmel, and posthumously to Earl.
The new board of directors was also announced. Incumbents Pete Helgren and Kevin Mort held onto their seats, while newcomer Yvonne Enselman won a seat on the board, edging out Todd Spight. Randy DuFault will continue as president, while Jeff Carey, who is now the executive vice president, and Bob Krzeczowski, who is now treasurer, swap positions.
Next up on the COMMON event calendar is the fall conference, scheduled to start September 9 in St. Louis, Missouri, followed by the Annual Meeting and Expo next May at the Lowes Royal Pacific hotel in beautiful Orlando, Florida.