A Peek At IBM i Directions And Destinations
July 28, 2014 Dan Burger
Do you ever get the feeling that IBM i news is the news that never makes the news? There’s a joke that IBM i is Big Blue’s best kept secret. It doesn’t get many laughs, except for the smart-alecky kind. IBM’s i team has ramped up its efforts, but their reach is limited to a few hundred at conferences and a few thousand by blogging. That level of evangelism was recently displayed at the OCEAN Technical Conference, where Alison Butterill was the messenger.
Butterill is the IBM i product offering manager and worldwide evangelist. She’s as close to the action as anyone with vision inside IBM and face-to-face contact with IBM i customers. Her job description includes–but is not limited to–flag-bearing, forerunning, mediating, and news casting. She tells the IBM story and attracts IBM i advocates like a Starbucks sign lures early risers. At the OCEAN conference, she was center stage for a keynote address one evening and led two sessions the next day.
I had a front-row seat during her 8 a.m. “IBM i Trends & Directions” presentation that is an overview of what the IBM i team has been doing to enhance the operating system and keep it in tune with modern trends. It could have the subtitle: “IBM is Investing in i and You Should, Too.” She doesn’t miss the opportunity to remind the audience that the system is years ahead of competitors with a history of innovations that others are just incorporating (and calling new and innovative) now. People have forgotten or taken for granted, and some have never known, what makes the platform special.
“It’s necessary to remind people of the advantages of IBM i,” she told the tech conference attendees. Then she rattled off several examples beginning with single-level storage, a feature that’s been around for so long that it cannot qualify as news or be considered innovative due to the statute of limitations. But don’t discount the automation value of this feature, Butterill warns. “It allows you to plug in and configure a new disk drive and the system can immediately use it. Other systems require physically moving data and allocating space.” It’s a manual, time-consuming process that makes IBM i easier to use. “Yes, you can allocate space on IBM i if you choose to do so, but you don’t have to,” she notes.
An object-based architecture is another buried treasure that Butterill wants people to recognize and discuss relative to the time and costs involved with virus detection and eradication on other systems. “Everything on the system is an object. Objects have allowable activities,” she says. “You can’t call a file on an IBM i system, and that prevents viruses from coming in masquerading as a file and being called inadvertently. Being virus resistant is a huge thing as we are giving access to the system to more people and more things are being downloaded.”
Virtualized workload management is another innovation on other platforms that has been on IBM midrange systems since the System/38. Isolating and managing workloads is a skill that many IBM i administrators have in their back pockets. Other systems are playing catch up with virtualization products that lag behind IBM i. Butterill references the off-premise hosting environments that have been operating in the IBM i market for 15 or more years as one reason virtualization has advanced.
IBM is heavily invested in the managed service provider (MSP) business. It runs its own hosting business called SoftLayer, and it sells infrastructure to its business partners. This is all referred to as the cloud, even though debates exist as to whether managed services (also referred to as hosted services) and the cloud are one and the same. Regardless, the point Butterill makes is that MSPs have to be virtualized for the purposes of workload management plus allocating time and resources to specific clients. Virtualization, she says, is an IBM i advantage.
As we all know, detractors of the IBM i system call into question whether it is capable of taking businesses 10, 15, or 20 years down the road. They say IBM is not investing in IBM i. They say it’s a dying dinosaur. As you might expect, Butterill considers such talk to be fightin’ words. How could they not be?
“IBM is not abandoning the i,” she insists. “IBM continues to invest in integration, built-in functionality, and keeping it simple.” The list of things IBM is focused on doing for the IBM i includes Web interfaces, security enhancements, performance, standard connectors, and the integration of collaboration tools.
She describes the IBM i marketplace as “stable” and claims “we are growing at a slow level,” without explaining how that growth is being measured. “No one in the marketplace is growing huge,” Butterill says.
The topic of investing in IBM i naturally leads to a discussion of the progression of IBM i operating systems. If you are staying current on the operating system nomenclature, you know IBM i 7.2 became available in May. That’s four years after i 7.1 and six years after i 6.1. Typically IBM only supports two versions of an operating system at one time, but as you can see we have three right now, plus an extended support contract for shops still using i5/OS V5R4. There’s no official comment about how many OSes will be simultaneously supported going forward, but with four years between major releases, I would bet it won’t be more than two. Shops that are deciding to upgrade from V5R4 seldom stop at 6.1. Butterill, however, advises a review of the 6.1 documentation before jumping to 7.1 because there are items that are not supported in that move.
When IBM shifted from rolling out new releases of the operating system on two-year cycle to releases on a four-year cycle, it began a program known as Technology Refreshes and has followed a spring and fall release schedule. This began with 7.1, which now has received eight refreshes. TR8 was released in April, just a few weeks before the announcement of 7.2. A few of the Technology Refreshes were big deals. The availability of Live Partition Mobility with TR4 and free-form RPG in TR7 are chart toppers.
As for companies running i 7.1, the adoption rate of Technology Refreshes fluctuates with the need to have the specific enhancements. Butterill describes the free-format RPG technology built into TR7 as “very popular.” In the words of a true IBM i evangelist, “it was flying off the shelves.” She also singled out new hardware, like an I/O device, as a spark that ignites adoption rate. The support for external storage devices (lower cost V3700s and V3500s) also attracted some early adopters.
Butterill claims the ongoing TR program, which was implemented in response to requests by the ISV (independent software vendors) Advisory Council and the Large User Group (LUG) Advisory Council, is evidence of IBM’s continuing investment in IBM i. She adds to that the release of i 7.2 and a roadmap that indicates an operating system release schedule that stretches past 2020.
Despite its four-year history, the Technology Refresh program is new to many IBM i shops that are still running on pre-7.1 releases.
“When i 7.2 was announced in April,” Butterill notes, “it packaged all the TRs since 7.1 and added new functions only available in 7.2. Expect to see TRs for 7.2 following the spring/fall release schedule. And there will also be TRs for the 7.1 OS. As companies transition to Power8, their 7.1 OS will need some new firmware.”
Butterill says, “The rate of TRs for 7.1 will be slower than the rate of TRs for 7.2. It will require two separate sets of PTFs, and they might be introduced at the same time or not. The numbering system will continue so that the next TR for 7.1 will be TR9 and the first TR for 7.2 will be TR1.”
The release date for the next Technology Refresh is the fourth quarter of this year.
“TR9 for 7.1 will contain support for some of the new hardware such as I/O devices and firmware optimization,” she says. “There will be a different set of optimization stuff in TR1 for 7.2. It will include the stuff in TR9, but also add new function into the OS. Some of the new function will get rolled back to 7.1, but some will require the underpinnings of 7.2.”
It’s not easy to keep up with changes in IT. Change is constant and often overwhelming. Staying current, particularly if you work in a shop where your IBM midrange system is at risk of being replaced because it is branded as a legacy platform and already obsolete, is practically mandatory. In those cases, it’s a matter of self-preservation.
I have recently talked with folks at IBM midrange shops that believed the newest version of the operating system was 6.1. Butterill mentioned the same thing in her presentation.