Affordable Energy: Investment In The IBM i ISV Community
March 2, 2015 Dan Burger
The IBM midrange ecosystem was built on ISV applications. When the first AS/400 was ready to be shipped, more than 2,500 applications were available. That was a huge number then and it’s a huge (but undetermined) number now. So much has changed in the past 25 years. Who would expect the AS/400, now the IBM i, ISV community to resemble what it once was? And a fair question to ask is: “Should it?”
As long as the software remains vital and diverse and modern, the platform survives. A weak ISV community will sap the strength of the system. True. But it helps to define the word weak. If it’s strong at the top, how much does the middle and the bottom matter? I think it matters a lot. Especially when you consider that at its peak in the late 1990s, the AS/400 had over 8,000 ISVs with over 25,000 applications available. (A lot of those applications were running in System/36 or System/38 emulation mode, but a lot of them were not.)
IBM must make it a priority to energize ISV support across all the diverse industries and geographies. The IBM i will continue to surprise those who have predicted for years that it should be put out to pasture and it will continue to generate riches for Big Blue, but the overall health of the ISV community requires annual check-ups. Now what about that energy level? As IBM reorganizes itself and “rebalances” its workforce, the effects will certainly be felt throughout the organization and its business partners.
There is risk involved and it’s a double-edged sword. It cuts IBM just as surely as it cuts the software vendors. There will be enough blood on the floor to paint a barn if the often-praised IBM i ISV partnership falters. And partnerships falter when interaction and communication diminishes or, worse yet, disappears. It’s a fact that ISVs are struggling to get the attention they need.
At the top of the ISV pyramid are a few very large companies that receive a lot of attention. SAP, Oracle/JD Edwards, and Infor are likely candidates for the best seats at the table. Those companies take care of many of the biggest IBM i shops in the world. As you would expect, they are treated very well. But farther down the pyramid, the special treatment shrinks–hardware and software purchasing assistance goes from free to deeply discounted to not so deeply discounted and the disconnects begin to show up.
When it comes to technical assistance, the top ISVs are taken care of. Just like any ISV takes good care of its best customers first. That’s natural. They get the personal touch. How far down the chain that level of attention goes is the question.
You can take into consideration whether an ISV is proactive in going after the assistance it needs and that those that aren’t proactive get what they deserve, which is pretty much nothing. But that doesn’t take into account what IBM could be doing to make cooperation and collaboration easier.
My observation, based on nearly 20 years of conversations with software vendors and IBM business partners, is that IBM and the IBM i ISVs are not engaged to the degree they should be. On the technical side, it’s better than on the marketing side. When technical support is engaged, it is widely judged to be very good. However, it has always been difficult to navigate the labyrinth of IBM departments, changing personnel and policies. If anything, that has gotten worse as the corporation eliminates people who provide service and customers find it’s a self-service world filled with rules and regulations, hoop-jumping, digital paperwork, and frustration. The largest ISVs have dedicated teams at IBM that provide assistance. The level below that has dedicated IBM personnel that provide steady guidance. But a great many ISVs are lost in the maze. And I’m not just talking about the smallest of the small vendors who have survived by selling and supporting software that defies technical enhancement.
The number one priority of the ISV program is help software vendors with their product launches from a technical assistance perspective. The number two priority is to keep the ISVs current with the capabilities of platform, and in doing so build proof points for the mutual client base.
IBM used to accomplish those objectives with people handling the service calls. Many of those positions have been eliminated, replaced by self-enablement programs. New to the priority list is an item called help ISVs help themselves in a more efficient manner. It appears this applies to the small to midsize software vendors. From what I can tell, the top tier of ISVs still gets a lot of personal attention. It’s the small to midsize vendors where the collaboration could be better, where efficiencies should be improved, and where choices need to be made whether these ISVs are crucial to IBM in the future.
One of the positive changes that I’ve noticed is the increased access to IBM executives. The big ISVs and their biggest customers can get their calls taken by IBM executives and meetings can be set up. That won’t happen with the small fries. However, IBMers are accessible. You find them at trade shows, conferences, and even local user group meetings where interaction is welcomed. Steve Will, Alison Butterill, Tim Rowe, and others aren’t hard to find or talk with.
Kathy Bennett is a vice president at IBM’s Systems and Technology Group, with responsibilities in global ISV technical enablement. Bennett has a team of software developers and IT architects that provide development support for ISVs. The team members have expertise in specific industry verticals and Power Systems knowledge. They are connected to the Rochester and Austin labs.
Bennett recognizes the current ISV programs fall in line with the IBM’s often-stated emphasis on cloud, analytics, mobile, social, and security. She says ISVs that are looking for help in those areas are getting a lot of attention. Those interested in taking their applications to IBM i 7.2 and showing an interest in application and database modernization are also engaged with her teams. And you can add building skills in PHP, Ruby, and free format RPG as top requests from ISVs moving forward as early adopters.
The stated goal is to retain and grow the pool of IBM i ISVs. But apparently no one is monitoring this. Retain seems to apply to the top ISVs where communication and collaboration is established. ISVs outside that club are left to fend for themselves. Some are better than others at this. They believe the effort is worth the result. Others have determined the economic gain does not justify the effort. And quite honestly, that criterion could be applied to IBM’s point of view as well. The effort to retain will only go so far.
Developing new ISVs for IBM i relies heavily on supporting open source software. PHP has produced some notable additions and Ruby, which gained IBM i support within the past six months, looks promising, and so does Node.js for that matter, which is moving to the platform now. There’s more open source software supported on IBM i than most people would imagine. That’s probably because widespread implementations, outside the PHP application development example, are yet to come.
Linux on Power is being counted on to be a huge boost to the ISV community based mostly on what it is expected to bring to companies eager to tie front end analytics gathering (systems of engagement) with sturdy, back end transaction processing (systems of record).
Bennett noted the example of supporting SAP HANA on Power, where early adapters have progressed through a test and evaluation program. She forecasts that ISVs that are tuned in to the SAP on i market will use HANA, an in-memory database, on Linux on Power as a business accelerator or side car solution to SAP on i, with the purpose of accelerating specific transactions.
The ISV technical enablement boss says, “When I look at what we’ve worked on over the past quarter- to half-year, I see ISVs supporting RPG while adopting new languages like Ruby and free form RPG. They are taking advantage of new features such as row column access controls and other SQL database modernization technologies. They are doing Web server upgrades, journal management, and making use of IBM i Navigator, encryption, and live partition mobility. These are all areas where ISVs come in and ask for help.”
I would say hooray for the connections that are made and the collaboration that takes place, but someone should be keeping score of the missed connections and inefficiencies in the program that create holes big enough that ISVs just disappear.