IBM i Strategist Sets Priorities, Balances Resources
July 27, 2015 Dan Burger
IBM is a company with a boatload of resources. How those resources are applied to its large and prosperous IBM i market segment is a topic that we like to discuss from the perspective of you can’t do enough for IBM i and, by the way, we think you are doing too little. Chief architect for IBM i, Steve Will, bristles at the accusation. IBM i strategy is his domain. Resource allocation is his tight rope to walk.
One of those resources is of the human variety. People and teams that take the ideas and turn them into innovations that get the work done. You may have noticed around your own shop that the number of employees have either dwindled or if they are increasing that growth is coming in areas other than your corner. You have to be more resourceful.
The chief architect operates with similar realities. Where the AS/400 was once autonomous and staffed accordingly, IBM i is now part of the Power Systems development team. Development often depends on collaboration with people who are not i-centric.
“All of us in IBM have gone through periods where we have fewer people. We have to balance what’s important to IBM with what’s important to IBM i,” Will said during a meeting with IT Jungle at the OCEAN Technical Conference in Orange County, California, July 17. At the conference, Will presented two sessions on the topic of strategy–common attributes for success and how he applies them to IBM i.
Ever since the iSeries and pSeries platforms converged, there’s been a transformation that has involved teaming with people outside of Rochester to get things done for the i platform. That’s not perceived as a positive by purists who see that as diluting, or even polluting, the water.
It’s an old argument and it’s time to move on. Development of the IBM i platform is not happening on its own island anymore. It’s an integrated world. Fortress Rochester is history. However, that’s not to say that old rivalries like the one between OS/400 and AIX have completely melted away. Both sides still tend to think their development teams are the smartest folks in the room. Like it or not, the hypervisor and virtualization development that is taking place is the result of the IBM i and AIX teams collaborating and the number of developers assigned to these efforts is larger than if either of the operating system teams were going it alone.
“It took some time to understand their capabilities,” Will says of working with the AIX side. “Do they understand what we want and do we understand the pressure they are under so that requests can be prioritized properly? That was part of the transition.”
A strategist has to master the skill of prioritization. A strategy doesn’t exist when priorities change like lunch menus.
The IBM i development team clearly is focused on the database. A quick review of i 7.1 and 7.2 and all the Technology Refreshes in between and since provides all the evidence. Will, who has been the chief architect for nearly eight years, describes the DB2 for i database as “the key differentiator and the biggest thing within the operating system.”
“But what that means is that if someone comes to us and says I want to do more cloud or more mobile development, the biggest team that I have is the database team. So if I decide that a new cloud priority or a new RPG priority is more important than the bottom priority on the database list of things to do, we have been able to reassign some people, But it takes time to get an experienced database programmer to learn another area of expertise. And that part of the resources thing has been one of the most challenging things we have had to deal with,” Will acknowledges.
“But because of that, we have a lot more people in the organization who are experienced on several parts of the operating system. There used to be more people with individual areas of expertise,” he says. “The new way is better for responding to strategic changes. It’s been a challenge for those people, but it allowed them to learn new things.”
“Since 1988 we have fewer people working on the platform, but it is not as scary as people think. I have teams of people that weren’t available before. For instance, people working on availability issues and storage issues did not exist in the i space before.”
Open source technology is one of Will’s favorite topics. As far as I know, he doesn’t have a time machine, but he’s pretty confident that open source will have a major impact in the future of business computing and he’s proud of adding IBM i support for Ruby, node.js, Python, and PHP. All of them are actions that fit into his strategic goal of supporting multiple programming models on IBM i, so that users can apply new approaches and integrate them with existing investments.
“The difficulty predicting 10 years or more today is that open source will be on the path, and it’s not clear whether something will consolidate open source,” Will notes. His 30 years of IBM tenure seem to fuel his interest in the future.
What that means from Will’s perspective is the potential for collections of open source applications that will be bundled into a core group that forms an open source business solution.
The groups that form are the ones that will be contacted about validating their solutions on IBM i. That is to say they will be contacted by all the enterprise platforms including IBM i.
“Linux got to the point where consolidation had to take place just so customers could work with a distro so there was a consistency for installs,” Will explains. “Maybe 10 years from now in open source there will be a group of functions that will allow anything to run. We will watch for a standard–a hard word to use–set of functions that will be the required set. Some of it will be stuff that exists today and some will be invented in the next five years. There won’t be a hundred different things that will be successful in business solutions. Some software will win for whatever reasons and then they will get collected.
Late last year, when Microsoft announced plans to open source .NET to give it cross-platform capabilities, the awareness of open source potential got a shot in the arm. It’s being closely watched by Will.
“I believe one of the reasons Microsoft might want to open source .NET is so that some of the solutions that currently sit on .NET, which are very popular business solutions in their space, could compete in open source,” Will says. “Maybe Microsoft will do this with some of its software. I don’t know. I think .NET will be an interesting transformational thing if it moves to open source. It would make sense to support it on IBM i and connect it to whatever similar services we have on i. We are watching those things. We are creating the platform they can run on.”
It doesn’t sound as if he would think too long about allocating resources to that project.