2015: An IBM i Year In Rear View
December 9, 2015 Alex Woodie
Here we are, at the end of the year, and the last issue of The Four Hundred for 2015. We can all celebrate the fact that the IBM i platform and community survived another 12 months in a ruthless IT market that’s hell-bent on disrupting entire industries. So give yourself a pat on the back, sit down and get ready to revisit the highs and lows of the IBM i platform and community over the past year.
The new year began with–what else?–another IBM reorganization. CEO Ginni Rometty decided to make IBM Systems group a single unit that included Power Systems and System z mainframe servers, IBM’s various tape, disk, and flash storage products as well as operating systems and middleware. The group, which is headed by Tom Rosamilia and Steve Mills, will give us better insight and numbers into exactly how the server business is doing.
HelpSystems kicked the year off with a bang by announcing the retirement of longtime CEO Janet Dryer, who was replaced by enterprise software veteran Chris Heim. The company also bought Halcyon Software, its closest rival in the job scheduling and systems management space; acquired IBM i security firm Skyview Partners in June ; and during the summer sold itself to H.I.G Capital.
IBM’s annual “workload rebalancing” (i.e. “layoffs”) were not nearly as bad as people feared. An inside source told The Four Hundred that only about 4,900 jobs had been axed in the U.S. and Canada. Previously, a report in Forbes had led some to speculate that IBM would be slashing over a quarter of its global workforce, which numbers about 420,000. That doesn’t mean IBM is out of the woods as it tries to compete with smaller, more nimble foes in the cloud, social, mobile, and analytics markets.
The winner of our “What The?” award: A shortage of RPG programmers was blamed for the earnings miss for one publicly traded IT services firm. Computer Sciences Corp. CEO Mike Lawrie (a former IBM executive) says the difficulty in finding and hiring RPG programmers to implement insurance applications for its customers directly contributed to a $25 million to $40 million shortfall.
IBM threw its Power Systems customers a bone in February when it granted “after-license amnesty” for those who let their software maintenance agreements lapse. Considering that there are probably only 30,000 IBM i shops current on maintenance, and about 120,000 who have let it lapse, this was a huge bone, indeed. It’s also a much needed one if these customers are ever going to modernize their infrastructure.
HelpSystems released the results of its first annual survey of the IBM i marketplace this month. Application modernization was the top concern identified by the survey, which involved 350 IBM i shops. Delivering mobile access, the growth of data, and shrinking IT budgets were also top concerns.
Also in March, IBM gave investors some insight into how its SoMoCloSecAn (social, mobile, cloud, security, and analytics) strategy is working. These businesses accounted for about $25 billion in revenues in 2014, and will increase to $40 billion by 2018, IBM said.
An April Fool’s Day story about the difficulty in finding enough work for brawny Power8 servers to do elicited barely a yawn from the masses, while outrage over the supposed RPG programmer shortage kept ITJ editors busy for weeks on end.
IBM finally relented and decided in April to provide extended support for IBM i 6.1 beyond the planned end-of-support date of September 30, 2015. Customers on 6.1 can now count on having not only the operating system covered until September 30, 2018, but also get fixes for the 45 or so other licensed program products under the software maintenance.
Signs of life for the Power Systems platform were spotted in the spring, when Big Blue reported quarterly revenue growth for the first time in years. The growth was only 1 percent, but that number was black instead of red, leading some to believe that the long slide in Power Systems had finally hit bottom.
The optimism continued at the annual COMMON Conference and Expo at Disneyland, where IBM sales executive Alex Gogh fired up the IBM i base with a passionate keynote address. “We have an opportunity in Power i that we’ve never had,” Gogh said. “This is our moment in Power i and this is our opportunity. . .”
The first of two Technology Refreshes were unveiled in early May, and IBM delivered the goods with TR 10 for IBM i 7.1 and TR2 for IBM i 7.2. The tech highlights include support for Java 8 and Python, native support for the JSON data format, and native support for flash storage.
In mid-May, IBM finally released its Power8 midrange server, the four-socket Power E850. The only problem: it doesn’t support IBM i. A few weeks later, IBM delivered better I/O options for Power Systems customers, including a PCI-Express Gen3 I/O Drawer, which (sort of) made up for the lack of IBM i love on the midrange box.
That old naming card once again was in play this June, when we asked IT Jungle readers whether we should just call it Power i now, as so many IBM i professionals in Europe and even within IBM itself have taken to calling it. After reading the reader feedback/hate mail, the verdict was clear: stick with the current name, IBM i on IBM Power Systems, you jerk.
Big Blue helped to modernize its business model when it announced it was going to start selling quarterly maintenance subscriptions to the IBM i software stack. This move makes it easier for managed service providers (MSPs) to sell IBM i capacity in the cloud.
We got a little more insight into IBM’s PurePower Systems play in July, when word of some sort of “transition offering” for Flex System customers started trickling into the channel. Since selling the X86 server biz to Lenovo, IBM is quite interested in drumming up interest in its converged Power Linux systems. The transition offering ostensibly would provide discounts, financing, and services.
The esteemed database DB2 for i was in the spotlight at the annual mid-summer OCEAN shindig in Southern California. That’s where IBM i chief architect Steve Will told IT Jungle‘s Dan Burger that the database is “the key differentiator and the biggest thing within the operating system.” Will also expressed interest in Microsoft‘s plan to open source the .NET framework, saying “It would make sense to support it on IBM i.”
In a great little 2,400-word report on the state of the IBM i server reseller business, TPM discovered a thin blue line exists at $50,000. That is, IBM i server deals that have a price tag north of $50,000 are not subject to competing bids, which protects the margins of IBM and its resellers. However, it’s “anything goes” on deals that fall under that amount. Resellers routinely undercut each other in cost to win the smaller deals, while the bigger deals are controlled via a “command” economy.
The Power8 processor may provide more than enough oomph for smaller shops, but that isn’t stopping IBM from developing Power9 and Power10 chips. The new processors, which are slated to debut in 2017 and 2020, respectively, will feature new micro-architectures and be targeted at data center optimization (Power9) and “extreme analytics optimization” (Power10). What the average IBM i shop, which will need perhaps 3,500 CPW of total capacity five years from now, will do with a Power10 processor that delivers 15,000 CPWs per core is not exactly clear yet.
The IBM i got some unwanted attention when it was featured prominently in a session at the DEF CON hacker convention. In “Hack the legacy! IBM i (aka AS/400) revealed,” a programmer for a European insurance company purported to demonstrate new security vulnerabilities in the system. They were debunked, but not before IBM i’s cloak of “security through obscurity” was basically ripped off and burned.
Power Systems General Manager Doug Balog sat down for a chat with IT Jungle about the biz. The GM was optimistic. “It feels to us that our strategy is working,” he said. The delivery of IBM i 7.2 (“the first big release in a bunch of years”) was helping, as was the timing of the upgrade cycle.
It was once again TR time in early October, and IBM obliged with TR11 for IBM i 7.1 and IBM i 7.2 TR3. Headline grabbers include the elimination of the 80-column format restriction in RPG; a new GNU Compiler Collection that brings to IBM i a grab bag of open source utilities like Git, .zip, tar, bash, and Python; and a new release of Access Client Solutions (ACS).
Also in October, IBM decided to support IBM i on the Power S822, a two-socket machine delivered in a 2U chassis. IBM imposed some limitations on how IBM i runs on the box, which you can get with a six-core chip running at 3.89 GHz or a 10-core chip running at 3.42 GHz. But it’s still viewed as a good move by IBM.
Lightning struck again when IBM announced its third consecutive quarter of revenue growth for its Power Systems division. Revenue growth of 2 percent (at constant currency) wasn’t huge, but it was positive, and came on the heels of quarterly revenue growth figures of 5 percent (second quarter) and 1 percent (first quarter). The fourth quarter is traditionally the biggest quarter for IBM, so chances are solid we’ll see a full year of growth in Power.
The news that the IBM i development team is considering a native implementation of open source .NET framework on IBM i may not have caught anybody by surprise. But it did capture the attention of TPM, who pondered what it really meant. Alas, if it comes to pass, .NET on Power won’t make it any easier to port Windows Server apps to the platform, although it will introduce Windows-style programming.
Ever wonder what happens to IBM i executives after they leave the division? So did we, so we dug through the archives to find out. While some execs are still at IBM, many have gone on to have very successful careers beyond the IBM i arch–and at least one went back to college to study social work.
The month has just begun, but we’re already taking stock of what will probably go down as a great year for Power. The only hitch in that giddy up is the lack of concrete numbers from IBM, which keeps sales figures of Power Systems servers a closely guarded secret. “Such facts would help build some momentum and enthusiasm among the 125,000 IBM i faithful,” TPM writes.