Power Systems GM Weights In On AS/400 Birthday
June 27, 2016 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Any business unit within a conglomerate as vast and changing as fast as Big Blue needs to have a strong advocate as well as core financial performance that contributes to both the top and bottom line. The good news about the IBM i platform is that it has such a strong advocate in Doug Balog, general manager of the Power Systems business for the past several years. While Balog has been instrumental in pushing Linux on Power and putting together the OpenPower Foundation that is seeking to expand the Power ecosystem beyond the walls of IBM, he has not forgotten about the fact that IBM i customers still constitute the largest customer base IBM has for Power-based iron.
With the June anniversary of the launch of the AS/400 back in 1988, which hit last week, we reached out to Balog to get his thoughts about the longevity of the platform and what he sees coming down the pike. As you might expect, he can’t reveal too much about IBM’s plans or the revenue stream from the IBM i part of the business, but the fact that IBM has long-range plans and has consistently invested in the platform is comforting in an IT world wrenching with tumultuous change.
“It continues to be a super-important business for us and one that clients have committed to for many, many years,” Balog told us when asked about the state of the IBM i business, the companies that depend on it, and the people who make their careers on the platform. “They are a passionate bunch, and they are passionate because they continue to see the value of the integration that was the hallmark of the AS/400 and the IBM i as we now call it. But it is not only the integration of the database, tools, and so on, but they benefit in that applications that they wrote in the past continue to run alongside new applications they develop. We continue to do well as we allow them to scale on to Power8 with the latest releases of IBM i.”
The Power Systems business took a dip in the first quarter of this year, as we have previously reported, but it did so after turning in four straight quarters of growth thanks to the ramp of the Power8 systems IBM makes and sells with AIX, IBM i, and Linux. That dip, we think, was due in part to the expectation that Big Blue would deliver a line of Power8+ systems, but rather than do a tweaked version of the chip with improved price/performance IBM has instead only made a variant of the Power8 chip that supports the NVLink interconnect for lashing CPUs to Nvidia’s Tesla GPU accelerators. IBM no longer calls this chip the Power8+ as it did last year, giving us and everyone else the impression there would be a Power Systems upgrade cycle, but rather the Power8 with NVLink. With Intel revamping its Xeon line this year and expected to do so again next year, IBM is going to have to catch up and get more competitive.
It looks like IBM will catch up in 2017, and Balog confirmed to IT Jungle that the Power8 with NVLink would ship by the end of this year, with the 24-core Power9 chip shipping by the end of next year in machines with one or two sockets. Variants of the Power9 chips aimed at scale-up NUMA servers with more than two sockets are due in 2018, Balog says. The vast majority of IBM i shops will not need the Power9 chips slated for 2018, but will be able to do just fine with the chips coming next year in smaller systems, provided IBM allows IBM i to run on them. It would be interesting for IBM to offer clustered IBM i systems instead of big NUMA boxes.
Hardware is important, obviously. But IBM has not forgotten about the system software, too, which needs to be updated not only to keep pace with the hardware but updated to keep pace with the database and application development segments of the IT Industry at large.
“It is interesting that we have brought IBM i 7.2 and 7.3 to market in fairly rapid order considering there was a several year gap since the prior releases,” says Balog. “It is an important market for us and an important set of clients. The good news is that they don’t seem to be going anywhere–they love the platform. But they are obviously looking at how they bring new capability into their datacenter on the other parts of the Power Systems stack, such as Linux on Power or SAP HANA on Power. We continue to innovate on the operating systems and the systems that support it. I tell clients that despite all of the conversations we have around Linux–and we are obviously driving growth there–we remain very, very committed to the IBM i client base.”
The question that most people in the IBM i market want to know is how committed to the platform Big Blue is and what development plans it has. The longer out the plans, the theory goes, the deeper the commitment to the platform.
“Many of our largest clients run their critical workloads on IBM i, and I don’t see that fundamentally changing,” Balog says. “So therefore, we have a long roadmap that goes out at least 10 years from a development standpoint, and it is only 10 years because I can’t see beyond 10. We will keep innovating and providing capabilities around IBM i. The interesting thing going on is that this hybrid cloud notion really actually, in my mind, further extends the capabilities of IBM i. It connects the systems of record of a company–the core assets of the company–to the cloud world and gives them capabilities such as BlueMix to write applications in a composable way that runs in the cloud but takes advantage of systems of record data that has been on premises for years and continues to grow. I believe that the cloud is a further driver of IBM i as opposed to a detriment to it.”
We don’t know how cloudy the IBM i business can be, but there sure is a place for disaster recovery in the cloud, and many managed service providers have built decent IBM i businesses providing such services. The data is too heavy and sticky in an OLTP system to be bouncing between on-premises and public clouds for true cloud bursting, so we don’t expect this. But we agree with Balog that systems of interaction and analytics will drive more transactions on the backend systems like the IBM i platform, which will keep Big Blue interested in the platform for years to come. So long as IBM i costs less to keep developing and runs on a common Power platform that is not only shared by AIX and Linux inside of IBM, but Linux platforms created by others through the OpenPower effort, we think IBM i will be around for a long, long time.