Living With VIOS and Other Tips From A Power Champion
September 26, 2016 Alex Woodie
Nobody likes VIOS, not even AIX administrators, admits Anthony English, an AIX expert who was named an IBM Champion for Power earlier this year. But with the proper mindset, a good coach, and a few key pieces of knowledge, even career IBM i professionals can learn to get along with the Virtual I/O Server.
There isn’t much clarity surrounding VIOS in the IBM i community. Many IBM i professionals who have spent their entire careers managing disks and storage the old-fashioned way in the IBM i operating system get flummoxed when presented an AIX-based VIOS screen. VIOS is weird and foreign, but it’s basically a requirement when connecting external storage to IBM i, particularly for larger environments.
But one thing about VIOS is crystal clear: IBM i pros hate it. Like the prophet forsaken by his god, IBM i admins ask IBM what did they do to deserve this fate. Why, Big Blue, why? Why did you make it so ridiculously complex to use external storage?
English has seen first-hand the exasperation and anger that VIOS creates among IBM i professionals. The Australian, who now works for his own consulting firm, has encountered IBM i environments in several of his client engagements down under. As an AIX specialist, English doesn’t know a whole lot about the IBM i. He’s impressed with the high-level of technical proficiency exhibited by the IBM i pros he’s been around, and he sees what VIOS does to them.
“What I’m finding is those guys tend to be frustrated that they don’t know,” English tells IT Jungle. “They are so totally on top of a whole lot of things that are pretty much a complete mystery to me and pretty much everybody in their organization. But where they really struggle is when they come up against something that an AIX guy says is so easy.”
It can be unnerving to watch a seasoned professional struggle with something new, and lose confidence in their own abilities. Unfortunately, this pattern has played itself out many times in IBM i shops around the world since VIOS basically started becoming mandatory in the 2012 timeframe, thanks to the reduced number of physical I/O adapters in the Power7 boxes. Running in an AIX LPAR, VIOS essentially virtualizes the disk and network adapters on a Power system connected to an external storage area network, like the Storwize V7000, as opposed to requiring two physical adapters for each LPAR. That frees customers to use more LPARs without requiring more physical hardware.
English can empathize about the complexity around VIOS and how, as an AIX program, it’s very different to IBM i people. “The VIOS command line is extremely intimidating,” he says. “What the i guys probably wouldn’t know is that the AIX guys also hate it, for different reasons.”
A Practical Approach
While the concept of virtualized storage makes a lot of sense, IBM’s actual implementation of VIOS leaves something to be desired. “I’m not really sure why they did VIOS the way they did, and I can hear that frustration in the i community, absolutely,” English says. “But it is what it is.”
We’re stuck with VIOS, for better or for worse. Regardless of whether you hate VIOS with a passion or find it merely a bit displeasing, it’s here to stay, so you might as well get used to it. English has some advice for IBM i pros who are tired of relying on consultants to do relatively simple tasks.
First, don’t plan on becoming an VIOS expert. It’s really not worth it. “They don’t need to get to a stage where they are masters the way that they are masters on the i platform,” he says. “They just need to get to the stage where they’re competent and they don’t need to call in a consultant every time they just want to add more disk.”
Some IBM i clients will be allergic to VIOS forever, and will require handholding by consultants like English for the remainder of their careers. He doesn’t mind the extra work, although he says it’s not really high-value work for him. In these engagements, he’s on par with the air conditioning repairman–just there to do a job and leave, without passing on any knowledge about the finer points of refrigerants and evaporation.
For those independent-minded IBM i clients, English takes a different approach. “Some of them need to learn it,” he says. “They need to know because they don’t want to keep calling me. They need to learn this enough to survive the next few months, because it’s embarrassing to have to ask for budget every single time.”
There are some basic things in VIOS that are not that difficult to grasp, once the IBM i pro gets over that unpleasant UNIXy smell. English has a plan.
“The good thing is they don’t need to be UNIX people. They don’t need to learn AIX,” he says. “There is very, very little that they need to know on their existing systems. There’s very little they need to know to get to a stage from ‘How am I going to ever learn all of this?’ to ‘I feel confident in my current environment.'”
English’s plan involves showing them the basic building blocks about how VIOS operates, and what they need to know to accomplish basic tasks. IBM i pros might be surprised at how simple some basic tasks are, once they start actually learning about VIOS, and stop stewing in their fear and embarrassment.
“I’m not going to show you how to set it up, because it’s already set up,” he says. “But I’m going to get you to a stage. I’m going to go through every menu, including the ones on a new HMC, just to show you ‘Look, here’s a menu item and here’s why you’ll never ever have to look it again.’ But I’m going to show you what it’s there for.
“I’m not going to teach 100 percent,” he continues. “I don’t even know 100 percent myself. But I’m going to give you the 5 percent you need to know. Then you’ll be off to the races.”
Reassessing Your Value
Since he’s started working with Australian IBM i shops, some of English’s colleagues have asked whether he’s going to learn IBM i. “I say ‘Are you crazy? Why would I do that? These guys have 20, 30 years on me. How am I ever going to compete?'”
English may have exquisite AIX credentials, but he is in awe of how good IBM i pros are at what they do and the deep set of specific skills they have acquired over their careers. Just the same, he sees how the VIOS episode has had taken a toll on the IBM i installed base and exposed weaknesses–not just in terms of technical abilities, but in how IBM i professionals can keep their careers moving forward.
“I’m seeing i people who perceive their market is shrinking. They’re in their 50s, maybe late 40s, and they are saying ‘Am I going to be able to ride this dead horse to retirement? How can I get actually more value without becoming a complete guru in something that I really hate or that I’m afraid of? How do extend the life of my existing system?'”
“It seems to me that there’s a better question, a more valuable question, to be asking in terms of their career path, which is what skills should I be learning,” English says. “And the one skill that they’re typically atrocious at is learning to sell themselves.”
Most IBM i professionals can rattle off all the technical skills they possess, which would over the heads of most senior-level decision makers. But if they can learn to sell themselves as solutions to expensive business problems–as opposed to being experts in arcane technical fields like VIOS or free-format RPG ILE or JD Edwards CNC environments–then they will be much better off.
“Once you learn to position yourself, not in terms of your skills, but in terms of you’re standing out in the cold out in the rain, and I’m going to get you nice and warm and dry–whether I use an umbrella or taking you up into the castle on the top of the hill–that’s my problem. Let me describe your exact pain right now, and let me take you to there, and I’m going to be the fairy godmother that basically gets you from here to there. How does that feel? And they just sort of say, ‘Where do I sign?'”
Once IBM i pros get past their fear of VIOS, they can get on with their jobs of providing elegant solutions to expensive business problems, and keep themselves viable in a fast-moving, cutthroat industry for a bit longer.
Anthony English runs a solo consultancy in Sydney focused on migrations of IBM Power Systems for large finance companies. He also provides VIOS training for IBM i shopsAnthony English runs a solo consultancy in Sydney focused on migrations of IBM Power Systems for large finance companies. He also provides VIOS training for IBM i shops. Connect to Anthony via LinkedIn: https://au.linkedin.com/in/anthonyenglish. Website: http://anthonyenglish.com.au