The IBM i Year In Review
December 14, 2016 Alex Woodie
With another year almost in the books for the IBM i community, we thought it was time to reminisce on the top stories of 2016. Security vulnerabilities, hacked AS/400s, blockbuster acquisitions, new releases of the operating system, and major conferences all garnered their share of digital ink. Here’s a rundown on the top IBM i-related stories making news this year.
It started innocently enough, way back in. . .
. . .When we asked “what should you do with your spare CPWs?” After all, you can’t take ’em with you. But with so much processing oomph on those brawny Power8 chips, there’s more than enough for the average IBM i shop. We asked that question in January and the response was not surprising. While IBM would be tickled pink if you ran some big data analytics on your Power Systems box, maybe a little Linux or something collaborative, IBM i customers just yawned.
HelpSystems, which like the IBM midrange server dropped the “/” from its name, ran another IBM i Marketplace Study to find out what IBM i customers are up to these days. Timothy Pricket Morgan, IT Jungle editor, publisher, brewer, and writer/analyst extraordinaire sliced and diced the numbers to find out where the customers work. Summary: The fraction of IBM i shops in the manufacturing biz has dropped by nearly half over 20 years, while those in financial services and real estate has more than doubled. When you consider where the American economy has headed, it’s not suspiring.
The first of a series of security patches, or “emergency PTFs,” for IBM i implementations of open source security protocols landed on February 1. While this round of patches targeted flaws with OpenSSH, IBM would go on to issue several patches over the year for flaws in SSL/TSL, Java, 3DES, and others. The reverberations of the 2014 revelation of the Heartbleed vulnerability in OpenSSL continued in 2016, and will likely carry over into 2017.
After analyzing the types of businesses that use IBM i, TPM used the slower early days of the year to a look at the people who work on the platform, and who make the platform work. Based on data provided by HelpSystems in its IBM i Marketplace Study, TPM surmised there were about 1.2 million people around the world engaged on the platform, including 305,000 administrators and more than 880,000 programmers. Later in the month, TPM looked at salaries of IBM i professionals with help from Bob Langieri’s Excel Technical Services. While IBM i types typically make between $80,000 and $140,000, they lag their non-IBM i colleagues by sometimes considerable margins.
Also in February, IT Jungle‘s Dan Burger shocked (shocked!) the IBM i world when he outed “iNext” as IBM i 7.3. Big Blue, which is usually so good at keeping confidential data from nosy press-types, apparently neglected to use its top-secret codename for the next release of the operating system when updating its website with information about the forthcoming release. Whoops.
In March, we told you how Syrian hackers compromised a water district’s AS/400 and actually caused chemicals to flow into the drinking water supply. The hackers signed onto the AS/400 after exploiting a compromised X86-based customer portal that was connected to the AS/400 (which itself was connected to the Internet). It sounded like the plot to a Michael Crichton thriller, but this was no fiction. Luckily, nobody was injured, according to Verizon, which shared the story in its popular Data Breach Digest.
While still being coy about the name of the new OS, IBM was quite clear about one thing: There would absolutely, irrefutably, unequivocally be no Java 6 running on it. The aged programming language, which first debuted back in 2006, was no longer supported by Oracle, so only Java 7 and 8 will run on the new OS. “If you’re a Java user, you should have been moving forward,” IBM i Chief Architect Steve Will told us.
The bull market turned seven years old in March, making it the second longest bull market in American history. And it might surprise you to know that the IBM i server has had a good run lately, with super-powerful Power8 systems selling, if not like hotcakes, then respectfully well. In fact, channel sales were up 25 percent at the beginning of 2016. “This is the longest running growth period that the channel has seen in decades on this platform,” said Richard Martinez, a business executive at master Power reseller Avnet.
Many Americans dread April 15, which is Tax Day here in the United States. But IBM i types around the world rejoiced on April 15, 2016, because that’s the day that IBM started shipping IBM i version 7.3 . With new features like temporal support in DB2 for i, online analytical processing (OLAP) features in SQL, and a new security authority collection, IBM i 7.3 figures to be securely powering business workloads for many years to come–or at least until the next “IBM i Next.”
Have you thanked IBM lately? We know that Larry Ellison, John Chambers, Bill Gates, Gordon Moore, and Steve Jobs owe a debt of gratitude. In fact, Big Blue critic Brian Kelly argues that so many tech millionaires and billionaires have benefited so greatly from IBM’s business blunders over the years that it’s no wonder Armonk has anything left. Applauded by Wall Street for cutting the fat, Kelly asserts bumbling IBM bureaucrats actually hacked off their own bone, muscle, and sinew by letting competitors win with products IBM invented, from disk drives and databases to computer networking and PC operating systems. Love him or hate him, Kelly exemplifies the love-hate relationship with IBM that’s so pervasive in the IBM i community.
IBM shared a five-year roadmap for its Power processor in early April at the OpenPower Summit, and IT Jungle was there. The gist of Power9 and beyond, per TPM: “IBM wants to drive down the cost of Power chips to compete with Intel and it wants drive up the use of all kinds of accelerators to give a collection of Power, FPGA, GPU, and flash accelerators a performance edge over the Xeon-based systems that dominate the datacenter these days.” Sounds great, but it’s likely overkill for the average RPG shop with oodles of spare CPWs on Power8 already.
The annual IBM i security smackdown, i.e. the “State of IBM i Security Study” from PowerTech, was published in May. The net? Security practices at typical IBM i shops are still quite poor, with unprotected exit points, excessive authority levels, and default passwords leading the way. That won’t surprise anybody who’s paying attention–including Russian hackers, we learned later in the year.
The yearly IBM i love-fest that is the COMMON Annual Meeting and Expo kicked off in the Big Easy in May. More than 1,100 IBM i fans descended upon the Hilton Riverside hotel in downtown New Orleans for four days of education, training, and commiserating. One memorable keynote was delivered by IBM vice president Stephanie Chiras, who urged IBM i shops to consider OpenPower and Linux because of “the potential of what it can deliver tomorrow and the choice that it will bring.”
An era ended in May, when we learned IBM had plans to sell two-thirds of its massive Rochester Laboratory. The news wasn’t a shock, partly because IBM had already moved Power Systems manufacturing of out of the southern Minnesota city where the AS/400 was created to one of its factories in Guadalajara, Mexico, back in March 2013. But the news was still depressing for those who have fond memories of the AS/400 and its better times.
HelpSystems bought Linoma Software in June, and in so doing, finally got its hands on a critical security capability that it had lacked despite buying multiple IBM i security software companies over the years: Encryption. Linoma’s Crypto Complete is one of a handful of native, third-party IBM i encryption tools on the market. While HelpSystems didn’t lose sales over the lack of encryption, it was “definitely” on the to-do list, CEO Chris Heim told us.
The AS/400 turned 28 years young on June 21, which got TPM thinking and that is always fun. While IBM i for Business on Power Systems (oh, that name!) is often derided as a washed-up legacy system, the fact that it contains so many forward-looking attributes–like single-level storage, an integrated database, and a gaggle of co-processors–proves that it’s actually more advanced than many other systems. But to keep the platform relevant, it needs to support the new era of applications making their way into data centers. As TPM pointed out, “IBM has to figure out a way to move Spark, Hadoop, and other workloads on to the IBM i platform itself.” Maybe 2017 will bring us such surprises.
A lack of IBM i skills, and in particular a shortage of RPG programming expertise, was identified in a survey as the number one barrier to digital transformation in IBM i shops. The survey, which was conducted by SoftLanding Systems, lent credence to the emerging view that a decline in native IBM i skills poses a real risk to the platform, a notion that some in the industry vehemently disagree with.
Some fairly significant security flaws in Java were patched this month, which was fairly quiet on the IBM i news front. IBM issued 13 patches to fix the problems in the Java Development Kit (JDK) for IBM i versions 6.1 to 7.3. Security–including the existence of vulnerabilities in open source software, the wide-open nature of IBM i server configurations, and increased attention by hackers–was a recurring theme all year.
When TPM attended the annual Hot Chips conference in August, he came away with some good news: delivery of the first Power9 servers was about a year away. What’s somewhat surprising about the Power9 development is that IBM is juggling no fewer than four variants of the processor to tackle various workloads, from traditional business workloads that IBM i customers run to public cloud workloads running in massive data centers. No longer intent on scaling up with massive symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) machines that IBM i shops are accustomed to, IBM is taking a cue from Intel and scaling out horizontally, too.
In August, IBM i Chief Architect Steve Will shared plans to overhaul the requirements process. The new IBM i requirements process would borrow heavily from the Request For Enhancement (RFE) process that IBM Software Group has used for years. One of the key improvements that the new RFE process would have over existing ways of communicating with IBM would be the introduction of a social media tracking element. However, so far, we haven’t seen the new RFE.
Most IBM i servers are sold through the channel, which for years was dominated by two master resellers, Avnet and Arrow Electronics. But in September, Avnet decided to sell its Technology Solutions division (the one that sells IBM i servers) to Tech Data, a $26-billion tech giant. Next up: a deal that sees Arrow joining Ingram Micro, the other major server peddler? Only time will tell.
It’s hard to forget Bernie Madoff, the perpetrator of the decades-long Ponzi scheme that imploded during the early days of the Great Recession. But since Madoff ran his fraud on an AS/400, it presents a possible lesson on ethics in IT. In September, we caught up with IBMer Richard Diedrich, who was the Department of Justice’s expert witness during the trial of Madoff’s RPG programmers. Now retired from IBM, Diedrich is free to share his story.
Like it does nearly every year, IBM made a second series of major announcements this October. The major enhancements brought with IBM i 7.3 TR1 and IBM i 7.2 TR5 include better support for JSON and support for Perl, a popular scripting language. We also got a glimpse of IBM’s new cloud-based backup offering for IBM i, which offers an intriguing (if somewhat limited) option to store backups and archives.
Well, nothing lasts forever. That was the takeaway from IBM’s third quarter financial report, which showed IBM hardware sales dropping. While the company doesn’t break out sales by platform–or even disambiguate cloud or cognitive sales from Power Systems or System z mainframe sales, for that matter–it’s clear Power sales dipped by about 25 percent, which is to be expected as Power8 gets long in the tooth and customers start salivating for new Power9 servers in the second half of 2017.
IBM doesn’t wheel and deal with offers and promotions as much as it used to. But Big Blue brought a little of that deal-making back in November, when we learned about the Double Up Core and Memory offerings, which bring fairly significant pricing cuts on entry-level systems. (IBM actually made the announcement back in September, but never told anybody but business partners.)
We’ll have to wait a little longer for an IPO from a target=”new” href=”http://www.infor.com”>Infor, as the ERP giant instead accepted about $2.5 billion in financing from everybody’s favorite corporate conglomerate, Koch Industries. It turns out that the Koch brothers own companies that need to modernize their ERP systems, and some of them run ERP systems from Infor. That makes it a surprisingly practical purchase.
What will Donald Trump’s presidency mean for IBM, and specifically for the Power Systems business and IBM i customers? It’s not such an abstract a question as you might think, considering that Trump has come down hard on American manufacturers who want to move factory jobs overseas. Trump in fact called IBM out for moving jobs to India during a campaign speech near IBM’s Rochester Lab before the election. If Trump follows through and institutes a 35 percent tariff on goods imported from Mexico, then your next Power Systems server–which will be manufactured in Guadalajara, Mexico, where IBM now builds all Power Systems boxes destined to customers in the Americas–will get a lot more expensive.
As the year wore on, it became clear that the bull run in Power server sales was over. In fact, all server sales were down. IDC pegged the third-quarter slowdown in total global server sales at 4.6 percent, and 7 percent by revenue. Gartner said there were about 38 percent fewer non-X86 RISC/Itanium machines shipped during the quarter, which spurred a 41 percent drop in revenue. TPM theorizes that IBM could be in for a couple of long quarters before Power9 servers start shipping.