Seven Bright Spots To Ponder On The AS/400’s 29th Birthday
June 21, 2017 Alex Woodie
Today is the 29th birthday of the AS/400. If the box was a person, it would be pondering the big three-oh coming next year, and perhaps taking one last year to bask in the glory of youth. While the IBM i platform is no youngster, it’s far from the grave.
Here are seven bright spots that could potentially illuminate the platform’s path forward into middle age:
All About Those Apps, Apps, Apps
IT decision makers typical don’t start using a particular computer platform because of the platform itself, but because of the applications. Applications drive server sales.
The IBM i platform historically had a plethora of apps that ran on it. That number has dropped over the years, for a number of reasons, the chief one being, arguably, the decrease number of organizations that run the IBM i server.
With something on the order of 100,000 or so IBM i shops today, the installed base is less than half what it was at its peak. But anecdotal evidence says the pace of migration away from the platform has slowed in recent years. It’s safe to say that those 100,000 shops are largely die-hards who love the platform.
ISVs need to get the most bang for their buck when supporting specific platforms, and so one can understand why they have looked elsewhere. But today the barrier to entry to the IBM i platform is lower than it has ever been before. If an ISV’s applications are written in Java, PHP, Python, Ruby, or Node.js, it can run on the IBM i. Granted it won’t run as a “native” application like RPG and COBOL apps can. It will run via the PASE runtime environment.
ISVs should realize there’s a solid core of IBM i shops today who are dedicated to the platform, and who need the latest apps.
Few shops buy an IBM i server to run analytics. It’s not that it can’t run data warehouses or business intelligence applications, but its core strength is running transactional line-of-business applications.
Here’s the thing: analytics will be extremely important for business computing in the future. One could argue that it is the future of computing. Thanks to the “store everything” mantra that’s popular in business today, analytics are driving new workloads on servers to a much greater degree than classic transactional applications. There’s a reason IBM moved IBM i into the Cognitive Systems division.
Don’t misunderstand me. Even if all the analytic applications were available on IBM i, few companies are going to buy an IBM i server just to run a Hadoop-based data lake on it, or start mining the data using machine learning or graph analytic techniques in Spark, Anaconda, or IBM’s PowerAI.
What is more likely is that analytics will be integrated into transactional applications. Known as operational analytics, this fusing of BI and transactional apps helps push the power of analytics down into the day-to-day realm of business experts.
The potential impact that operational analytics could have on IBM i apps is huge. From trucking operations to hospitals, banks to retailers, there are millions of ways companies can make better use of their data. What’s more, when customers start mixing transactional data from their DB2 for i databases with outside data–such as social media data, weather data, or data purchased from third-party brokers–the potential impacts grow even bigger.
Big data analytics is impacting all industries, not the least of which is software development. Developers of the most popular Web and mobile apps are continuously gathering data on application usage, and using that data to optimize the user experience. There’s’ no reason these sophisticated big data techniques can’t be used on IBM i.
It’s no secret that the IBM I installed base is full of aging Baby Boomers who are nearing retirement. The beards are getting grayer by the year. It’s a testament to both the longevity of the platform and the extreme dedication of the user base.
But good technology never goes out of style, and a new generation of IBM i professionals is on the horizon to take the baton. IBM is promoting younger IBM i folks like Liam Allan, Lynell C. Constantine, Christian Kaddatz, Stephanie Rabbani, and other relatively young people on its main IBM i website. There is hope that the platform will be in good hands once the old guard retires.
Focus On Education
Many of the folks mentioned above (but not all) were introduced to the platform through a college or university program. This is one of the best ways to promote the future of IBM i.
But there is more work to do. The IBM i community needs to do more to groom that next generation of IBM i professionals. IBM isn’t doing enough to push IBM i curriculum into universities and colleges. There are just a handful of programs available around the United States where students can get exposed to IBM i tech.
IBM needs to do more to seed the next generation of IBM i professionals by doubling down on its education efforts. A good model is Jim Buck’s Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin, which has churned out dozens of quality IBM i recruits. Unfortunately, Buck recently stepped down from the role.
Push To Modernization
The IBM i has a reputation for being old technology. We in the IBM i community know this is hogwash, but it’s the general perception nonetheless.
The modernization effort is starting to pay dividends, however. The collection of tools available from the IBM i ISV community can bring systems, databases, and applications up to speed. Unfortunately, a good portion of the IBM i community is running very old releases of the OS on very old hardware. If you’re running i5/OS V5R4, you need to upgrade.
The applications are getting long in the tooth, too. The problem isn’t necessarily with the 5250 green-screen applications, which are ugly but preferable to GUIs in some situations (such as order entry, when coupled with an experienced operator).
But there’s no doubt there’s a lot of old code out there. It’s high time customers take the initiative to modernize their systems and their applications. There are a ton of modern features in new releases of the IBM i OS. Use them and show the world how advanced the IBM i platform really is!
The IBM i platform is unique in the business computing world. Nowhere else will you find such a devoted group of users. The fact that people self-identify themselves as IBM i professionals shows how the IBM i and its predecessors have inspired such loyal dedication over the past 29 years.
This dedication is one of the endearing legacies of the AS/400, and it’s also one of its great selling points. Imagine what an uninitiated CTO must think when she encounters such a passionate and devoted group of followers, as personified by the IBM i community? It has to work in the IBM i’s favor.
The platform has had a strong group of loud leaders at the top. Folks like Trevor Perry and Aaron Bartell help to show the world what the IBM i server can do. But there needs to be more IBM i professionals who are willing to step up and let their voices be heard.
The IBM i platform is unique in many ways, and one of those is that it’s largely led by one company: IBM. You just don’t find that in the Windows, Linux, or Unix worlds. (You do in the mainframe world, but that’s another story.)
But IBM must do more to make the IBM i server great again. The server has been a secret to the wider IT world for too long. Instead of viewing the IBM i installed base as a source of maintenance revenue, it should be talking about how it’s going to grow the base.
IBM reportedly has a 15-year roadmap for the platform, which it shared with ISVs at the recent COMMON conference. This roadmap should be publicized to the wider world, to show that this platform, on the eve of its 30th birthday, has a long a fruitful future ahead of it.