Wanted: Exciting New Publicist For Boring Old Server
March 18, 2019 Alex Woodie
You don’t need a marketing guru to tell you the IBM i server has a publicity problem. Outside the cloistered midrange community, nobody knows that it even exists. Even some of the companies that run their businesses on it don’t know it exists. Unicorns and leprechauns, which don’t exist, have a greater mindshare than the IBM i server. And the funny thing is, that’s exactly how it was all designed.
According to industry analyst Rob Enderle, the IBM i server is a world leader in one computing category: boredom.
“You put it in, you leave it alone, and it just cranks, year over year, decade over decade,” Enderle says. “These things have been walled up in rooms without doors and left running. Never needed anything or anybody to come in and fix them or update them or anything else. They just run and run and run.”
The IBM i server resembles the Energizer Bunny – except that it’s even more boring than the bunny. “It actually does what the Energizer Bunny argues it does, as batteries do run out,” Enderle points out.
Time was, boring was good when it came to computers. But the times have changed, and today people want a little more excitement and sizzle served with their 1s and 0s. The fact that this throwback IBM i machine is still around, spreading its digital boredom to 150,000 or so organizations globally that run it, is an aberration in the annals of IT.
“I remember when boring was good,” says Enderle, who tracks IBM as the principle at Enderle Group. “You didn’t really want lots of churn, lots of breakage, downtime. Granted, all that added excitement. But it wasn’t excitement that you sought after or looked for. What IT wanted was something that you put in, it did its job, and you kind of forget about it. That’s what this of course is.”
Enderle got people in the IBM i community talking last month with an eWeek story titled IBM i: The Most Amazing IBM Product You’ve Never Heard Of.” The IBM i platform occasionally gets covered at eWeek, which is a fine mainstream IT publication. But to keep from annoying readers, it chooses to fill its digital pages with much less boring material than the IBM i server, such as Intel servers, big data analytics, and the latest security breach.
Enderle, who worked at IBM when it still sold the AS/400 and today is on retainer with Big Blue via its analyst pool, tells IT Jungle he decided to write the eWeek story because he was so impressed that this machine is quietly doing its boring old thing without any recognition from the world that it still actually exists. That level of consistency deserves some sort of recognition.
“It’s just an amazing little platform that has this amazing longevity, that’s immortal, and yet nobody every talks about it, really,” Enderle says. “You just don’t hear about it anymore. Back in the 90s, it was one of the IBM’s predominant products. And we still talk about System z and mainframe quite a bit. But we don’t really talk about this platform.”
Compared to sexy Intel servers that flash the cash and are always exciting, the IBM i server is a sturdy but unremarkable companion who’s main hobby is continuing to run years between IPLs. It’s no wonder that Intel servers attract so much attention, while the IBM i server is barely distinguishable from an outdoor refrigerator.
“If you’re going to get married, do you marry the super attractive flighty person or do you marry the person one who’s going to have your back for the rest of your life?” Enderle says. “A lot of folks would go after the super flighty person, because that’s the way we’re wired. This product is more the one that’s always got your back.”
How boring is the IBM i server in today’s super-exciting world of big data analytics and security breaches? According to Enderle, the IBM i server is “the exact opposite of what most of the industry is buying right now.”
“We just chase the latest sparkly thing,” he continues. “This goes back to the old IBM, when IBM used to put in a piece of hardware and it sat for a couple of decades, and it was wrapped with services. That was the way IT was in the 1970s. But it changed a lot after that. Now it’s all about the latest technology, the fastest stuff. Now we’re dealing with a lot of security, compatibility, and reliability problems as a result.”
The IBM i server is shunned by the world at large because it’s dull and doesn’t change much. You can still run the same RPG code that your grandfather developed in the 1970s for a System/34 on today’s Power9 server. It will run much faster, of course, but it’s still the same dreary and accounting package, keeping the books straight year after year, decade after decade. What fun is that? Clearly, today’s enterprise IT buyer craves a more exciting experience.
In fact, IBM i servers are so big and boring that they get caught in unfortunate circumstances that more nimble Intel servers easily avoid.
“People are finding them in walled off corridors and offices and it’s fallen off multi-story buildings and they hosed it off and it fired it up and it ran again,” Enderle says. “Here we have a platform that was by most measures a super hero, and it had a bad publicity manager. Really if you have a platform that’s performing like this, it should pull some ink, and it wasn’t, so I figured I’ll write it up. I thought it was interesting.”
Nobody knows what the 2019 marketing budget is for IBM i, so hypothetically let’s just guestimate it at somewhere between zero and a modest amount of money. How would you go about creating buzz in the market for such a sturdy, wearisome machine without any actual money to spend? It just so happens that Enderle once was a marketing director with no marketing budget.
Controversy is the secret to garnering attention on the cheap, so Enderle staged a hacker competition to showcase some security software. The winning entry, however, didn’t even attempt to go hack the site that was secured. “He went in through a trusted site that was not secured,” Enderle says. “It was really quite embarrassing.”
That provides a lesson for any would-be marketers at IBM who want to promote the server without spending any money: There is such a thing as bad publicity. The worst say to drum up excitement for this machine is by staging a hacking competition, because it will probably end poorly.
“If you can do it and survive it, that’d be great. But the thing is everybody would figure you’d survive it, so the news would be you were breached,” he says. “The way you do zero-budget marketing is through controversy and this is not a product that lends itself to controversy. Its benefits are the fact it is not controversial. It works when you ask it to work, and it works for long periods of time.”
Owing to the IBM i server’s tedious longevity and the fact that it’s still running transaction processing at a mind-numbing pace for so many companies across the world, Enderle says IBM might be able to move a few more Power Systems units if it actually spent money telling people the IBM i server actually exists.
“Nobody else is marketing this class of product, so the segment is pretty quiet across the board,” Enderle says. “The thing is, this does fill a niche. It’s just not one that IBM seems to be interested in.”
Being a server maker sure ain’t what it used to be. As workloads move to the cloud, the underlying platform matters less and less. Transaction processing used to be the bread and butter for server makers, but analytics consumes much more horsepower, and the IBM i is not an analytics machine. Those are macro headwinds that push against this stubborn old machine that refuses to die.
“I think there’s a much larger market than it’s addressing, but I can certainly understand why IBM is reticent to put a lot of money behind it,” Enderle says. “IBM is becoming a very different company, and as they shift more and more away from hardware, some of these legacy systems are just getting forgotten. And I’m afraid that’s what’s happening to i.”