What Vintage Is Your IBM i Wine?
April 1, 2019 Timothy Prickett Morgan
It has been a long time since we have seen a new version of the IBM i operating system, but if history is any guide, we are on the cusp of yet another release of the platform. And thanks to the way Big Blue handles updates to the software, through its Technology Refresh incremental upgrade process, this will not be as dramatic an event as updating the operating system, middleware, database, and application development tools in the stack has been throughout most of the history of the IBM midrange.
But there are plenty of OS/400, i5/OS, and IBM i shops that are well beyond the support dates for their operating systems. This is something that we have discussed many times in the past, but in recent weeks we have been trying to get a better sense of what people think the operating system distribution level is out there in the base at large. We have done some straw polling as well as gathering up survey data to get a better sense of it, and this is particularly relevant as we have been hearing from some Power Systems resellers that they have customers with OS/400 V5R3 and i5/OS 5.4 systems that they want to upgrade – customers that these resellers have never heard of before even though they do business within their geographies.
We don’t know the precise numbers, and frankly, we don’t think that IBM does, either – any more than Big Blue had a good idea many years into the AS/400 line how many System/36 and System/38 machines were still in the world. In fact, I know this to be the case because IBM contacted me in 1994 when it launched the first Advanced/36, which ran the System/36’s SSP operating system and which was actually the first of IBM’s minicomputers to make use of the PowerPC processor. (The AS/400s in 1995 used the more full-blown 64-bit PowerPC AS processor and ran a tweaked OS/400 V3R6 and eventually a more stable V3R7.) At that time, IBM actually asked me if I knew how big the base was because its records were incomplete and a lot of customers of the System/36 that had been launched in 1983 had dropped off the map.
This kind of thing happens all of the time in the IT sector. Microsoft does not precisely know how many Windows NT and Windows Server 2000 and Windows Server 2008 customers are actually out there in the world or how many machines are running this software – there is a much closer alignment of these numbers in the System/3X and AS/400 bases since most customers had only one machine, sometimes two, but Windows shops had many multiples of machines, which may or may not still be even running.
My point is not to make fun of IT vendors for losing track of past customers, but rather, to get a sense of how many vintage shops are still out there so we can figure out how to encourage them to finally move ahead. This was the theme of last week’s lead story on Monday, called Rebuilding The Bottom Of The Pyramid, which talked about the potential for keeping the Power8-based Power S812 Mini alive beyond its November deadline (literally, a dead line) so it could be used as a platform to encourage companies to move off vintage iron and operating systems into the modern IBM i and Power Systems world. This is a case unlike wine, where the age of the vintage becomes a bad thing after a while.
I have said enough times that you are probably getting sick of it that maybe one-fifth to one-quarter of the IBM midrange base is active, keeping on relatively new iron and operating system releases, keeping their systems on IBM or third-party maintenance, buying software packages, and subscribing to newsletters. The rest of the customers and their machines just disappear off the radar over time. I think the data that HelpSystems has gathered through its annual IBM i Marketplace Survey are representative of that active part of the customer base with a smattering of the vintage platforms in there because life is always a mix. Here is the data that HelpSystems gathered up on IBM i operating system releases in the customer base last October:
As I said during the webcasts going over these results, this distribution is no different than what I expect from the active portions of the Windows Server or Linux bases. If anything, IBM i 7.1 was a little more prevalent and quite a bit quicker than many might have expected, and that is thanks to the advent of the Technology Refresh method for tweaking operating systems for new functions without breaking any software compatibility or certifications. As you can see from this survey, 10 percent of respondents who took the HelpSystems survey said they were on IBM i 6.1 or earlier, with half of them being on i5/OS 5.4 and older.
This is consistent with the survey done late last year by Profound Logic Software for its 2019 State of IBM i Modernization Survey, which showed 4 percent of the base was on IBM i 6.1 and 5 percent of the base was on i5/OS 5.4 or earlier releases. The Profound Logic survey shows a much higher percentage of customers on IBM i 7.3, at 59 percent of respondents, with 34 percent at IBM i 7.2 and 16 percent at IBM i 7.1.
Knowing we were looking for such information, one reseller we know talked to a provider of third party maintenance for the AS/400 and its progeny and in one quadrant of the United States alone, they estimate somewhere around 90 percent of its 500 customers run on i5/OS 5.4 and earlier releases. (I was flabbergasted by this number, too.) For the United States as a whole, that would imply something around 1,800 customers on those vintage releases, and if the United States represents somewhere around 35 percent of the market, then there is somewhere north of 5,000 customers worldwide who are on i5/OS 5.4 and earlier releases. And remember the important point here: This is for the customers who are paying for maintenance, and not IBM maintenance, but third party maintenance. Understandably, this maintainer has carved a niche supporting old releases, which does not mean applying patches (IBM does not make any new ones for these vintage releases) so much as helping customers keep them going despite the fact that they don’t change.
We know that somewhere around 30,000 customers out of 150,000 customers in the worldwide IBM midrange base running AS/400 and later machines (meaning not System/3X iron) pay for Software Maintenance. And once again, we know that we don’t know much about those customers who are not paying for maintenance. There are probably another 5,500 customers worldwide on IBM i 6.1 who have this particular third party maintenance, if all of the rest of its business is on IBM i 6.1. So about 10 percent of the IBM Software Maintenance base appears to be on a vintage release, or about 3,000 customers, and another 5,500 customers who are on maintenance are using this third party is on a vintage release. We don’t have any math on the other portion of the base that is not on maintenance from IBM and this third party supplier, but this establishes a floor that will probably be higher.
One thing is sure: the propensity of vintage operating systems among this one third party maintenance supplier is much higher than what we are seeing in these surveys. It is an indicator that there is perhaps a lot more vintage iron out there than we think. And that is both a good thing, in terms of the opportunity to move ahead, and a bad thing, in that it has taken so long. But, as an optimist, there is never such as good time as the present to get moving.