Going Off IBM Hardware Maintenance A Risky Move
April 15, 2019 Alex Woodie
Organizations that are running older Power Systems servers have some tough decisions coming up. IBM ceased offering hardware support for Power 6 servers on March 31, and support for Power 7 will go away on September 30. Some organizations may choose to support themselves instead of upgrading to a newer machine, but that move comes with substantial risks.
While there’s no central clearinghouse for this sort of information, it would appear that a good percentage of IBM i customers – if not most of them – have hardware and software support agreements with IBM. Big Blue provides three years of support with every new machine, so it’s really only an issue with machines that are older than three years.
Lots of IBM i shops purchase or lease new machines every three years, so these folks would never even be in a position to look at IBM’s extended support agreements (except in the case of the four-year lease, where another year of support needs to be added).
While some IBM i shops follow that old model, there’s a growing number of organizations that are breaking with tradition. Bob Losey, the CEO of Source Data, an IBM business partner based in Southern California, says he’s seeing more IBM i shops going off hardware maintenance.
“I was struck this month by the high number of legacy server failures without support that involved my clients,” Losey wrote in an article he published on LinkedIn. “In one case just last week, one of my clients had a cascading failure. First, the disk unit failed. Within two days after the disk repair, the server would freeze up. Diagnostics revealed firmware error . . . not hardware error. This server not only lacked hardware support for two years, it also lacked software support which is the source for firmware.”
The customer was running IBM i 7.1, which is no longer under mainstream support from IBM. The organization hadn’t applied any PTFs in over two years, Losey wrote, and the firmware dated back to i5/OS V5R4.
“One of my senior IBM i field engineers determined a fix by replacing a communication feature. (I know of only a handful of senior engineers with the experience to figure out a solution like this),” Losey wrote. “Unfortunately, this was a temporary fix. The problem then cascaded to tape failure.”
One of Losey’s engineers ultimately helped the client migrate from the failed 9406-520 server to a newer Power Systems server running IBM i 7.1, with “appropriate matching firmware,” he notes. The fix was temporary, but it helped the client avoid a $4,000 repair bill from IBM.
Losey says he’s seeing more customers go without hardware support. “As IBM has announced end of service, I am aware of many users that chose to remain on [their old] server,” he tells IT Jungle.
There are four general reasons an organization would not maintain a hardware support contract. First, they feel they cannot afford to buy a new server. Secondly, the cost of a used newer server with the added cost of a software maintenance agreement (SWMA) and after license fee (ALF) is hard for them to justify, Losey says.
Having an unrealistic timeframe for migrating off the IBM i server is the third reason some companies feel comfortable going off maintenance. “Many think they will get to the ‘new Windows system’ within one to two years,” Losey says “I chide them and tell them I have generally seen the transition take seven to 15 years, so one to two years is not necessarily realistic.”
Number four is an overabundance of confidence in the hardware itself. “Many have never had any ‘cascading’ hardware failure or disruption, other than a failed disk unit) to really be aware,” he says.
Losey always encourages his users to stick with IBM hardware and software maintenance, and when the hardware reaches end of life – like the Power6 gear did last month, and the Power7 gear will at the end of September – he encourages them to upgrade to a newer machine.
“Too often, many IBM i users may think it is no big deal to replace a failed disk unit or cache battery. In reality, these two specific repairs are pretty straight-forward,” he writes in the LinkedIn piece. “On the other hand, older servers with unsupported hardware, software and firmware are extremely troublesome. Parts for these older servers are not reliable, especially trying to replace failed power supplies. Software and firmware fixes may be non-existent.”
Pete Massiello, president of iTech Solutions Group, says almost all of his customers stay current with hardware and software maintenance. “I can count on probably three fingers the number of customers not on IBM hardware maintenance that we have,” he says.
Massiello compares it to walking on a tightrope without a net. “As the machine gets older and older, it’s not a matter of if something is going wrong. It’s a matter of when,” he says. “If you have a machine and a disk dive goes bad, you can put a new disk drive in. It’s pretty simple. It’s not going to cost you that much. But if you have a board or a backplane go bad, you’re going to pay an astronomical amount of money to get that fixed.”
IBM hardware is reliable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t break.
“We kind of take that for granted,” he says. “It’s a two-way sword. One the one hand, it’s so great. It’s reliable. It doesn’t crash. The hardware is dependable. But then sometimes people lose sight of that. They say ‘Well nothing has happened in two years. I’ve never had to make a service request. Maybe I’m going to not have maintenance as it gets older and older.’ It’s probably not the smartest thing to do.”
Like death and taxes (which are due today, by the way), hardware failures are inevitable. People might assume the Power Systems hardware will run indefinitely, but you know what they say about assumptions. “Quite honestly, I think it bites you on the ass,” Massiello says. “It becomes a pay-me-now or pay-me-later thing.”
Another option besides supporting yourself is using a third-party maintenance company. For example, Curvature supports Power 5 through Power 8 servers running IBM i, as well as AIX and z/OS-based systems. The Charlotte, North Carolina, company claims to have more than 800 field engineers, says customers can save 50% or more using its maintenance service for onsite support and troubleshooting.
“Our field engineers have numerous years of IBM mainframe and Power experience,” the company says on its website. “Our Level 3 CE team has a combined over 150 years of experience working on IBM mainframes and Power systems. They provide backline support to our field engineering teams globally.”
Computer Data Source (CDS) also provides hardware maintenance for IBM Power Systems gear. “Our Level 3 engineers are fully IBM-trained, and have 20-plus years’ experience providing support and maintenance to enterprise-class customers,” the Eatontown, New Jersey-based company says on its website. “Our OEM-class support offers savings of up to 50 percent on the equivalent IBM contract – and it covers your post-warranty Power servers too.”
The one caveat with third-party maintenance is that third-party provides do not have access to firmware, which is only available through IBM. For this, and other reasons, Massiello recommends users stick with IBM maintenance, if they can.
“We keep our customers on IBM maintenance because these customers are running the business on their machines, and they really need to ensure that they get the machine fixed, and get it fixed right,” he says. “I’m sure they’re reputable third-party maintenance companies out there. We just don’t have any experience with them.”