IBM i Roadmap Promises A Long Ride, Few Bumps
June 10, 2019 Timothy Prickett Morgan
It would be hard to find a group of enterprise IT shops that are more conservative – meaning averse to risk – than the IBM midrange. Arguably, IBM System z mainframe shops are even more risk averse, but perhaps it is a matter more of scale than degree. In the average IBM i shop, one person – or maybe a handful of people – is keeping risk at bay, while in a mainframe shop there could be dozens or hundreds that are trying to steer the ship without rocking the boat.
Every now and then, Big Blue publishes an IBM i Strategy And Roadmap document to trying to calm the fears of the IBM i faithful while at the same time trying to fire them up a little. It is a delicate balance, and such documents are generally not full of information. But there are always some things to consider and that can be used to make the ongoing case that the IBM i platform deserves to be preserved in the enterprise and to have continuing investment. So it is with the 2019 edition of the IBM i Strategy And Roadmap, which you can get at this link.
There is not a lot of new information in here, and a lot of the architectural discussion that is commonly in such documents has been sang in many different ways in the past. In this case, IBM is touting the advancements in IBM i 7.4, which ships in two weeks on the 31st birthday of the AS/400 platform, and its new Db2 Mirror active-active system mirroring function, which is the big new feature with this release.
We get some tidbits of data in here, too.
“IBM i enjoys a strong base of clients in the traditional markets of North America, Western Europe, and Japan, accounting for more than 80 percent of IBM i sales annually,” the roadmap report states. “Over the last few years, IBM i has seen ongoing growth in emerging markets such as Latin America, Eastern Europe and the ASEAN region, especially in the banking and distribution sectors. While China tends to be a growth market dominated by Unix, IBM i continues its strong presence there, especially in the banking and financial services sectors.”
Three years ago, the revenue share of IBM i sales in North America, Western Europe, and Japan was 70 percent, so clearly something changed. As we report elsewhere in this issue, we think what has changed is sales into China, and we think that perhaps IBM can – or already has – partnered with server maker Inspur to sell IBM i systems into China on its behalf.
The other statistic that is interesting is that 30 percent of the IBM i customer base is characterized as being large enterprises – those with more than 1,000 employees – while the remaining 70 percent are at small and medium business with fewer than 1,000 employees. I would love to see how that SMB part breaks down, perhaps with companies with fewer than 250 employees and those with between 250 and 1,000 employees. I suspect that that medium part is considerably smaller than we think. We also think it is interesting that IBM does not give out an aggregate, worldwide customer base in this 2019 strategy and roadmap report; in the past, we have seen 150,000 or 120,000 unique customers cited.
The strategy and roadmap document also outlines the release schedule for IBM i releases, which is mostly independent of the Power processor and Power Systems server release cycles. Here is the latest release roadmap:
What is missing from this chart above is the fact that IBM i 7.1 was launched in April 2010, and that there was a four year and seven month gap between that and IBM i 7.2. This was a very long time between releases, which came out every year or two historically in the past three decades. (Sometimes even more rapidly.) It was only a year and seven months between IBM i 7.2 and IBM i 7.3, which customers told IBM was too short. So now we are going to settle down, in seems, to a three year cadence between releases, with the gap between IBM i 7.3 and IBM i 7.4 being three years and two months. Technology Refreshes, which started with IBM i 7.1 back in 2010, are used to fill in the gaps twice a year, and this works quite well. It is hard to imagine when a new version will be necessary, and even IBM does not know when such a thing will be needed. Core operating system functionality changes are just not that dramatic anymore, and that is true for all operating systems, including Linux and Windows Server.
The important thing for IBM i shops is that the operating system, database, and development tools that comprise the IBM i integrated stack be able to absorb changes as they come to the industry without disrupting support for existing applications. IBM’s plan is to have IBM i Next ready sometime in late 2021 to early 2022 and IBM i Next +1 ready in late 2024 or early 2025, as you can see:
IBM generally supports releases for seven years, where it does bug fixes and adds features, and then offers around three years of extended support beyond that, where it does security patches and offers assistance with installation and operations to customers still on this release beyond that seven years. The IBM i support roadmap above shows nine years of support for IBM i Next and IBM i Next +1, but don’t read too much into that. What this means, practically, is that customers investing in IBM i can expect to be able to run applications and databases they have today in some fashion out to somewhere between 2032 to 2035. That’s about as far away as anyone in the IT industry can think, and even five years, to be honest, is pushing the roadmap hard.
The other thing to remember is the difference between intention and promise. Even IBM makes this clear in the fine print, which reads:
“All statements regarding IBM’s future direction and intent are subject to change or withdrawal without notice, and represent goals and objectives only.“
This is clearly a statement of intent, not a contractual promise with the IBM i community. A new chief executive officer could come into Big Blue in a year or two or three and decide to donate Power chip development to the OpenPower community, shift server manufacturing to Inspur or any number of contract manufacturers, and freeze IBM i development even if it does run support out into the 2030s. That is what has just happened very quietly with the Sun Solaris platform at Oracle and what happened to the HP-UX and OpenVMS platforms at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, who were IBM’s biggest rivals in the RISC/Unix space and in the proprietary minicomputer space. We are not saying that this is going to happen – IBMers and customers probably just had heart palpitations reading that – but this kind of thing has happened in the past with other vendors and it is possible even if it is not probable. The point is, someone, very likely the good people in Rochester, will be offering support for the IBM i platform for something close to a decade and a half more from this date, and that is about as big of a security blanket as anyone can expect in this topsy turvey turbulent IT market.
Whether there is going to be Power10, Power11, and Power12 hardware to complement that is not at all discussed in this roadmap. As far as we know, Power10 is still on track for late 2020 or early 2021 and Power11 is forming in the minds of Big Blue’s chip designers down in Austin. No one has said diddlysquat about Power12, but that again is not unusual. No one in the chip business talks more than one or two generations out from the present, and sometimes, as with Nvidia with its GPU accelerators, it is not saying anything at all.