IBM Lab Services: Your IBM i All-Star Team
September 16, 2019 Alex Woodie
It can be difficult to deploy brand new, cutting-edge technology on an IBM i server for the very first time. Take Db2 Mirror, for example. IBM just released it two months ago, and nobody has much experience deploying it in a production setting as yet. This is exactly the sort of project that spurred IBM to create Lab Services.
Lab Services is an All-Star team of IBM consultants who are called upon to deploy the newest or most complex technologies. In addition to high availability, Lab Services consultants are engaged in projects around cloud and hybrid cloud, database modernization, and artificial intelligence, among other projects.
IBM founded Lab Services decades ago at the IBM lab in Rochester, Minnesota, the ancestral home of the IBM i and its predecessor systems. IBM i servers still make up a good chunk of Lab Services clients, but the organization has branched out to serve users of other IBM gear, including AIX and Linux on Power, System z mainframe, and enterprise storage systems like the DS8000.
The IBM Lab Services team is currently ramping up to meet demand for expertise around Db2 Mirror, which became available in late June with IBM i 7.4. The database clustering technology was developed to give IBM i shops a way to provide continuous availability and immunity from application server malfunctions.
It’s both a new technology and a new approach to building resiliency in IBM i settings, which makes it a perfect candidate for Lab Services, according to Ian Jarman, the business unit executive for the Power Systems team within IBM Lab Services.
“In the case of Db2 Mirror, we’re still in the very early stages of that,” Jarman tells IT Jungle. “We are working with the first clients who will consider this technology.”
The Db2 Mirror roll-out is expected to parallel what occurred about 10 years ago when PowerHA debuted on the IBM i scene. The PowerHA product actually originated as a Lab Services engagement, as IBM i shops contracted with Big Blue to bring a storage-based resiliency technology for Unix under the umbrella of High Availability Solutions Manger (HASM) to the IBM i realm. (IBM introduced the PowerHA name in 2009.)
Being at that junction of development and deployment is one of the benefits of being a Lab Services customer. “We were working on that type of technology with the tools we have in Lab Services, and then we incorporated that into development of the product,” Jarman says. “PowerHA is a great example of the cooperation between Lab Services and the development team.”
As products mature over time, the need for Lab Services consultants tends to decrease. That’s because the skills that are necessary to implement and utilize the products become more plentiful in the market as those products see more day-to-day use. As a product becomes more established, an IBM i shop has better odds of finding a local business partner that can offer the needed consulting expertise. Or the customer might even discover that an in-house employee is comfortable working with software.
“The newer the product is, the more likely we’re going to be working directly with the development team,” Jarman says. “In areas like Db2 Mirror or AI or the latest OpenShift technology, for example, we’re working directly with the lab as they roll out those technologies.”
There are other consultants within IBM that are better positioned to handle other projects. IBM Global Services, for example, is where you should go for business transformation or application modernization. If you want to outsource the day-to-day management of your IT gear, then IBM Global Technology Services is your go-to crew. If you need somebody to “rack and stack” your new IBM i setup, then an IBM business partner may be the best bet.
“Those aren’t segments that we do in Lab Services,” Jarman says. “Unlike other service units in IBM, we’re not trying to outsource. We’re not doing long-term projects with clients. We’re trying to help them deploy technology, to share skills and best practices, and then help them to be self-sustainable in their new environment.”
There are many IBM i shops that don’t push the envelope. They’re content to continue doing what they do on the box, as they have done for many years. But there’s also a group of companies that try to get more out of the box, who try to use the latest technologies to grow their business, cut costs, or improve efficiency. These are the sorts of companies that tap Lab Services for their expertise.
For example, large companies who need to push beyond the core and socket maximums of current Power Systems boxes have a friend in Lab Services. So do those who want to provision hundreds of LPARs.
“It might be about deploying a first environment in AI,” Jarman adds. “Or it might be deployment the first environment with OpenShift for example. It’s generally around the systems software. In the case of IBM i, our team specializes in things like PowerHA for resiliency. They specialize in security, obviously. Information management with Db2 optimization and Db2 modernization and now with Db2 Mirror. And then infrastructure optimization in general, and virtualization and performance optimization. This is the kind of area that we focus, especially IBM i.”
Large companies that are pushing IBM i and Power Systems servers to the limits are well-represented among IBM Lab Services clients. Many of these firms are represented by the Large User Group (LUG), a group of one hundred big companies that comes to the Rochester lab three times per year to hear about the latest technology from IBM, and to give IBM developers feedback on what they need next.
“LUG members have great people in their infrastructure team,” Jarman says. “They have deep technical skills. They’re the kind of clients who come to Lab Services with very specific needs, such as performance or database optimization. It’s a great example of where we can add value and talk at the same level as our most experienced clients.”
The main requirement for becoming a Lab Services consultant is possession of deep technical expertise. Consultants may get those skills working in research or development capacities at IBM, or perhaps through technical sales, Jarman says. Each consultant in Lab Services followed a unique path through IBM, and the consultants are encouraged to lean on their previous experiences while engaging Lab Services customers. That’s another part of the Lab Services value-add, Jarman says.
“Each of our consultants has their own extended network that allows them share experience and gain access to technical information because of that network that they built,” he says. “So there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for this. But everybody has great networks and great credibility, I think, for our team with other technical colleagues at IBM.”
The average Lab Services engagement lasts about a week, and cost anywhere from about $17,500 to $22,500 (the company recently raised its Lab Services fees). The consultant may install or configure some hardware or software, which is part of the job. But instead of completing a unit of work for the client, a Lab Services engagement is more about ensuring that the client is brought up-to-speed with whatever new technology or approach they are using.
“There’s a very high return rate because people really like the fact that we’re coming to help them, but we’re not coming to do their job,” Jarman says. “It’s a week of sharing skills and sharing best practices and experience. But when we then leave and allow them to shine in their company and do their job.”
When consultants aren’t engaged with a client – or flying to or from their location throughout the world – they’re not resting on their laurels, waiting for the next call. Instead, when they’re not working with one of IBM’s customers around the world, IBM Lab Services consultants are sharpening their skills with training, or training others through IBM Systems Technical University, which is actually run by Lab Services.
“If you look at the balance of Lab Services versus other services team, we spend more time investing in Lab Services consulting skills than other groups,” Jarman says. “That’s because we’re always on the front-end of new technology. We have to keep on investing all the time.”
For example, the company is currently ramping up investments in AI technologies in Lab Services, including building consultant expertise in configuring and deploying Watson Machine Learning (formerly PowerAI) on the powerful IBM Power Systems AC922 gunship.
“You can imagine, to bring up a team over the past three years in AI, we’ve had to do deep investment in skills in addition to the consulting engagement that we have,” Jarman says. “We’re very much focused on budding the skills of our consultants. Because at the end of the day, that’s the differentiation in Lab Services, our consulting skills, so we need to keep those as sharp as possible.”
For more information on IBM Lab Services, see http://www.ibm.com/it-infrastructure/services/lab-services