Third Party Maintenance An Option As Power7 Goes EOL
September 23, 2019 Alex Woodie
Time is running out for IBM i shops with hardware support contracts for Power7 and Power7+ servers, which officially reach end of life (EOL) a week from today. For organizations that aren’t ready to migrate to newer Power8 or Power9 machines, there are third-party maintenance options that will let them keep running Power7 machines without abandoning the safety net.
The September 30 EOL for Power7 hardware support not come as a surprise, as IBM has been talking about the event for two years. Big Blue has given its Power Systems customers plenty of time to upgrade from older systems, including Power6 machines, which went EOL on March 31 2019, as well as Power7, which goes EOL in just seven days. Power6 debuted more than 12 years ago, while Power7 and Power7+ have been around since 2010 and 2012, respectively.
The looming EOL for Power7 iron won’t impact IBM i shops that do their best to keep up with new Power Systems hardware and operating systems. These folks usually are on three- or four-year upgrade cycles, and completed their migrations away from Power7-generation servers years ago. But there’s a good percentage of IBM i shops that don’t stay on the latest-greatest hardware and software.
According to HelpSystems‘ 2019 IBM i Marketplace Survey, 21 percent of IBM i shops are running Power6 servers and 47 percent are running Power7 gear. Granted, this data was collected at the end of 2018, so the numbers have undoubtedly declined since then. But it shows how prevalent this hardware is in the market.
Not all of these older servers are running old operating systems, but some of them are. Power6 servers, which initially shipped with i5/OS V5R4, topped out with support for IBM i 7.2, which IBM just announced it will cease providing software support in two years. Meanwhile, Power7 which debuted with the launch of IBM i 7.1, can run up to IBM i 7.3. That is currently the most popular version of the operating system, according to the survey, displacing the ever-popular IBM i 7.1, which had been the most popular OS for the previous four years.
We don’t know how many of these Power7 shops have already gone off IBM hardware support. After all, the trend of going it alone with aging iron appears to be gaining steam, according to some IBM i business partners. Suffice it to say, there likely will be a good number of admins in Power7 shops who find themselves without a hardware maintenance support contract in place when they come into work next Tuesday.
IBM i shops who like the comfort of having a support contract can work with a third-party maintenance (TPM) company to get their Power7 and older servers covered. One of the biggest in the country is Curvature, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based company that supports a range of vintage gear from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and other firms.
Curvature has hundreds of Power Systems hardware support clients running IBM i and AIX, and expects business to be brisk following the official EOL for Power7, says Ed Ismail, vice president of Curvature’s global maintenance portfolio.
“We know the size of the Power7 market is so huge,” Ismail says. “I don’t believe that customers are going to displace it with Power8 or Power9.”
Ismail cut his teeth working with IBM System/370 gear in the early 1970s, and has worked with all flavors of the IBM midrange server since the System/34. Curvature stopped supporting its last System/38 machine six or seven years ago, but still has some relatively ancient AS/400 Model 9406 machines under contract, not to mention a smattering of vintage IBM mainframe, DEC Alpha, HP3000, and HP9000 gear.
Curvature hardware contracts typically are 65 percent to 70 percent less than what IBM charges, Ismail says. When a company signs up for a hardware support contract, they get a guarantee that Curvature will repair their server within a certain amount of time. All the repair work uses Curvature-sourced parts and is done by Curvature employees, expect in far-flung areas, where it hires sub-contractors.
The company maintains a stockpile of commonly replaced parts, such as disk drives, host bus adapter, and power supplies, for each server that it supports. The company has a global presence, with 100 service centers and 600 parts centers located around the globe to serve 15,000 customers. It also has a call-home feature called Remote Enterprise Monitoring (REM) that alerts Curvature to failing parts.
When Curvature finds that specific server parts are becoming scarce, it works with customers to find a solution, which often means upgrading to a newer generation of pre-owned gear (the company is also a reseller of used servers and storage).
“We do not declare end-of-service life,” Ismail says. “Obviously we will go much beyond manufacture end-of-service life, sometimes 15 to 20 years. The only constraint we would run into would be the availability of spares.”
Curvature can provide hardware support that’s identical to IBM’s in every respect, except for one: firmware. Only clients with hardware contracts can legally access firmware, which IBM controls as a proprietary product.
Firmware does pose an obstacle, but it’s usually not a major problem because Curvature works with clients to ensure that they have the appropriate firmware installed before they cut ties with IBM. Operating systems are a function of IBM software support, and are also outside of the scope of what Curvature can provide, but they’re as critical in the TPM discussion.
“The operating system is more subjective. It’s up to the customer based on their vocation,” Ismail says. “From a hardware point of view, we just want to make sure we’re not taking on any hardware with firmware that has been problematic. We have a pretty good internal library. For example if we were to take on a Power6 or 7 9119, a Model 595, running firmware level XYZ, we know that particular firmware level has some known issues, and we would immediately advise the customer, let’s go had and upgrade that before we move away from IBM.”
It’s very important for customers to check their firmware levels before going off maintenance with IBM, because they can’t get it any other way. If a company can’t afford the downtime to upgrade the firmware before the hardware contract ends, Ismail recommends that customers download it and then archive it for later use.
“If they’re under our maintenance, we can assist on the firmware update as long as they acquired the firmware legally from IBM,” Ismail says. “In the Curvature world, we absolutely would not do anything that’s questionable. Anything we do has to be legal, ethical and above board, even to the point where it costs us business. We would not take that chance.”