The Cloud Breathes New Life Into Managed Service Providers
November 6, 2019 Timothy Prickett Morgan
There are a number of hotbeds of technology in the IBM midrange – Rochester, Toronto, Atlanta, and Austin are the biggies – and there is a very large number of business partners who have been helping customers try to figure out each step in the advancing progression of technologies that have come out of Big Blue and its partners for decades.
The business partners tend to cluster around the hotbeds, as you might imagine, and we are pleased that after all of these years, there are still a lot of IBM i partners out there who do everything from help customers configure, setup, and sometimes finance new systems or upgrades to offering a slew of managed services that help them better manage their IT operations. The typical partner, based on our anecdotal evidence, has somewhere between 100 and 200 customers who are active at any given time, and maybe a base of customers over its history that is two or three times as large. These are the kind of mid-sized businesses that are the backbone of the Western economies, even though the Global 2000 gets all of the credit.
We don’t claim to know all of these IBM i partners personally, but most of them know The Four Hundred. Such is the case with Blair Technology Solutions, an IBM i and Power Systems business partner located in the Toronto suburb of Markham, Ontario. John Blair, the company’s founder and also its president and chief executive officer, has been working in the IBM midrange for over three decades, and he also has the distinction of being one of the very first subscribers to The Four Hundred back when we got our start in 1989 in the wake of the AS/400 launch. Back then, we were a subscription-based publication printed on light blue paper, and Blair has his archive sitting on a shelf just like I do.
Blair, the man, first started selling used IBM midrange equipment for Canadian Used Computers – eventually transformed into BrainsII – way back in 1986. (BrainsII, which is still going strong across Canada, has long since focused in on providing service and support for Power Systems and other IT equipment.) Blair then worked as a system development officer at Bank of America, deploying foreign exchange systems across Canada, for nine years.
Like many resellers, Blair Technology has transformed itself into a managed service provider, and it is a transition that John Blair knows well, having gone through it himself at his own company, which he formed in April 1996. For Blair Technology, that timing was fortuitous.
First of all, this was during the CISC-to-RISC transition in the AS/400 base, which brought a big uptick in sales to the reseller channel, and second, this was during the transition at IBM steered chairman and CEO Louis Gerstner, who wanted Big Blue to have a strong channel so Big Blue could focus on its services and software business. Blair Technology partnered with Lakeview Technology, the creator of the MIMIX high availability replication software for the AS/400 platform, and was off to a start, landing a big account for General Electric’s Commercial Finance division and then another big deal with Universal Studios. Blair Technology put a few years in selling and configuring ERP software on the iSeries platform, but “it didn’t pan out as a business,” as the company’s founder put it.
Nine years ago, Blair Technology made a dramatic shift to selling managed services, and that has allowed the company to grow to 27 employees and over 100 steady customers across Canada. Blair Technology sells virtual tape library (VTL) backup services as well as managed HA and DR environments, and even does complete outsourcing of IBM environments for some of its customers. It does not run its own datacenters, but uses co-location services because, as Blair put it after having his own datacenters for a number of years, “that is just watching big bags of money fly out the window.”
Blair Technology is still headquartered in Markham, but it has expanded to offices in Calgary, Alberta, and Montreal, Quebec, and with the advent of Power Systems running IBM i in the cloud, there are really no state or national borders that hem in any IBM i business partner and Blair, which is moving swiftly and strongly into peddling the newly minted cloud capacity on IBM Cloud, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure (through its partnership with Skytap), is going through another transformation in its managed service provider portfolio.
“We think that 2020 is going to be a very exciting year for us because that’s where I see the dramatic shift to hybrid cloud and this is where I want to take the business,” Blair tells The Four Hundred. “I no longer want to be solely focused on on-premises or private clouds. I want to drive the public cloud consumption for specific use cases using Skytap or IBM or Google – wherever, wherever the customer relationships. We have got a strong bench in terms of understanding these public cloud platforms and what companies are doing with their private clouds on both IBM i systems and on other kinds of systems. And now, with the deal that IBM has done, we are getting into the Red Hat platform to help companies with that paradigm shift into containers with OpenShift and other Red Hat technologies.”
That journey to the cloud, with its many different roads to get there, is what Blair Technology is going to be focusing on going forward as it maintains the managed services that it has been providing for almost a decade. The way Blair sees it, there are two key areas to focus on in the cloud as it relates to IBM i customers, with a much more distant third category. The first is very familiar to IBM i shops already, the second is something they really need, particularly in a more DevOps world where flexibility and agility are of utmost importance, and the third is a road that many have tried to take OS/400, i5/OS, and IBM i customers down with limited success, and that is wholesale migration from on premises infrastructure to the public cloud. But there could be scenarios where even this makes sense, provided data sovereignty issues can be dealt with appropriately.
Disaster recovery in the cloud is a no brainer for a lot of IBM i shops, especially those that do not have high availability clustering on-site or remote disaster recovery systems already because of the relatively high cost of HA replication (at least compared to taking the risk and doing nothing) or the also high cost of maintaining a separate system setup at a company-owned datacenter or in a co-location facility.
“Obviously, DR in the cloud makes the most common sense, and having a second datacenter for DR makes zero sense at this point for customers that can use a cloud instance to failover to in the event of a disaster of some kind,” says Blair. Blair Technology has a strong relationship with Syncsort, the dominant supplier of HA software (including the MIMIX suite as well as others). “First of all, everyone is going to want to take the easy wins off the plate with IBM i in the cloud. It is expensive to run that secondary datacenter, and even using a managed service provider as a go between, it is easier and less expensive for that managed service provider to do that secondary datacenter on the public cloud now.”
As Microsoft/Skytap, IBM, and Google expand Power Systems into new regions around the globe, it will be attractive to even more IBM i shops to just park disaster recovery instances out on the public cloud. Right now, availability is fairly limited to a couple of datacenters from each supplier. But with somewhere around 125,000 customers all needing some sort of DR and never feeling like they could afford it, this is a pretty juicy enterprise target for the big clouds, and even smaller ones, to chase, as Blair says.
The application development and test use case is also a no brainer, to a certain extent, as it often is when a new technology is introduced to the market. Virtualization on X86 platforms was around for a long time, and really got its initial ramp from developers who needed to create, test, and destroy application environments in a rapid and less expensive manner. That has not changed in fifteen years. While the addition of logical partitioning with OS/400 V4R4 back in February 1999 – a decade before VMware started to get traction on X86 platforms – programmers could move their application development and test work to independent logical partitions. But it is still not as easy as it could get.
“When you are constantly looking to spin up an LPAR to do this or to do that, the Skytap model really makes sense because of the templating that they offer,” explains Blair. “You can easily take a template of a virtual system and snapshot it and provision another instance on the Skytap cloud without a whole lot of fuss, rather than getting your IT department to provision the LPAR and reallocate resources. This becomes a real pain in the neck.”
And finally, if customers do want to move all – or part – of their application to the stack to the public cloud, or perhaps move it back to on premises equipment after giving public cloud infrastructure a whirl, Blair Technology can help customers do these moves. But given the nature of the companies that have historically used IBM i platforms, and the relatively high cost of full, 24×7, 365-day a year production systems in the cloud – Blair estimates it is anywhere from 6X to 7X as expensive as equivalent on premises systems, compute for compute and storage for storage – that there will not be many customers who want to make such a full jump to the cloud.
There will be exception, Blair concedes, such as companies that want to make heavy use of data analytics and machine learning infrastructure and services that are available on the big public clouds. In those cases, having fast and fat pipes between on the cloudy Power Systems and these indigenous services on the clouds may matter more than the price of the IBM i server running in the cloud that generates only a minority of the data being used in the overall application.
“There are also flexibility and agility issues that the cloud always offers,” says Blair. “The question is, just how much is that worth? This is something each company has to answer for itself. ”
And that issue, among a number of others that are mentioned above and a few we did not get to in this article, are what Blair and I will be talking about in a webinar on December 5 at 1 p.m. Eastern time. Please sign up for our IBM Power on Public Cloud webinar at this link. We’ll see you then.