Historical, Functional, And Relevant
July 12, 2021 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The purpose of The Four Hundred, which entered its 33rd year of publication this week, is to support the community of companies and their IT staffs – and ultimately the end users and the success of those companies – who have deployed their mission critical applications on System/38, System/36, AS/400, AS/400e, iSeries, System i, and now IBM i platforms for a decade longer than we have been around. My mentor, Hesh Wiener, and various colleagues who worked for other publications that covered the System/38 and System/36 from the time before I came onto the scene in July 1989, all believed this.
It is a remarkable thing.
In this time, I have seen a large number of reorganizations at IBM, and another one happened on July 2, when most of us were not really paying attention. Arvind Krishna, chief executive officer and chairman at IBM, made the announcement in the IBM Newsroom and as far as I know there was not any outreach to the press or analyst community ahead of or in the wake of the announcement. Considering the substantial issues that IBM has been having shifting off Lotus Domino/Notes hosted by HCl Technologies, which bought the Lotus suite a few years back, to machines hosted by IBM and it looks like some Microsoft Exchange Server has been added to the mix, which have been reported at length in The Register, maybe we didn’t get the memo for that reason. No matter.
Effective immediately on July 2, IBM president and former Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, who was in line to be IBM’s next CEO, “has decided to step down,” according to Krishna. Whitehurst is staying on as a senior advisor to Krishna, who is 59 and who will remain CEO for the foreseeable future and, we suspect, well beyond the formerly mandatory and then traditional CEO retirement age of 60 that IBM has had for as long as anyone can remember. (Since Thomas Watson Jr. took over from his namesake father in 1952 and set that precedent himself when he retired in 1971.) I wrote at length about Whitehurst leaving IBM in my other day job at The Next Platform last week, and I am not going over all of that ground. Suffice it to say, I find it highly suspicious that Whitehurst was named president in April 2020 – which means he was going to be the next CEO – and then left IBM because he wanted to be a CEO before he got too old. (Whitehurst is 54.) Ginni Rometty was nearly 63 when she relinquished the CEO role to Krishna and the president role to Whitehurst, and it was expected that Krishna would be elevated to chairman and Whitehurst would take the CEO helm and eventually, some years hence, anoint his own successor with the presidency role as has been done since Thomas Watson Sr was named president of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company in 1915, a year after joining the company that would become International Business Machines Corporation.
The reason I cared about Whitehurst taking over IBM is because I want IBM to become a better systems company – a better platform company – than it currently is. I had hope that Red Hat would have a positive influence on Big Blue and that IBM would remember that it is an integrated platform maker and, to be frank, that it would remember that it has always built the next platform, at the right time, rather than trying to preserve the older ones too far beyond their legacy state. IBM has been very good about creating something new and supporting something old, and we need a converged successor to the AS/400 and the mainframe that can reduce IBM’s costs and most importantly, get Big Blue attracting new customers in a way the System/360 did for large enterprises and the AS/400 did for midrange enterprises. Amazon Web Services is surely trying to do it, and seems to be doing a better job. Something I pointed out nine years ago, and AWS has only built an even more integrated stack, with AI and databases all over the place and serverless overlays, since then.
More on this in a minute, since I believe strongly in constructive criticism. Let’s finish up the executive changes first.
Tom Rosamilia, who has run IBM’s WebSphere middleware business in the old Software Group back in the day and then took over System z mainframes, then Power Systems, then Systems group and who did a special stint putting together the spinoffs of IBM Microelectronics to Global Foundries and of the System x business to Lenovo, is now senior vice president of the Cloud and Cognitive Software group, which is the closest analog to Software Group in the current iteration of IBM.
Interestingly, IBM has tapped Ric Lewis, who was put in charge of Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Business Critical Systems division back in 2012, to take over Systems group at IBM. So we did get an outsider after all. BCS is now known as High Performance Computing and Mission Critical Systems (HPC & MCS), and the part of HPE that competes with the Power Systems division, now the Cognitive Systems division but no one calls it that. The HPC & MCS group at HPE has had its own restructuring in March, incidentally. This thing appears to be going around. Lewis has run a lot of different businesses at HPE, including running the Tandem NonStop database cluster business after Compaq was acquired by HPE back in 2001 and running HPE’s combined Hardware Systems and Technology business before taking over the BCS line and then taking on the broader Enterprise Server Business, which added in HP-UX, OpenVMS, and NonStop systems as well as BladeSystem blade servers. Up through February last year, when Lewis left HPE, he had been running its Software Defined and Cloud Group, which included its hyperconverged server/storage hybrid systems as well as its Synergy composable systems – the advanced stuff.
Perhaps, there is hope for IBM as yet.
Apparently, that will now depend on what Krishna thinks IBM’s future is and how he may or may not be willing – or able – to invest in it.
Which brings me to my point. A company can have a deep history, as IBM does. And it can even be functional, serving a small number of customers reasonably well, maintaining or extending their legacy platforms. And that is fine and well, and Lewis knows how to do that as well as anyone at IBM. But you can do all of that and still be basically irrelevant to the IT market at large. This is something that IBM has forgotten. Thomas Watson Sr transformed CTR into the tabulating, punch card giant IBM, and Thomas Watson Jr shepherded, with great difficulty and some embarrassment, the System/360 into being and started the modern computing era as we know it. Louis Gerstner preserved what he could of a discombobulated Big Blue, turning software and services into revenue streams and opening up its systems as neutral platforms. It worked for a while, but as we can see, it did not solve the real problem.
If IBM wants to do more than function, if it wants to be relevant to millions of companies and get back above $100 billion in sales ever again and not live only in the history books, then it has to build a new platform. The best minds it can muster and more money than it thinks it can afford will be required. And if Apple can come back from the ashes – twice – IBM can do it, too. I had hoped Whitehurst might be the one to do this.
We will talk about how this might be done next week. Stay tuned.