Thoroughly Modern: Talking IBM i System Management With Abacus
October 11, 2021 Timothy Prickett Morgan
If you want the members of your IT department to focus on the core applications that define, run, and improve your business, and they also have to manage your systems, and you have limited budgets to do it all, you have to learn to let go of something. There are only so many hours in a day, only so many days in a year, and only so many people to do the work. Something has to give, and you have to keep what brings the real value.
Having an IBM i platform provides plenty of value to start, as IBM i shops know well, and even though there are plenty of things that manage themselves in the system, there is still a lot of day-to-day maintenance tasks that must be done. And that is why shops that are constrained in terms of people or money – or both – should consider hiring a managed service provider to keep their IBM i environments running smoothly.
In the wake of Fresche Solutions buying Abacus Solutions, an IBM Power Systems reseller as well as a cloud and managed services provider for the platform, we thought it would be a good idea to talk to Tom McLendon, who is the Systems Administrator for the Abacus Managed Services team and find out what its operations management service is all about and how it can become part of your IBM i team.
McLendon’s career in the IBM midrange started in 1987, just a year before the AS/400 was launched, and joined Abacus as a System Administrator in 2013. Like many people at Abacus, McLendon wears a variety of hats for the operation management team, caring for customer environments, managing backups, and just “trying to keep our system monitoring software happy.”
When asked about the scope of his responsibilities, McLendon credits his team’s success to their strong sense of ownership. With the hardware aspects of operations management handled by a separate, dedicated team of engineers, McLendon and his fellow system administrators are free to focus on the software side of things.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: I know a little about Operations Management, having runs some clusters of my own, and what I mostly learned was the level of my own ignorance, which is profound. Tell me what Operations Management really is and how does it differ for IBM i environments compared to other platforms?
Tom McLendon: In its simplest form, Operations Management entails watching systems passively and responding to any problems that the monitoring software reports or that the customer asks about. As far as Abacus goes, we do pretty much what any other managed services provider does – monitor the hardware and software of customer systems, collaborate with customers to set up that monitoring, and customize that monitoring to some extent for each environment to meet its unique needs.
We’ve never lost a system, but we’ve saved a lot of ’em. – Tom McLendon, System Administrator, Abacus
Conceptually, Operations Management is basically the same concept for IBM i platforms compared to Window Server, Linux, or Unix systems. But since the IBM i is a unique platform, there is a slightly different language in use. The operations might be the same, but they are executed using different commands, so there is a degree of specialization necessary to do this for the IBM i platform because its market share is declining.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: Are there a lot of sys admins with IBM i experience exiting the industry?
Tom McLendon: As you well know, the IBM i platform is not as popular as the AS/400 was 30 years ago. Most of the remaining talent is considered “grey-beard” like me. Because of this, it’s becoming more and more rare to find administrators that are well-versed in the IBM i. That’s another way that Abacus differs from the competition. Our engineering staff is a mixture of young and old, and we make a conscious decision to invest a great deal in their training so that they are comfortable with the IBM i platform.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: Abacus does Operations Management for om premises machines as well as for systems running in the Abacus Cloud. What is the split, and how is the task different between the two?
Tom McLendon: About 80 percent of our customers are running in our Abacus Cloud, and about 20 percent are customer on premise. We can offer similar services to customers that want to keep Operations Management on premise, but the majority of them shift to the cloud as it becomes more and more expensive to host and own their IBM machines. Eventually it becomes a better deal for Abacus to run it for them.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: What does the day-to-day operations for IBM i Operations Management look like for your team?
Tom McLendon: Most of our day-to-day work involves monitoring and responding to passive alerts from the Halcyon monitoring software. We get a lot of alerts in a day. The team determines which alerts to respond to and how to address them. We either notify the customer or resolve the issue ourselves. If the customer ends up needing assistance, we open a ticket for them and start to dig deeper into the issue.
One distinction I’ll make is that Abacus does not take over application work. We only provide OS work. It’s our belief that there’s no replacement for the institutional knowledge that a customer will have of their own applications, so we make it a point to not offer those services.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: How many alerts do you typically get in a day?
Tom McLendon: Last time I checked I was getting some 1,200 emails a week.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: Excepting the email carpet bombing that I receive as a member of the IT press and analyst community, most of which is garbage, that seems like a lot of emails to process for one person. Especially if they are all important. . . .
Tom McLendon: If you really want to have fun, watch the email inbox of Josh Osborne, our chief technology officer. It’s like watching a waterfall.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: How do you keep from getting overwhelmed by all the alerts?
Tom McLendon: You learn quickly how to determine which alerts are most important. But we still pay attention to the less urgent alerts as well. For example, if we see that a customer is using 90+ percent CPU for several days straight, we will notify them to ease their workloads. If that’s not possible we will bring in the sales team to suggest the customer expand how many CPU slices they need.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: You mentioned that being on the software side of the Operations Management team involves having to wear multiple hats. What else are you and your teammates responsible for?
Tom McLendon: In between alerts and customer tickets, the team works on utilities for internal use to improve documentation and monitoring. We also run and monitor hundreds of automated backups every night.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: Other than the monitoring software, does Abacus use any dedicated tools to manage the IBM i environments of customers? How do we handle things like job scheduling and backup management?
Tom McLendon: The monitoring software we use for most aspects of Operations Management is Halcyon. Job scheduling is application centric, which we don’t support as part of our service offering, so we don’t need a tool for this. As far as backup management goes, we run our automated backups using the data domains from the iSeries.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: Are there other processes in addition to backups that are automated?
Tom McLendon: We automate everything we can. The main benefit of combining automation and managed services is that you need fewer staff on hand. By leveraging monitoring software like Halcyon, you can theoretically watch more with less people. And if it’s all set up correctly, which is true in our case, you can catch a lot more than a human can. We have hundreds of systems monitored by our specialized administrator team plus our Network Operations Center, or NOC, in the managed services lingo.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: Sounds like your team works pretty efficiently.
Tom McLendon: We’ve never lost a system, but we’ve saved a lot of ‘em.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: Can customers interface directly with and perform their own Operations Management when they want? Or is it all done through the Abacus engineering team?
Tom McLendon: Some of our larger customers have their own administrative staff and we collaborate with their team with regards to what we monitor. In those instances, who monitors what is determined beforehand. But most of our customers don’t want to have to worry about any of that, so we usually take over all their Operations Management for them.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: It sounds like the Operations Management service has some flexibility to it. What can Abacus customize about the service for specific customers in terms of capabilities and budgets?
Tom McLendon: We offer three different levels of services: Tier 1, which is our general and basic operations management offering. Tier 2 involves a little customization and additional support in the form of notifications of critical issues, but we won’t fix applications. Tier 3 takes it a bit further where our support team will respond directly to fix specific errors or messages, such as disk file fill ups.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: What makes the Abacus way of doing Operations Management different?
Tom McLendon: One of the things I appreciate the most about how we offer Operations Management is that we’re very careful about setting expectations with customers during the sales/on-boarding process. We make it very clear that we don’t deal with customer applications. I have previously worked on teams that “promise everything” and then are unable to deliver. There’s something to be said about knowing your limitations and setting realistic expectations for the customer.
With much of the existing IBM i platform talent pool retiring out of the industry, companies are needing to find ways to keep their IT infrastructure running. Abacus Solutions combines advanced software tools with engineering teams dedicated to specific parts of a customer’s AS/400 environment to provide comprehensive Operations Management. With our Managed Services, customer IT teams are supported with unmatched AS/400 expertise and know exactly what they’re getting out of the service offerings provided by Abacus. If your company is looking for IBM i-focused Operations Management support, contact Abacus Solutions today.
This content was sponsored by Fresche Solutions.