Inside IBM’s Efforts To Modernize The ISV Army
May 15, 2023 Alex Woodie
“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” IBM executives must feel a bit like the eminently quotable Don Rumsfeld, former Secretary of the Department of Defense, as they marshal their assets in the battle for application supremacy. While some of Big Blue’s partners have honed their IBM i applications into modern weapons, others are fielding old equipment more suitable for a previous war.
It’s no state secret that Big Blue has a legacy problem on its hands in the IBM i world. When the AS/400 launched nearly 35 years ago, it was an overnight success, and that success helped attract many software companies to get their applications running on this new operating system, OS/400. Cognizant of the market opportunity, many RPG programmers took the custom programs they developed for companies across multiple industries, and founded new software houses to sell shrink-wrapped products.
Market success bred more success. At one point, there were an estimated 10,000 independent software vendors (ISVs) hawking wares on the platform. Not all of them were the size of a JD Edwards (now owned by Oracle), but not all were mom-and-pop shops, either. Times were good in the heyday of the AS/400, and it earned the title of the world’s most successful business computer for a reason. To put another number on it, even a decade after the AS/400 launch, there were around 8,000 ISVs with over 25,000 applications on the platform.
As the years went by, the steam began to dissipate in server sales. The rise of more powerful Unix machines and the client-server revolution sucked some of the air out of the midrange. The pace of creation of new software houses slowed, and some shut their doors entirely, while others got acquired.
Through it all, the RPG applications that were the AS/400’s bread and butter kept right on running. The simplicity of RPG programming combined with the legendary reliability of the IBM midrange boxes (AS/400s, iSeries, System i, and now Power Systems running IBM i) made for a potent business combination. “If it ain’t broke, don’t it” became the motto for a generation of IT professionals who prided themselves on keeping the business running, not for falling for the latest tech fad.
And many tech fads have come and gone over the decades. The thing is, during that time, the nature of business computing has also changed. Midrange professionals who would scoff at the notion of running a billion-dollar operation on flaky Windows NT machines today have many other solid platforms to choose from. That includes today’s IBM i server, which has retained many of the technical and operational advantages that drove the AS/400’s initial adoption. But it also includes much-improved Linux and Windows machines for the do-it-yourselfer. And of course there is also the cloud, where business applications are ubiquitous and the operating system and platform no longer matter.
This is the modern IT battlefield that IBM’s executive team is trying to navigate its IBM i platform through. IBM has done its job by keeping the hardware up to date with the Power10 machines, which are the fastest and most powerful ever. It’s also maintained that legendary backwards compatibility, which is loved by customers but also enabled the supporting army of IBM i ISVs to neglect keeping their RPG (and COBOL and Java and PHP) applications current with market expectations. Now IBM is faced the prospect of getting these ISVs to move forward, and it’s not easy.
One of the IBM executives helping to lead the charge in the ISV field is Gina King, IBM’s director of ecosystem alliances. In addition to leading IBM’s academic efforts, which we wrote about earlier this month, King and her team is also in charge of wrangling IBM partners toward a collective goal.
One of IBM’s current goals is to ensure that it maintains a handful of modern, showcase-worthy applications running on IBM i for key industries, King told IT Jungle during an interview at COMMON’s recent POWERUp 2023 conference in Denver, Colorado.
“We’ve been very strategic about the ISVs we’re focused on, which a smaller set than we’d like to cover,” she said. “But when we educate the ISVs on our strategy, our commitment to IBM i, and that they can use it, they continue to support their applications on IBM i as a core platform, whether it’s banking or manufacturing or retail, and they can build around it, so they can add new capability for their clients.”
While IBM would love to have a large base of ISV partners who are developing modern applications that leverage the latest technology, the reality is that many of the ISVs are still selling applications with older codebases. These apps check the boxes on the main features and can still get the job done, but they may feature 5250 green-screen interfaces, which younger workers may not be comfortable working with. Or sometimes they might rely on fixed-format RPG, which younger coders may not want to work with.
The prospect of having a full battalion of modern ISV applications running on IBM i has to be enticing to King, especially if they can pair the current reliability, security, and efficiency benefits of IBM i along with a compelling GUI experience, a modern codebase, and a cloud delivery model. But King realizes that ISVs must deploy their resources practically, and so she is taking a mostly defensive stance designed to minimize IBM i disruptions and desertions while taking the occasional tactical shot at gaining some ground.
“Our strategy is to maintain the existing ISV application ecosystem that we have running on IBM i today and add value,” King said. “People love IBM i. As long as people can stay on it and as long as there’s added value, [we have an] approach to be able to modernize and leverage the data that’s in IBM i systems. I think that helps all of us.”
Part of IBM’s ISV strategy is to get IBM i vendors moving forward with newer technologies, such as AI and containers. IBM didn’t have to package Merlin in a Red Hat OpenShift container, but it did as a way to draw the IBM i ecosystem toward the new technology and get them starting to familiarize themselves with it. IBM understands that these technologies may not run directly on IBM i, but they will tap into data sitting on IBM i, and so it’s important to get the ball rolling now.
King understands that IBM won’t be successful in getting all ISVs to modernize their applications, or even to adopt newer technologies like AI and containers. But she wants to reach the ones who are receptive to the message and the promise of better business days to come.
“Some of them are investing in modernization and I would say quite frankly some of them are not,” she said. “If you think about the technology adoption lifecycle, it’s the same thing with the ISVs. They’re going to be [some who are] the last to adopt open source or containers or introducing new technology like AI. I think they’re going to resist it. And then you have more who are on the leading edge that realize they need to do more for their clients and more around differentiation. So it’s always going to be a mix.”
To get the ball rolling on modernization, IBM launched the Power Developer eXchange last August. There are now close to 700 members on the Power Developer eXchange, King said. Members get access to discussion groups where they can share ideas, as well as participate in webcasts.
“We recognized that we really needed to build that community,” she said. The Developer eXchange “is there to educate, support developers and architects on Power, developing for OpenShift on Power and Linux on Power. And we just continue to build that out.”
While the IBM i doesn’t have the market momentum that the AS/400 soon had when it broke onto the business IT scene on that hot, sunny June day in Rochester, Minnesota, nearly 35 years ago, it has the benefits of 35 years of hard-won experience. The trick for IBM and its ISV partners will be bringing that unparalleled industry experience forward into the new business IT battlefield. King is certainly bullish on the odds and is willing to take her chances.
“I think there’s a lot of advantages to keeping it on Power. All the great things we know and love, and we continue to advance the technology, like building AI right into the chip,” King said. “I think a lot of times it’s getting the word out and getting to the right people. And so as much as we can evangelize that, build an army to talk about it – it’s great stuff.”
IBM Looks To Grow New Power College Program From The Ground Up
IBM i at 35: A Walk Down Memory Lane
Definitivamente, IBM está apostando por recuperar el mercado, pero usando como estrategia las soluciones que administra la plataforma. Excelente, soy un desarrollador que se inicio trabajando con el S/3, luego pase al S/34, S/36, As/400 y Iseries. Y desde mas de 20 años vengo escuchando que el AS/400 desaparece, sin embargo en Perú es el servidor de datos más robusto que utilizan las grandes empresas comercializadoras, comunicación, banca, salud entre otras.
La conectividad del front usuario y el registro de datos, ya es un tema conocido, pero donde hay mucho que trabajar es en el conocimiento de los desarrolladores usando la interoperabilidad con otros servicios, para ser más competitivos en genera soluciones amigables. Saludos.
One industry IBM pretty much owns, and overlooks, is Transportation and Logustics. There are hundreds of companies on the IBM i in that industry just in the U.S.
Another missing industry, and one I didn’t realize there were so many companies in, is the Packaging industry.
Maybe I’ve just missed it but I haven’t seen many ISVs in those areas (except for maybe TMW).
“While IBM would love to have a large base of ISV partners who are developing modern applications that leverage the latest technology, the reality is that many of the ISVs are still selling applications with older codebases.”
The bitter truth today is that the few remaining IBM i ISVs are almost all tool providers, not application providers, as is evidenced in the IBM i COMMON exhibitors and the advertisers in ITJungle, and the ISVs are all selling disparte solutions, like different GUI implementations.
The application providers today are Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP, which all have a single GUI and which all develop and distribute and maintain their applications software without the use of ISVs. Microsoft, Oracle and SAP all have market capitalizations far greater than the market capitalization of IBM.
The huge numbers of wildly successful BM i business partners in the 1970s, starting with the IBM System/34, enjoyed an extremely easy to learn RPG english- like programming language which tens of thousands of customer existing personnel could learn in a week to utilize and implement their business skills as new IBM programmers.
That IBM wonderful RPG language of the 1970s had a single IBM provided user interface (UI), which is STILL today the only IBM i provided interface and which was used to develop and maintain all customer and packeged software solutions. IBM itself marketed and distributed hundreds of the very most popular customer developed application programs and IBM Installed User Programs (IUPs), along with IBM provided applications like MAPICS.
IBM has made profound and perhaps fatal errors since the 1970s in making programming harder and more technical rather than making programming much easier and much more productive for virtually all to successfully use.
Will IBM change and succeed?