SOA, Better Value Driving System i Renaissance

Some industry watchers think Big Blue’s midrange workhorse might have finally turned a corner

Remember System i? You know, the iSeries? Or maybe you still know it by its original name: the AS/400?

Call it what you will, IBM Corp.’s venerable minicomputer platform—what the company calls its midrange server line—has molted its way through a host of name changes over the course of nearly 20 years.

System i itself has matured over that period, too, industry watchers say, although its salient value proposition—performance and reliability at a very competitive price—remains unchanged. Even though IBM’s System i marketing efforts have at times seemed all thumbs, some industry watchers think Big Blue’s midrange workhorse might finally have turned a corner.

“Until recently, IBM has treated System i as a cash cow in a mature market, charging relatively high prices that undercut its TCO advantages with acquisition cost disadvantages,” says Wayne Kernochan, a senior IT advisor with consultancy Illuminata. “Nevertheless, System i is increasingly worth looking at. Over the same ten years, System i has continued its quirky architecture, but has removed the last traces of proprietariness as far as customers are concerned.”

There’s a further wrinkle here, according to Kernochan. Just as the rise of service-enablement and the service-oriented architecture (SOA) helped recast the mainframe as a viable—even necessary—play, so, too, has System i benefited.

“At the same time, new architectures such as SOAs have recently arisen that make a strategy of ‘let the architecture drive the choice of platform’ more sensible than ever before,” he points out. “As noted in [Illuminata’s] recent examination of TCO trends, inevitable increases in people costs have made a low-administration platform like System i much more desirable.”

Kernochan and Illuminata recently looked at Big Iron TCO, finding that—even though mainframe systems have significantly higher acquisition costs —mainframes tend to be much cheaper than Windows, Unix, or even Linux systems to support and manage, especially in terms of people costs.

System i on the Cheap

People costs are one thing, but—as Kernochan concedes—acquisition costs have traditionally been the biggest hindrance to both mainframe and System i adoption. Big Blue last year moved to make Big Iron a more affordable upfront proposition, introducing a sub-$100,000 z9 Business Class mainframe.

Late last year, IBM made a similar move on the System I front, announcing a new workload-specific machine—the System i 520 Solution Edition for SAP—designed with SMB customers in mind. The pitch, says Charles King, a principal with consultancy Pund-IT, could sound well-nigh irresistible—especially with a starting price of $35,000.

“The new solution offers a price comparable to Windows-based solutions, and builds on the joint initiative announced by IBM and SAP in January. The built-in security, virus resistance, database, and storage features of IBM’s System i servers will allow SMBs to run SAP programs across their entire business with a single system that automatically backs up and helps manage the data,” King said at the time.

IBM has been here before, of course. Who could forget the AS/400 Model 150 (aka, the “Eiger”), a stripped down, cache-less AS/400 system that shipped with a 50-MHz processor and cracked the $10,000 barrier? This time, King says, it’s different. After all, he argues, there’s a vacuum in the SMB space that isn’t ably filled by the commodity Intel server vendors.

“That is the space that the IBM System i 520 Solution Edition for SAP aims to fill, delivering a highly integrated and flexible solution intelligently designed and aggressively priced to meet the increasingly robust needs of SMBs,” he argues. “For small business customers, the new solution provides an ideal platform for running a variety of SAP applications. It also delivers battle-tested System i capabilities, including … simplified management features.”

Arriving as it did during last year’s System i downturn—following a rip-roaring 2005, System i revenues were down throughout 2006—Big Blue’s latest OS/400-on-the-cheap pitch might have seemed a little anticlimactic, if not desperate. King, for his part, sees the System i 520 as a winner.

“Overall, the System i 520 Solution Edition for SAP looks like a win-win for everyone involved. For IBM and SAP, the new product provides a means to leverage the companies’ continuing efforts in developing small business technology offerings,” King says. “The new systems should also boost revenues for IBM and SAP’s business partners, particularly those in the channel who will drive most sales.”

Nor was that all, King observes: “If things develop as IBM and SAP hope, the new System i 520 Solution Edition for SAP solution could well open up the windows of SMBs to the wide wonderful world of true business-class computing.”

Demystifying System i

Another roadblock to pervasive—or, at least, quasi-mainstream—System i adoption has been that platform’s unique architecture and its universe of unique appurtenances. A decade and more ago, the AS/400 ran a proprietary CMOS, shipped with proprietary operating system, database, and Web server software, and tapped a number of comparatively obscure programming languages, including RPG400 and COBOL400.

While System i still ships with its own OS, database (a version of DB2 that still isn’t developed in lock-step with Big Blue’s DB2 efforts for mainframe and distributed systems), and Web application server software, these are hardly drawbacks. It’s long been part of System i’s value proposition that customers get database and Web application server software with the purchase of a System i machine. Now that IBM has reduced System i’s dependence on some of its unique archaisms, that value-add is stronger than ever, says Illuminata’s Kernochan.

He cites several efforts have given customers both a means and an incentive to convert existing applications into Web services: Big Blue’s efforts to push Java in place of RPG as System i’s bread-and-butter programming language, the company’s introduction of Unix and Linux workloads via its Hypervisor capability, its support for Windows and Linux-on-Intel workloads via its Integrated xSeries Adapter or Integrated xSeries Server, and the debut of several ISVs and tools vendors.

“In point of fact, System i is now not only tightly integrated, it is comparable in flexibility to other major platforms,” Kernochan argues.

Elsewhere, he concludes, System i boasts SOA-ready Web-service interfaces, object support at the operating system level, and support for commodity storage standards such as iSCSI. “Unix, Linux, and Windows are perceived to be in some way related, and the System i and System z likewise. This is because the value proposition of Windows, Unix, and Linux [has] been related to flexibility, while the System i and System z offer tuning that has allowed them to provide specific advantages over ‘flexible’ platforms.”

He notes how tighter integration between and among mainframe and System i components makes it easier to optimize these platforms for performance and reliability. “Users typically find that the System i’s integrated architecture allows not only robustness but ‘simplicity’ that translates into the ability of an untrained user—or no one—to administer the entire infrastructure stack below the application.”

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