Catching Up With iSeries

ISeries product manager explains how the server has emerged as a platform for consolidation

In late 2000, IBM Corp. reorganized its hardware platforms, which at the time were grouped into dissimilar product units, under the “eServer” brand. At the time, IBM rebranded its AS/400 and RS/6000 systems as iSeries and pSeries respectively. iSeries and pSeries were expected to share a common hardware base anchored by its Power RISC microprocessor.

For iSeries product manager Ian Jarman, IBM’s eServer reorganization took on an additional significance as well. Rightly or wrongly, Jarman says, there had been a perception in the marketplace that IBM wasn’t fully committed to the AS/400, or that the AS/400 was the odd platform out in Big Blue’s enterprise server portfolio. In this regard, Jarman suggests, IBM’s reorganization was a step toward correcting that. “Our eServer announcement in 2000 was a critical announcement … that iSeries was a full member of the eServer family, and not only does it have a role in its own right, but it also has a role in sharing technology among the other eServers.”

That said, Jarman is anxious to put to rest the notion that Big Blue’s reorganization of its hardware product lines constituted a mere “rebranding” of the AS/400. As he tells it, today’s iSeries servers are markedly different from their AS/400 forbears, both in terms of the hardware that they’re built on and the business problems that they’re expected to solve. “This was not merely a rebranding of the iSeries. This was an introduction of a new set of servers featuring rather different technology from the AS/400, which of course remains the heritage of the iSeries product line.”

One important concern, Jarman indicates, is that the AS/400 was originally designed to support transaction processing and other commercial workloads.

While the iSeries continues to provide excellent support for these applications, Jarman stresses, customers are also deploying it to support new workloads. “The major difference between the [AS/400 and iSeries] is that the iSeries is designed both for traditional commercial transaction processing as well as e-business computing applications like Java, Web serving, WebSphere, and Internet commerce applications.”

But the most important impetus for IBM’s eServer reorganization, at least insofar as it pertains to iSeries, was a strategy to transition the AS/400 and Big Blue’s RS/6000 system to the same hardware base. To that end, Jarman explains, the new iSeries and pSeries systems that IBM unveiled in the aftermath of its eServer reorganization marked the “first time we changed together on the same processor and the same I/O technology.”

A transition of this kind was critical, Jarman points out, because even IBM couldn’t afford to sustain separate development hardware and development projects for AS/400 and RS/6000. “Coming together on a common technology is critical for the future roadmap of both platforms. Nobody can go it alone in the industry on a unique processor design. You have to have a critical mass of investment and sales potential to justify that.”

The upshot is that by 2004, iSeries will be able to run AIX, in addition to OS/400, Linux and Windows, Jarman says.

Today iSeries is a veritable jack-of-every-trade machine. In addition to the venerable OS/400 operating system, iSeries supports as many as 31 Linux LPARs (on the iSeries 890), as well as up to 32 Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 2000 servers by virtue of IBM’s Integrated xSeries Adapter (IXA) component. In this respect, Jarman observes, iSeries’ workload consolidation story is better than that of any other IBM platform: zSeries and pSeries can host Linux workloads, to be sure, but don’t support Windows. “As an integrated platform for consolidating multiple workloads from different operating system environments, we already offer a server that can deliver for Windows, Linux and OS/400, so that is probably iSeries’ greatest strength today.”

iSeries’ adaptability is based on the increased degree of virtualization that IBM is building into its two Power-based platforms. iSeries, for example, boasts mainframe-like LPAR capabilities. It currently supports up to 32 LPARs, along with sub-processor partitioning. “I can have a partition of a minimum of 1/10 of a processor, and I can move between partitions, down to 1/100 of a processor,” Jarman explains. pSeries can host a maximum of 32 LPARs but doesn’t currently support sub-processor partitioning. IBM is expected to introduce sub-processor partitioning in the next revision of AIX, due sometime in 2004. The goal, says Jarman, is to deliver iSeries and pSeries systems that excel in virtualization. “We’re delivering on the concept of server virtualization across multiple operating system environments.”

According to Jarman, there’s a point to all of this: Eventually, IBM could ship “a server that will run it all,” at which point the notion of platform distinctions (“iSeries”, “pSeries”) may no longer be applicable. “[This future server] could be called iSeries, it could be called pSeries, we don’t know what we’re going to call it yet.” He indicates that Big Blue will most likely continue selling systems based on specific operating systems as well, “just because customers may want to run one environment.”

Operation Green Streak Update

In mid-July, IBM unveiled Operation Green Streak, its most ambitious yet attempt to market iSeries to new and existing customers. Says Jarman: “Green Streak is about re-invigorating our position with the low end of our customer set, the AS/400 install base, and there’s approximately 200,000 customers that we’re targeting with this promotion.”

Green Streak is different from past IBM initiatives to extend the presence of the AS/400 into new accounts. On several occasions, for example, Big Blue has tried unsuccessfully to market the AS/400 in low-end accounts as an alternative to Windows. Among other attempts, IBM introduced a low-end AS/400—the so-called “Eiger” box—priced to make it affordable for small- and medium-sized business customers.

With Green Streak, Jarman says, IBM eschewed that strategy. Green Streak doesn’t purport simply to deliver an affordable low-end product. Instead, Jarman notes, Green Streak is an initiative to promote iSeries servers—the i270 and the i820—that are capable of running mission critical e-business applications but at a price that is affordable for customers. “It’s focused on models that have … commercial processing workloads. It’s focused on a certain level of performance that is good for both traditional applications and e-business applications, so it’s a much higher performance server than most people would have considered.”

Operation Green Streak is winding down—it will be phased out completely on December 13—but Jarman says it has really caught the attention of the marketplace. At last count, more than 1,000 OS/400 shops in the United States and Canada had purchased new iSeries systems, while another 4,000 were mulling over new purchases. “It is one of those promotions that the name and the activity generated around the promotion have attracted a lot of attention.”

Under the terms of Operation Green Streak, IBM offers existing OS/400 customers a 50 percent discount on supported versions of its i270 and i820 systems. In addition, IBM Global Financing typically extends so-called “triple zero” financing to customers that spend more than $25,000, which means that they won’t have to put any money down, pay any interest, or make any payments until several months after they purchase their iSeries systems.

It’s unclear what effect Operation Green Streak will have on iSeries shipments this year. In August, for example, market research firm Gartner Inc. projected that iSeries sales would fall by approximately $1 billion, from nearly $3 billion in 2001 to about $1.9 billion in 2002. For IBM’s third quarter, which ended September 30, iSeries shipments were off by about $100 million from the same quarter last year.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.