IBM Partnering: Panacea or Peril?

Analysis of News Events
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Lately, IBM has been on an outsourcing spree, particularly with things that are core to the IBM i. How does that make you feel? Can we talk?

It all started last summer. That feeling of queasiness, of uncertainty, a feeling that things just weren't quite right.

It's easy for me to feel that way. I'm pretty much a "glass half empty and cracked on the bottom to boot" sort of person. And living in the IBM i world probably hasn't helped alleviate that tendency.

What was it that started my downward spiral? It was the announcement that IBM was handing over at least part of the development for a couple of pretty important IBM i products to HelpSystems. Specifically, HelpSystems was going to be taking over some (to my mind that meant "a lot") of the development work for Backup, Recovery and Media Services (BRMS), PowerHA SystemMirror for i, and Rational Developer for i (RDi) - three very strategic components of the IBM i arsenal.

IBM Good, Help Systems "Gooder"

Now let me say right off the bat that I have no problem with HelpSystems.

I have dealt with them many times over the past 20 years, and they have always been great to work with. And you certainly can't complain about their products, products that have filled a real need for IBM i customers who wanted a bit more automation or functionality in certain areas of the system.

But at the same time, it did scare me a bit to hear that IBM was turning over development to someone else. Isn't that what you do when you're about to make something less strategic than it used to be? Or maybe when you're going to sell it off to Microsoft? Or maybe just kill the whole product line?

As you can see, I panic easily, and the road from wondering to War of the Worlds paranoia can be surprisingly short.

It's Not "Outsourcing"; It's "Partnering"

But then, slowly, I began to get a grip on myself, and I started to do some research.

The first thing I learned, especially after talking with HelpSystems, is that the accepted term for this kind of business relationship is "partnering," not "outsourcing." You have to admit the former does sound much nicer than the latter.

Normally, I am skittish of using word choices to change the way a situation is represented, but as I found out more about how the work is going to be divided between IBM and HelpSystems, it truly does seem closer to a partnership than to an outsource.

It's Not Something New

It turns out that the IBM i is not the only area where IBM is partnering with external resources. IBM has also announced a partnership with the Indian company HCL Technologies for development in the Notes/Domino area, with much of the work for Release 10 to be done by the partners in consultation with IBM.

Nor is it even a new process for IBM to do such partnerships. As Dexter Henderson, Vice President of Power Systems, was quoted in the IT Jungle article on the HelpSystems partnership, the mainframe and software sides of IBM have been doing this kind of outsourcing for 20 years. It has only been in the last year or two that it has spread to the IBM i group. So that's good news. After all, the mainframe side is still in business.

How Will It Be Controlled?

Of course, one question remains to be answered: How will HelpSystems and IBM work together? That is, when we say "partnering," what does that really mean? Is HelpSystems free to just do whatever they want? On one hand, that might be good because of their close connections with the i user base. But on the other hand, what if they go rogue?

Fortunately, after talking with some of the folks at HelpSystems - specifically, Mike Devine (Vice President of Marketing), Tim Woodfield (Senior Manager of Development), Tom Huntington (Executive Vice President of Technical Solutions), and Chris Heim (CEO) - I feel much better about it.

The HelpSystems team in Minneapolis will be working in very close coordination with a similar IBM team in Rochester. Ideas for enhancements to the software will come in from both sides: IBM's Request for Enhancement (RFE) list as well as whatever suggestions HelpSystems comes up with on their own or gets from their broad customer base.

Most of the development work will be handled by HelpSystems, but it will be closely coordinated with the IBM delivery schedule and overall five-year roadmap.

So Maybe This Will Work Out

All in all, when you think about it and get over the fact that IBM is not going to be handling everything from start to finish, it turns out that this partnership may be the best thing that has happened to the i in a long time.

More Resources Committed to the i

The first positive to this is that it means more development and enhancement resources will now be committed to the i. And that's a key part of adding more functionality to the platform.

And when we're talking "more resources," we aren't just talking about numbers. We are also talking about focus. I can't prove it, of course, and maybe it isn't true, but it certainly seems that right now IBM's focus is on Watson and the whole cognitive, machine-learning shtick. I know it's a big company, and I know everyone isn't working on Watson, yet I feel that it somehow draws attention and manpower from other areas, the i being one of those areas affected.

At HelpSystems, on the other hand, the focus is fully on the i and its user base.

And Speaking of the User Base

Certainly, the RFE program provides IBM with a host of ideas for software enhancements, but you can never get too many points of view on a particular subject. By adding HelpSystems into the development mix, the combined team of IBMers and HelpSystems personnel can look at input from not only companies that have communicated with IBM but the broad user base of HelpSystems clients.

The result is a larger number of enhancements to choose from as well as a broader view of what a given enhancement should include. While it is true that "too many cooks etc." can indeed be a problem, when you're dealing with software enhancements, many times a wide variety of perspectives helps you build an addition that is broader in its scope and more flexible in allowing future development.

Close Tie-In to Technology Refreshes

Back in the olden days, everything came out in two- or three-year cycles in the form of a major release.

Over the past few years, however, IBM has been moving more and more items into a shorter cycle called a Technology Refresh. Certainly, this trend is in line with what is happening elsewhere in the software world with enhancements being released frequently rather than being stored up for months or years and released like an avalanche. The goal with this is twofold.

First, it's good to be able to get a particular enhancement into people's hands as soon as possible. This is especially significant today, when so many innovations seem to pop up suddenly and take the world by storm. Having a short lead time on new developments gives you a greater chance of being able to catch the latest wave and deliver real benefits.

Second, it makes the whole process of upgrading to the latest release more bite-sized. And that's particularly important today, when everyone seems to be shorthanded. Just the thought of installing a large upgrade (with the many modules it hits having to be tested to ensure things don't go all to pieces) is daunting. But a smaller - albeit more frequent - upgrade process just seems more palatable to most folks.

More Features in Base Code Versus Packages

One thing that software companies like HelpSystems do is provide transparent, bolt-on packages that augment what the standard software does. And typically, they will license and sell these packages separately from what the primary vendor is doing with the base code. They need to keep the packages up to date as the base code advances, but otherwise the two pieces of software can diverge as much as they want.

By having a company tied into the development process with IBM, there is a greater chance that some of those enhancements will be placed into the base code rather than ending up in a separate package that has to be purchased and installed.

Changing My Perspective

When you look at it from several directions, bringing traditional IBM i vendors into partnership with IBM may really jumpstart development for a number of products that we use to run our businesses.

So, all in all, I guess there wasn't really that much to worry about. Some people get all upset about nothing. If only everyone could just go with the flow, like I do.