IBM vs. Microsoft in the Midrange

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Every few months, I get a handful of similar inquiries from professionals in smaller organizations who are looking for assistance. Two months ago, I got a message from an organization's new IT manager, who was looking to replace the company's AS/400. What should he buy?

Another individual, who was working on his MBA Capstone project at the Business School at Stanford University, grilled me for an hour over the phone, wanting to know how his group could break into the legendary "AS/400 marketplace."

This month, a seasoned professional wrote to bemoan the dreadful state of public information available about the platform: "I continue to be amazed at the minimum of flag-waving going on about our beloved line of IBM systems known collectively as the AS/400," he wrote. "Once again, I am to face a prospective client with over 100 potential users that have grown up in an MS-centric world and will probably call the AS/400 'proprietary' after my presentation later this week." He continued, "What resources, comments, reports, etc. do you feel are a keystone to present this wonderful architecture to those that are uninitiated? I have been scouring for this type of info and can only come up with old and outdated 'NT vs. 400' documents."

Many a Slip Between the Cup and the Lip

As strange as this may sound in 2004--almost five years after IBM's re-branding of the AS/400--the greater public is still confused. They are confused not only about where to get information and how to contact IBM Business Partners, but also about what the AS/400 has become in the server market and what this tremendous technological shift is all about.

IBM in Somers, New York, for its part, has tried very hard to get the right marketing messages out about its eServer branding strategy. IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, has also worked exceptionally hard to refine the technology to an unprecedented level of superiority. But elsewhere in real world, customers still cling to their thoughts about the legendary AS/400 in a seemingly unending landscape of Microsoft servers.

To these organizations and individuals, the issue is very simple: How do you explain to management the advantages of the "AS/400" against the competition of the Microsoft Windows Server?

The answer is, simply, "Don't!"

Look Beyond the Syntax

Why not? Well, let's place that key real-world question into a real-world market context.

Would you try to sell your customer or your manager the value of the System/3 or the System/32 or the System/34 or the System/38? Of course not!

How about the value of Windows 3.0, Windows 95, or Window 98? It's a ridiculous argument, I know.

We don't push these platforms, quite simply, because these computing platforms are history. This is true even though the characteristics of all of them continue to exist (in some degree) within the line of products still sold by IBM and Microsoft.

Now, respectfully, consider this: The AS/400 is also history! It no longer exists! You can't buy an AS/400 except--maybe--on the used equipment market. So why are you trying to "push" this obsolete product onto your management or prospective customer? Just the syntax itself--"AS/400"--brings with it a parcel of associations that makes uninitiated customers and managers scream: "Obsolete!" "Mini-computer!" "Green-screen!"

"OK!" you're saying to yourself. "I know that! But nobody calls the iSeries an 'iSeries'! They call it an 'AS/400'!"

Hello! Have you been paying attention? Though this may have been true in 2000, it's now nearly five years later, and today even the replacement "iSeries" platform is starting to fade away. And I'm not merely talking about a brand name here, but the entire iSeries hardware and software platform.

"What?" you're asking yourself. "Did I miss something?"

It's true! The latest hardware from IBM is now called the i5, and it runs i5/OS. Soon there will be no more OS/400!

Revolution Through Evolution

OS/400 is going the way of CPM, SSP, and a host (pardon the pun) of other operating systems. The new i5/OS is, in reality, an evolutionary branch off of the previous version of OS/400. The product line called the iSeries, which runs OS/400, has moved to a whole new hardware structure called the i5, which runs i5/OS. (The operating system's version/release number continues to be incremented from OS/400).

But i5/OS isn't just a re-branding; it's a whole new branch of code that has its roots in OS/400, just as Windows Server 2003 has become a whole new branch of Windows 2000, with its roots in the Windows NT operating system.

Of course, all the features and functions of OS/400 are still there. But, just like Windows Server 2003, which contains many pieces of Windows NT and Windows 2000, the operating system now called i5/OS has so much more! To confuse your management with talk about OS/400 is like telling them that they should be considering buying a new piece of hardware that runs SSP!

How Different Is i5/OS? Different!

i5/OS is now even portable to the IBM p5 Power Processors. That's right! You can now get a CD of the operating system and load it onto an IBM Power 5 eServer p5 piece of hardware, and it will run flawlessly. In fact, the same Power 5 processor that runs the newest i5 is exactly (and I mean exactly!) the same one that runs in the IBM p5 (once called the pSeries). Imagine that! IBM is actually merging the hardware platforms! What will they think of next?

If you have doubts about the reality of this evolutionary step--or are wondering how it works--IBM has prepared an interesting document called "i5/OS on IBM eServer p5: Frequently Asked Questions." IBM will begin shipping i5/OS CDs for the p5 platform on December 10, 2004.

i5/OS and Microsoft Windows Server

The larger point I'm trying to make is that the i5 doesn't compete against Microsoft Windows Server anymore. In fact, it embraces Windows as one more option for the customer, integrating the Windows operating system into the array of other operating systems that the i5 supports through partitions and external controllers.

The i5 can support i5/OS, AIX (UNIX), Linux, and Windows, all in a single footprint. It is a consolidation box designed to minimize the complexities of running IT. It can run legacy RPG and Fortran applications just fine, and it can serve simultaneously legacy Windows applications, new Windows applications, new Java J2EE applications, C, C++, and pretty much anything else you or your management can dream up. 

It will also run custom applications built specifically for any of these operating systems, and it will run packaged solutions like Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino... simultaneously. It will also run the new Lotus Workplace suites.

Most importantly, it runs all of these operating systems faster and serves all of these application suites swifter than any other company's hardware does, including Intel's, HP's, and Sun's.

Finally, the i5 is almost infinitely scalable. As the customer's business grows, so too will the i5's capacity.

Proprietary vs. Standards

Though many of us still cling to our love of the old AS/400 with its OS/400 (just as we share a remembered affection for older IBM products), it's time to recognize that the question "Microsoft or AS/400?" is no longer a real question at all. The i5 is so much more than the AS/400, just as the Windows Server is so much more than Windows 95/98/ME. But there's still the age-old question, the single most important question that every "unwashed" Microsoft-centric IT shop will invariably ask: "Is the i5 running i5/OS proprietary?" So let's look at it again from a real-world perspective.

What's the Real Issue?

If your management or prospective customer is ready to start dealing with IT problems in a rational way--with a goal of minimizing IT expense and positioning the company for reduced IT expenditures as a proportion of overall operating costs--the opportunities that the new i5 consolidation platforms offer are worth considering.

Year after year, impartial analysts like Gartner Group and others have identified that a "high-value and high-consolidation midrange operating environment platform" will deliver the greatest return on investment over all other computing platforms in the market. It's a formula that has worked for quite a few years, and it's the formula that made the AS/400 legendary.

Using this formula, the customer can protect his current investment in applications, grow or purchase new applications as required, and simultaneously reduce the overall operating expense in support personnel.

Moreover, by utilizing the tremendous bandwidth of packaged applications that are available--created for many different operating systems--this same customer can pick and choose and mix and match user applications to meet the specific competitive profile that his company needs. He can do this not only today, but on into the future.

Finally, because the i5 is built to open standards--and indeed is embracing the open source movement typified by the Linux operating system--this same customer can expect that future applications that he may purchase will cost progressively less. In this sense, your prospective customer can have his cake (with Windows) and eat it too (with Linux, AIX, and i5/OS applications)!

Consider what the i5 running i5/OS offers:

  • Support for open standards (unlike Microsoft)
  • Support for applications written for every other operating system (unlike Microsoft)
  • Support for open source compilers and applications (unlike Microsoft)
  • Support for increased productivity at the IT management level (unlike Microsoft)
  • Support for decreased IT maintenance and system downtime (unlike Microsoft)
  • Support for bulletproof security (unlike Microsoft)

Now, if that's a definition of "proprietary," then it's one that defies the dictionary's.

The AS/400 Syntax

However, if you're going into the conversation with your management about the benefits of the old AS/400, who can blame them for imagining 5250 terminals, 8-inch diskettes, and a symphony of line printers pushing greenbar paper into neatly folded piles?

Unfortunately, that's the legacy image of the AS/400: reliable but obsolete.

So here's the clue to success: If your management begins moving the conversation in the direction of "AS/400," remind them that their image of that legacy system is not what you're talking about. You're talking about the i5 running i5/OS. Tell them that their image of that old platform is no longer appropriate, just as their legacy image of Microsoft Windows 98 includes the dreaded "Blue Screen of Death" and lots of reboots.

Those old systems no longer exist. They're history! The i5 with i5/OS is the future!

Still don't understand? Look here!

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.

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