After a sterling run of more than 25 years, the IBM i is showing signs of wear as a platform. Veteran development-tool vendor LANSA shares its insights about where the i may be heading.
Some years ago—although it would be hard to get more than a handful of people to agree exactly when—the IBM i market became "mature." The numbers of new companies offering OEM software for the platform stopped growing. The frequency of new product announcements (other than upgrades of existing packages) began to decline. The enthusiasm with which IBM had touted the i for many years became diluted. The influx of hot, young programmers that characterized the platform's rise in the '90s abated.
Of course, as we all know, software packages, business enterprises, and even hardware platforms have their lifecycles, and "maturity" is one of the inevitable steps in such sequences. Not to denigrate the platform; it's only natural in some ways that this has happened. But now that the i has reached this plateau and stayed there for a decade or so, it seems time for a bit of reassessment. What has happened to the dynamic box that found a niche in so many SMBs worldwide and that has provided long careers for many in its cadre of supporters?
Complacency Is the Enemy
One long-time participant and observer in the IBM i market is LANSA, a major provider of mobile and desktop application development tools, modernization solutions, and integration software. Founded in 1987, the Downers Grove, Illinois, company's solutions support thousands of companies worldwide and, like many others, has a stake in the future of the platform. Recently, Steve Gapp, president of LANSA Americas, sat down for an interview on his company's view of the future of the i.
"I would say complacency is a huge problem facing the platform today. Too many companies are satisfied with doing nothing, which further perpetuates the image of the platform as being old, outdated, and 'legacy,'" Gapp begins. "The perception that the platform is outdated and the applications are categorized as 'legacy' show that modernization has taken too long! What's more, the community is getting older. It still has loyal supporters, for good reason, but those resistant to change are unknowingly causing more harm to the platform than good.
"At some point in time, the clock runs out for those being complacent. Usually a critical business issue prompts an action, where the list of options always includes moving off the platform. We provide development tools and solutions that make the IBM i relevant again, often eliminating platform migration from the conversation.
"This has affected our market because when companies investigate buying new business applications, those new applications typically do not run on the IBM i. Furthermore, the company wants to deploy a new app on servers and operating systems they already support in their data center or the cloud. I'd estimate more than 70 percent of our customers are currently using IBM i servers in mixed-platform environments, Windows by far being the most popular. What's more, the number of mergers and acquisitions among IBM i vendors in the past several years highlights that the IBM i market is not growing.
"I think the two biggest challenges to application development and modernization products over the next few years will be the lack of progress on app modernization and the fact that the RPG community seems reluctant to learn new skills and languages."
Does Watson Mean Jeopardy for the IBM i?
In late 2014, IBM unveiled a master plan that emphasizes its Watson platform as a future vehicle for capturing the growing data analytics market. Since then, even a casual television viewer might get the idea that IBM is leaving behind everything it offers except Watson. Does this emphasis have any bearing on the i?
"The IBM i is a primary source of current and historical relational (structured) business data and contains key BI metrics," Gapp notes. "As you can imagine, this information is an integral part of any data-analytics project for larger customers that need to absorb both structured and unstructured content into such a solution. LANSA's offerings fit into this larger direction because the use of NoSQL technology is definitely trending and we're starting to encounter this. Because we are not an IBM i-specific independent software vendor (ISV), our many years of cross-platform capability have prepared us for this opportunity to support other database management systems.
"However, I don't think IBM i software vendors will face a threat from Watson specifically, but they will face threats by not keeping pace with current trends in Web and mobile spaces. As for LANSA, expanding its offerings to Watson would have to be part of a customer-driven initiative."
However, Gapp acknowledges that IBM's marketing emphasis is changing in some ways that don't favor the i. "Today it seems IBM acquires a lot of new technology rather than building their own. Unfortunately for IBM i, the acquired software doesn't run on the IBM I, so we have to wait for it to be ported or it never comes. I've also noticed a lot of emphasis on cloud recently; cloud appears to be a major focus for IBM. The implications are that companies are having more dialogue today over risk associated with the platform (whether it be real or not)."
The Impact of Cloud Computing
"Over the long haul, running software via the cloud will become the predominant way customers access third-party software. I am sure we will have some security breaches that will cause concern, but cloud vendors in general are better at security than most organizations. We see this trend in new business deployments and RFPs. LANSA now offers the cloud as an additional option for building and deploying applications. This is providing our customers with 'cloud' deployment options and our business partners the option of deploying their applications as a service. ISVs face a big threat if they don't embrace and support cloud technology in the next few years.
"When we compare the relative balance of our business today in cloud services licensing versus on-site licensing, we see the former becoming a reality as bigger organizations lead the charge. Sometimes the internal sponsors of this strategy use the cloud as a way to circumvent their own internal IT department, which is perceived as too slow and too expensive, typically in Windows scenarios.
"As for the outlook for software sales versus services sales in the future, we see that solution delivery—that is to say software plus implementation services—is already dominant because customers want best-practice guidance and only want to pay for an operational outcome."
What Can Be Done to Help the i
One partial solution to some of the IBM i's troubles involves getting new programmers fresh out of school to take an interest in the platform. Here, Gapp emphasizes the slow pace of modernization has had another negative effect. "It's a tough challenge. Developers chase the hot Web technologies, jobs, and salaries much more than a specific platform," he notes. On the other hand, there is some help. "COMMON and local user groups do provide technical information to the IBM i customer base and in maintaining a sense of community among users."
In addition, Gapp sees growth areas for the i. "Application ISVs need to come back to the platform. Applications drive growth. Also, the strengths of the platform do lend itself to a private cloud environment where the core strengths of the platform—such as reliability, security, logical partitions, and work management—make it shine.
"I would describe our view of the IBM i market today as strategic, having been a technology leader on this platform from the outset. We are unique in that the business applications you write in LANSA will run on other platforms and the cloud. Our technology is cross-platform, so you can use one language for Web, Windows, and mobile development. This is the best way to reduce concerns over the platform, in that you can move the app in the future if you choose to. We call this 'technology insurance.' Long-term concerns over IBM i go away if you have these options.
"But even though our development tools and solutions are cross-platform, the IBM i is our heritage and we love the platform," Gapp concludes. "We have built a very successful and loyal IBM i customer base who use and love this platform."