While some look on the plateauing of the IBM i market as a sign of imminent decline, others see it as the harbinger of a leaner and meaner environment headed for new greatness.
When some fans of the IBM i get to talking about the platform's future as compared to its past, it's almost too easy to be pessimistic. The massive consolidation among software vendors of the recent years, the aging of the baby boomer core of technical experts, and IBM's apparent shift of attention to its Watson platform are just a few of the signposts of fears that the platform is now simply coasting downhill.
Fortunately, not everyone shares this view. Among those who don't are Dan Magid, former IBMer and Chief Technologist for IBM I Solutions at Rocket Software. Rocket Software is a provider of software solutions for ALM, business intelligence and analytics, archive and backup management, database management, and application modernization, among other offerings, for the IBM i and other platforms. In a recently conducted interview, Magid reflects on his views of the state of the IBM i as a market and as a platform.
The Platform and Its Challenges Today
"The IBM i market is in a period of rapid change," Magid begins. "Customers recognize the tremendous value they have in their existing IBM i applications. They love the reliability, low cost of ownership, and security of their IBM i environments. At the same time, in order to take advantage of emerging business requirements and opportunities, they need to make the capabilities and data from those applications available via new technologies. Companies need to provide web and mobile access to their applications—for both their customers and for their employees. They need to expose application functions via web services so they can participate in the expanding opportunities of the Internet of Things (IoT) and interconnected applications. And they need to provide sophisticated real-time business information and analytics via graphs, charts, and dashboards."
Far from being a detriment to the market, Magid feels the consolidation of vendors in the IBM i market in the past few years is a sign of health.
"The merger and acquisition activity in the IBM i market has been very healthy and positive for customers. Customers can now rely on a few very strong vendors who have the capital to invest in new and existing products rather than needing to call on a large number of smaller vendors to find solutions. Vendors are now investing significantly in integrating the products they have acquired to provide even more value to customers.
"At Rocket, we continue to look at IBM i and its core applications as the center of a multiplatform ecosystem. We are investing heavily in the IBM i space with a focus on providing the infrastructure that allows our customers to stay out in front of the latest technology trends. We are investing in supporting new technologies for IBM i including mobile, web, and open-source projects like Node.js, Angular, Mono, and PHP. At the same time, we recognize that proven, existing IBM i RPG applications will continue to serve customers productively and cost-effectively for a very long time.
"The vast majority (80 to 90 percent) of our customers have a mix of platforms in their organizations. Our customers have Windows clients, Linux and Windows web servers, UNIX machines, IBM mainframes, and other platforms. Windows is the most popular that we see. Many of our customers are using .NET as their web development platform. We also see a lot of Linux. Our largest customers often have mainframes."
A Platform for Growth
Magid also sees some fertile areas of future expansion for the IBM i platform, particularly SaaS, cloud computing, and providing mobile-device access to server apps.
"Although the majority of Rocket revenue comes from on-site solutions, Rocket is making significant investments in cloud computing both from the perspective of making our products available as cloud solutions and in supporting our customers in taking advantage of the cloud. Consequently, we have significantly increased the amount of revenue we generate from cloud solutions over the last couple years.
"Rocket has been very successful in providing mobile access to our software. We currently provide the ability for customers to manage and monitor software deployments right from their mobile device. We support Apple iOS, Android, and Windows devices. We have also created a comprehensive solution for designing, building, deploying, and managing mobile apps. As far as I know, we are the only IBM i vendor that provides mobile development and deployment management, mobile application creation, along with traditional IBM i application lifecycle management."
App Modernization Is a Solution for the Aging Developer Cadre
Like others, Magid recognizes that much of the developer corps for the i is aging, but rather than a warning sign, he sees this as a surmountable challenge.
"The most difficult problem facing the IBM i is the looming skills gap," Magid notes. "The IBM i will continue to be a powerful, productive platform for business applications, but we will need people who know how to maintain the existing applications and how to move them forward with technological change. One of the drivers of application modernization on the IBM i is to create applications that the engineers coming out of universities want to work with. We not only need to create web and mobile applications for IBM i in order to make it more accessible, we need to do it in order to continue making it attractive to top engineers. IBM has worked hard to make the latest technology available to IBM i users. The user community needs to be aggressive in adopting those technologies."
The IBM i's Perception Problem
Magid identifies the difficulty of finding new IBM i users to approach as primarily one of misperception.
"Too few people are aware of all the technology options they have with IBM i. There is absolutely no reason that IBM i users cannot have the latest in web and mobile technology with their IBM i. We just need to get the message out there. Rocket has initiated a variety of programs to showcase the IBM i and new technology. We have rebuilt the interface to our core solution in node.js and Angular for IBM i. Our brand new Rocket Mobile workbench makes it easy for people to develop leading-edge mobile apps for the IBM i. Our web solution does the same for web applications. Our ALM & DevOps suite provides a comprehensive solution for managing the deployment of mobile apps in association with changes made to traditional IBM i applications. We also have launched a worldwide series of executive briefings to which we invite IBM i users. At these briefings, we discuss the latest in technology trends. We then present all the ways available today for IBM i users to take advantage of those trends."
However, the initiatives of a single company aren't the whole answer, either.
"COMMON is definitely still important and valuable," Magid emphasizes. "In fact, we are actually increasing our commitment to COMMON this year. The spring and fall conferences provide the best way to connect with vendors, customers, and IBMers. During a single conference, it is possible to have scores of conversations in which you can learn about current customer challenges, new offerings from IBM, new vendors and technologies, and better ways to leverage your IBM i. Each year, I meet new IBM i users and reconnect with the people I have known for years or decades."
Everyone's Abandoning the i? Not So Much
Rather than observing numerous defections of companies from the IBM i to other platforms, Magid says Rocket's experience is more the opposite.
"We have seen situations in which the other platform groups (e.g., Windows, Linux) at a company have tried to convince their organizations to move away from IBM i. They generally tout the lower cost of storage and servers of open systems. However, when the companies look at the total cost of ownership, reliability, and the cost of conversion, they generally decide to stay on the IBM i. We have had more than a few customers who actually started down the road of moving to a different platform and turned back. Generally, they did not realize how difficult it would be to move.
"We have found that companies often underestimate the significant amount of business understanding that is built into the applications they have been using on IBM i for decades. Trying to recreate that on another platform can take years. It is a high-risk venture with significant opportunity costs."