I can't tell you how excited I am! If I were any more thrilled, I'd probably be under investigation. This month, MC Mag Online is focusing on careers, and the timing couldn't be more apropos. Recent events make it clear that the midrange server is the rising star of the IT industry, and the iSeries is the most exciting server in the business.
In this article, I'm going to recap some of the major events that have occurred in the last several weeks. Make no mistake: These are some of the most momentous changes to occur in our community since...well, since I can remember, honestly. And I'm a dinosaur, as you well know!
I'll include summaries of two major announcements, as well as my recent conversation with Doug Fulmer, whom I consider the leading evangelist of that most misunderstood document, the iSeries Developer Roadmap. I'll bring in some comments I've culled from the Internet and recount some real events that have occurred recently. And after I'm done, I hope you'll agree with me that this may be the most exhilarating time we've ever seen.
Talking the Talk
IBM recently presented two Webcasts. The first, held on February 24, centered on the iSeries Initiative for Innovation. Broad in scope, this announcement was almost an item-by-item recap of the iSeries community wish list. And while the Webcast included a ton of good stuff, a couple of specific issues just have to be addressed.
Unleashing Innovation--February 24
The very first bullet point was "Improve Market Presence of the iSeries Brand." This one sentence completely negates the current conventional wisdom of IBM's position on the iSeries. First, it specifically mentions the iSeries brand--not as simply another eServer, but as its own specific entity. Second, it talks about marketing the iSeries. Did you hear that? It's the sound of ice skates in the netherworld, because IBM is actually talking about advertising our beloved box. And then just a couple of slides later was a bullet point talking about "Java, .NET, RPG, or COBOL." RPG, folks! And even COBOL! The fact that RPG is actually on an IBM slide is cause for great cheer. And it wasn't a fluke, as I'll explain a little later.
In essence, this first announcement was sort of a setup for the next announcement. But in between, something wonderful happened: IBM actually advertised the iSeries. The box was advertised in a four-page spread in The Wall Street Journal. I'll revisit this and other marketing moves a little later, but I think even IBM realized that what they were saying was perhaps not going to be accepted at face value by a community that has become jaded over the years as they saw their box diminished and their skills disparaged (yeah, it was seven or eight years ago, but it's going to take some work to get past that burger-flipping ad).
iSeries Tools Innovation--March 9
At the same time, IBM motored forward. The original announcement introduced three different initiatives: the Application Innovation Program, the Tools Innovation Program, and the iSeries Innovation Program. Until recently, small ISVs like me had to rely pretty much on our own marketing efforts. In order to be mentioned by IBM in a sales cycle, we had to be what is known today as a "Premier Level Partner," which involved basically selling lots and lots of hardware or software. Not only that, but there were even stories of outright poaching, where an ISV would be in the process of closing an account and then suddenly IBM would get involved, with one of their "preferred" solutions. The gist of these announcements is that this will be no more. Instead, even the smaller ISVs are to be given help in getting their products to market. According to Buell Duncan, IBM is "not in the application business," and presumably that also applies to tools that lie outside the primary middleware arena.
There were some great sound bites. Mark Shearer talked about "reigniting the iSeries ecosystem" and unleashing more innovation in the SMB marketplace. My favorite was Peter Bingaman saying that IBM must be like Proctor and Gamble; their job is to make "shelf space" for the iSeries, which in turn lets the ISVs in the door. And Rick Warren chimed in with the idea that these initiatives were to have "no ISV left behind."
The second announcement was even more focused, primarily targeting the tool vendors like me. A number of very specific comments detailed the programs that tool vendors could get involved in. I'll talk a little bit more about those momentarily, but first I want to focus on the tone of this second announcement. It was clear--obviously and abundantly clear--that IBM recognized that it completely miscalculated when it tried to make the iSeries yet another Java eServer box. John Quarantello went out of his way to identify changes in the iSeries Developer Roadmap that were put in specifically to steer people away from the idea that IBM wants us to be all Java, all the time. This meshes with discussions I've had in the past and just recently with Doug Fulmer regarding the Roadmap. Even as originally designed by Greg Hurlebaus, it was never intended to be a single-destination directive; unfortunately, a vocal group inside of IBM moved it in that direction. We sometimes think of IBM as a monolithic entity, and nothing could be further from the truth; there are definitely factions with completely different ideas about the future of the iSeries. However, common sense (and dollars and cents) finally won out, and IBM is embracing the idea that legacy is good, RPG is great, SMBs are the untapped market, and the way to reach the SMB is through partners with unique solutions, not through a gigantic one-size-fits-all Java campaign. Scalability and portability are no longer the big buzzwords; integration is the key, both at the application and the business process level. Legacy is good; legacy plus new technology is better.
Walking the Walk
So we're all thrilled that IBM actually admits that perhaps it missed the boat on the iSeries. Diluting the identity of a brand with the fiercest consumer loyalty this side of Harley Davidson maybe wasn't the smartest marketing move to make. Ignoring the SMB market was a numbers snafu; while a given account may not be in the millions, multiply that account by tens of thousands and suddenly billions appear.
But IBM has paid lip service to us in the past. The WebSphere 4.0, Tomcat, and WebSphere Express fiasco isn't far behind us. And we're waiting to see how the relationship between WDSc and Rational shakes out. So it's not unreasonable for us to expect something a little more concrete than a PowerPoint presentation.
And it's happening. It started with a little shot across the bow back in December. You probably heard about the iSeries advertisements running on primetime television during shows like LOST and Boston Legal. They also ran during the playoffs. They were OK ads, but as we are wont to do, we immediately deemed them inadequate. At the time, they seemed like just a blip. They were out of context with what we were still hearing from some IBM execs, so I don't think it really registered with us that IBM was finally advertising the iSeries. And I think that's how things stayed for awhile; the ads were cool, but just a one-shot deal. Move along, people; nothing to see here.
But after the announcements I mentioned, IBM did something unusual. It actually followed up on its promises. The start was the four-page spread in The Wall Street Journal. This was to be repeated in major C-level executive publications like Forbes and Fortune in the coming months.
Then March came in like a lion with radio advertising. Back in the beginning of the month, radio spots began appearing in major markets. Talk radio and sports stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York started airing iSeries spots. And this will continue, along with more print ads.
This is no fluke. Peter Bingaman, the new vice president of iSeries marketing, stated at the COMMON Town Hall meeting, "You will see today, if you haven't seen it in the last months, that we are really beginning to step it up in this business in a big way. We are going to make a real statement about the iSeries in 2005."
I've said for some time that the iSeries Developer Roadmap was seriously misconstrued by a certain segment of IBM, and these misconceptions were echoed so often as to gain a life of their own. But the truth, at least according to the author, Greg Hurlebaus, is that the Roadmap was never meant to be about just moving to Java (and eventually off of the iSeries). But now IBM has codified that by changing the focus of the Roadmap. The five pillars now focus first on a better experience for both developers and end users and then emphasize integrating legacy systems with other technologies, including leading-edge features like RFID.
The part that I was most gratified to hear was IBM specifically stating that platform-independence is not a goal and that products designed to migrate users off the platform are not part of the Roadmap. Is that clear enough? So, if anybody says that IBM is sanctioning moving legacy systems off of the iSeries, they're simply wrong.
In fact, in a recent conversation with Doug Fulmer, he made it clear to me that RPG and native I/O are still base parts of the IBM strategy. First, just take a look at the amount of money spent on RPG in the last 10 years, from ILE support to Java interoperability to free-format. None of this would have been done for a language destined for the trash heap.
In response to the statement that SQL seems to be receiving more attention and more dollars than native I/O, Fulmer explained that SQL advocates are asking for more things than native I/O users are, so when development dollars are allocated, they're not necessarily allocated evenly. This only makes sense; IBM fixes the squeakiest wheels, and native I/O is such a mature and powerful technology compared to SQL that there just aren't as many demands for enhancements.
Of course, a corollary of this statement is that if we in the user community want to see new features in native DB2, then we need to tell the folks at IBM. For example, I'd love to see support for things like UDFs in native I/O. But I'm unlikely to see that unless a lot of you also think it's a good idea. In the meantime, there's a full list of enhancements to the SQL engine that are required in order to keep DB2/400 on the iSeries competitive with its other incarnations. But now more than ever, I think it's clear that IBM is indeed listening to the iSeries community, so we need to band together to identify our business needs and communicate those needs to IBM.
By the way, one thing you have asked for is more documentation for WDSc, and I think you'll be happy to see what's coming. In the latest release, 126.96.36.199, the help documentation is completely revised and includes some great tutorials. Word has it that the 6.0 release due out later this year may include all the relevant COMMON labs; that would be a great addition!
IBM is making a number of programs available to all their Business Partners. These programs were typically reserved for bigger Partners, many of which frankly didn't need them as much as the smaller guys did. It's amazing how many there are, and you can get lost in the various offerings. The Virtual Innovation Center (VIC), one of my favorite groups, looks to be in charge of coordinating a lot of that. By enrolling in the Tools Innovation Program, my name got sent over to Jim Hyde at the VIC, who was nice enough to explain some of what was going on over there. The VIC is now in charge of letting people know what is available. For example, a program called "Business Partner Connections" is designed to connect iSeries end users with iSeries tool and application vendors, thereby cross-pollinating the market. So now, it's easier for IT managers to show the benefits of the iSeries to the corporate executives. At the same time, ISVs can see the value in continuing to develop solutions for the iSeries. This cross-pollination is going to be crucial to the platform's growth.
The Next Steps
IBM announced other programs as well, and over the coming months, I'll highlight those programs and bring you the details. Whether you're a vendor looking to reach a greater marketplace or an iSeries user struggling to justify the box to upper management, these new programs should provide you with some much-needed support. Vendors need to join PartnerWorld immediately. I'm less clear on what customers need to do to get involved in these programs, but I'll try to get more information as soon as possible. Please, if you have any question on these programs, post a message in the forums so everyone can see the answer. But right now, the bottom line is clear.
- IBM finally recognizes the SMB marketplace for the value it can provide.
- IBM knows it's not the only company going after the SMB marketplace (thank you, Microsoft, for waking up IBM with your Midrange Alliance Program!)
- IBM recognizes the iSeries as the premiere platform for that marketplace.
- IBM realizes that the iSeries needs to showcase solutions instead of technology.
- IBM acknowledges that it needs the iSeries community to provide the tools and applications to serve that market.
IBM knows it needs solutions, and it knows that the quickest way to make solutions available is to take advantage of the ones already out there, the ones provided by the "little guys" who were traditionally ignored. More importantly, it needs to get application vendors and tool vendors to work together to provide technologically advanced solutions. And finally, IBM needs to provide "shelf space" for the iSeries, to create a place to get the vendors and the users together.
If all this happens, it will be fun. "i5 in '05," indeed. I'm telling you, this could be a year to remember.
Sidebar: A Cautionary Note
It's clear to me and most other people I've talked to that this is indeed an exciting time to be a member of the iSeries community. Yet, despite all the signs, not everyone agrees. And while I'm used to opposing viewpoints (read the comments on one of my outsourcing columns!), I was caught off guard by some of the responses, particularly the "ho hum" attitude that some people are taking, despite the fact that these announcements and the accompanying actions are unlike anything we've heard or seen in a long time. Upon reflection though, it seems that the very nature of the events may be the problem. I think what's happening is that the change at IBM is so overwhelming, so completely counter to previous history, that some people are simply stunned. They're like deer in the headlights, unable or unwilling to believe this is happening.
And there's negativity, too. Of course you're going to hear negativity. That's to be expected. The iSeries has been ignored and its community mistreated for so long that you'd have to be a real Pollyanna to think that a couple of announcements would change opinion overnight. However, my concern is that the very nature of this announcement, and the clear call that IBM has made to the iSeries, to legacy applications, and to integration with new technology, may be enough to splinter the community.
Raising Cain for Fun and Profit
Along with the standard (and well-learned) leeriness, you're going to hear dissension in the ranks, and you'll see polarization as political blocs begin to form. Political? Unfortunately, I can't find a better term to describe what is already beginning to happen. I believe that at least four factions will arise within the community, all fighting to preserve some bits of the ugliness that has prevailed over the last several years and doing it for their own benefit. And like it or not, sowing dissent for personal gain is what politics is all about today.
It'll Never Work
The first faction will be the "it'll never work" faction. Even in the face of the unassailable facts like the IBM advertisements in the C-level press and the radio ads, some longtime naysayers will insist that IBM isn't marketing the iSeries, that this is just a blip. Rumors will abound. One I've already heard was that the entire announcement was a sop to the COMMON crowd to make sure that Sound Off wasn't as virulent as it has been in the past. If so, it's one incredibly expensive sop, and I find it hard to believe IBM would spend that much money on a few vocal critics in a community that it didn't consider crucial to its long-range plans. This group doesn't have any other agenda except that they've been complaining so long that their vocal cords would actually seize up if they attempted to fashion a pro-IBM sentence.
One Could Eat No Fat
Two other blocs have business concerns that split them cleanly along language lines.
For example, you'll be hearing more about RPG-CGI and how it can do anything JavaServer Pages (JSP) can do. This statement is wrong, and it detracts from the reality, which is that RPG-CGI is the only real solution for companies with limited resources, all in RPG. But it's not the only solution for everyone, despite what these folks are trying to sell. They are adamant about avoiding Java at all costs and rewriting in RPG all the powerful software components already available in Java. For example, every CGI solution has its own template language that is often little more than a variation of JSP. Insistent on reinventing all those Java wheels, the Javaphobes are just as wrong-headed as the Javaphiles. JSP Model II has many advantages that RPG-CGI simply can't compete with (ranging from security to scalability to flexibility to cost), and you need to be aware of those advantages and not make decisions just because industry pundits told you so.
Author's Note: "Industry pundits" refers to me as well. While I hope that what I have to say helps you in your decision-making process, since I don't know your business, I can't possibly tell you what is right for you. When I talk about technological advantages of various approaches, note that I also constantly refer to "business decisions." These are the decisions you must make, which neither I nor any other "expert" can make for you. In order to make proper business decisions, you need to know all your options, and anybody who says one size fits all isn't doing you any service.
One Could Eat No Lean
The other language bloc insists that Java is the answer to everything and that all those pesky things like performance and memory requirements and legacy investment are "old school." They still cling to the idea that software needs to be "platform-independent" so that you can "migrate," but now that IBM has kicked the migration tools out of the temple, that leg has been knocked out from under the platform-independence pedestal. Yes, running pure Java solutions has some benefits, but mostly for software vendors, not end users; and as always, it has to be a business decision, not a religious one. But there are those who have drunk deep of the Java Kool-Aid. Some are consultants and vendors who have bet their companies on Java, while others are IT managers who have convinced their upper management to do the same. To embrace RPG at this point would be corporate or career suicide, so instead you're going to hear constant attacks on RPG and DB2/400 as this group pushes 100% Pure Java solutions using JDBC as The One True Path. Point them to the massive amount of money spent upgrading RPG over the last decade, via both ILE and free-format. Show them the benchmarks that prove that RPG outperforms Java by a wide margin; even IBM's own internal numbers show it.
So Microsoft Picked Them Clean
The fourth faction is the Windows faction. Don't discount these folks. They're desperate. They're so desperate that they're trying to convince you that Windows is as secure as OS/400 (they'll quickly qualify that by saying "a properly configured Windows server is at least as secure as..." even though that has yet to be proven). They're so desperate that they're willing to tell you with a straight face that it makes sense to move from DB2/400 to SQL Server, even though mountains of evidence prove that SQL Server can't scale with DB2/400. And don't forget the additional cost of administering the farms of servers required to host millions of records.
They're so desperate that they've created something called the Midrange Alliance Program (MAP), which blatantly ripped off IBM's Series Developer Roadmap and is unabashedly making pacts with some opportunistic iSeries tool vendors--vendors that might not even exist were it not for the IBM midrange but that are now telling their clientele to jump ship. And Microsoft is making no secret that these are, or were, iSeries stalwarts; instead, they're shouting it from the rooftops. That's because when it was just Bill and his minions telling you to go AWOL, it was an easy message to discount, but when some big iSeries tool vendor tells you that it makes sense to migrate your legacy systems, what are you supposed to think? Well, one thing you can think about is how much money these companies will make if you don't convert your systems as opposed to how much they'll make if you do, and then you can judge for yourself where their loyalties might lie.
What's the Answer?
If you agree with what I've been saying for the past five years, the real answer is simple: Use whatever tools are best-suited for your company. But here's the kicker: Whatever tools you use, run them on the iSeries! Why? Because whatever tools you use, you can run them on the iSeries! Any tool--from IBM's proven, business-specialized languages like RPG and DDS, to just about any open-source tool available--can run on an iSeries. Whether it's under OS/400 and/or PASE or in a Linux partition or even in an AIX partition, it doesn't matter: It will run on an iSeries, with all the server consolidation and management benefits that arise.
If you find yourself in the RPG-only category, you'll need to work within the RPG-CGI world, but please don't let that stop you from at least dabbling in Java. Stay tuned to this space; over the next couple of months I hope to unveil what I like to think of as my "RPG Developer's JSP Starter Kit."
And if you use JSP Model II for your Web UI, you'll find yourself immediately opening up a whole new set of architectural options: You can offload your user interface onto another box (iSeries or other), providing additional horsepower and security without changing your code; you can add all kinds of great Java routines for editing and formatting; you can even take advantage of Web Services to add additional information to your interface.
In fact, the only thing you can't run on an iSeries is desktop Windows software, and who knows? Maybe there's a Macintosh in your future, anyway.