Advanced system management technology is arriving just in time to fill a void created by retiring IBM i system administrators.
The promise of true autonomic computing systems may soon be within reach if IBM's Flex System Manager appliance lives up to its promise of optimizing all aspects of controlling system workloads and resources. As far as many IBM i shops are concerned, the device couldn't have come at a better time.
The recession and an aging population of highly skilled IBM Power Systems administrators headed for retirement are creating a situation at some companies similar to an episode out of Star Wars. The central computer system running the planet is on autopilot, but there is a distinct absence of anyone who knows how it works or even has the wherewithal to shut it down during an obvious malfunction.
A number of firms today are dependent upon an IBM computer humming away in the corner that no one currently working at the company knows how to operate. It's not clear how widespread the problem is, but this editor has been hearing disturbing stories of such situations for more than two years now from vendors called upon to help, and the frequency of such anecdotal accounts is definitely on the increase.
"The pioneers of the AS/400 are getting close to retirement," says John Dominic, vice president of sales at Halcyon Software. "There simply isn't a stream of people to take over those roles," he says.
As a result, companies are scrambling to figure out what to do in the face of losing—and in too many cases, laying off—the few seasoned assets they had who were qualified to take care of their mission-critical computer systems.
The result seems to be a rush toward outsourcing management and maintenance of the systems that are too reliable to trash and too complex and expensive to migrate away from. The best solution for many companies appears to be simply to wash their hands of the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the systems and turn everything over to either a systems integrator or a data center willing to do the upkeep.
"There are two ways most do it," says Dominic. "You can have it remotely managed with the computer still residing on the customer's site but managed by a third party, or you can opt for full outsourcing by putting it in a data center with the user simply getting reports on its performance and response times."
Ray Wright, CEO of systems management solution provider CCSS Corp., says the Great Recession may have had an impact on the number of people left to manage IBM systems. "Before 2008, people were interested in systems management tools to help them run their businesses more efficiently—innovation, quality, cost savings—anything to make their jobs easier. Between 2008 and 2011, we would hear stories like, 'We've lost half our department; how can you help us?'" Wright concedes 2012 has seen a turnaround in IT, and budget is now more readily available both to hire people and purchase new software solutions. But having figured out how to get along on less, many companies are quite content relying on technology to streamline their systems and aren't interested in replacing people who do nothing all day but tweak an aging system.
Enter IBM's new PureSystems family of solutions that hold out the promise of reducing system management by a dramatic degree. IBM itself concedes that today's computing systems are "inefficient," an odd admission from a company that pioneered them and markets them around the world as state of the art while charging millions, if not billions, of dollars annually to install and maintain these inefficient state-of-the-art solutions! That's progress in the computer industry, however—last year's darling is this year's dog.
The facts attest to the problem, however. Some 70 percent of today's IT budgets are spent on operations and maintenance alone, while nearly 75 percent of the $3.5 trillion spent annually on IT budgets is dedicated to "simply maintaining the infrastructures and applications that are already in place," according to an IBM brochure. While cloud computing holds out the promise of reducing costs for nearly 70 percent of companies bold enough to include it in the planning, only 34 percent of companies surveyed have actually made it to the cloud to date in some capacity.
While there are many efficiencies inherent in the integrated PureSystems approach, we thought the IBM Flex System Manager appliance represented a good example of the kind of emphasis IBM is placing on streamlined system management—after all, it's an entire appliance devoted to the task.
One of the key features of Flex System Manager Is that it optimizes workload management through built-in expertise. Another is that it manages all resources within one solution, which includes the following:
- Compute management using auto discovery and setup wizards
- Storage management to address everything from device discovery to simple logical and physical device configuration
- Networking management to allow virtualized computer and storage resources to function in the cloud as well as automatic provisioning
- Virtualization management starting with the ability to create and manage virtual servers from pooled resources
One of the most frequent questions at COMMON about PureSystems was, "Will it result in IT workers losing their jobs?" While the official response at the IBM booth was that it will allow existing employees to be "redeployed" to areas of greater need, outsiders who have been watching the impact of system management tools on IT head count aren't so sure. Halcyon's Dominic says he's watched "iSeries shops shrink and shrink and systems management has played a part."
My opinion is that it will depend on the company and what their objectives are for information technology. If company management sees IT as a strategic component for improving its competitive position, then any savings in staff hours from better system management tools will be reinvested in applications to improve company performance. What better place to invest in streamlining operations than in IT? However, if the company sees IT as a costly and burdensome expense that's always better the smaller it becomes, then any reduction in labor costs could result in someone losing their job.
However, that philosophy seems to be driving companies toward outsourcing, a trend that appears to be picking up momentum regardless. In that case, improved system management tools, whether from vendors or IBM, will result in lower costs of operation as data centers and system integrators can use these tools to manage more systems at a lower cost. The upside for IT workers is that these data centers and integrators will need trained system administrators, so workers in smaller companies under stress might wish to keep their resumes current—just in case.