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Managing IBM i PTFs in the New Millennium

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PTF processing has gotten more complex, but the tools have gotten better as well.

By Joe Pluta

Unless you're running one of the old beige boxes in a closet somewhere (and don't kid yourself, some of those still exist), then PTFs are the lifeblood of your system. PTFs for the i are a bit different than for most of the rest of the world; they're not the necessary evil of the Windows world, where you need to constantly apply fixes just to keep your machine from dying a horrible death and taking your business with it. Instead, they're usually more of a force for good, providing additional features and better performance, especially for the more advanced capabilities such as Web applications and relational database access.

PTFs in the Olden Days

I find it interesting that nowadays I know more about the operation of the machine than I did in the past. This is different than most things--like, say, my car. When I was a carefree youth, I knew how to get my 1972 Buick Electra 225 running with a matchbook cover and an eraser; these days, the engine light goes on and it's a trip to the mechanic.

 

With the System/3x and even the early AS/400s, most of the operations activities were handled by other folks; I was just a programmer. During the SSA years, being as I often worked the night shift, I did my share of operations activities, including applying PTFs, but to be honest it was unusual for me to mess with that sort of thing. These days, since I have machines of my own, I need to know all of this; I've even replaced the disk drives on my old Model 270. It's a good thing, then, that IBM has continued to pour lots of money into this particular area, especially since the process has become much more complicated over the years.

 

In days of yore, we ordered PTFs, got a tape, and assigned a weekend to applying it. This was the full system backup weekend. While the daily backup procedure has changed quite a bit over the years, especially with the availability of cheap terabyte and even petabyte storage, the system backup is still pretty much the same concept: drop the machine, save everything, save it again in case the first save is corrupted, and then bring the system back up. Since it was a long-running process, it was something you didn't just do off the cuff; once a month usually worked out pretty well. On PTF weekends, we added a few more steps, including applying PTFs and doing another system save; thus we tried to limit PTF application to once a quarter.

 

And for the most part, this worked out fine. On rare occasions, you ran into a bug that was so horrendous that you needed an immediate fix, so you would apply it as soon as possible, but that was a rare occasion indeed. In general, though, you never thought of PTFs individually; they came in a big blob on a tape and you applied them all and went on with your business. It was a simpler, gentler time....

The Brave New PTF World

I don't even know if we called them "cumulative PTFs" back then, but that's what they were. A cumulative PTF (also known as a "cume") contains all the PTFs since the release of the operating system, and originally that was all a midrange shop ever really needed. Cumes were issued a few times a year, and we applied them on roughly the same schedule. That is, if we were good, although the stability of the operating system was such that cumes were often overlooked in accordance with the "if it ain't broke" rule.

 

This stopped being enough a while back. Right about the time that the system moved from essentially a closed system of RPG and a proprietary database and instead became a super-open machine with Java and UNIX and WebSphere and SQL, IBM also began delivering system updates via "group PTFs." You can argue the cause and effect relationship of complexity and stability, but the truth is that the system has so much more functionality that it requires more fixes and upgrades. I can't think of a single business computer that is as complex as an IBM i, so I guess I don't begrudge it the additional software support required.

 

Group PTFs (or simply "groups") are released more regularly than cumes. I assume the name comes from the fact that the PTFs are not for the entire system, but are instead grouped together, each group relating to a specific area of the system. For example, the Java runtime has its own group PTF; this allows you to apply all the fixes for Java in one shot without having to go through an entire cume. Why would you do this? Because, in theory, all of the PTFs in a group have been tested together and will bring your system to a "known" state, whereas if you applied PTFs individually you might install one that interacted unpredictably without the presence of another one. Typically, such dependencies are handled by the PTF process--individual PTFs have prerequisites and co-requisites for just this purpose--but software gets more and more complex, and things do slip through. In order to avoid possible side effects, I recommend that unless advised specifically by IBM to install an individual PTF, always install PTFs using groups and cumes.

 

This interdependency will only continue to grow; some i software is now so inextricably linked that certain groups automatically install other groups. The WebSphere group, for example, installs a variety of other groups, including the Java group, the DB2 group, and the HTTP group, among others.

 

Given these interdependencies, you might wonder why you would install groups at all. Why not just install cumes three or four times a year? The reason is that group PTFs are more responsive. Groups show up monthly or even weekly in the case of the really serious ones. The most serious ones are the ones known as the HIPER group. When I first saw the term, I thought HIPER meant HIgh PERformance, but it really means High Impact PERvasive, which is simply IBM jargon for "really serious." You should review these PTFs regularly to see if PTFs exist that are pertinent to your environment. Data loss and security issues usually fall into this group. But other groups, especially those for WebSphere and database, often provide performance enhancements that make life better for your end users, so staying current is a good idea.

PTF Delivery

The best thing about PTFs is that IBM has really spent a lot of time on the PTF delivery process. Delivery mechanisms exist to fit just about every shop, ranging from old-fashioned mailed on media to the latest and greatest electronic delivery.

 

Since I have a relatively slow communications line, I can't realistically use electronic delivery. For example, take the latest cume package for V5R4, release number C8305540 released on November 11, 2008. (Note that you can actually tell the version and date from the name: the second character is the year, 2008; the next three are the Julian day, 305; and the last three digits are the version/release/modification level, 540.) Anyway, that release is about 8GB in size, and on my connection that's literally days of download. So I prefer the old-fashioned media method.

 

On the other end of the spectrum, you can use the SNDPTFORD command from a command line to connect directly to IBM and download fixes right to your i. It's fast and easy and doesn't require much intervention on your part. Your biggest decision here is whether to use save files or optical images, something I'll touch on again momentarily. If you choose the save file route, you can immediately install the PTF using the standard GO PTF menu; optical images require a little more work.

 

You might not want to use this method, though. For example, you may want to install PTFs on multiple machines or you might need to save the PTF packages on offline storage (in case you have to reapply them--say, after a scratch install). For these situations, IBM has yet another option available in the form of IBM Fix Central, which, as its name suggests, is a central repository of fixes. This is a nicely designed site that walks you through the process of ordering PTFs and making them available for download. The server at IBM will package up all the software very nicely and then make it available for you for download. And as if that weren't enough choice, you can even choose how to download the packages, either via traditional FTP client or through the more automated Download Director.

 

FTP is pretty simple: IBM creates a directory on its server that you can access to pull down the data and then sends you an email with the information detailing where the fix package is located. You use the standard FTP client on the i, or, if you're so inclined, you can easily create an FTP script to pull down all the data. Lots of people have done this already. The FTP-to-the-i route is a little older technologically speaking and has been superseded by the SNDPTFORD command, but some people prefer the control of FTP and they've already got procedures in place. Alternatively, you can use any of the freeware or shareware FTP client programs and download the software to a PC or to a network drive.

 

Download Director is even easier. It's a Java applet that runs inside your browser and manages the entire download process. Like a very focused version of an FTP client, it's very good about restarting and allowing you to pause the download or even restarting in case of a connection failure.

 

Either way (FTP or Download Director), you end up with a bunch of .bin files in a folder somewhere, which leads us to the last topic, applying the PTFs.

Applying PTFs

Back in the olden days when media was the only option, you actually installed directly from the tape. In more recent years, you install from optical media, but the idea is the same: you insert the media and start a process that installs the software directly from the media. The single biggest problem with this approach occurs when you have a media error. Since packages can span a dozen disks, it's possible (and very painful) to get an error on disk number eight after hours and hours of work.

 

IBM has gotten around that particular problem with the introduction of the virtual optical drive and the image catalog. A virtual optical drive is what it sounds like: a virtual device that takes the place of an optical drive but that can be pointed to a specific folder to get its data. The process is pretty simple, involving several commands:

 

  •   CRTDEVOPT: Create a virtual device. Use the option RSRCNAME(*VRT).
  •   CRTIMGCLG: Create an image catalog, which is basically a folder where the fix package will reside.
  •   ADDIMGCLGE: Add data from a disk into the catalog.

 

Let me pause a moment here to explain how the worlds of mailed media and download media intersect. The ADDIMGCLGE command has two formats, physical media and electronic media. In the physical media version, the DEV keyword is used to identify the optical device where the media is located. You run this command for each disk. The electronic media version uses a FROMFILE keyword and assumes that you've loaded the files you downloaded using FTP or Download Director into a folder accessible to the i. This would be an IFS folder to which you've copied the files (in fact, I suppose it could be a QNTC folder, which actually represents a connection to another machine on the network, although I've never tried that).

 

In either case--physical or electronic delivery--you end up with an image catalog containing all of the disks from your PTF package. At this point, the real magic occurs, because you now run a command called VFYIMGCLG that runs through all of the disks and makes sure no bits got twiddled or that you tried to install a copy of Sim City into your i. In the physical media world, this process--loading the data from the disks and then verifying the entire catalog--is a wonderful protection against bad media.

 

And finally, you run the magic PTF installation option: GO PTF, option 8. From this point on, the installation chugs through the entire installation process, not requiring anything from you other than time. Most importantly, you don't have to switch disks. And those who have been following along here may have realized that, as long as everything goes well, you can theoretically do this entire process remotely--especially if you download the media, since it's simply a matter of copying the package to the target machine's IFS and then creating an image catalog. And even for those like me who need physical media, all is not lost: the packages that you download from IBM are actually nothing more than the ISO images of the disks that they would mail you. You can create an image from optical media on any PC using a standard CD ripping tool, such as Roxio, and then treat those images the same way you would the electronically downloaded media (conversely, you can download the media and burn them to CD; just remember that the PC packages typically use the extension .iso, while the files downloaded from IBM will have a .bin extension).

 

Now, be warned: you shouldn't do this process unless you have a Plan B to be able to access the machine in case of a catastrophic error. On rare occasions, applying a PTF has been known to cause a machine to fail on IPL, or even more annoying, the IPL required by a PTF has been just enough to send a piece of hardware over the edge, and at that point you're probably going to have to visit the machine physically. The moral of the story is that even though you may not have to be there, don't absolutely count on not having to be there, lest you tempt Murphy and his minions.

A Last Visit to SNDPTFORD

There may still be times when you need to get a single PTF. The last time I did it was to get the ANZOBJCNV tool to test my application for V6R1 compatibility. SNDPTFORD straddles the line between the old technology and the new by providing support for image catalogs but also skipping them and using the standard download, load, and apply procedure. This support is made available via the DLVRYFMT parameter; if you specify *IMAGE on this parameter, you'll get an image file that can then be loaded into an image catalog. Otherwise, the PTF will be retrieved as a save file, and you use the traditional LODPTF (option 1 from the GO PTF menu) followed APYPTF (option 2).

So Many Choices...

To summarize, then, IBM provides a wide range of PTF support options. The processes support all of your basic business goals--from keeping current on cumulative releases to installing specific individual fixes--and the technology provides options for any size of shop with just about any skill level. And we haven't even addressed the capabilities of centralized support using Management Central or the new complexities introduced by the Hardware Management Console (HMC). More material for another day...

Joe Pluta

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. He has been extending the IBM midrange since the days of the IBM System/3. Joe uses WebSphere extensively, especially as the base for PSC/400, the only product that can move your legacy systems to the Web using simple green-screen commands. He has written several books, including Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i, E-Deployment: The Fastest Path to the Web, Eclipse: Step by Step, and WDSC: Step by Step. Joe performs onsite mentoring and speaks at user groups around the country. You can reach him at joepluta@plutabrothers.com.


MC Press books written by Joe Pluta available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i
Joe Pluta introduces you to EGL Rich UI and IBM’s Rational Developer for the IBM i platform.
List Price $39.95

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WDSC: Step by Step WDSC: Step by Step
Discover incredibly powerful WDSC with this easy-to-understand yet thorough introduction.
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Eclipse: Step by Step Eclipse: Step by Step
Quickly get up to speed and productivity using Eclipse.
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    • What’s the best way to transition from PDM to RDi?
    • How do I convince my long-term developers to use RDi?

    This is a unique, online opportunity to hear how you can get more out of RDi.

     

  • Node.js on IBM i Webinar Series Pt. 2: Setting Up Your Development Tools

    Profound Logic Software, Inc.Have you been wondering about Node.js? Our free Node.js Webinar Series takes you from total beginner to creating a fully-functional IBM i Node.js business application. In Part 2, Brian May teaches you the different tooling options available for writing code, debugging, and using Git for version control. Attend this webinar to learn:

    • Different tools to develop Node.js applications on IBM i
    • Debugging Node.js
    • The basics of Git and tools to help those new to it
    • Using NodeRun.com as a pre-built development environment

     

     

  • Inside the Integrated File System (IFS)

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericDuring this webinar, you’ll learn basic tips, helpful tools, and integrated file system commands—including WRKLNK—for managing your IFS directories and Access Client Solutions (ACS). We’ll answer your most pressing IFS questions, including:

    • What is stored inside my IFS directories?
    • How do I monitor the IFS?
    • How do I replicate the IFS or back it up?
    • How do I secure the IFS?

    Understanding what the integrated file system is and how to work with it must be a critical part of your systems management plans for IBM i.

     

  • Expert Tips for IBM i Security: Beyond the Basics

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

    Don't miss this chance to take your knowledge of IBM i security beyond the basics.

     

     

  • 5 IBM i Security Quick Wins

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn today’s threat landscape, upper management is laser-focused on cybersecurity. You need to make progress in securing your systems—and make it fast.
    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.