While IBM i-based companies are beginning to run secondary applications in the cloud, many firms are running mission-critical PHP applications there, choosing to take advantage of the cloud's scalability.
While the question for enterprises a year ago was whether to move an application to the cloud, those same companies today are asking which application workloads to move to the cloud.
Despite IBM's years-long emphasis on offering cloud services, it has yet to offer a commercial cloud service for hosting IBM i applications, preferring to limit its offerings to development in the cloud and the IBM virtual loaner program. For whatever reason, IBM is letting other vendors fill the void, and filling the void they are.
Connectria Hosting recently introduced a commercial hosting service for IBM i application workloads that is already attracting a flurry of business, and Abacus Solutions recently announced its "i in the Cloud" hosting service. I recently spoke with executives from both of these companies, and the response they're getting to these IBM i offerings is remarkably strong. The companies are still building out the services based on customer requirements, but they are up and running and have many paying customers.
Meanwhile, business consultant Joe Hertvik has compiled a list of 24 companies that are offering IBM i hosting services (gathered from the IBM i Professionals LinkedIn member discussion group). One of the companies on the list is Infor, which is getting into cloud services in a big way. Not only will it host your applications, but it's developing its own Infor Business Cloud and offering Syteline ERP along with a number of point solutions for enterprise asset, expense, property, workforce, and hospitality management.
What's so different about cloud computing now, and why are companies getting on board the cloud bandwagon today when they would not have considered it a year ago? Several factors have come into play, according to executives in charge of the hosting companies. First, IBM has lowered the price of hardware during the last two years, so you can run a lot more workloads on a given computer, permitting hosting companies to offer their services at an affordable rate. Second, the cost of communications has come down, and the speeds that are available for a reasonable charge have increased, making online transaction processing fast and affordable. Third, the pool of available people who can operate and maintain an IBM i application running on Power appears to be shrinking, and businesses are having trouble filling the shoes of the senior-level system administrators who are retiring.
Both Rich Waidmann, president and CEO of Connectria, and Patrick Schutz, a partner with Abacus Solutions, told me that some event usually precedes a company's decision to move to the cloud. "You don't just wake up one morning and decide to move to the cloud," says Schutz. "There always is something that occurs within the business that makes the owner or manager take a step back and consider his available options. One of those options is the cloud, and today it's proving to be quite an economical one."
Waidmann cited the retirement of key systems personnel as a significant reason behind calls his company is receiving from firms inquiring about cloud hosting options for IBM i applications. "They might have lost a key person who was in charge of their system, and the prospect of finding someone to replace them is questionable," says Waidmann. "There is a whole generation of IBM i engineers that is beginning to retire, and there aren't a lot of people trained to take their place."
One problem both businesses and prospective new-hires face is that taking charge of a company's IBM i-based system generally requires several years of on-the-job training in addition to any courses or certifications they may have received in college or trade school. Too much is at stake, and the system is too complicated to turn it over to a recent graduate. Waidmann, who has been working with IBM for the past decade to prepare to offer IBM i cloud hosting services says that Connectria brings engineers along, training them on Windows and Linux first before they are permitted to work on the IBM Power Systems machines running IBM i. "It's a promotion for them," says Waidmann, "and they like the challenge. When they start learning about the IBM systems, they like what they see. They're engineers, and engineers like things that work."
Asked what IBM i workloads businesses are moving to the cloud, the answer is that it's a variety of things, starting with test and development, or sandbox applications, moving on to archiving, disaster recovery, and high availability—but rarely production, according to Scott Johnson, senior account executive, Solution Sales at Abacus Solutions. The company has a very low-key approach to inviting customers to try its cloud services, which it says they are invariably nervous about doing—at first.
Among the events that serve as catalysts for stirring companies to move to the cloud is the prospect of upgrading the IBM i operating system from V5R4 or earlier to either 6.1 or 7.1. Because of the necessary recompile, companies feel more secure trying it first in the cloud before upgrading their production system on premise, says Abacus' Schutz. "Once they try it, there is often a rush to see how fast we can accommodate any number of other workloads," says Schutz.
Abacus recently signed an agreement with Infor to host a spectrum of the ERP provider's IBM i business and production management solutions. The agreement was penned in large part because of Abacus' experience with i5/OS and IBM i and its robust data center.
While IBM i application hosting is picking up steam, application hosting on Zend Technologies' Zend Server PHP cloud is on fire. Elaine Lennox, Zend's chief marketing officer, when asked what workloads are best to move to the cloud, said that the company today has a broad range of applications from many different types of businesses running PHP applications on Zend Server in the cloud. She said the cloud is particularly useful for businesses that have spikes in their application use. Educational institutions, which have heavy seasonal use when students arrive in the fall, are prone to spikes and need to scale their applications, which is easy to do in the cloud but could cause problems if restricted to an on-premise computer. Media companies in the entertainment field, which get spikes when a celebrity is in trouble, are good candidates for running their applications in the cloud. And any kind of mobile application in which there may be millions, or even hundreds of millions, of users around the world do well in the cloud because of its immediate scalability.
Zend, of course, has its free developer cloud that it introduced last fall, which is in technology preview stage and is continuing to elicit feedback from users. Using the cloud for development is an ideal way to get started in the cloud because there is no concern about interrupting production should it go down. And cloud services have been known to go down, including cloud pioneer Amazon, a company that got into the cloud hosting business after successfully using the Internet to sell merchandise, a heritage several of the more-sophisticated business cloud hosting companies are not shy about mentioning.
Nevertheless, as Zend's production cloud has shown—and so many other companies, from Salesforce.com to Lotus Live, have proven—running applications on the cloud is a growing phenomenon that appears to have no end in sight. On-premise computers will always have a role, but it seems that the cloud is here to stay. While PHP applications may be the leading ones running on the cloud right now, applications built using RPG, C, Java, Python, and any number of languages are bound to be found up there in the days to come.
It seems only a matter of time that, after today's data centers come to be trusted by average SMBs, a lot of the programs running on premise will be ported to the cloud—permanently. As Connectria's Waidmann points out, using the skills of a good hosting company, you can run your business without any IT personnel or knowledge whatsoever. That's a choice many businesses would be happy to embrace.