IBM i Has Now Had More Life Than the AS/400 Did

IBM i (OS/400, i5/OS)
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There’s value in recognizing what customers have: a modern infrastructure to build upon.

It’s official. The date has passed. IBM i and IBM Power Systems have now been brands in business longer than the AS/400 was.

The AS/400, which was announced in 1988 and lasted until 2000 with the iSeries rebranding, still carries that old moniker today when referring to either IBM i (an operating system) or IBM Power Systems (the hardware).

When a new version of the operating system—or heck, even a cumulative PTF package—is released, leaders of the IBM i community break things down with their most important or even favorite features. We talk about row and column access control. We talk about open source. We talk about Db2.

So what’s changed in the last 12+ years of IBM i?

IBM i Is More Open

I spoke with an industry executive who didn’t want to talk to me a year or so back about upgrading his company’s POWER5 machine. He shut the conversation down by saying, “The AS/400 is closed. It doesn’t communicate with anything else. It’s just old.”

It was, by all aspects, an argument based out of ignorance. This CIO obviously didn’t realize exactly what he was running in his nationwide organization and too sure of himself to be enlightened. To be fair, he was running many POWER5 machines on V5R3. He simply couldn’t do what he could do if he were running POWER9 and IBM i 7.4.

While the IBM i operating system is a closed, proprietary operating system, it does integrate incredibly well. That’s what the “i” in IBM i stands for, of course. Starting with the Open Source Solutions licensed program and advancing toward the modern RPM model of software management, IBM i has embraced the value of open source. And they’ve been doing that for years.

IBM i Is More Secure

The security of IBM i has grown consistently, from dropping old protocols and ciphers to adding row and column access control. The architecture is designed with security in mind.

While security features have been trending upward, consumer confidence in security has been slipping according to Syncsort survey data. In 2017, the number of customers feeling very confident in IBM i security was 40 percent. Now, that number is 25 percent. This could be because of the heightened focus on security in the last few years, shining a light on the fact that while IBM i is highly securable, it’s certainly not shipped that way. Also, though application and database modernization has been a focal point for the last 15 years, security modernization simply hasn’t. People are getting the message. The trick now is to educate people on how to secure the system in 2020. As education grows, confidence will swing back up.

IBM i Is More Modern

Perhaps that aforementioned CIO’s green-screens gave him the impression that IBM i can only do green screens. The AS/400 brand died when Geocities, Hi5, and AltaVista were still relevant…or things anyway. It died before the first camera phone came out. It died before the USB stick and Bluetooth were invented.

Modern IBM i applications can be modernized—from the database to the code to the user interface. They can both run and plug into AI systems to do image recognition. They can even work on mobile devices.

The age of “green screen is the best for heads-down data entry” is over, replaced by systems that can read and write data into a database automatically, without the need for data entry personnel.

Perception vs. Reality

Yes, IBM i can do a lot more than the AS/400 ever could. And now it’s been around longer as a brand. The more we do to transition our users to thinking in terms of the application, not the platform, the better.

Why? Because when people think in terms of an application, it turns into something manageable. How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time. This allows an IT team to modernize a single application. The architecture underneath the application layer is frankly none of the users’ business.

It reminds me of one of the fundamental questions to ask a user when doing requirements gathering: Tell us what you want to have and when you want it. The “what” and “when” are fair game. The “how” should not and does not matter to the end user.

When teams have to modernize their entire infrastructure, it becomes a daunting task, and any modest improvements are greatly overshadowed by the entire elephant remaining seemingly intact.

I have this debate a lot when customers are involved. Am I going to correct customers who want to use the term AS/400 or iSeries? No. What I do is consistently speak in terms of the current architecture. If they’re using a System i machine from 2007, then that’s what I call it. I tell them we’re migrating from the System i to a new Power Systems machine. I tell them we’re updating them to IBM i 7.3 or 7.4 as part of the migration. I talk about the value they’re getting on the new technology. The more we use the new (and most long-lived) terms, the more the customer understands they’re not getting just “a new AS/400.” Once it clicks, and it most often does, the perception shift is palpable. That customer will be more apt to open themselves to change. They’re more likely to adopt a standard of continuous modernization. They’re more likely to invest in the systems regularly so that the next time they order a new machine, it isn’t on the cusp of the end-of-service date for both the hardware and operating system.

There’s value in recognizing what they have: a modern infrastructure to build upon.