PTFs: How to Manage Them and Why You Need To

IBM i (OS/400, i5/OS)
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In order to get true bang for your buck, you need to be installing IBM i updates on a regular basis.


What is a PTF? PTF stands for Program Temporary Fix, which could have been an accurate descriptor 25 years ago, but today the term is very misleading. PTFs include much more than just fixes. In fact, many new and exciting development features of the IBM i operating system are brought to you via PTF, most notably in the new Technology Refresh (TR) concept. More on that shortly.


There are three types of PTFs: Individual, Group, and Cumulative.


Individual PTFs are just that. You can download a single PTF, load it, and apply it.


A Group PTF is a collection of PTFs related to a part of the operating system (e.g., security, DB2, hardware) or an integrated application (e.g., IBM HTTP Server, WebSphere Application Server). A Group HIPER is a collection of PTFs that fixes issues that are deemed high-impact; they're released on a regular, frequent basis.


A Cumulative PTF package (or CUME as it's called) is a bit of a misnomer as well. Although it contains a large amount of fixes and updates, it doesn't include all PTFs IBM has for that release and it doesn't include all the Group PTFs.


The concept of a Technology Refresh was introduced in IBM i 7.1. Instead of delivering a collection of operating system software updates as a point release in its own new code stream, Technology Refreshes are delivered by way of a PTF group package for the current IBM i release's code stream. As a result, customers receive high-impact operating-system-level updates and significant enhancements without the rigmarole and intrusiveness of upgrading their server to the next point release. Define rigmarole? Imagine if IBM i 7.2 was just released instead of IBM i 7.1 TR6. With that in mind, the best example I can think of is a software vendor who supports IBM i 7.1 but not IBM i 7.2...yet. If that was the case, you'd be at the mercy of your vendor's timeline for supporting their software on IBM i 7.2. There is no 7.2 so far, probably because there hasn't been a deep enough change in the operating system (for example, a major update for PASE) to warrant a full point-release code stream.


Technology Refreshes can include support for new hardware such as USB drives, expanded external storage support (in TR6), performance enhancements, software functionality improvements, and a lot more.


A Technology Refresh release encompasses all components of previously released Technology Refreshes, so you don't have to worry about installing TR5 first before installing TR6, although you should always read the release notes for any special instructions within any major PTF installation.


You can view information about current Cumulative, Groups, Group HIPERs, and Technology Refreshes at the Preventative Service Planning website.

How to Manage Your PTFs

There's an abundance of options for managing your PTFs:


IBM i Command: Send PTF Order (SNDPTFORD)


We'll start with the tried and true, old-school method. With this command, you can download individual or Group PTFs either as save files or as images for install by way of an image catalog. It's a great quick-and-dirty method, but it's limited in some respects. For instance, if you're prompting on the PTF identifier field, it will give you options only for the Cumulative package, plus Group PTFs for HIPER, Backup and Recovery, Java, HTTP, and Performance. You have to do some digging to find that the PTF identifier for the IBM i 7.1 Technology Refresh is SF99707 and that the Hardware Group is SF99705. If you're doing this a lot, you may be able to rattle off the PTF identifier, but chances are you'll be looking it up.


If you order PTF images and specify IMGOPT(*ORDER), your order will be submitted, but it won't be downloaded automatically; for that, you'd need to of specify IMGOPT(*DOWNLOAD). That's where the command WRKPTFORD comes into play, allowing you to set up and submit your order during peak hours, wait for IBM to generate the PTF files into a packaged set of images, and then download them during non-peak hours.


Fix Central


A little more modern, IBM Fix Central is a web-based interface that allows you to select PTFs via a wizard. You pick the operating system and version level and then you can proceed with selecting which PTFs you want, either by PTF Group or as individual PTF. You can also search by text string in the PTF cover letter and then download CD images directly to IBM i. Also, you can pull them down to your computer either as images via FTP, HTTP, or Download Director, or as individual fixes for installation via Systems Director.


It's very easy to find what you need to find. I'm a big fan of Download Director because, unlike an HTTP download, which is one transaction, Download Director allows you to pull down from multiple hosts simultaneously, making download blazingly fast and shortening your time to action.


Systems Director Update Manager


Even more modern, this is the Cadillac for updating your systems. Systems Director server can run on Power Systems operating systems AIX and Linux, x86-64 Linux, Windows, and System z. You can have one or many IBM i endpoint systems from which you can remotely deploy updates. For instance, Update Manager can be scheduled to check with Fix Central on a regular basis and pull down updates specific to your endpoint systems if those systems' PTF versions are out of date. You can even create compliance policies, automatically notifying you if your system's status becomes out of datefor instance, if you want to always be at the most current HIPER Group. Alternatively, you can also ensure that you maintain a fix level below the latest level. Maybe you have an application that requires you maintain a set PTF Group level for Java? You don't want your system updating itself and possibly causing problems.


Not only does Systems Director support IBM i endpoints, but it also allows you to manage updates for other systems in your environment. Having a one-stop shop for scheduling, deploying, and monitoring fixes can be very useful if you have multiple systems across multiple platforms. Systems Director Update Manager aims to help keep you current in a controlled and monitored fashion.


If for some reason you need to install a single PTF and perhaps a couple of prerequisites, you can do so with Update Manager, but it's actually more complicated than doing a simple SNDPTFORD.


Pick the right tool for the job at hand.

Don't Forget to Clean Up Your Mess

After you've loaded and applied your PTFs, don't forget to clean up your IBM i image catalogs loaded with CD images from a Group, Cume, or HIPER installation. I'm sure we've all come across a loaded image catalog when we're looking everywhere but there to clean up a little space.


Also, if you're downloading PTFs as save files, you may want to consider using System i Navigator to schedule a cleanup of PTF save files and cover letters. I checked and there's no web-based IBM Navigator for i equivalent feature yet. In System i Navigator, expand your system, expand Configuration and Service, expand Fixes Inventory. When you get into Fixes Inventory, it may run a quick inventory collection to determine which fixes are on your system and see whether you have PTF cover letters and save files associated with each fix.


To schedule an automated cleanup, right-click All Fixes, Fix Groups, or an individual product code and the choose Cleanup. You'll get a confirmation screen with a Schedule button. This will allow you to pick a recurring time to do the automated PTF cleanup. Otherwise, you can just press the OK button, which will launch the cleanup automatically. This method sure beats waiting for a WRKF FILE(*ALL/*ALL) FILEATR(SAVF) to finish and then manually trying to determine what's safe to delete. It's way faster too. So let the utility in System i Navigator do the quick thinking for you!

How Often Should You Update? And Why?

I come from the school of updating PTFs and software very regularly, sometimes even the day it's released. I was awake until 4:00 in the morning a month ago to download and install IBM Domino 9 because I knew how slick it was going to be based on the beta testing I was involved with and the IBM Notes community scuttlebutt. With updates, I'm like a kid in a candy store with a fresh, crisp ten-dollar bill and an empty stomach. I can't help myself because the features coming down the pike are not only awesome, but practical. New features make my system and processes run better. Take the extreme makeover that IBM Navigator for i has received in the last few months for example. PowerHA has added more hardware support and expanded its features. There are Zend updates, TLS support, and so much more! Dare I even have to mention IBM Connections support on IBM i announced as part of TR6? With Connections on IBM i, I can leverage the benefits of social business, making my business more collaborative!


If I'm not updating my system with PTFs on a regular basis, then I'm not taking advantage of the full value of my IBM software maintenance contract. IBM put out a tremendous amount of value in software updates, especially the Technology Refresh releases. Why wouldn't I take advantage? Stability...perhaps. Not rocking the boat was a well-traveled excuse many years ago, but Information Technology is all about evolution! It's making systems and processes and my overall business more effective by way of technology.


Plus, I tend to add workload to my IBM i environment on a regular basis. I love nothing more than taking a Windows solution and consolidating that function on IBM i. The last position I'd want to be in is having a new IBM i solution ready to go only to find out I'm behind by a few fix packs. That slows progress. When the aforementioned Domino 9 was finally downloaded in the early morning hours, I didn't have to worry about being up to date with Java. My brand new IBM Notes Traveler on IBM i installation didn't have to wait for a DB2 Group to be downloaded and applied a week later. For those who don't know, Traveler is a "push mail" application allowing you to extend your IBM Notes/Domino world to many different mobile devices. I was able to migrate my smartphone users to Traveler on IBM i and shut down another Windows server almost immediately, putting my mobile users on a more solid platform and reaping the spinoff benefits. Long story short, when your PTFs are up to date, it's usually load-and-go with new software.


You'll see me in line at the candy shop waiting for TR7. You can bet on it.