In “What IBM i Execs Don’t Know,” my tone was a tad antagonistic. But now the air is warmer, spring is finally here, and I’m much, much better. So let’s approach things a bit more positively, shall we?
I’ll willingly agree that the last column I wrote was just a bit on the negative side. In fact, I really expected to be taken to task for being too hard on poor IBM i IT management.
But, like most things, I was wrong…about being taken to task, that is. As it turned out, everyone who commented agreed with me, and nobody seemed to feel too sorry for IT management as a group.
Still, I would rather be positive than negative (my editor just rolled her eyes at that one), so let’s talk about this issue (which is the fact that even people who own an i don’t understand or appreciate it) from a more positive point of view. Specifically, just what is it that management should know in order to be an effective “i leader”?
Know What Makes the i Different
I have a feeling that if there were a TV game show called “What Makes the i Different,” a lot of i IT managers wouldn’t do very well. The same might be true of a lot of i programmers. Even people who use and love the i can’t always articulate what makes that machine special, what sets it apart from, say, Windows. So let’s take a brief refresher on some of the things that make the i special.
This is courtesy of the Machine Interface (MI), a layer of software between the hardware and the application software that separates and insulates each. It makes it possible to change the hardware without impacting the top-level software. All IBM has to do is change the MI; the rest is totally transparent to you.
Everything within the i is an object.
Each object consists of a description and a data part. The description tells the system how to use the data. The description cannot be changed, so something that comes in as data can’t suddenly make itself into a program. This prevents viruses from existing on the i.
True, the IFS can get infected, but that’s a Windows-type environment and has to be protected from itself.
Unlike the server environments, there’s no need to buy a ton of additional packages to go with the i. Almost everything you need is there right out of the box: a database with multiple access methods (RPG IO and SQL), work management systems, a command-level interface, multiple programming languages, etc.
The 64-bit address space has room to address 18 quintillion bytes of data. Hence, the system can reference each main memory and disk location as if it were one big space.
If you add disk space, the system automatically detects it and spreads the data out; you don’t have to do that. If files fill up, the system will find room for extensions. Because of the simplicity, a database administrator (DBA) is not required; the system can control things by itself. And not having a DBA means your programmers can do other things and less time is required to get something on your database accomplished.
IBM i on Power has a very sophisticated hardware-based hypervisor that scales very well and has a lot of workload management facilities. And this is something that has been drastically increased in the last couple of releases with the introduction of the SQL-based IBM i Services.
The scalability of the i is one of its most important assets. The i can range from a small system up to massive cloud-hosting sites.
The way the i executes a program makes it more efficient as well. As the processor is executing a program, it gets to a point where data is required. It then calls an Input/Output Processor (IOP) to get the data. While this is happening, the CPU will turn its attention to another program. Since you can have 2000 or so IOPs, there’s room for a lot of programs to be active. When the data is returned, control will return to the original program.
That’s right. I’m including RPG as something that makes the i special.
There are lots of cool things you can do with web languages, but most of them involve text or graphics. Not numbers or real decision-making. RPG is ideally tuned to the business world in a way that web languages are not, so they don’t do as well.
For example, one of RPG’s big strengths is that it can do decimal math very simply and naturally. Java cannot do that; it has to have a bunch of workarounds to do decimal math. Other languages can’t handle it either. This is one reason why RPG and COBOL are both excellent business languages.
Most computers, except for the i and IBM mainframes, use base 2 (binary). The problem is, if you do a calculation in base 10 and the same calc in base 2, you come up with different numbers. Binary will be off just a hair, but off just the same. Because of the problems binary has with calculations, IBM developed Binary Coded Decimal (BCD) in the ‘60s as a way to represent base 10 numbers using binary codes and to therefore yield the proper calculation values. The decimal math is built into the IBM hardware.
The bottom line is there are a lot of reasons why the i presents substantive advantages over the more basic “server” architecture. And the next time someone starts referring to the i as a dinosaur machine, a good i leader should be able to whip these points out and remind that person that if the i is a dinosaur, it’s definitely a raptor.
Understand Where the “i Chips” Are Going
Even though I am not a hardware junkie and have a very deep distrust of anything even remotely mechanical (computers have screws that hold things in place), even I know there is no such thing as “i chips.” What I am referring to are the Power architecture chips that the i uses.
In the end, when you make your hardware purchase, you are not buying a server or an i. You are buying into either an X86-based Intel architecture scheme or the IBM Power architecture setup. So what’s the difference?
Not being a hardware guy, I have had to do some research on this and the articles I have seen all seem to be saying the same thing—that the Power8 is more powerful, core for core, than its Intel Xeon competition. Unfortunately, when you look at cost, the Intel chip is going to be cheaper for the initial install. Less powerful, but cheaper. But we will come back to price later.
Perhaps one of the most promising reasons for buying into Power chips is the OpenPower Initiative. Initially formed by IBM and four other partners (Google, Mellanox, NVIDIA, and Tyan) in 2013, the movement has grown to include almost 200 companies, all dedicated to exploiting and using the Power chips. By providing a licensing option, IBM opened the door to inviting other companies to standardize on the Power chip.
What’s significant about OpenPower? In a word, open source. This is in stark contrast to proprietary vendors like Intel, Microsoft, or Oracle. Is open important? I think so, and to quote a slide from a 2015 OpenPower conference, “If you’re not open, you’re not moving.”
In the end, I see two significant facts here that favor the Power architecture.
1. First, as I said, all reviews seem to point to the POWER8 being flat out more powerful than the Intel Xeon chip. And given the ever-increasing load that our poor hardware is forced to bear, I don’t see how you can convincingly say, “We don’t need the most powerful processors available; we’ll take the slower ones and just buy more of them.”
2. Second, we seem to be at a watershed point, with two very different options. One is the proprietary path of Intel, Microsoft, etc. The second is the open-source approach of IBM and the Power architecture. Certainly, the proprietary path is very widely disseminated, but it’s very hard, for me, to make a convincing argument for going proprietary versus open source and betting your future on it.
Is it more expensive? Perhaps, but IBM is working hard on reducing that disparity. I know that sounds like a joke, but it’s true. And you have to admit that defining what is expensive and what is cheap is not as simple as looking at a price tag, but we will talk more about that next month. Right now, all we want to establish is that there appears to be clear technology-specific reasons for buying into Power architecture, and that is a solid technology reason for the i. Fortunately, with an open-source approach to the future, it is not just up to IBM to carry that message.
Is That All?
Actually, no, it isn’t. But my time for this month is up and the other two special things about the i will have to wait for the next installment. See you then.