IBM i – The driverless variant of IT infrastructure

By | 5 minute read | August 13, 2019

I am, quite frankly, not looking forward to the advent of autonomous automobiles. I happily drive a sporty, stick-shift vehicle myself. But what does intrigue me is autonomous IT infrastructure. I keep track of developments in autonomous IT and consider it to be an early-stage trend that will not reach maturity for several more years. However, a few weeks ago, I saw the 2019 IBM i Marketplace Survey Results. This is an annual international survey of 750 businesses run on the IBM i platform, conducted by IT software company HelpSystems. It made me wonder if we’ve actually had some form of autonomous IT for quite some time.

The survey shows that 38 percent of participating businesses employ a single administrator for their IBM i environment; and 13 percent have none–zero. Also, 57 percent of the respondents said that their IBM i environment runs fully unattended. That sounds pretty close to autonomous. And, I might add, it sounds somewhat astounding given that businesses in IBM i’s three largest verticals– manufacturing, finance, and distribution– actually run their core business applications on the platform.

For current IBM i users, this may not be a new or surprising fact. The platform has been built for exactly this purpose. If you are one of those current users, the only decision you need to make right now is when and how to upgrade to the latest version of the OS, version 7.4–I’ll get to that later. But if you’re unfamiliar with the IBM i platform, you may wonder how businesses can run their core applications on a practically autonomous platform. Isn’t that like driving blindfolded?

A slim versus integrated OS

I’m not going to delve into the epic history of IBM i here. Suffice it to say that what’s different about IBM i when compared to other operating systems is that the latter are kernel-based. The primary goal of these kernel-based OSes is to virtualize the hardware so that the database, the transaction software, and the applications can get to the hardware resources. The IBM i OS, however, is very different. It actually encapsulates the virtualization software, the transaction software, the database, and the application servers. They are an integral part of the operating system.

Why is that an advantage? It means that the operating system already contains all the complex technology that a solution provider, such as an ISV or a custom app developer, needs to allow their solution to run. Rather than having to build complex integrations (which on other platforms often require expensive consultants), followed by intense day-to-day management (which with other systems requires staff), the solutions just run. There are thousands of commercial solutions for IBM i that take advantage of this simplicity, but the most obvious way in which IBM i users are benefiting is when they’re building their own solutions, which they do in abundance.

Basically, IBM i is the driverless variant of IT infrastructure. At the same time, it does everything else you want a modern platform to do: popular languages, open source, AI, IoT, cloud, and last but not least, high availability and security, which also are an integral part of the OS, not an add-on. Naturally, IBM i is therefore pricier than a system that merely has a kernel-based operating system installed.

The sales paradox

One question I get asked every now and then is: “How is it that IBM i continues to be the platform of choice for many businesses, but when you look at the sales numbers over the long term, they seem to have been declining?” Therein lies the paradox–the better IBM i became, the fewer IBM i boxes organizations needed.

Twenty years ago, banks would have IBM i in every branch. They had no choice given the limited number of cores in a processor and the Internet bandwidth in those days. Today, that same bank runs an entire region on one heavily partitioned IBM i, often running multiple workloads on the same system–CRM and ERM, for example. Obviously, the evolution of the underlying IBM Power Systems hardware plays an important role as well. With POWER9, you get the core performance that also drives the fastest supercomputer in the world, the POWER9-based Summit.

There are other factors that have made the marketplace a little harder for IBM i because of its solutions’ integration simplicity. If there’s no complex integration required to bring a solution to IBM i, there’s very little business to be had for the large consulting firms. That sales channel is therefore pretty much unavailable to IBM i. And then there’s the vexing issue of democracy in the data center. That single admin for the IBM i can easily get outvoted when decisions are made on where to run a solution.

Bottom line: when you’re looking at IBM i’s long-term historic unit sales, you’re getting a distorted picture. I’d recommend diving into the remarkably loyal user community to get to the true nature of the platform.

Version 7.4

Finally, a few words about the new version: IBM i 7.4, which is now generally available. If you’re on 7.1 or more recent, the upgrade will be straightforward. There’s not enough space in this post to go through all the new features, but I expect that you can find them on the IBM i site. You can also download and read the latest strategy paper to learn about the future roadmap for the platform.

Just a few things that I found noteworthy:

  • IBM i 7.4 provides new open source programming languages, including R, the popular language for statistical computing and graphics, as well as additions to Python, PHP, and the ecosystem of tools around them.
  • At the same time, there are new features for RPG and COBOL; new functionality for messaging; the latest industry standard protocols for communications; and Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) for enhanced security and performance.
  • Also, IBM has added a new licensed program called IBM Db2 Mirror for i for continuous availability. Db2 Mirror for i allows you to pair two systems together and have them run as an active/active pair.

If you are upgrading to IBM i 7.4 on POWER9, I’d love to hear from you once you have that combination in production. It’ll be close to “driverless,” and I have a feeling that it’ll roar.

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