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On IBM's iSeries and OS/400 roadmaps

Teasing out possible announcements

ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

OS/400 V5R2 has been available for a few weeks now, and the talk in the midrange has now predictably turned to what IBM will do next,

writes Timothy Prickett Morgan


While the hardware and software engineers continue to plug away on the future Armada Power5 servers and their Power6 kickers, due over the next few years in various eServer product lines, what IBM actually does in the iSeries line has more to do with what customers and partners want than with what technology it can deliver to the marketplace.

This is an idea that iSeries customers, particularly those on the bleeding edge, who need the latest-greatest software and the biggest iron, had better take into account when they do their capacity planning. In recent years, IBM has not been making announcements like it did at the end of the 1990s, when the big boxes came out in the fall using the hottest new processors and the entry machines came out the following spring using variants of those processors, usually geared down a bit.

Back then, the AS/400 got the new technologies before the RS/6000, the predecessor of the pSeries, which these days is getting the hottest IBM server technologies nearly a year ahead of the iSeries. What my high-level sources in Rochester told me last week, when I explicitly asked them about the rumors I was hearing about iSeries announcements in 2003 and 2004 (or the lack of announcements, in some cases), was this: History is not a guide to what IBM will do in the future with the iSeries; IBM will do what it thinks is best for its customers and its channel, given the technologies it has at any given time.

What these sources, who actually know the ins and outs of the scheduling, did not say was something like this: IBM is committed to delivering the absolutely latest, fastest processor technologies in the iSeries and keeping the line in parity with the pSeries, which has, in most cases, nearly identical hardware components. That is the mantra of the AS/400 Division circa 1998. Times have changed.

Such a parity scheduling between the iSeries and the pSeries would encourage direct comparisons between the OS/400 and AIX server lines. Moreover, it would make it more difficult for IBM to balance its orders against production schedules in the factories that make the PowerPC and Power4 servers that bear the iSeries and pSeries labels. Only shipping the new chips in one line at a time simplifies matters, since there is only one product to ramp up instead of two. IBM got burned in 1999 and 2000, when it tried to keep the AS/400 and RS/6000 in lockstep because of shortages in copper PowerPC processors, and it does not want to repeat that experience. Perhaps most significant, IBM does not see a lot of direct competition between the iSeries and AIX and other Unix alternatives, so having the fastest processor and the latest Unix or Linux API support is not as critical in the iSeries as it is in the pSeries.

That is why, unless something dramatic happens in the Unix server market, the iSeries will very likely lag - and sometimes significantly lag - the pSeries when it comes to hardware. Fast hardware closes sales in the Unix market still, but even the Unix vendors have been gearing back their processors and cutting prices to stimulate demand. There are limits to the need for speed, and the server market may be running up against them on all platforms, not just the iSeries.

The iSeries market may simply have hit the point of diminished marginal returns a little bit earlier than the Unix server market. iSeries customers tend to be slightly smaller companies than Unix shops, and iSeries shops tend to run homegrown RPG applications rather than complex software suites from the dominant application suppliers, which are written using CASE tools in an often inefficient manner to generate a mix of C++, Java, and other programs that are, to put it nicely, resource pigs.

What many of IBM's customers and channel partners are telling Big Blue is that they cannot absorb two hardware announcements a year and a new operating system release every year. Whether or not IBM is listening to these partners, or other partners who might be saying that IBM should turn up the heat and stay absolutely current, is anybody's guess. And right now, exactly what IBM will do is a guess, and I think this is the case for the IBMers in charge, who I do not believe have made up their minds in this uncertain economy, either.

One thing IBM seems to have made up its mind on is that it needs to sell a cheaper machine to its core green-screen customers. I think it is safe to say that the 50 percent price breaks that have been generously and self-servingly given by IBM in the second half of 2002 are an indication that IBM is willing to give price breaks in lieu of new hardware announcements, but that partners are expected to push a lot more iron to make up the difference, as IBM has given them what they clearly wanted: no new iSeries hardware announcements in 2002. In any normal year, the entry pSeries 630 (Regatta-LE) Power4 servers and midrange pSeries 670 (Regatta-M) servers would have been out by now as iSeries machines running V5R2. The fact that they are not is an admission that impressive hardware does not really boost operating system sales any more--at least not like in years gone by, when AS/400 customers were constantly hitting the performance ceiling and needed whatever IBM could cram into the box as early as it could do it.

As I have said a number of times in the past year, IBM has 668 MHz and 750 MHz S-Star processors that it can roll into the existing iSeries line any time it wants to. It doesn't even have to move to Power4 processors, which are much more expensive to build and which have way too much power for a geared-down Model 270 or Model 820 iSeries server aimed at green-screen applications for the typical midrange OS/400 shop.

IBM could, of course, deliver special Domino-only, Java-only, or WebSphere-only variants of the Power4 Regatta-LE or Regatta-M machines for customers who need the larger L2 cache memories and faster clock speeds that IBM can deliver in the Power4 servers. (IBM is expected to deliver Power4-II processors, running at 1.5GHz to 1.6GHz, plus the new AIX 5L version 5.2 operating system, sometime in October.)

The Unix server business is not exactly hopping (though it dominates by far), so IBM could put out iSeries variants of any or all of these machines if it wanted to. With that said, I just don't think it will, until market conditions change. People who are counting on new iSeries entry and midrange Power4 machines in late 2002 (almost certainly not) or in early 2003 (hard to say for sure, but very probably not) are setting themselves up for disappointment. The only machine I have heard of, and this one may only be available on a special bid basis, is a 12-way version of the iSeries Model 890, which comes with 16, 24, or 32 processors. This machine, and even perhaps an eight-way version, could come out sometime in the first quarter of 2003 if IBM sees enough interest in it.

What is known is that IBM will introduce a new and substantially updated OS/400 release in the first half of 2002, and that this OS/400 release will be the one that supports AIX, Linux, and OS/400 within logical partitions controlled by a hypervisor based on a beefed-up version of the microcode that supports OS/400 and Linux partitions today. That's it. This new OS/400 release could be branded as Version 6 or V5R4 or V5R3, depending on what IBM does between now and then. This future OS/400 will presumably run on Northstar, Pulsar, I-Star, S-Star, Power4, and Power4-II machines, but probably not Apache machines.

Some of my sources say that as of a few weeks ago, they were told that OS/400 V5R3 was due in the May-June 2003 timeframe, which is also when new entry Regatta-LE and midrange Regatta-M servers (as opposed to the Regatta-H frames used in the iSeries Model 890) might also come down the pike. Other people are saying that new Power4-based machines are expected sometime in the third quarter.

Still others tell me that there will be no new OS/400 release in 2003, and that OS/400 V6 (if IBM rebrands it that way and doesn't call it i/OS 6.0 or something else) will be the next release after V5R2, which has just started shipping. IBM could announce new iSeries iron based on Power4 or Power4-II processors sometime in 2003 and still use OS/400 V5R2, since V5R2 supports these processors. No one is talking about this option, and I think it is the most likely one, in fact. IBM can save all the enhancements that might have gone into OS/400 V5R3 and push them into OS/400 V6 in early 2004.

What IBM does with the iSeries line will depend on how the Green Streak promotion, which is offering OS/400 shops 50% discounts on selected iSeries machines, fares in boosting iSeries sales and whether the economy starts improving between October 2002 and February 2003. There are lots of possibilities and probabilities right now, but no firm plan.

Copyright © 2002 Midrange Server, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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