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IBM i: The Most Amazing IBM Product You’ve Never Heard Of

Updated: Oct 10, 2019


This week, your #CautionaryCanadian is going to focus on the IBM i which, as the subject article says, is “the most amazing IBM product you’ve never heard of.” My partners at Chordia Consulting are launching a new practice for the IBM i (iSeries or AS/400 to some), offering both technical and management consulting services to customers of this platform. Why are we doing this? Read more at the end of this blog to learn about our rationale and our efforts.

Background I would like to offer a full disclosure on my history with the IBM i. Thirty years ago I was a national level expert on the System/38, the predecessor to the AS/400 (and IBM i). I was intimately familiar with the machine architecture, its design considerations, its programming and operational environments. I proposed, sold, and installed many systems. This included helping clients move their workloads from older platforms to the System/38 and, later, the AS/400. My activities included hands-on development, data conversion, application software installation, and overall conversion planning and execution. I recall thinking at the time that this was the best system IBM had ever created. Since I had significant experience with IBM mainframe operating environments as well as the Series/1 minicomputer, I had a good basis for my opinion. While I haven’t touched the platform since 1993, Chordia’s IBM i direction has prompted me do research and reading and renew my IBM i expertise.

In the time since the System/38 was introduced, the use of the platform has continued to evolve and grow across more and more industries with their unique application requirements. The “A” in AS/400 stood for application. This was a machine intended to support many applications, often home-grown, but the majority developed by third party software houses known as ISVs or Independent Software Vendors. The “i” in IBM i stands for integrated. These two attributes, application software flexibility and an integrated software and hardware stack, are two of the main reasons the platform now, according to IBM, has over 100,000 installed customers. Independent industry observers put the number at between 40,000 and 70,000; in either case, the install base is still very large.

Different Perspectives

Today, I find both positive and negative articles written about the IBM i. Many positive pieces are written about its stability, reliability and security while a similar number of negative ones focus on its history of green-screen, character-based applications. Often, those negative articles reflect the writer’s belief that IBM i users should just get off the platform and move to something more current. While I cannot be sure, I suspect positive comments come from people who understand the platform and have used it extensively while negative comments come from people who better understand other platforms and, for whatever reason, find themselves having difficulty relating to this “very different” system. The fact that the IBM i is so different is both its reason for success and its Achilles Heel.

It’s All About Integration

So why do its users like this platform so much? Why is it so reliable and secure? The answer lies in its level of integration. The IBM i is an integrated collection of hardware, operating system, security, database, networking, memory management, data management, and virtualization technologies. Of course, it’s possible to create the equivalent functionality in Linux using many different products, but these all need to be individually installed and integrated. If you use a Linux distribution (RedHat, SusSe, Ubuntu), some of this integration and packaging of software components is done for you. If you have the ability to do your own integration (versus using a distro), you will appreciate the value you get from the pre-done integration you receive from distro providers (or, similarly, from an integrated Microsoft Windows Server software stack).

The amount of integration (and testing) done by IBM for the IBM i platform is even greater. Not only is the software stack itself more integrated, the integration of the software with the hardware is done for you as well. More integration and more testing by IBM before the system is delivered to your loading dock means less need for integration by you on day one (and going forward). This is why, for example, customers who use this platform often have an order-of-magnitude smaller sysadmin staff compared with what’s needed in other platform environments. This integration is also why the IBM i tends to be more stable and more secure than other platforms.

If you are the type of IT shop that likes to play with the piece parts, then an IBM i might not be your first choice. If, on the other hand, your objective is to rapidly deliver reliable and secure value to your business users, you should consider choosing (or keeping) this platform. We always think we want more choices and usually don’t like to have our options arbitrarily limited. Is having fewer choices necessarily good or bad? As always, it depends. In choosing the IBM i platform, you may be glad you have fewer choices. I remember telling early UNIX clients “the great news about the UNIX platform is you have more choices you can make” and I would then follow up with “the bad news is you are going to have to make many more decisions … and you’d better get these right.” With IBM i, many decisions have already been made for you and those decisions have usually been “gotten right.”

Legacy, Sure…But Proven and Still Current

For those that say the IBM i is a legacy platform and, therefore, not current, they are both right and wrong. It certainly is a legacy platform in the usual sense, but in this case legacy means tried and proven with time. This type of legacy is often desirable. Those that say it is not current, however, could not be further from the truth as IBM has continued to invest in and evolve the platform. Today it supports most of the popular open source software that people are interested in including Apache Web Server, Java, Javascript, PHP, Python, Ruby, XML, C, C++, Jenkins and RPM, plus many more for roughly 300 open source software components. Programs written for AIX, UNIX and Linux environments can be recompiled and run while exploiting many of the unique features of the platform. It does all of this with the added benefit of its high level of integration and its vast array of other capabilities.

In many ways, therefore, you get the best of both worlds: legacy and current, all in one platform.

Chordia’s IBMi Initiative We at Chordia think there is a need to help existing users of the IBM i (and its predecessors) with both technical and IT management consulting services. Our belief is there are few consulting firms that have the “i” experience. For the few that do, often they focus on the various technical aspects of the platform and lack the ability to offer a holistic, strategic view at the C-suite level. We think these IBM i users need the integration of both technical and strategic assistance that Chordia can provide to help navigate decisions in today’s complex technology environment. We also believe IT professionals who love this platform could use help communicating its value to others who cannot fully appreciate how vital it is to their organization. Finally, Chordia's RAITH on-line IT healthcheck service has been updated to reflect the specialized interests of the IBM i community. As the article that precipitated this blog says, this is The Most Amazing IBM Product You’ve Never Heard Of.


So I will continue to brush up on my technical currency with the IBM i in anticipation of our need to respond to your requests. We are fortunate to be working with Dawn May who is a globally-recognized technical expert in the IBM i marketplace. Collaborating with Dawn, we are also reaching out to other IBM i experts around the world, inviting them to work with us and bring their own extensive expertise to IBM i customers and their distinctive technology environment.

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