A renaissance for IBM's iSeries?

Big Blue is dusting off its iSeries and planning a server-and-software bundle for small and medium-size businesses.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
IBM will soon offer big iron for word processing, Web surfing and writing e-mail.

The computer giant is prepping a bundle that will pair its iSeries server and its Workplace software, a desktop portal that allows businesses to centralize the deployment of software for general office tasks such as word processing.

Previous story
IBM to boost
iSeries partnerships

Big Blue is bolstering
support for developers
of applications and tools
for the server line.

The forthcoming Workplace offering, one of numerous iSeries hardware and software bundles, embodies a recent effort by IBM to embark on an iSeries renaissance, Mark Shearer, general manager of the company's eServer iSeries, said in an interview with News.com.

Although it sells several versions of the iSeries to clients of varying sizes, IBM has been trying to contrast the server, formerly known as the AS/400, with its other servers by marketing iSeries specifically to small and medium-size businesses. Because smaller organizations generally don't have large technology staffs, the company advertisements are aimed specifically at businesspeople. Shearer said the prebundled Workplace software will help IBM sell the iSeries as an "office appliance" that requires minimal installation and support.

Although some might liken the iSeries to a computing dinosaur, Big Blue says that it has a vocal iSeries customer base and that the company is looking to primp the server line for a new generation of customers.

To that end, it rolled out new iSeries hardware late last year, stepped up its advertising, and rejiggered its partner program to make it more profitable for third parties to sell the iSeries and has begun working more closely with software developers, in order to create more iServer software. It's also eyeing establishing a more collaborative network of iSeries software developers and service companies so as to help create custom iSeries bundles for customers.

Bundling iSeries and software is key for the server line as it allows the company to promote the iSeries as IBM-in-a-box or the simplest way to purchase its hardware and software such as WebSphere, Shearer said.

But "we don't think that one tool or one solution is going to meet the whole market need," he said.

Thus IBM has begun working more actively with developers and creating new iSeries bundles of its own, such as the forthcoming Workplace package, which is more likely to serve a small or medium-size business than a customer like a large bank.

In some respects, IBM has no choice but to evolve as the iSeries, along with other large servers, come under fire from less-expensive servers based on Intel or AMD processors, and Microsoft's Windows or Linux. Many of those servers are beginning to take on features once only found in machines like iSeries, including virtualization, which allows them to be partitioned in order to run different software and thus tackle different jobs simultaneously.

At the same time, many businesses have gotten away from the centralized computing model of relying on big servers and have instead based their plans on using numerous inexpensive servers. But, when factoring in all costs, including that of managing the hardware, IBM maintains that the iSeries is a better deal.

"How many thousand-system Intel installs can be managed by three people?" Shearer asks.

While he sees a market for both commodity servers and iSeries, "I see the desire to re-integrate is really, really strong," Shearer said. "The market is moving in a direction where the AS400/iSeries always had core strengths."

Indeed, clients such as banks can and do use iSeries servers to run critical software in one partition, while running less-sensitive applications in another. But IBM sees opportunities for the same type of consolidation outside of traditional stronghold banking, hence its efforts to offer packages such as the Workplace bundles to small and medium-size businesses.

IBM's partners, who are responsible for making about 85 percent of its iSeries sales, have responded positively so far, Shearer said: "Basically, what they're telling me is it's about time."

CNET News.com's Martin LaMonica contributed to this report.