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IBM overhauls iSeries for the long haul

Big Blue works to keep the long-running server line--remember the AS/400?--off the endangered species list, but challenges remain.

It's been a pattern for years in the server market: A powerful new machine arrives, grows popular, then fades into history as the industry moves to fresh designs. Loyalists are left in the lurch.

The OpenVMS machines led Digital Equipment Corp. to glory, but their current owner, Hewlett-Packard, rarely even mentions them anymore. Prime and Data General expired altogether. The once-diverse mainframe gene pool has dwindled almost to one lineage.


What's new:
IBM's popular iSeries line, in danger of falling by the wayside, is now fully aligned with much more mainstream hardware and software trends.

Bottom line:
Cutting down iSeries isolation might make the line more popular with existing customers but doesn't eliminate the challenge of finding new ones.

More stories on iSeries servers

IBM's iSeries could be one of those endangered species: It has used processors and software far from the mainstream. But Big Blue thinks it has found a way to keep the server line relevant.

The newest breed of iSeries comes with hardware and software changes that bring a speed boost and price cut. And it brings the servers fully into a technology line IBM has pledged to develop for years to come. The iSeries servers now use the same hardware as the more widely installed pSeries family. Also, the system has been able to run Linux since 2001, and now can run the AIX version of Unix from pSeries. Even specially designed Windows servers can fit under its wing.

The changes should assure survival, but they don't necessarily mean the line will attract new customers. For the long term, iSeries seems to be evolving into a different product entirely. But in the short term, customers are pleased.

Nigel Fortlage, vice president of information technology at GH Young International, is a typical iSeries customer--he works at a medium-size business that prefers pre-assembled packages of hardware and software. He has been buying the systems for years, and says a single iSeries server can take on the work of many less powerful servers. He recently bought a server that is running four different operating systems.

"We have 14 servers under this one machine," Fortlage said. And, because the company opted not to buy separate servers based on Intel processors, it didn't have to hire new system administrators.

New models, same challenge
But the fact remains that iSeries still is out of the mainstream for most customers, and the unification isn't likely to change the broader growth challenge the iSeries faces.

"One (challenge) is supporting the expectations of a vociferous customer base, and the other is introducing the systems to a new generation of users. I think (IBM has) been better at the former than the latter."
--Sageza Group analyst Charles King

The performance increase and cost cuts came with the May launch of a new iSeries generation based on the Power5 processors. But that boost only addresses one of the two iSeries challenges IBM faces, said Sageza Group analyst Charles King.

"One is supporting the expectations of a vociferous customer base, and the other is introducing the systems to a new generation of users," King said. "I think they've been better at the former than the latter."

Indeed, from 2002 to 2003, iSeries was largely flat in the market, according to research firm IDC. IBM's sales decreased from $2.3 billion to $2.2 billion, while shipments dropped from about 25,000 to about 23,000.

In comparison, the server market overall grew 3.2 percent from $44.3 billion to $45.7 billion, IDC said.

To keep existing buyers engaged, IBM also is dangling new technology.

"Later in the year we expect to have a 64-way system," said Al Zollar, who up until Wednesday was IBM's iSeries chief. That's likely to offer a substantial performance boost, given that the new 16-processor model 570 has comparable performance to the previous generation's top-end 32-processor model 890.

And although IBM has argued for years that iSeries makes overall financial sense, letting the product line hitch a ride with the higher sales volume of the pSeries family means IBM for the first time can cut sticker shock. "With our new economic model, it not only has great total cost of ownership, but great up-front acquisition costs," Zollar said.

Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice agreed. "ISeries is no longer going to be a high-priced product. It's not going to be a premium product," he said. With the hardware standardized, customers can see how much various operating systems and other software affect cost. "You can figure out what you're getting charged," he said.

And iSeries likely will tap into another trend, thin blade servers that plug side-by-side into a single chassis like books into a bookshelf. "It's not something we'll be doing in the near future, but it's something we're talking to our clients about. There seems to be interest and we have every capability to do it," Zollar said.

Blade servers slide into a common chassis like books into a bookshelf. They share common infrastructure such as power supplies and network switches and are at the vanguard of a movement to make servers more flexible and easier to manage.

A storied past
IBM's plan to pull iSeries closer toward the mainstream began in 1995, when the company switched it to a more widely used processor. But the server line already had a long history.

It began as the System/38 line that was launched in 1978 and the System/36 that arrived in 1983; the two lines were merged into the Application System/400, or AS/400, in 1988. Then in 2000, the systems were renamed iSeries, one of four lines within the over-arching eServer brand.

The processor switch in 1995, to IBM's Power processors--used in the company's Unix server line--was made easier by a previous decision to make the operating system independent of a particular processor. But only with this year's Power5 generation can the exact same hardware run three operating systems: Linux, AIX and i5/OS--the core the iSeries operating system previously called OS/400.

The consolidation of lines under the eServer brand--including the renaming this year of iSeries to eServer i5--reflected an effort to keep the groups from competing against each other and to consolidate engineering resources. The eServer i5 name parallels the eServer p5 label of the Unix server line, underscoring the gradual unification of the IBM server lines.

The Power5 server debuted on the i5 line first for two reasons, Zollar said. First, IBM wanted to show that the product family has strong IBM support, contrary to what competitors have said. Second, the new version has improved the underlying software for partitioning and for switching processors on and off as work demands change.

Adding Linux abilities--and now merging with pSeries--could hurt as well as help iSeries, though. It opens up the hardware line to new software options not available on the comparatively rare iSeries. On the other hand, that very openness makes it easier for iSeries customers to move away if they choose.

Indeed, the more that iSeries' value comes through the ability to run Unix and Linux, the more irrelevant its original operating system becomes. The ultimate risk: the iSeries becomes something else--just another face in the server crowd.

An old dog learns new tricks
Fortlege, the iSeries customer from GH Young International, sees things from a different angle: Adding new operating systems to iSeries has meant being able to add new tasks to the servers.

GH Young, which sells services that help companies deal with customs and other cross-border trade issues, has bought iSeries servers and their predecessors since the late 1980s and is expanding their use. Since then, it first added Integrated xSeries Architecture technology, which makes Windows a tightly linked extension to an iSeries machine.

Next came Linux, adding security, e-mail, spam filtering and other tasks to the iSeries. And with a new Power5-based i5 520, the company will run and AIX version of software that previously ran on a computer with the SCO Group's Unix.

It's hard to say what fraction of i5-iSeries-AS/400 customers use Linux, but at user meetings, typically about 20 percent of attendees say they do, Zollar said. One quarter purchase the tightly integrated Integrated xSeries Architecture option, which now can run Linux as well as Windows.

The new Linux and AIX expansion options mean something of a culture clash for iSeries. That line is geared toward those who prefer to have a tightly integrated collection of hardware and software, whereas with Unix and its cousin, Linux, customers historically assemble a broad collection of software packages on their own.

"It's got a lot of east meets west," Zollar acknowledged. But it's worth it for customers, who typically use Linux for lower-end server tasks such as protective firewalls, he said. Linux users are moving toward higher-end applications such as databases, he added.

GH Young likes the new options. But the new expansion options available to iSeries customers is revealing in a less encouraging way to iSeries loyalists: Much of the new software action is taking place somewhere else. It's telling that much of the new software that GH Young is using doesn't run on its traditional i5/OS.

"You can run a Web server on an iSeries," Eunice said, "but try to find yourself a Web programmer who has experience in that, or find yourself someone who's an expert in Microsoft Exchange and also AS/400? Good luck."