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Whither the iSeries in tomorrow's data centers?

IBM is pumping the platform with technology that not only makes it a contender, but a server that can give the big boys in the data center a run for their money.

Systems specialist Michael Frilot said he believes the only thing that could prevent the iSeries from becoming a lead server in the data center is incompatibility with the rest of the data center.

And he may very well be right -- except for the fact that IBM appears hell-bent on making sure it doesn't happen.

Frilot, who specializes in iSeries technology, understands the strengths of the iSeries, but he's concerned that unless IBM starts to fend off Windows and other platforms with tools that make the iSeries compatible and attractive to the masses, rebooting computers will become a national pastime.

"As volumes increase on the Unix and Windows side, the ease of data transformation in our homogenous environments will be the key, both for data transformation and application porting," Frilot said.

Frilot said IBM needs to continue to push open technologies, such as Java and XML, in order to compete "head to head with the Wintel platform, dollar to dollar and application to application." Otherwise, IBM will continue to lose its iSeries user base to Microsoft, he said.

Jean-Pierre Pulinx, managing director at AD Technologies, said he believes that, if the data center fails to adopt the iSeries, it won't be because of weak hardware. It will be because IBM failed to adapt the system to the present needs of the market.

The iSeries needs "to be able to run different flavors of operating systems on top of the extraordinary base operating system hidden in the iSeries," Pulinx said.

If not, said Pulinx, the system will slowly fade away, as new generations of IT people take over.

"They have grown up with Windows, trained in school using Windows and they know nothing else," he said.

Without a doubt, IBM has lost ground to Microsoft. But in recent years, IBM has made a remarkable comeback with the iSeries platform. The argument that the iSeries is an inflexible system with limited applications and that it doesn't have what it takes to compete with Windows in the data center is simply no longer valid, analysts say.

To say the iSeries is not a compatible server is not entirely accurate -- at least not anymore, said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with the Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. "Historically, you may have said that about the AS/400, but that's five or six years past," he said.

According to Eunice, the AS/400 didn't always play nice with TCP/IP, HTML or other operating systems. Unless users had a real core business need to do so, they didn't connect Unix boxes to their AS/400.

"It was a real pain in the butt to move data," he said.

The iSeries is an entirely different machine. "If you look at the iSeries of the future," he said, "it won't be identifiable as the iSeries -- it'll be more of an eServer running a combination of AIX, Linux and OS/400. It will be a lot more interoperable than, say, the big Sun or Hewlett-Packard servers."

According to Maria DeGiglio, an analyst with the Robert Frances Group, Westport, Conn., the iSeries will be a viable player in the data center of the future because of IBM's decision to converge its server technologies. The iSeries industry squawked at the thought of an "eServer" -- loudly -- saying they'd lose what was best about their beloved midrange server. However, the consensus so far, DeGiglio says, is that it has only made the system better.

Convergence means that IBM takes the best features of one system and supports it on others. One of the most fundamental changes to the iSeries is the addition of mainframe technology such as partitioning and other high-end multiprocessor capabilities. Next year, IBM will make available in the iSeries its Power 5 server chip, which will offer 64-bit processing capabilities. IBM has also added support for Linux, Windows and Unix, and the company will soon add support for AIX.

While support for these platforms is clearly significant, programmers might say support for Java on the AS/400 platform is what really opened doors for the midrange system.

"Early on, we knew Java was essential to the iSeries because we needed that open portability and needed to bring new apps to the platform," said Ian Jarman, IBM's iSeries product manager. "If you're writing in Java, you can move anywhere. We are absolutely behind Java."

Jarman said that IBM is aware that iSeries customers are working in more than one operating environment. In fact, according to Jarman, all iSeries shops are running Windows. Not to support other applications would have been server suicide.

"We support Windows running on the iSeries," Jarman said. "We're very much behind Linux as an open alternative, particularly for the iSeries, and we recognize that customers are using Linux as an alternative to running Windows. We're actively promoting Linux and helping customers who want to run Linux along with OS/400."

From an interoperability perspective, Jarman said, the iSeries is without a doubt well positioned. "We're aware that customers run more than one thing," he said. "We don't know of any customers that run just OS/400."

Eunice added that the iSeries, no matter how interoperable, will only be one of the players in the data center, however. In a data center with boatloads of Windows and Unix servers, the iSeries will be the "big boy." In a data center where the mainframe is king, the iSeries is likely to have a minor role. Still, its success depends on whether it shows it can play nice in the data center. The consensus? Yes, it will.

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