IBM unifies midrange server lines, ending the System i's separate hardware run

Power Systems machines will run AIX, Linux and i5/OS, now known simply as IBM i

In one of the biggest server changes that IBM has made in recent years, the company today said that its System i midrange machines will become part of a new product line that will support every operating system in IBM's portfolio except the ones for its mainframes.

In effect, IBM is unifying its System i and System p servers — a path the vendor has been on for years, but one it had yet to say was certain until today's announcement.

The customers most affected by the creation of the new Power Systems hardware line are System i users, many of whom run core business applications — often custom-built — on the venerable midrange platform.

The System i, which previously was known as the iSeries and before that the AS/400, integrates a built-in database with security and administration tools as well as other features. Its users are a loyal group, and about 1,800 of them were expected to attend the annual conference of Common, the midrange line's user group, in Nashville this week. Their dedication is why IBM decided to announce the hardware change at the Common conference.

The newly unified product line will be based on IBM's Power6 processors and will support the operating system from the System i as well as Linux and IBM's AIX variant of Unix. In addition, IBM plans to release blade servers that can support all of those operating systems plus Windows.

As part of the change, IBM is trying to reassure System i users in particular that they will be able to move to the new hardware seamlessly. Making the change "will not be at all disruptive," said Mark Shearer, vice president of marketing for IBM's business systems. He added that the current release of the midrange operating system will run on the integrated platform.

But IBM rarely makes product changes without renaming things, sometimes in a confusing fashion, and it didn't disappoint in that regard here. The company is claiming a letter of the alphabet as the sole identifier of the System i operating system, which until now was called i5/OS. Starting today, the software will be known simply as IBM i.

The unified hardware path was forecast when the company began using Power chips in the System i servers several years ago. Over the years, some System i users have expressed concern about IBM's long-term support for the midrange line and questioned whether the company was spending enough money on marketing and the development of new support among application vendors.

Shearer insisted that IBM remains committed to the midrange technology and that the switch to a unified hardware line will raise the visibility of the IBM i operating system among enterprise users. "We have a huge i client base that runs mission-critical applications on the [operating system]," he said.

Randy Dufault, Common's president and a consultant at MBS Technologies Inc., a Minneapolis-based software vendor and consulting firm that supports the System i line, said the unified hardware may make it easier for IBM i users to make a business case for continuing to run the operating system. If their companies also use System p machines, they now will have only one hardware platform to support, Dufault said.

"IBM is showing a complete and total future commitment to our members who run their businesses using i," he said, adding that even with this change, an application developed 20 years ago will continue to operate on the Power Systems machines.

Dufault said he believes that the cost of running a system based on IBM i is less than the cost of using Linux server. One of the reasons for that, he said, is the high level of integration within IBM i, which reduces the need for systems administrators to dedicate time to maintaining separate databases and other technologies.

Joe Clabby, an analyst at Clabby Analytics, said he thinks that the continued success of IBM i is dependent on IBM's ability to continue to entice application developers to support the operating system. As long as the company can do that, IBM i has a strong future, Clabby said.

For IBM itself, the decision to unify the System i and System p hardware lines means that the vendor doesn't have to invest research and development dollars in separate platforms and can focus more on its operating systems and applications. "This eliminates an expense for them," Clabby said.

Power Systems hardware that supports the various operating system will begin shipping on April 18 with the release of the Power 520 Express, a system that supports up to four processor cores and starts at under $9,000 with IBM i installed on it. A larger Power 550 machine with support for up to eight cores will be available in late May, as will the multiple-operating system BladeCenter JS12 model.

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