Venerable IBM server carries on

Canadian customs broker GHY International was rolling out Intel servers en masse as it sought to keep up with its growth. The booming business was nice, but the multiplying boxes were becoming a monster to manage, says Nigel Fortlage, vice president of IT at the company in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Like many companies, GHY was looking to consolidate. But it did so in a manner that might come as a surprise to some network executives. It folded its Intel servers into an IBM iSeries, the updated platform of the legacy AS/400 system that the company had run in its data center since the late 1980s.

"I'd heard IBM talk about all the things they were doing with the iSeries, but it never made sense because I could never connect it with my business mentally," Fortlage says. "It took IBM working closely with us for the light to finally go on. Now I know what it can do because I've lived it for a year. "

What's unbelievable, Fortlage says, is the ability of the midrange box to support everything from Windows to open source to Web services. And IBM plans to invest more than $500 million over the next two years in its iSeries line, aiming to increase the flexibility of the box to ensure it remains a key part of the changing IT landscape.

Future moves

IBM says to expect the servers to support AIX - IBM's version of Unix - this year. That's in addition to support already available for Linux, Windows and, of course, OS/400.

"We have this concept of an on-demand operating environment, and what we're trying to create is a server that ultimately can run all the applications that a business needs," says Ian Jarman, product manager for the iSeries. "What we're focusing on is integration, virtualization and management of these operating systems so that you can share resources across AIX and OS/400, for example, and then automatically adjust the system and move capacity where you need it."

Other enhancements planned for this year include an upgrade to IBM's 64-bit Power 5 processor and a new 64-way system. The iSeries offers one to 32 processors today. As far as software goes, look for continuing ISV support for the iSeries platform, which currently runs more than 20,000 offerings from more than 4,500 software companies. For example, in the past year the number of Linux applications for the iSeries has grown from "only a handful" to hundreds "with more coming every month," an IBM spokeswoman says.

The biggest challenge for the iSeries, which has a dedicated following, is that companies that haven't deployed the box might question its strategic role in their data centers.

The iSeries, like IBM's mainframes, suffers because of people's outdated perceptions of what it does, says Charles King, a research director at Sageza Group.

"But things have changed so radically in the last 36 to 48 months for both of those platforms with the emergence of Linux and some other things that the iSeries of today is a considerably different machine than the iSeries people might have thought of when they thought AS/400 even five years ago," he says.

At the end of 2001, with business growing, GHY's Fortlage didn't think to look at the iSeries as a means of taking up the burgeoning load. While the iSeries chugged along, running the company's core business application, Fortlage and his staff threw in Intel boxes one after the other to meet growing IT demand.

"With a team of three, we spent 90% of our time managing that environment," says Fortlage, who planned to increase the number of Intel servers from seven to 16.

Faced with the prospect of having to double his IT staff simply to manage all the boxes, something his company wasn't about to support, Fortlage last year huddled with IBM. At the time IBM was focusing on its small and midsize customers, and they figured out a way to reduce his management burden by giving the iSeries a greater role in the data center.

Fortlage ended up bringing in another iSeries and consolidated his seven Intel servers onto the boxes, which run Intel server cards to support Windows. He also is running Linux in 10 logical partitions within one of the servers.

"Within the two iSeries, I run my Windows servers, I run my Linux servers, I run my Dominos servers. I run my core business applications on the iSeries," he says. "It's our firewall, our gateway, our DNS server. It's our mail server. And Linux on iSeries gives you a true enterprise-class machine. . . . To break that down in the Intel world, I'd be looking at 10 highly resilient redundant Intel servers, which get to be very expensive."

Fortlage says he spent about $23,450 less bringing in the new iSeries than he would have spent deploying comparable Intel servers and is currently 14% under budget for the year. In addition, he has avoided the cost of hiring an additional three people to manage the growing number of Intel servers he would have had to deploy, he says.

Server consolidation

Those kinds of savings stemming from consolidating Windows and Linux servers onto the iSeries aren't surprising given an IBM-sponsored study that IDC conducted last year. The study, which looked at six businesses - four manufacturing companies, a hospitality company and a services company - that used iSeries to consolidate x86-based servers, found an average ROI of more than 200% over three years. In addition, investment in the platform was paid back in about nine months and the companies cut downtime associated with Linux and Windows servers by 90%.

"Yes, the iSeries may have a high cost of entry [a low-end iSeries starts at about $10,000, and the high-end systems start at about $1 million] but if you look at those costs over the total life cycle and include operational costs, ongoing maintenance of the system, it wins hands down," says Mike Shaw, iSeries operations manager at winery Kendall-Jackson in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Kendall-Jackson has been running an AS/400 since the mid-1990s, but earlier this year deployed an iSeries i870 in an effort to give its data center a boost. The i870 hooks into IBM storage via fiber and has significantly reduced back-up time, Shaw says.

The bottom line

"The bottom line is the increase in availability to our user community is just short of phenomenal," he says. "What was taking me six hours to perform in terms of backup, we're now doing in just under two hours."

Lady Remington Jewelry turned to the iSeries when HP announced the end of life for its midrange server, the e3000. Al Karman, IT director at the direct marketer based in Bensenville, Ill., says the iSeries provides the reliability and stability he needed for his ERP package, while also offering flexibility that wasn't available with the HP server.

"The iSeries runs virtually any code you throw at it," he says. "We aren't locked into an offering. If it makes business sense to write RPG solutions, or Cobol or Java scripting or C++ this machine supports them all."

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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