Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The 3-year CIO vs. IBM i: PHP to the rescue!

So are you staying on the IBM i? With downturned economies, abandoned maintenance renewals, layoffs and slashed budgets I wonder if you will stick with IBM i. We have all known for years that the TCA (Total Cost of Acquisition) for IBM i is not terribly competitive while the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) is more in line with what you might pay for a real server or server farm. But the advent of server virtualization and more and more ubiquitous software in the Linux and Windows realm have made a serious dent in that philosophy. I wonder, are you staying on IBM i?

For years I have worked with the local user group in Chicago called The Omni User. Just in my tenure we have had countless speakers come from all parts of the IBM i community and geography. Folks like Alison Butterill, Al Grega, Jon Paris and Susan Gantner, Randall Munson, Larry Bolhuis and many, many more. Even I have picked up a session or two at a dinner meeting or one-day conference. But some years ago I recall a keynote at one of our annual conferences given by Dr. Frank Soltis. It was truly one of the more memorable presentations I have seen in a while. I must say I have gleaned quite a bit from his books and talks that I now know the folks there as well as my own kids! And, I rarely miss the opportunity to see him talk. One of my favorites was a COMMON opening session when he came out, placed his laptop down on the table, opened it and showed everyon in the audience the Apple logo on the front. The crowd went wild and his only response was: “of course you would expect I am going to run something reliable…”

At the Omni event, Dr. Frank was discussing the R&D group of IBM Rochester. He was talking about all the wonderful things being developed behind the scenes. All of it sounded exciting and then he made a point about Windows and Microsoft. The point he made was that IBM Rochester could not sit back and the could not sleep, that they absolutely HAD to focus on bringing new solutions to the market because Microsoft would eventually catch up. He said that Microsoft would eventually put out an OS that did not require daily reboots and weekly patches. Well, maybe he was half right. The folks at Microsoft have come out with better server software and now own the lion’s share of the server market. Dr Frank is a tremendous observer.

So I wonder, will you stay on IBM i? Has the Intel space captured you, even a little? Usually it starts out with a file server, something that is rather small and harmless. Then you discover the benefits of Active Directory and think “OK, What’s a couple more servers”. Especially when you consider how important authentication is to the organization you are told by EVERY Microsoft BP to “cluster” your AD. Then a specialty server or two, maybe even a SQL Server to satisfy the back end of a Sharepoint application. And then it begins. A user asks a developer if they can have the same data in SQL Server as they have on i5. The reasons are numerous and unnecessary for the purpose of this writing, but we have heard them all. Maybe you used DTS and moved to the new SSIS for replicating i5 data. You mused when the folks talked about how much more useful the data is here than on the i5. Then it comes, a new CIO.

I have joked around about the 3 year CIO in many presentations and writings. I have seen these individuals and they are numerous and plentiful. They are focus on a simple agenda: Year 1: Honeymoon and quick hits. Maybe they shake up the department with staff changes and a simple solution for a couple of key users in the organization. Usually loud key users are sought out at this point. During this time she is building up momentum and groupthink for the big project. Year two is the initiation of the big project. Something exciting like a new ERP would do the trick. Does the organization need a new ERP? That should depend on many things from a practical perspective. But we are not dealing with practical, here. From a functional aspect, a new ERP should be warranted when the needs of the company outweigh the capabilities of the software and a reasonable attempt by the IT department to keep up with the changes. Like a discreet manufacturer moving to process manufacturing, or something like that. But what I see more and more is the comment: “The AS/400 and the green screen are just not strategic…” In many cases I wish there was an IT police department I could call to have a restraining order put out on some of these guys. But, alas we cannot legislate stupidity.

Trevor, if you are reading, don’t send me any notes about the naming. I am just writing what I hear and see. And the 3-year CIO will never call it by its correct name. It is to their advantage to use the old name as they are trying to connote the “ancient” nature of the IBM i. It is a tumultuous ride during this second year and if all goes well, the 3 year CIO starts to prepare her resume for the next 3-year gig somewhere else. Certainly, there are variations on this where the CIO may last 4-5 years. But eventually they get bored and move onto look at a new challenge.

Can you hang on to your IBM i through the tenure of the 3-year CIO? I would guess that you wouldn’t. Primarily because the 3-year CIO is cost justifying all the new systems based upon the upgrade costs and maintenance fees of the IBM i. (TCA vs. TCO) And how many CIO's are reporting to the CFO? And what CFO wouldn’t be attracted to the smell of fresh cut costs? It’s like catnip to the tabby crawling around my feet as I write this.

Then there is the long term CIO who “gets it”. They understand the value of server consolidation. They appreciate the maintenance costs for the machine that really doesn’t need a full time administrator, in most shops. One of our customers has truly enjoyed thinking strategically. This customer went from a 3-year CIO to a more strategic CIO. The new CIO who took over from the 3-year CIO was presented with a contract to implement a very large German based ERP with a three letter acronym. This CIO wisely said “I’m not signing that without doing my own due diligence!” I love this guy, already!

The new CIO wanders down to the IT department where the news of the new ERP was causing the RPG developers to dust off the only useful Microsoft application at a time like this: Word - in preparation for the latest iteration of their respective resumes. He asks the IT guys “what’s up with this ERP project and what alternatives are there?” The CIO reiterated that the primary complaint about the existing system was the perception that it was old due to the prevalence of green screens. The IT guys looked at each other, dropped their resumes, and said “We’ve been playing around with PHP on a Linux box over there and I just heard that IBM is now supporting PHP on the i. The CIO gave the order to build and develop a pilot project.

The IT guys dug in and installed Zend Core on their System i at V5R4. In a couple of weeks they had GUI interfaces with data and charts and all kinds of demos for the CIO. Nothing earth shattering, but it was significant. The CIO was impressed and said “OK, How long to convert the whole shooting match?” The IT guys responded with ‘do you mean EVERYTHING?” The CIO nodded in the affirmative. So the IT guys headed back to the drawing board and developed an aggressive plan. A plan, by the way, that would take half the time and a fraction of the cost of the new ERP system. The IT guys not only built the plan, but they delivered the goods on time and just a little over budget (within 10 points). Try that with your ERP implementation!

The more I work with IBM i customers, the more I hear stories like these. PHP on IBM i is giving companies new hope and fresh approach to opportunities. Many of these opportunities have always been there with tactical tools and Java, CGI, etc. But PHP brings world class power within the reach of the RPG developer along with a roadmap that the CIO can fine tune to the needs of the organization. That is not to say that a new ERP might still be in order for some companies, but it does beg the question: Is your CIO on the three year track?
The moral of the story is that the new CIO should be embraced and not be feared. At least until year 2!