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IBM put its AS/400 entree onto the migrating 3000 shop's menu in 2002, but the offerings have gotten sweeter in the past four years. It's been a time of tumult for the existing IBM customer, seeing their system renamed from iSeries to System i5 and now to System i. The changes are aimed at customers like the 3000 community, though.

While those renames might have been cosmetic changes, lots of power has been added: an advanced CPU, partitions, the Hypervisor — which supports partitioning and controls the multiple operating system environments in each partition — and a bunch of new applications from other operating systems. Linux has become a real solution running on the System i by now. IBM's also just dropped prices by as much as 20 percent on its integrated bundle of hardware, operating system, Web suite and database.

The result has been 2,700 new System i customers during the past year — not an astounding amount of growth, but enough to make IBM pledge, once again, its loyalty to the platform and its customer base. This faith has led serveral HP 3000 sites facing a migration to choose the System i.

The system even got a blurb on national radio last month, when Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor broadcast a show from the System i headquarters city of Rochester, Minn. Getting the mention out to 4 million listeners can't hurt, considering the system's reveneues were off 22 percent for the most recent quarter. IBM, which had a bad revenue quarter across the board, has had good success selling smaller System i solutions. So it's cutting prices on the bigger units.

It's the cost of ownership, however, that makes the IBM alternative to the 3000 shine. IBM execs also point to the the 1,700 new applications for the system, with 240 "ServerProven" tools and 70 new tool vendors. "For the first time in a decade," according to System i analyst Thomas Stockwell, the System i market actually grew."

Turned out of their platform by HP, some customers are turning to the Series i as an alternative. Experience with the server is validating their change from HP's blue to Big Blue.

Initial reports from migrated sites show that finishing a transition away from HP onto IBM recalls the robust days of the HP 3000. Bob Zart, VP of Finance at multi-channel retailer Flax Art, described a safe move onto IBM’s platform. Zart’s shop now runs a packaged application from CommercialWare.

Zart said HP and Ecometry couldn’t convince him to adopt a Unix platform to replace their 3000 catalog sales app from BSA. “I have to be honest, I was so upset with HP that I just dismissed anything they came at me with,” he said. His reservations got reinforced when he got acquisition cost estimates. “The guys at Ecometry thought we needed three HP-UX servers. It was much more expensive than CommercialWare.”

The CommercialWare application has been competing head-to-head with software from Ecometry for many years. Ecometry officials usually boasted that CommercialWare rarely won in such encounters. But the story at Flax may point to some advantages CommercialWare is now enjoying. That application doesn’t need as much care and feeding, since it relies on the integrated database in the System i environment and a less complex system architecture. Oracle drives the Ecometry solution on Unix, demanding a database administrator’s expertise.

What’s more, the IBM server comes from a vendor who hasn’t wavered in its commitment to an integrated solution. HP’s doubts about the future of the System i didn’t stick with Zart. HP envisions the commodity-ruled computer market trends are working to squeeze out the 245,000 System i customers.

“I haven’t seen anything like that,” he said. “They can’t keep these things in stock, they’re so popular. And HP’s kind of helped them with that, by discontinuing the 3000. Where else were we supposed to go?”

The best destination for Flax turned out to be running on an entry-level iSeries Model 810. The company spent three months in 2004 converting its data from the 3000 to CSV format, using Robelle’s Suprtool. Zart also chose to write some custom interfaces with his own staff, rather than pay for CommercialWare’s ready-made add-on solutions. In hindsight he thought better of having to commit his in-house resources to create interfaces.

Some of the learning curve at Flax was handled by contract programmers, called in to handle the RPG code at the heart of the CommercialWare application. The BSA app on the 3000 was not only aging, but heavily customized “to the point where we couldn’t take updates for it anymore,” he said. Sticking with the vendor’s design by modifying business practices makes more sense now. “We’ve always had a bad habit of trying to change the computer to meet us, instead of us changing the way we do things to fit the computer. We opted not to buy the source code so we wouldn’t be tempted,” he said.

Flax operates a retail store in San Francisco, runs a Web site, and books catalog sales of art supplies, the typical multi-channel retailing picture. About 85,000 SKU product identities have to be tracked. The Web and retail channels were new at Flax, so adding point of sale and Web commerce was essential to the company’s growth. Cynthia Boucher, project manager at Flax, was brought in to steer the application replacement. She said the new software put Flax into the data mining business, among other new capabilities.

“Initiatives like that give us more of an exciting view into the capabilities of the CommercialWare product,” she said. Flax went live in mid-year, pulling the 3000 out of the production environment. The busy season of the year-end holidays loomed large for customers like Flax, and Zart recommended the iSeries as an alternative platform. But he says he’d start earlier on data migration if he had to migrate again.

Zart could compare the OS400 operating system with MPE/iX after three months of use. He found the 3000’s system more operator-friendly. “MPE had lots of stuff running in the background that you never saw,” he said. “You ask for active jobs on the iSeries and you can get 217 of them.” The complexity, for him, he added, might stem from being unfamiliar with the iSeries.

Stockwell said in his article on his Web site that IBM has a new customer attract strategy to "bring new workloads to the System i, while simultaneously increasing the value of the platform by attracting new ISV talent with new, cutting-edge technologies." Stockwell said the strategy is also long overdue.