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IBM midrange users manifest new activism

Imanifest_logo IBM made a gallant effort at capturing users who pondered an HP 3000 migration seven years ago, but the alternative midrange iSeries server has seen declining share of Big Blue attentions. Now a group of iSeries (and AS400) owners, vendors and leaders are mounting an effort to make the iSeries manifest a brighter destiny. The campaign bears a striking resemblance to the OpenMPE advocacy -- with the distinction that IBM hasn't canceled the iSeries futures.

The iManifest initiative took off in the spring in Japan. What does the iSeries need that IBM sales and marketing isn't supplying? The launch manifesto doesn't call out IBM's shortcomings, but aims to rally the users to recognize their systems' value.

More widespread usage of IBM i is the best way for corporations to strengthen their management capability and business power. We have started activities to add to the user community as many new companies as possible. We ask that users renew their firm confidence and belief that IBM i is the best infrastructure available to support managerial and operational innovation.

2009 is the 20th anniversary of the iSeries family, which started when IBM migrated its System 36/38 customers to the AS400. At the same time HP was moving its HP 3000 sites to the PA-RISC 3000s and MPE/XL. iManifest is trying to ensure that HP's 3000 history doesn't repeat in a fadeout of the iSeries. The initiative recently gained new members in the iSeries chief scientist Frank Soltis, as well as the top application supplier Infor -- which owns the MANMAN customer base in the 3000 world.

Much like PA-RISC, IBM uses its own chip design to power the iSeries (now being called Series i). This POWER architecture is in its sixth generation, and Soltis is the primary creator of the architecture used in IBM's Power Systems. He's also retired from IBM after decades of toil in the technical trenches for the community.

The users of iSeries systems will remind you of that huge share of the 3000 community: Small-to-midsize companies that chose an integrated IT solution in the 1980s and '90s, only to see industry-standard choices dominate the vendor's roadmap. IBM hasn't joined iManifest; that might be tantamount to admitting the product line is in need of a spark. Over in the iSeries press, Chris Maxer of iSeries Network reports that a vendor rep in Europe has received only non-official support from IBM.

LANSA's Martin Fincham notes, "While I have no official word from IBM, I want to go on-record and say that I have personally received enthusiastic and practical support for iManifest EMEA from a number of IBM'ers around the globe. I cannot thank-you by name here, but you know who you are."

HP officials in the 3000 division were not much impressed by the future of IBM's integrated business alternative in 2002 and 2003. The decline in IT sales during 2008 and 2009 hasn't been kind to these non-standard products, and the press reports a steady drain from sales of the Series i. HP said it would weather IBM's pursuit of the HP 3000 migration crowd. Declining share would put pressure on solution suppliers such as LANSA, a forecast we heard in 2002 from then-e3000 Business Manager Dave Wilde.

As the market share becomes smaller and the prices drop, it becomes difficult to fund the marketing and sales channel to keep a vertically integrated system in place. One thing that’s going to happen is the margins will drop for a solution like the AS/400. Their sales volume will drop because of the differences. The other thing that happens is that a channel partner doesn’t want to test on as many platforms, just one or two mainstream platforms that are an easier sell.

Since then IBM has renamed the system twice, pumped two new generations of OS and architecture into the computer. It's also consolidated the division with the Unix version of the iSeries, another move that has the customer base worried. In one view, Wilde's predictions have come true, though probably on a longer timetable than HP imagined. The same extended timeline can be observed for HP 3000 migrations.

But the iSeries community isn't going gentle into any perceived good night. It's raising funds for marketing in the US. Independent software vendors like Infor and LANSA propose to market more than just applications -- and fund that vertical system's sales where IBM has not.

"The match has been struck. It just needs a little gasoline to light the bonfire," said Dan Burger writing in IT Jungle. "The manifest is IT activism. It comes from a loyal customer base that is irate about the mediocrity of IBM i marketing and is fearful that the mediocrity will creep into research, development, and sales of an outstanding product."

Had this sort of activism -- you might even call it community organization -- taken place for the HP 3000 before 2001, HP's decision to depart might have had a different timetable. Or not, based on policy and marketing beliefs like those which make an iManifest or an OpenMPE inevitable.