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COMMON 2009: Where Next?

By Thibault Dambrine

Exploring the future of the IBM iSeries computing platform

In 1991, a young Linus Torvalds created the original version of Linux, a UNIX-like operating system. From humble beginnings, it has grown to the point where it is now a viable commercial Operating System in its own right. Indeed, IBM contributes to this OS regularly these days.

Fast forward to May 2009. A week has passed since the 2009 COMMON Annual Meeting in Reno. Time to reflect on these precious few days away from the daily grind. The COMMON education proposition is amongst the best, with five days of intense learnings. At the vendor Expo, one gets to see the latest "i" product offerings. At Opening Session, IBM makes announcements and give the attendees an idea of what they are working on.

One of the biggest benefits of attending such a conference is taking a step back. Taking time to talk face-to-face with peers, experts, people who experience similar challenges. Also a good time to speak directly to IBM staff.

So, what did I learn this year? Here are the trends as I see them:  

  • IBM: More promotion of hardware consolidation benefits: Power Systems mean only one box to manufacture, which can run either AIX, Linux or "i" - a more versatile hardware platform. I also expect some cost savings for IBM, but this is not part of the official story. 
  • Software Vendors: Emergence of more Open Source software for "i":
    • The IBM DB2 Storage Engine for MySQL. This product enables applications written for MySQL to work transparently on "i" while using DB2 to store/retrieve data. Once in DB2, that same data is then accessible to other native "i" applications. Time will tell if Oracle, new owners of Sun Microsystems – with it, Java and MySQL, will have any impact. It is conceivable that, now owning a former competitor, they would be tempted turn the button on MySQL’s success from a boil to a simmer. The wild card: MySQL is also an Open Source project. If they do that, it would be a matter of time before a “MySQL2” would surface, just beyond Oracle’s control.
    • PHP is a rising star in the "i" arena, with Zend offering PHP on "i".
    • The combination of PHP and MySQL now opens the "i" platform to a number of well-known Open Source applications such as SugarCRM (Customer Relationship Management)  
  • Languages: Secondary efforts that struggle to make the spotlight at this point but are still being worked on by IBM include
    • EGL (Enterprise Generation Language), IBM’s latest programming language, designed by IBM to be platform independent. It can be compiled into COBOL, Java, or JavaScript code to support deployment of business applications that can run on Windows, Linux, Unix, IBM "z" and "i".
    • Rational Language, which ties UML modelling to programming language, including a feature known as “round-tripping” – effectively, when one makes a programming change, the matching UML model, stored in Rational, is modified accordingly.  
  • COMMON Trends – Education and demographics:
    • Education: An emerging trend at COMMON to present more AIX and Linux sessions for the Power platform, which is now the host of more than just the "i" Operating System.  
    • Demographics: Two points stand out:
      • The attendance was roughly half compared to last year - some of this is likely attributable to the shrinking economy. This is a huge drop. Could employers also be reluctant to send their staff to COMMON because of a perception that “i” is an aging technology? The Meeting of Members also gave us a feel for the precarious financial position of COMMON itself. Speakers and volunteers were told not to expect the same conference credits next year as in the past. Not a good omen for an organization that heavily relies on such resources. News of layoffs at the COMMON head-office are already out.
      • The age of the average attendant is visibly growing. 

With these facts in mind, one does wonder, where the future or "i" and indeed COMMON lies? Not even COMMON's Young "i" Professional (YiP) membership can alter this impression.

When discussing these topics with an “i” software vendor, he only had one response:
“Follow the money! – or more precisely “follow the next quarter’s money. The "i" Operating System, with its ever-reliable built-in DB2 database, is not as strong a money generator for IBM as AIX or even Linux. With no [extra charge] database to install, no separate compiler to add, too few extras and services to sell, "i" has become simply less profitable [for IBM] than other operating systems.”

One could be tempted to think that short term profits, to the exclusion of all other factors, will ultimately determine the fate of the "i" operating system. I submit that the water companies, manufacturers, distributors, gambling operations, municipal governments and banks - who rely heavily on the unparalleled 24/7/365 reliability built within "i" will not look for other platforms unless they absolutely have to.

Perhaps in light of IBM's perceived tepid interest in such hard-core, long-term clients, the time has come, to look at other options. Would there, could there, be appetite for a Linux-style Open/400 or Open/i (pick your name) operating system? One that could run, just as Linux does, on any platform? Imagine if you will, hitting the F4 key on your PC, to prompt a command on an x86 machine?

COMMON is a great sounding board for debating such ideas. I brought up this topic at the COMMON User Discussion Session. Around the table, one IBMer became somewhat agitated by this suggestion. He voiced his opposition with some measure of struggle to keep control. A good sign indeed! One enthusiastic attendant suggested the name “i Wide Open” as a name for this idea, which I bet is not completely new. Others tossed the “GNU i” licence possibility.

Could the Open Source model breathe new life into the "i" operating system? Linux is now coming to maturity after nearly 20 years of development. Do we have that much time? These are the questions I pondered at this year's COMMON.

Thibault Dambrine works for Shell Canada Limited as a systems analyst.

He speaks at COMMON and local user groups on SQL implementation and FTP automation and maintains You can reach Thibault at

This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of the COMMON.CONNECT magazine.

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