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IBM gives iSeries power boost, attempts to expand user base

IBM has made significant changes to the iSeries server that could revolutionize the platform.

IBM Corp.'s midrange server is in the midst of a metamorphosis.

In January, IBM announced the most significant enhancements to the iSeries in more than a decade. The changes include hardware upgrades that make possible functionality such as on-demand capabilities, as well innovative packaging of staple software offerings. In all, these changes represent an attempt to grow the platform by offering unprecedented cost incentives.

Response to the enhancements has been mixed but, overall, the changes have been fairly well received by the platform's installed user base.

"I think the changes IBM has made are good for the future of the platform because there's a limited future with the 'green screen,'" said John Beck, information systems director for the city of Marshfield, Wis. "Unfortunately, most AS/400 folks are not exactly fresh out of school. We're experts on the existing technology, and there's a comfort level there."

Still, Beck admits that IBM had to start looking to the future and force change on its users.

IBM's announcements included the addition of four new server models.

The new iSeries 870 and iSeries 825, both Power4 enterprise servers, join the i890 at the high end of the iSeries family. All three models are capable of running OS/400, Windows, Linux and Unix, and all feature on/off capacity upgrade on demand, which provides temporary capacity. This new technology allows customers to turn on processors when they need them and turn them off when they don't -- potentially saving businesses tens of thousands of dollars, experts say.

The iSeries 810 and iSeries 800 are the new low-end additions to the iSeries family. The iSeries 800 is a new single-processor model, which is priced starting at $9,995.

In addition to the new servers, IBM said it would include WebSphere Express as part of its standard offering in the new models. In addition to WebSphere Express, the iSeries Enterprise Edition systems also include IBM Lotus QuickPlace and Sametime, Tivoli and DB2 database software.

According to analysts, the changes make the iSeries an extremely good buy, particularly for the small-to-midsized business (SMB) customer. The SMB space is a huge growth area for the platform and a major priority of the recently appointed Al Zollar.

As the new general manager of the iSeries division, Zollar has brought a renewed vigor to IBM's efforts around the platform. He spent his first few months at the helm selling the industry on the remodeled iSeries, as well as promoting IBM's overall initiatives, such as on-demand computing. Zollar replaced Buell Duncan, who has moved over to IBM's software division.

Zollar said the iSeries technology changes are significant in a number of ways. Probably the most significant is that IBM is offering models that have many of the features of the high-end models. This price/performance improvement is likely to attract customers in the SMB space, a currently untapped area for IBM and one that Zollar refers to as "the sweet spot" for the iSeries.

"In terms of technology, it's really about how we've incorporated all these new technologies, such as on-demand capabilities, into the iSeries," Zollar said. "What it means for users is that they now have a fully enabled platform."

In addition, the changes make the platform the system of choice for server consolidation.

"Customers are really looking at the iSeries box as a way to integrate these server environments that were getting out of control," Zollar said. "When they found they could leverage the iSeries, that became very appealing to them."

Tammy Fraley, an IT supervisor with Berkeley County, S.C.-based Nucor Steel, said that the ability to use the iSeries to consolidate other platforms was a smart move on IBM's part. She added that she also believes it's the only way IBM could start attracting users from platforms such as those offered by Sun Microsystems Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. "The AS/400 has been a really strong system, and these changes will give it more leverage [with other platforms]," she said.

It's too early to tell whether IBM's attempts to woo customers outside the installed base are having a positive impact, however. According to Tom Bittman, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., while there has definitely been an uptick in sales within the installed base, he isn't sure the new incentives are having any effect on new business. He admits, though, that it is early and that garnering new business takes time.

"I would expect the first quarter to be pretty much a slam dunk," Bittman said. "But the second quarter is the one to watch."

If the second quarter show signs of continued growth as well as growth in new business, then he'd call this new initiative "a win." But, he said, "one quarter isn't enough."


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