IBM i: The Best-Kept Secret in IT?
I have flown more than 100,000 miles this year to visit our IBM i customers. One story I consistently hear is organizations advocating retiring their IBM i platform in favor of something that’s more “modern.” When pressed, these people cite that the technology is old, has a green screen interface, can’t keep up with the times and is somehow inferior to more modern systems such as SAP, Oracle, Java or .Net.
Here at Rocket, we vehemently disagree.
So why do people have these opinions? One reason may be that the benefits of the IBM i are some of the best kept secrets in IT. So, with the goal of setting the record straight, here are just a few of the facts about the platform that tend to come as a surprise in my day-to-day dealings with customers, partners and other IT professionals.
1.) IBM i natively supports open source languages and tools. Open source tools and languages are more popular than ever, especially among younger programmers, who are primarily taught to use them in school. That fact is often offered as a reason for moving away from IBM i, based on the misconception that IBM i does not support open source. The truth is, IBM i actually supports all the most popular open source languages and tools natively.
The IBM i PASE (Portable Application Solutions Environment) environment has been around for more than a decade. It’s essentially a UNIX environment that runs within the IBM i environment. That means that just about anything open source that runs in UNIX you can run on IBM i. At Rocket, we have been using tools and languages like Git, Node.js, Python, and PHP on IBM i ever since they were announced and can attest to how easy it is to do. And with the new IBM i package manager, using open source is becoming even easier. This is a very cool, yet mostly unknown feature, that may very well be IBM i’s best-kept secret.
2.) IBM i is highly secure. IT professionals often have a vague notion that IBM i is more secure than your typical Windows server, but they’re not exactly sure how or why. They think it’s because no one would waste their time writing a virus for IBM i, but that can’t be true, because the platform powers some of the most important and sensitive IT infrastructure in the world. On the contrary, security is actually one of the reasons businesses were drawn to IBM i in the first place.
It all comes down to the fact that the platform offers an object-based operating system. Not to be confused with object-oriented programming, which is a paradigm for building software, IBM i’s object-based operating system is designed such that everything is an object with a type and an attribute. The upshot is that the IBM i knows what type of object everything is, meaning you can’t simply point the operating system at a random string of bits and tell it to execute them as a program (which is popular method for spreading viruses!). This doesn’t mean IBM i is impervious to hacking, but this kind of careful design does put IBM i in a unique place among enterprise computing platforms.
3.) IBM i isn’t the hardware, it’s the software. This is an important one, because the idea that “IBM i” refers to a software-hardware amalgamation is one of the main reasons that the platform has the reputation of being old. People see a green screen terminal and assume that AS/400 and IBM i must be old technologies. The IBM i operating system runs on the same advanced Power System chips that power IBM’s AIX servers. It is the same set of chips that are being deployed by advanced technology companies like Google and Uber.
The only reason IBM i still has green screens is because IBM continues to support the critical applications customers have built over the last 4 decades. Customers have never been forced to modernize. That does NOT mean you cannot write applications using the most modern technology and providing the latest in user interfaces for IBM i – you CAN! We have customers with web, mobile, web services, natural language and other advanced technology interfaces all supported by their IBM i. Not only can you use the latest languages and tools but the IBM i actually offers features you can’t get in a modern Windows or Linux OS, including object-based design, built-in security and a database that is integrated with the operating system (DB2).
It is this advanced operating system that separates IBM i from any other platform. There are brand-new machines out there running IBM i, just as there are brand-new machines out there running UNIX OSes or Windows.
4.) IBM i has the lowest TCO of ownership in its class. Every day I talk to people who are thinking about gutting their current infrastructure and replacing it with something more “modern.” As I’ve already mentioned, one of the biggest “secrets” about IBM i is that it is in many ways more advanced and more powerful than its competitors, so this idea doesn’t really hold up. What I find is that savvy IT teams really want something far less radical. They want a new UX for their employees or they want the data contained in their IBM accessible by customer-facing applications or “Big Data” tools but in a secure way
That’s why we’re so against rip-and-replace except in extreme cases. For one, the business objectives listed above don’t require replacing your IBM i at all. But just as important, in addition to the time and money associated with replacing any mission-critical system, rip-and-replace means you lose your competitive advantage of having the platform with the lowest TCO in its class. The reasons for IBM i being so cost-effective are myriad, but the biggest factor by far is the cost of personnel: IBM i is so simple to manage, steady and reliable that you need significantly fewer staff to manage it when compared to a Linux/Oracle or Windows/SQL setup.
As you can see, IBM i’s status in the IT industry as the best-kept secret is less a matter of “trade secrets” and more a general lack of knowledge. The next time you hear someone questioning why you’re still “on that old AS/400”, cite some of these facts above. The more we can counteract the stigmas and prejudices directed at IBM i, the more we can continue to take advantage of this already-exceptional platform.