IBM looks to restore iSeries' 'luster'

IBM officials plan to raise the profile and support of the company's iSeries, a system that may be falling off the radar with some IT managers because it's mistakenly seen as a legacy platform.

"I think we have lost a little luster on our star here, and we need to improve that," said Mike Borman, the IBM official appointed three months ago as general manager of the eServer iSeries division. "We have to get our image back to where it says that (the iSeries) is one of the top two or three franchises in the industry."

Borman spoke Sunday at a gathering of hundreds of iSeries users at Common's Fall 2004 conference. At the user group meeting in Toronto, he and his management team fielded wide-ranging questions from users, many of whom have invested a large part of their careers in the 16-year-old system, formerly known as the AS/400.

Users questioned IBM's marketing of the product and efforts to expand its base of more than 200,000 unique customers and asked whether the system was losing its differentiation from other product lines and whether more university and college support is needed. Some early adopters of system upgrades also voiced concerns about the quality of some recent upgrade components.

But in interviews, users were generally supportive of the integrated system, its stability and the value of the technology -- even if they remain uncertain about its long-term direction and concerned about the company's long-term commitment to the system.

One conference attendee, Dan Swinehart, project development manager at Perishable Distributors of Iowa, pointed out that IBM officials referred to the system as both the AS/400 and iSeries, an unclear distinction that is confusing to the public. "If they can't identify the product, how can they focus on it -- how can they market it?" said Swinehart.

William Machinist, director of IT at Borg-Warner Morse TEC, a Tier 1 automotive parts supplier, called the iSeries "rock solid." An enthusiastic backer of the platform, Machinist said he's not worried about its future. But he and some other users believe that IBM needs to work closely with educational institutions to ensure that students get training on the architecture.

Machinist said he heard "a real sense of commitment" from Borman and "that he knows what he needs to do and he's going to do it."

Borman said that customer satisfaction is key to the iSeries success and that he wants independent software vendors to raise the platform's visibility as an integral part of their solution mix, as they did in the late 1980s and 1990s, before Windows and other systems began attracting attention. IBM plans to undertake that effort in phases, focusing first on the top 300 providers and then expanding that number by 2,700.

"A lot of people don't know how great the iSeries is," Borman said.

Borman said he also wants to see an improvement in support. While he believes that the iSeries has a strong technical support staff and business partners, not all of those partners may have the right skills, he said. "We have a set of business partners that are really good, and we have a set of business partners that we need to improve their skills," Borman said.

Borman said he believes that the iSeries' capabilities, which include an integrated database, will continue to distinguish it from other lines.

IBM also has to ensure that its customer engineers have up-to-date skills, Borman said, citing feedback from two large users that said the engineers don't always have the right skills.

Trevor McCullough, an IS project leader at Genfoot, a footware manufacturer, agreed that the product line isn't seen as a system with wide-ranging capabilities.

"It can do so much, and it's still regarded as an older platform," said McCullough, who warned that if the iSeries is gradually perceived as a legacy system, it may become just that. He noted that not everyone is aware that the system can run WebSphere, Java and Linux. "Now, it can do almost everything," he said.

IBM last week upgraded the system, coming out with a 64-chip version that it expects will play a role in server consolidation projects.

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