IBM i Chief Architect Steve Will recently made a post to his blog about how IBM i is, despite the fact that we can't see it, all around us. IBM i is being used by major (and minor) companies all around the world. Steve Will is in an interesting position at IBM where, in many respects, he represents the public face of IBM i, and yet, can't talk about it as openly as all of us Power fans would hope.
CM: It used to be that I would enter, say, a Fred Meyer department store and notice the 5250 green screen at the customer service counter or maybe even at a Les Schwab Tire Center, Costco, or REI store. Places where IBM i used to live and run and maybe even still does . . . but now, with more and more customers using graphical interfaces with their IBM i apps, the shining beacon for those in the “IBM i” know is gone. The telltale signs of the underlying solution are tough to see from a web-based interface these days.
Tell us about this challenge -- is getting customers to mention IBM i or allow some name dropping, at least, particularly hard when it comes to IBM i? Or is it hard for Oracle and SAP and Microsoft customers, too? Or is the perception of IBM i, if it really is all around us, perhaps more acutely troublesome due to some other factor?
SW: It is certainly true that the updating of interfaces has hidden the specific IT technology being used, no matter if that technology is IBM i or other operating systems. You mentioned graphical interfaces, and that's one aspect, but there are more. When you deal with businesses or government offices these days, more and more often you deal with an online service. A browser interface typically displays no indication of the server which is providing the interface. Or maybe you call someone at a business, and you don't even see what that person is using, such as the example I mentioned in the blog about calling your cable company.
While I can't be sure what happens for other vendors, but it's certainly likely that they have the same issues IBM has. Customers are not automatically signing up to be part of a vendor's marketing team when they buy a product -- they have no obligation to talk about their IT equipment or their software solutions. At the same time, vendors don't automatically have the right to release the name of any
customer without that customer's permission. Inside IBM, we follow a process to solicit a customer to be a reference, and I would not be surprised if other large companies do something similar. Following this process is important so that the customer knows exactly the sort of information we'll be sharing. In particular, larger companies often treat information about their business processes as confidential property, including information about their IT environment.
Again, since I am not working for other vendors, I can't really say how concerned their users are with how pervasively their operating systems or databases are used. It's clear, however, that a portion of the IBM i customer base is particularly interested in its pervasiveness. This interest has encouraged us to work harder to get permission from more customers in recent years; it's certainly been a focus for Alison Butterill in the time she's been the IBM i Product Manager. Because of the work she has had done, I've been able to put more reference slides in my presentations, I've included more in my blogs, and I plan to do it even more frequently this year.
CM: IBM Power Systems seem to be getting some good wins in emerging markets, and these wins also seem to be getting a bit more press -- at least, IBM is able to put out press releases on these clients for Power Systems, PureSystems, and sometimes even IBM i . . . is emerging geographies where all the growth action is these days? Or are these companies just so darn happy to have a real answer to their problems that they’re quite pleased to let IBM talk about it?
STW: IBM sells to a very large number of clients each year, and certainly, the emerging markets are more likely to have brand new clients. It's pretty typical that a concerted effort to identify reference accounts coincides with a new marketing campaign. We need to realize that, while references make us feel good, the business purpose for a reference is to help drive more sales. From what I have seen, sales into brand new accounts -- accounts where IBM doesn't have to displace a strong competitor -- are more easily influenced by customer references, so it's not surprising our marketing and sales people are looking for references which are similar to the kinds of new customers they are trying to reach.
By contrast, a competitive win -- where IBM displaces a solution from another vendor -- might be helped slightly by a one-chart reference, but it's only a starting point. In such a situation, IBM hopes that the prospective customer asks to talk directly to reference accounts. Some reference accounts are willing to go that extra step but many are not. However, what many people might not appreciate is that IBM i has many customers, especially members of our Large User Group, who are willing to talk to other customers to support a competitive win. Even though these LUG companies are not able to publicly state their endorsement of the platform, in a one-on-one situation, they are very willing to do so. These type of references, where a large client shares confidential support for Power and IBM i are extremely powerful. They just aren't visible. But again, visibility is not the key outcome -- winning the business is.
CM: Do you have a master list tucked away somewhere with all the names of current IBM i running customers? Could that list, say, be plucked out of some safe in someone’s office in, say, a dramatic heist?
SW: Let me explain something about who I consider to be "our IBM i clients." I think a business is an IBM i client if any part of their solution runs on IBM i. However, these days there are thousands of these "customers" who would not necessarily be recognized as customers by IBM because they are customers of our ISVs or business partners, and they are running hosted solutions on platforms owned by those ISVs and partners. In these scenarios, the ultimate end user might not be paying anything to IBM, nor would they have any direct relationship with IBM. In my blog, I talked about banking ISVs. This is a very common scenario for customers of those banking ISVs. Sure, in the 1990s, each of the customers of those ISVs would have had an IBM machine (it would have been an AS/400 in the '90s) so they would have shown up as an IBM customer. Today, many of those banks don't have a Power System, because the ISV has big Power Systems which are hosting the banks. Yet, in my mind, the banks are still IBM i customers. Similarly, one of our LUG members (who has given me permission to talk about them) is Connectria. They have a hosting business, and depending on the licensing and contracts and so on, their clients may or may not be recognized as IBM customers, let alone IBM i customers. Yet the IBM i team still needs to deliver what those hosted clients need -- they are still "IBM i clients."
With that said, I think it's clear that it is actually impossible for IBM to know all of the "clients" using IBM i. In that scenario, there is no obligation for the hosting company to share their customer list with IBM. In fact, depending on the contracts they have with their hosted clients, the hosting companies might not even be allowed to share the names.
CM: Nice. Thanks for sharing, Steve -- much appreciated!