Technology Refreshes Go Unnoticed By Most IBM i Shops

The IBM midrange community is full of normal people trying to keep the lid on a can of worms and make a living. In the pursuit of what should be two simple and compatible objectives, there’s a lot of fancy dancing going on. What has to get done today overrides the broader view of what could be done. The IBM i development team rolls out Technology Refreshes, but relatively few take notice.

On Friday, November 20, Technology Refresh (TR) 11 for IBM i 7.1 and TR 3 for IBM i 7.2 will become generally available, or GA in the lingo of the IT industry. The announcement came more than a month ago, but you won’t find GA Day marked on very many calendars.

“If you ask most people what TR level they are at, they’d say, ‘What’s a TR level?’ There’s no driving force to get to the next TR level,” says Matt Staddler, founder and president of IT Solutions Group (ITSG). Staddler’s company provides IBM i consulting, implementation, and support services to customers in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. Operating system upgrades and Technology Refresh implementations are part of the services ITSG customers rely on when needed. The need doesn’t arise all that often. The reason for that, to some degree, is that the value of the TRs is unrecognized. The message doesn’t reach a wide audience. Few ITSG customers stay current with the TRs.

When something changes in an IBM i environment that requires a certain TR level to keep the worms in the can, that’s when people start to pay attention.

“We just took a customer from 7.1 TR4 to TR10, because they were having hardware issues,” Staddler notes as an example of why most shops become aware of TRs. “Customers still don’t know what a tech refresh is. They don’t realize the functions and features that are in a TR. You’d be amazed how many people don’t understand the value of a TR. IBM marketing does not get the message out.”

The weaknesses of IBM i marketing are talked about a lot in the IBM i community. Much of the marketing rests on the shoulders of the business partners. It’s a less than ideal situation that leaves gaping holes in brand identification and the recognition that IBM i is as modern as and more capable than competitive systems.

“The IBM i competition is pointing out that IBM i has had the same OS for five years. But what is not being said is that the OS has been and continues to be enhanced throughout the OS releases. The message is that IBM hasn’t done a thing with 7.1 and that’s so wrong,” Staddler says.

In the 11 TRs that have been cranked out including 7.1 TR1, which was introduced in September 2010, database enhancements have outnumbered all other categories. Make no mistake, the DB2 for i database is the core strength of this Power Systems platform. Getting the i user base interested in modernizing their databases and more fully utilizing that attribute is another matter.

When IBM i 7.2 was released in May 2014, database enhancements continued to be an investment priority and there’s no reason to believe that will change. SQL-based bundles of IBM i services have been emphasized in in the past several TRs for both 7.1 and 7.2, an indicator of the importance of Web services in the future of the platform. We’ll see more of these services in upcoming TRs, as well as continued SQL Query performance gains and database-driven security technology.

Support for free-form RPG was one of the most talked about TR enhancements and there are indications that interest in modernizing development environments by replacing fixed-format RPG in new development efforts may get some traction. That support arrived with TR9 for 7.1 and TR1 for 7.2, which became available a year ago. In the TR that becomes available this week, the 80-column format restrictions have been eliminated. If and when free-form RPG becomes popular, we might see a bridge built from RPG Island to the development mainland.

When you talk about TRs going unrecognized and value going unnoticed, free-form RPG, despite building some momentum, deserves marketing attention. This is one of the top IBM i enhancements in recent memory, but the value proposition remains largely undiscovered.

Another area of application development that gets talked up is the support for open source languages and frameworks such as PHP (been around for a while), Ruby, Python, and Node.js. The IBM i open source development community has a decent anchor with the accomplishments of Zend Technologies and the incorporation of PHP into modernization products from Profound Logic and BCD, however the other options, which were added in recent Technology Refreshes are just in the incubation stages.

Available in TR11/TR3 is an implementation of the open source GNU Compiler Collection compiler set and a related toolkit that gives IBM i the same open C compiler that is leveraged in the Linux community. It brings with it components such as Git, .zip, .tar, bash, and Python 2.7. GCC brings a greater selection of open source packaged applications to the IBM i environment than was previously available. It’s a big step forward. (IBM has had a C compiler since the AS/400 was launched back in the day.)

People will argue whether the Technology Refresh enhancements are the right choice of enhancements and whether any enhancements would actually motivate IBM i shops to jump to the most current TR or the newest version of the OS. The reality is that it’s unlikely. But you have to take into consideration the value in the TRs are cumulative rather than a big bang. With the majority of IBM i shops now running i 7.1 (63 percent according to the HelpSystems’ IBM i Marketplace Survey that was collected a year ago), the community should be increasingly familiar with the TR enhancements. If the awareness remains low, whose fault is that?

As it is, it’s not the TR most of Staddler’s customers are going after. It’s upgrading to the latest cumulative and group PTFs. The TRs just ride along with them.

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