System i evolution: The missing link is still missing (part 1)

Five years ago I started a company with a few other folks who were trying to “save” a school administration system that was written in RPG that we did not own. In this particular case, the company that owned the software and the source code was really just using the customer base as a revenue source while they pushed the customers into other school administration solutions that were not System i centric. You may have heard of PowerSchool, once owned by Apple, which is now owned by this same company. How a company that initially acquired the premier IBM Midrange (S34/S36/S38/AS/400) school administration system (once sold through IBM!) could end up selling a solution that runs on an Apple platform is a long, ugly tale that involves hundreds of folks and millions of dollars. But, the bottom line here is that IBM failed to capitalize on and captivate the mind share of system administrators that really needed a stable, reliable and easy to administer system. That failure was demonstrated in the reality that the company that acquired this software back in the 80’s missed the fact that the true asset was the system the software ran on, as well as the software itself. The hardware was the key to the solution, not just an interchangeable component of it. As the software solution was bought and sold a few more times, the beauty of the platform was lost to the need to look more “modern”.

But, that was also a bit before systems started to become commoditized. Commoditization has hurt the System i platform prospects because the system can run so many application that people miss out on the fact that running applications is only part of the solution. Running applications in a stable, reliable and easy to manage environment is the key. It is the holy grail. The System i has that. It is a slam dunk reality that no other platform, IMHO, can match.

So, now the issue for us System i die-hards is, the RPG applications of yesteryear, like the school administration solution I originally mentioned, are essentially unchanged in their 1980’s look and feel. That is precisely because of the stability of the System i. I have customers who I trained on the System 36 version of the software in 1987 that are still running the follow on version of the software on the System i today. In some cases they are using data that was keyed in on a System 36 and migrated to the System i with minimal disruption. They love this platform and, in smaller school districts, they have managed to keep their IT staff to one or two people when it comes to running the school administration solution. In one case, I consulted at a district that had NO IT staff for the System i school administration system, just a janitor who swapped the tape out of the drive while he cleaned at night. Compare this to the instructional solution arena where there might be many, many IT people needed to keep the network, application, database, web and email servers running. From a management standpoint, it is a nightmare.

So back to the “missing link”. Here is the reality of the marketplace we were facing when we started up the company:

  1. Loyal Midrange customers. Some had been using versions of the software for 20 years.
  2. Green screen stability was losing to GUI “glitz and glamor”. PowerSchool looks great! Our solution looked like “DOS”.
  3. The “AS/400”, although stable, was seen as a dinosaur.

Our decision, for better or for worse, was to lead with the System i. We didn’t have source code so we had to rewrite from scratch. We used the database on the System i and released the code as Open Source. We were going to focus on a web based solution rather than a plump or fat client. We initially chose Java as the programming language because we could write code that would run (theoretically) on any platform. That would alleviate the need to fight the hardware battle during the sale of a system (although we would lead with the System i in all cases). We could continue to support customers running the RPG version of the code while we delivered a web version. They could use both simultaneously since both solutions used the same database.

Five years later, how did we do?

Continued in part two…


  1. What always seems to be underestimated is that the System i has a large missing link.

    Since the Twinax terminals have died (and for good reason), the is no longer a native System i client platform – you’ll have to use another platform to access the data on your System i.

    Back in the 80s it was possible to buy a System i, and you had your IT problem solved. A single box that took care of everything – printing, displays, all could be managed centrally on your System i. Twinax was plug&play done right – plugin a printer, and everything works.

    However, in 2007, you will need to choose a client solution for your System i. This could be some sort of Linux Distribution, but usually it is Microsoft Windows (because for example Microsoft Office) – and this is where the headaches starts. Standalone Windows clients are a nightmare to administrate if there are more than five of them, so you’ll need to manage them.

    The System i doesn’t offer much in this area – Netserver is okay for occasional file transfers, but for a central data store it has many disadvantages (IBM currently hasn’t fixed all the problems Netserver has with Vista).

    And here comes my point: Today, you can’t choose between a System i or a Windows Environment. You to choose between a Windows Environment or a System i together with a Windows Environment. Tight integration between Windows and the System i (in terms of authentication) isn’t exactly easy to get right.

  2. How have you done? I might have a bad memory, but you were with J&K, right? As a developer of school admin software ourself, we have both feet firmly in the GUI world and in the OS400 operating system. We have even managed to incorporate GUI with data from the AS400. So could we help each other? Check both and out.

  3. Lukas – The System i being in a heterogeneous environment is good news and bad news. Yes, we need to do more integration work so that everyone plays nicely together, but the upside is that IBM can focus on the System i strengths and not have to be all things to all people. I am not sure that the it would be a good idea for the System i to have a proprietary client where e-mail, word processing, web browsing and all the other client side tasks are tied to the System i. But, yeah, we still have a long way to go to have seamless integration between the System i and all other clients.

    Ben – See part two of the article about how we are doing that will be published this we to see how we are doing.

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