Users stay with iSeries, despite Microsoft entreaties

Microsoft and several partners last month teamed up in hopes of enticing IBM iSeries users to extend or migrate their applications to Windows and .Net. But while some iSeries users have shown interest in Microsoft technology for their Web applications, several said last week that they have no intention of moving off their iSeries servers anytime soon.

"I like to sleep at night," said Mark Bondurant, vice president of IT at CBK, a wholesale importer of decorative home accents. "Microsoft has made some headway with their servers. But the AS/400, from the ground floor, was designed to handle multiple tasks going on at the same time." AS/400 was the original product name for the iSeries.

Despite his loyalty to the iSeries, Bondurant was happy to find a Microsoft lifeline when CBK was building a graphical user interface for a Web-based sales force automation application that went live last May. Bondurant turned to Amalgamated Software of North America (ASNA), a Microsoft business partner, for its Visual RPG for .Net tool and companion middleware called DataGate that links a Windows server to CBK's iSeries systems.

When considering its options for the Web-based application, CBK viewed IBM's Java development path as too complex, Bondurant said. He added that the company didn't want to outsource the work to developers who didn't know its business. With ASNA's tools, CBK's developers could continue to use the familiar RPG language, he said.

Labatt Food Service also rejected Java as too complicated for Web applications that need to access its iSeries data. The company chose Microsoft's Visual Basic tools and also uses DataGate, which talks to its iSeries servers through proprietary protocols, said Tony Canty, Labatt's vice president of information systems and accounting.

"I plan to stay with the iSeries as long as IBM does, but I think they've made mistakes in the way they're going about WebSphere," Canty said. "If you go WebSphere, you have to do everything with Java. The beauty of .Net is you can do any language."

Microsoft's Common Language Runtime environment lets Windows developers write code in more than 20 programming languages.

But some iSeries users have taken a different path. Jon Dell'Antonia, vice president of IT at OshKosh B'Gosh, said the retailer opted for Java-based development tools from Macromedia for some of the Web applications that access the integrated databases on its two iSeries servers.

Point of entry

Tom Bittman, an analyst at Gartner, said iSeries users can't stay on RPG forever. The application architecture will be up for grabs, with IBM trying to push users to WebSphere and Microsoft wooing them to .Net, he said. But Bittman predicted that there won't be many users who actually swap out their servers.

Even Microsoft acknowledges that the immediate focus of its Midrange Alliance Program is to give iSeries users "a point of entry into the Microsoft platform in a way that solves a near-term problem," said Tim O'Brien, a senior product manager for platform strategy at Microsoft. As examples of near-term problems, he pointed to modernizing or extending applications.

O'Brien said migration becomes an issue when users upgrade AS/400s that may be nearing end of life and start to consider cost, complexity and integration. "ISeries customers love their machines," he said. "What they don't like is the current set of choices they're getting from IBM's road map."

But Ian Jarman, an iSeries product manager at IBM, said Microsoft's push is largely based on an IBM technology plan designed to allow iSeries users to exploit RPG and Cobol code to add new graphical user interfaces built to open standards. The alliance is "really a reaction to the application modernization in the iSeries community," Jarman said. In some respects, it's "an endorsement of what we're doing," he added.

(Computerworld reporter Patrick Thibodeau contributed to this story.)