IBM's iSeries GM Lays Out Battle Plan

In the last few months, IBM has been making a concerted effort to rejuvenate interest in its iSeries line, following the inclusion of Power processors in the servers. As part of that initiative, IBM is highlighting the integrated nature of the platform as the perfect tonic for budget-conscious IT organizations. In an interview with Editor In Chief Michael Vizard, iSeries General Manager Mark Shearer outlined his plan to build momentum for iSeries sales.

CRN: For the past few years at least, it feels like the iSeries has been in stasis mode within IBM. But in recent weeks, it seems like IBM is getting more serious about the platform. What's driving this change?

SHEARER: A lot of my partners tell me that this has been the best-kept secret in the industry, and we really have to speak out about the value proposition of the iSeries in business value terms. If you really think about what the iSeries has always been about, it has been business solutions, simplicity in IT infrastructure and integrated technology, so that clients don't have to integrate everything and can reduce costs. All the things the iSeries has always been good at, the industry has moved right over that spot.

CRN: Are new iSeries sales driven largely by a consolidation of existing systems, or are you seeing new customers moving to the platform?

SHEARER: We have thousands of new iSeries clients each year. This year, I think we're going to step that up a bit because we really are speaking out more aggressively.

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But there are a few different patterns we're seeing. The iSeries client base, which represents about 50 percent of all IBM's hardware relationships, is extremely important to IBM. One of the trends we're seeing is with the current iSeries models, a lot of our clients that had competitive Unix systems around their iSeries, like HP-UX, are moving those application loads to AIX running on the iSeries so they can run a more integrated, simpler environment. To some extent, that's also green space in that it's new workloads in existing iSeries clients.

Another thing people are doing is running their trading application on iSeries during the day and then their AIX business-intelligence application at night using the same resource. We give people flexibility in using that same resource for completely different application sets.

CRN: What are partners saying that you need to do to make the iSeries more competitive?

SHEARER: Last year, we brought about 80 of our most committed business partners together in a forum and asked them what we needed to do to better enable their businesses in sales of the iSeries. And there were three streams of requirements they brought forward.

First of all, they asked us to make the business model for them much more attractive. We needed to improve the profitability of doing business with the iSeries. The second set of concerns really had to do with brand presence in the marketplace. And the third area of interest was around ISVs, reinvigorating and attracting new ISVs to the platform. Pretty systematically, we've made fundamental changes in each of those areas.

In all of our advertising and press this year, we're going to tell the story in the voice of the client and the business value that different clients are getting from it. The industry pretty much knows Power5 is a hot technology--and we've got great virtualization and the like--but we're really focused on the business value and communicating that much more aggressively. We started a multimillion-dollar campaign that will run worldwide. CRN: What specifically did you do to address the profit side of the equation?

SHEARER: We have made material changes to the whole [IBM] Business Partner incentive stack and introduced a bid certification process. The feedback we've gotten from the partners around the world is they will have a material improvement year to year in the profitability of doing business with the iSeries.

The basic intent is that they have the ability to bid the business where they are creating the value and investing themselves. This allows them to get a better return on investment when they are developing the business opportunities with clients.

CRN: What are you doing to get new ISVs onto the platform?

SHEARER: We've announced a program called the iSeries Initiative for Innovation. We are investing millions of dollars to dramatically broaden the aperture of our ISV support programs. In the past, maybe we worked with hundreds of ISVs each year. Going forward, we're going to be providing various degrees of education and enabling assistance and technical support to thousands of ISVs.

We're doing things like opening up the virtual loaner program in order to give them access to systems for testing or experimentation. There's also a series of programs around application rights fees. There's a set of programs around tools providers for the platform. And then there's a set of programs around our laboratory resources and making them available to partners. We are trying to provide assistance in enabling them to use all the latest features of the i5 platform.

CRN: Are you trying to recruit new channel partners as well?

SHEARER: We're trying to better enable the ones we have. And one of our major focuses is to bring together the value nets more effectively. We are bringing together the ISVs and the resellers to create the value nets around applications. That's a huge focus of ours right now.

CRN: The IBM pSeries and xSeries units also focus on the midmarket. Is there really room for three product lines in the midmarket?

SHEARER: This is a huge market segment. The iSeries value proposition is very different than the xSeries or pSeries value proposition. The answer to your question is to clearly segment the market and lead with the right solution based on the client environment. I believe there is room for ultra-integrated servers like the i5 and the others. I really believe that these offerings are rather complementary. And there are very different buyer behaviors across these three products.

The profile of the iSeries client is where they have one IT person to manage the entire application environment and infrastructure. They're not looking to have separate database administrators and separate application people. They need the infrastructure pre-integrated. It's just a very different operating environment.

CRN: What are your goals in terms of growth for 2005?

SHEARER: I'm looking for a material growth of this iSeries business and really putting it squarely on a growth trajectory this year. I'm also looking for vitality in the ecosystem. Last year, we added 800 new ISVs to the platform. The vitality of the ecosystem, to me, is sort of a leading indicator of where the platform is headed.

CRN: The last IBMer who had your job was in it for less than a year. How long will you be in this job?

SHEARER: I have tended to stay three to five years in most jobs. I signed up for a period of time measured in years. And to be honest with you, I want to do this. I want to see this through. I am here to see the impact of the work I do this year. I'll be around next year and the year after.

CRN: Some people would say you have the most difficult job at IBM. Is that true?

SHEARER: It's a great job, actually. I know that there is a market space for integrated business systems. I know we've got darn good technology and product. And I really believe that when we connect our product to the basic client need, this could get exciting. I think we're redefining a category of computing that is in demand today.