Everything Your IBM Business Partner Should Be Doing for You

Steve Pitcher, iTech Solutions

System Down with No Coverage

It was 9 PM on a Sunday night about a year ago when I received a call on my cell phone from a local IBM i customer. For the purposes of this article, we’ll call him…Gary. I reached out to Gary a couple of times before to introduce myself but never had any return communication until then. Turns out, Gary had a down system. His staff did an IPL and the system just wouldn’t come back online. He did what we all would do and called IBM support. Unfortunately, they told him that he had no software maintenance contract. He then called his then-partner. No answer.

I immediately sent a GoToMeeting to the customer and texted iTech Solutions’ President Pete Massiello to have him on alert that I may need some backup. Pete, being Pete, was on the GoToMeeting faster than the customer.

We spent around 30 minutes with Gary and got the POWER7 back up and running. I can’t recall the problem and solution exactly, but we did get it sorted. The next day I did a maintenance check on the system to determine what support, if any, they were entitled to. It turns out that the vendor who renewed the customer’s hardware and software maintenance did not sell them extended maintenance for IBM i 7.1. Once an operating system goes end of service, you can purchase extended maintenance on top of normal software maintenance. It’s a bit of a grace period to get you up to a current release. Extended maintenance for 7.1 is double the cost of standard maintenance, so it’s really a stop-gap solution.

The customer ended up purchasing extended maintenance for 7.1 from me that day. Unfortunately, they were almost finishing a migration to a new ERP, not on IBM infrastructure. I asked the customer why they’d want to do that and their answer was simple: they hadn’t had any guidance about IBM i.

To them, it was still an “iSeries” doing the same old iSeries stuff. They saw no future in IBM because they weren’t made aware of the future.

Most importantly, they hadn’t even seen their ex-partner since they installed the POWER7 back in 2011. That’s eight years in the dark. Eight years of zero guidance. And eight years is a lot of time to think about doing something else.

When I hear about IBM i customers who actually do move away (and they are in the minority), I can’t put much of the blame on the customer. They’re doing what they think is best. If you haven’t heard from someone in eight years, would you really think there was a future in the technology they provide?

Everything Your IBM Business Partner Should Be Doing for You

I did a webinar with the above title back in January. It’s an hour-long presentation so I’m going to boil it down to what I believe you should be seeing from your IBM Business Partner.

[ Watch the webinar here ]

First…what is an IBM Business Partner?

Well, that definition can be a little broad. I would argue that a Business Partner is a liaison between customers and IBM. We represent customers to IBM and we represent IBM to customers. Business Partners are largely made up of IBM technology experts, hardware resellers, software resellers, and independent software vendors. The keyword in Business Partner is partner. The best partnerships have effective and regular communication. At iTech, we view ourselves as an extension of every customer’s business. There’s value in that line of thinking.

With that being said, here’s what your IBM Business Partner needs to be doing.

Partners Need to Keep Their Tools Sharpened

There’s plenty of partner-focused IBM education going on. It seems like a week doesn’t go by that we’re on webinars and conference calls learning about what’s coming down the pike in terms of technology and pricing changes, product withdrawals and replacements and the like.

Theory is great, but hands-on practice is even better. Is your Business Partner going to upgrade you to IBM i 7.4 as their first 7.4 upgrade? Do they have a POWER9 in place to test things out? What about new IBM external storage? Or the new POWER-based Hardware Management Console?

The best education, as far as I’m concerned, comes from attending IBM conferences. The conference sessions are highly valuable whether it’s a local user group conference, COMMON’s POWERUp conference or all the way up to IBM TechU. Personally, I learn a lot just talking to people in the hallways and the dinner tables. That’s where you find people talking about their challenges and the solutions they’ve employed. For practical tidbits of information, that’s the best. You come back armed to the teeth with so much valuable information to put to good use.

Partners Need to be Present

Ever wonder why your Business Partner calls you every couple of months? No, it’s not to sell you something. What we’re doing is checking in to tell you about what’s coming down the pike. It’s to tell you your machine just went end of marketing so you may only have a couple years left on it. It’s to tell you that 7.2 goes end of service in 2021. We want to know about your challenges. We want ensure you’re getting good service. That relationship is what has the most value.

I was talking to a customer last week who wanted to talk inventory management software. Now, we don’t do programming at iTech. That’s just not our wheelhouse. But I know another customer who builds inventory management software so I put the two customers together. It’s just that little bit of value-add to help our customers out.

Showing up every eight years to do a Power Systems migration isn’t effective. That’s how you lose customers to hungrier partners. Even worse, it’s also how you lose customers to different architectures altogether.

Also, it’s one thing to have a partner call every so often to touch base. It’s another thing if a partner is not available when you need one. That’s usually due to bandwidth or focus/commitment to the IBM i platform.

IBM i Partners Need to be Focused

We’ve all heard the myth that “IBM i is going away” since the AS/400 was around twenty years ago. A good few partners have already adopted that inaccurate mindset and have diversified their offerings and support to other hardware and software platforms.

There is some value in that: everything you need is under one roof. The downside of that is the IBM i focus gets lost and those customers are usually deemed “legacy.” From my personal perspective, I don’t see those partners at IBM events getting training nor do I see them providing education to the IBM i community. That lack of focus easily gets passed down to the customer.

When you work with a partner committed to the IBM i and Power Systems platform, you should see a focus on IBM i. I eluded to working with IBM i 7.4 and POWER9 so a partner is an expert before setting foot in your door. Is your partner involved with beta programs at IBM? We were running 7.4 on our POWER9 months before it was released. On the release date, we had already upgraded about 30 partitions to 7.4. We speak confidently about 7.4 because we’ve had the additional experience while other partners were reading the Memo to Users.

Growth is another factor. I would estimate iTech is one of the very few IBM i partners adding employees in an age of “doing more with less.” Our IBM i customer base is growing every week it seems. Additional customers mean we need to bring qualified technicians on staff to help manage them. Growth is the biggest indicator that your partner is doing a lot of things right and will be there five, ten and twenty years into the future.

The “Value” in Value Added Reseller

So you’re getting a POWER9? Is it the right POWER9 for you?

There are many things to consider about a hardware refresh. A good partner will ask questions about everything from your backup/recovery strategy to the electrical in the server room. It all matters.

As well, getting competitive proposals from different partners is always recommended. Even if we don’t win the business, I’ll always compete because the customer is always better off with a second pair of eyes looking to do right by them.

A great example of this is a couple of years ago we were asked to provide some guidance on a POWER9 configuration proposed by another partner. The customer had a tiny box and the quote was far more than what they expected. The current machine was a little E4C POWER7 with five or six 139 GB disk drives, 32 GB RAM and one license of IBM i. The POWER9 proposal was for 4 TB of solid-state drives, three new IBM i licenses (so they could turn on three more POWER9 cores) and 512 GB RAM. It seemed like some serious overkill on the surface. The customer’s current machine wasn’t overwhelmed with workload at all and there was no significant growth forecasted. After a little digging, it looked like the customer was being pressured to move into their software vendor’s cloud and their on-prem machine proposal was inflated to encourage the cloud move. The customer wanted to stay on-premises. So we set the customer straight and I gave them an honest assessment of what configuration would work well for them. I proposed a 4-core POWER9 with one license of IBM i transferred from the old box, 64 GB RAM and six 387 GB SSDs. It was far more affordable and would provide ample growth for the future. The customer remained on-premises with their new POWER9 and didn’t break the bank doing so.

More value good partners provide with regards to migrations would be things like tape drive compatibility options. Let’s say you had a POWER7 with a LTO4 drive and you wanted to move to an LTO7 drive on a new POWER9. The LTO7 drive won’t read a LTO4 tape. We have a lot of “transition options” for situations like this. For instance, we can back up the existing system with a LTO4 tape, hang one of our LTO5 drives off the POWER9 temporarily to facilitate the migration so then the customer can use the LTO7 drive going forward.

Every IBM Business Partner is different. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. A good partner will always be honest about what they can and can’t do well. A good partner isn’t afraid to tell you “no” instead of saying yes and dancing to figure out a half baked solution. That’s usually the first sign your partner knows what they’re doing.

Good luck!

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