IBM remains full of surprises. While the company has clearly wanted to create a unified server image for years, I guess no one thought that they would pile in so precipitously, and without too many technology announcements as well. Well, we had all better get used to it - IBM servers are now eServers, and the AS/400 becomes the iSeries 400.
The AS/400 has become one of the options under an umbrella branding, which IBM intends to use as a guide to assist users through the crucial process of selecting an e-business server. Ostensibly all the options are equal, until you start homing in on detail.
On the IBM home page visitors are prompted to use the PathFinder questionnaire and solution locator. Once this process is completed, then IBM claims to be able to pinpoint the platform and configuration to meet both need and budget. Whether the matrix spells out the S/390, iSeries 400 or Netfinity, and even combination purchases, IBM is clearly hoping that the customer will not slip through the net. And to be fair, IBM does have one of the broadest server ranges in the business, but is maybe missing sales opportunities through a single platform pitch.
Everything changes but things still stay, curiously, the same. Under the eServer canopy is a collection of servers pretty much as they were before the re-branding exercise. What does this mean for the old AS/400? Probably not too much, at least in the short-to-medium term. In fact, the AS/400 cause may even get a boost, as new buyers might not be so bothered about the traditionalist mid range image by which the platform has been identified in many quarters.
There are perhaps less obvious reasons why the eServer branding has emerged right now. The obvious line to take is that IBM has a rolling ads campaign on TV, and elsewhere, to ramp up its claimed image as the e-business leader. This message would be harder to digest if a list of seemingly disparate systems is presented. However, the eServer brand does offer choice, and covers the whole terrain - from the smallest business or start-up, to the data centre. This satisfies two clear criteria for achieving brand profile in the digital economy - clarity of image, and customised solutions.
More background influences may be detected by the board level changes that have occurred at the company this year. Lou Gerstner, the former president and ceo, now retains only the second title. The up-and-coming star is Sam Palmisano, who has become president and chief operating officer. He is one of a new, hungrier breed of senior executives who are fast tracking through the IBM ranks.
Palmisano led the drive to take Unix sales back from Sun Microsystems, and his success in that role has been clearly rewarded. And it looks like IBM will have a sharper focus on brand image and sales as a result. As many people in IBM have privately expressed in the past, the server group needs a distinct and uncomplicated market profile, while preserving the diversity that gives the company such a broad market reach.
Naturally, IBM will not mess too much with its installed base. But the company has an eye to the future. The new, functional and unfussy branding actually puts IBM in a stronger marketing position, coupled with the rise of the WebSphere application server as a bonding agent between its own servers, as well as other vendors' platforms. Again, this can only help the AS/400, once its qualities get more widely appreciated.
One day IBM may well have a single, scaleable server architecture - maybe the new branding is a big step towards this goal. Remember that the AS/400 and RS/6000 already share over 90 per cent of components in common.
Everything has its time and place.