What happens to the IBM i in a FedEx “Zero Datacenter, Zero Mainframe”?

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July 18, 2022

Timothy Pricket Morgan

Federal Express, the pioneer of next-day document delivery for businesses founded in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1971 by Frederick Smith, didn’t start out in the ground transportation business. But it started its data center operations on IBM mainframes, as any company with a need for complex and intense computing would at the time do, and it chose Memphis, Tennessee, in the heartland of America, as its headquarters and base of operations in 1973 when the company moved. from a doctoral thesis at Yale University to a real business.

In 1983, FedEx made history as the first company in the United States to reach $1 billion in sales within a decade of beginning operations, and it launched intercontinental operations in Europe and Asia. In 1985, when the company’s growth was phenomenal – and United Parcel Service fought back with its own document delivery. (And by the way, the US Post launched Priority Mail for documents in 1968, five years before Smith tried to find a better and faster way to do it.)

In 1997, when FedEx paid $2.45 billion to buy Caliber System, a package and freight delivery company founded in 1985 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, FedEx acquired the RPS shipping business and its Roberts Services. Express, Viking Freight, Caribbean Transportation Services and all the related logistics and technology it had developed. This company, which was founded in 1985 and which you know as FedEx Ground Service, had a triplet of IBM System/38 minicomputers as its planning brains when it began operations, and since then operations RPS and FedEx Ground relied on System/38, AS-400 and IBM i platforms.

What you might not know is that over time, FedEx has removed more than 80% of its “mainframe footprint,” as Rob Carter, the company’s chief information officer, l ‘established. a recent meeting with investors. We didn’t attend the event and can’t find the presentation, recording or transcript online, but our friends at Data Center Dynamics listened to the call and got the gist of what Carter said on Wall Street.

“We moved to the cloud,” Carter explained. “We eliminated one monolithic application after another. . . we’re moving to a more flexible, secure and cost-effective data center-less, mainframe-less environment. Over the next two years, we’ll shut down the last data centers we have, we’ll eliminate the last 20% of the mainframe footprint, and we’ll move the remaining applications to cloud-native fabrics that allow them to be deployed and used from flexibly in the market and in business. By doing so, we will realize $400 million in annual savings.

FedEx operates a massive data center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and it appears they were considering building another data center in their home state of the city of Nashville, but apparently that didn’t pan out product. Three years ago, FedEx began decommissioning some of its 11 regional data centers, moving its workloads to a massive Switch-operated data center in Las Vegas. Just because systems are moving to a colocation facility doesn’t mean applications aren’t ending up on more modern, hosted versions of the platforms. So don’t jump to the wrong conclusions. FedEx has created a tool called Surround Analytics and put it on Microsoft Azure, and FedEx also uses Oracle Cloud for some workloads.

Wording matters here. When many people talk, they lump IBM System z and IBM Power running IBM i together in the same word: “Mainframe.” We all know that the AS/400 and its offspring are not a mainframe, but an improvement over the mainframe – and therefore by design. Even Big Blue knows it. So we have no problem believing that FedEx is moving away from IBM System z for its FedEx Express and FedEx Freight lines of business. He needs the money to help with the innovation he needs to bring in to compete with Amazon, the retailer that’s also building its own shipping business, and UPS, which is stuck being addicted to Amazon and at the same time wishing it remains out of shipment. The US Post is just an observer in a car caught in the crossfire.

However, we found it hard to believe that the company would leave the Power Systems platform and the IBM i operating system and database. At least not all at once. It seems much more likely that FedEx would build new applications that would consolidate its three core businesses – Express, Ground and Freight – into a holistic system while allowing it to preserve its unique tasks and identity while sharing resources to expand. from the first to the last mile of any delivery. That’s the game these days was well explained by Supply Chain Dive.

We contacted some people about the IBM i and Power Systems machines at the FedEx Ground organization – these are people who would absolutely know what’s going on there – and they said that since the coronavirus pandemic hit, FedEx has pumped many of the transactions out of its network of Power machines and as far as they know, FedEx is very happy with the IBM i platform.

Still, FedEx can place Power machines in a Switch data center in Las Vegas or elsewhere, or use IBM’s utility pricing to achieve a cloud-like budget, or use a combination of virtual Power instances on IBM Cloud , Microsoft Azure, Connectria or Google. Cloud as well as co-lo iron to run its workloads and support its applications. There’s even an outside chance that these remaining IBM System z applications will be ported to Power Systems, likely running a mix of IBM i and Linux, possibly AIX. Who knows?

We know two things. First, FedEx Ground seems keen on keeping IBM i. And two, it’s very hard to leave a platform where you have legacy code that works and you need to run the business. Microsoft had a hard time leaving the AS/400 platform, about a decade after becoming an enterprise platform vendor itself. And then, when it did, it moved its AS/400 applications from data centers in the US (Washington) and Ireland (Dublin) to a colocation and hosting partner in Ireland. Technically he wasn’t running AS/400s anymore, which he said when asked, but in reality Microsoft’s manufacturing operations were on AS/400s – only those owned by someone else. At one point, Microsoft ported its code to a Windows Server platform, but it almost had to since that’s what it was telling users of Unix and proprietary systems to do. Dell had a similar difficulty getting rid of Tandem fault-tolerant SQL servers after Compaq bought DEC and Tandem before it was itself bought by Hewlett Packard. Several attempts at porting applications between Dell have been successful. And either way, it was a decade-long journey.

Of course, we would like to know what is really happening and how FedEx is handling the technical and economic challenges of modernizing its business management platforms. It’s about as difficult as anything on Earth.

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