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Ina Fried

Staff Writer, CNET

Microsoft plans to link hands with hardware and services companies on Tuesday in a push to win over IBM’s midrange server customers, CNET has learned.

The Midrange Alliance Program, or MAP, will see Microsoft join up with Fujitsu, Electronic Data Systems and a half-dozen other companies to try to convince businesses to look at Windows-based alternatives to IBM’s iSeries servers, the latest in the AS/400 family.

“We look at the iSeries as having this well-deserved reputation as superintegrated and ultrareliable,” Tim O’Brien, a senior product manager at Microsoft, said in an interview. But “the road map that got it there has taken kind of this left turn.”

Microsoft and its partners say that many major developers of software for OS/400, the iSeries’ operating system, have stopped writing applications. The goal of the effort is to let customers know they have options to modernize their AS/400 programs other than software based on Java and IBM’s WebSphere.

“IBM has always just assumed that the midrange community would stick with it through thick and thin,” said Martin Gossen, a vice president of alliances for Asna, an AS/400 specialist that is one of the MAP partners. “They have created almost a cultlike environment around AS/400, and they have been very successful at fighting off challenges.”

IBM countered that it continues to sign up thousands of new customers for iSeries. It said that like many of the MAP partners, it has tools that allow customers to add a modern Web interface to existing applications without having to rewrite code.

Plus, the iSeries line has advantages that Microsoft and its partners can’t match, said Roger Rea, a midmarket manager for IBM’s WebSphere. Rea noted that there are iSeries customers who have gone years without having to reboot their systems.

“You just don’t get that level of reliability and availability from other operating systems,” Rea said. “It’s also had tremendous security. It’s never had a virus or a successful hacking attack.”

Initially, the alliance will post case studies, white papers and other materials to a page on Microsoft’s Web site. Eventually, the group will give the program its own Web presence.

In addition to EDS, Fujitsu and Asna, Microsoft has signed up HCL, Covansys, Fujitsu, Lansa, Geniant and Born. One of the key messages from Microsoft and its partners is that there are tools that allow customers to take advantage of their investment in programs that run on IBM’s AS/400 servers, moving them to Microsoft’s .Net program environment without starting from scratch.

The server chase
Microsoft’s latest push dovetails with another program aimed squarely at Big Blue: Microsoft’s renewed effort to win over mainframe customers.

In an interview Friday, Windows Server chief Bob Muglia told CNET that mainframe, AS/400 and Unix customers are prime targets.

“All of those customers are looking out and saying ‘Geez, I am paying very expensive hardware support contracts and needing to buy upgrades of exceedingly expensive hardware,'” Muglia said.

But in many ways Microsoft has been targeting the iSeries, and its AS/400 predecessors, for more than a decade, said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst for Illuminata.

“It’s a great base to go after,” Eunice said, noting that customers tend to use the machines for critical business functions and also stick with one setup for a long, long time.

Historically, Microsoft has used the lower cost of Windows-based systems as its primary marketing argument, although in recent years it has also partnered with companies that can offer a more complete integration.

At the same time, IBM has made rapid strides to try and cut the price gap between the iSeries and its competition, Eunice said. In August, IBM revamped the iSeries to use the same hardware as the company’s Linux and AIX-based pSeries machines. In May, the company updated the iSeries line to use IBM’s latest Power5 processor.

While Microsoft has long worked to attract AS/400 customers, Eunice said that combined marketing efforts such as the Midrange Alliance Program can offer the benefit of “strength in numbers.”

“It does concentrate people’s attention,” he said. “This is a period in which the iSeries has been knocked around a bit.”

Muglia said Friday that Microsoft has some work to do as it targets IBM customers, particularly those using mainframes.

“As we take on broader and broader sets of applications and move into new territories, we are thinking about how we want to drive support for those customers and make sure that we have all of the pieces in place to really take on those incredibly important workloads,” he said.

Most of that work is not in creating software, but rather in matching the support offered by IBM, Muglia said.

“Windows is fine. It’s not a software issue,” he said. “It’s: How do we work together with our partners to provide the same level of support and, frankly, handholding, that many of these customers have become used to through IBM?”