AS/400 Has the Right Stuff for E-Commerce

SAN MATEO (04/03/2000) - IBM Corp.'s venerable AS/400 could be the most misunderstood computer on the planet. Despite a 10-year history and worldwide sales of 700,000 units, it remains something of a mystery -- even among fans who support the platform with Macintosh-like devotion. Given its broad range of capabilities, some confusion is inevitable. From its origins as a terminal-centric, 48-bit box known best for 5250 "green-screen" applications, the AS/400 has evolved into a sleek, 64-bit machine that supports e-commerce, ERP (enterprise resource planning), CRM (customer relationship management), business intelligence, and back-office applications with equal aplomb. In 1995, IBM dubbed these newer models AS/400e servers.

The AS/400e has considerably improved business processes via Internet technology. Although numerous native AS/400e products and technologies can be used to implement effective e-commerce, not the least of which is IBM's WebSphere Application Server, here we limited our analysis to Java and Lotus Domino. Both have been particularly well-received by AS/400e customers who have e-commerce deployments in mind.

Although performance, scalability, security, and reliability have always been hallmarks of the AS/400 (see related article below, "Under the Hood"), the platform's relevance would diminish if it could not exploit the power of the Internet. Thus, IBM has invested heavily in making the AS/400e a formidable Internet platform. In May 1999, IBM released Version 4 Release 4 (V4R4) of OS/400 with more than 3 million new lines of code dedicated primarily to e-commerce.

Courting Java

Java may already be a de facto standard in client-side Web-based application development, but its true value will be realized as a language for portable server-side applications. Java server programs require facilities to communicate with the particular hardware on which they run. The AS/400e provides a native JDBC (Java Database Connectivity) driver to optimize access to its integrated 64-bit relational database, as well as a direct execution compile option that dramatically improves AS/400e Java performance relative to other platforms.

Perhaps the best evidence of IBM's commitment to AS/400-based e-commerce is the development of its own JVM (Java virtual machine). Based on Sun Microsystems' specification, Big Blue's JVM is integrated at the lowest levels of the OS/400 operating system. This allowed IBM to optimize the JVM to take advantage of the AS/400e architecture and hardware, while still meeting the standards for a Java-compatible certification from Sun.

The AS/400e Java environment differs from other JVMs in two ways. First, it removes objects from memory (known as garbage collection) without halting all concurrent threads. This helps the AS/400e perform more effectively and scale better as a Java server. Second, the AS/400e JDK (Java Development Kit) provides an option to compile the bytecode into 64-bit executables. The benefit of this approach is improved performance in Java application serving.

For AS/400e customers, IBM's support of Java is significant for other reasons as well. First, AS/400e sites can use Java to integrate legacy applications and databases with the Internet. Second, ISVs can easily port their Java e-commerce applications to the AS/400e.

Bonding with Domino

Lotus Domino is a leading groupware application that is often used to build Web sites that accept and maintain orders online, as well as manage electronic communications with both customers and suppliers. It has been available as a native 64-bit application on the AS/400e since March 1998.

The AS/400e is a compelling Domino platform for several reasons. First, a single AS/400e can be logically partitioned to support up to 30 Domino servers that can be managed separately. In other environments, Domino is usually implemented on several different servers. By operating multiple Domino servers on a single AS/400e, IT departments avoid the cumbersome administration tasks associated with server farms.

Largely due to server consolidation, the AS/400e's TCO (total cost of ownership) in Domino environments is much lower than that of PC servers. In fact, a recent International Data Corp. study found that the TCO for a 500-user Domino configuration on the AS/400e was 51 percent lower than a similar PC server-based implementation.

Earlier this year, IBM introduced several AS/400e servers tuned specifically for Domino. Dubbed bumblebees because of their distinctive yellow stripes, these model 170 DSD (Dedicated Server for Domino) servers are configured for small and midsize businesses. For large-scale Domino implementations, higher-end AS/400e models are more suitable. For example, the largest AS/400e running Domino can accommodate more than 27,000 mail users on a single footprint. Clearly, scalability is a factor behind the AS/400e's rising popularity as a Domino server.

Another reason for Domino's success in the AS/400e arena is its tight integration with existing AS/400e facilities. Domino databases can exchange information with DB2 UDB/400 databases via real-time and scheduled jobs, and the Domino Directory/Address Book synchronizes with the AS/400e System Distribution Directory automatically.

Finally, the AS/400e is becoming a popular Domino host because built-in features such as RAID 5 storage, mirrored disk units, and integrated backup facilities let organizations run Domino applications 24 hours per day, every day.

World-class for the Web

Although many people still associate the AS/400e with green-screen legacy applications, its stodgy persona is bemusing to those who understand its power and relevance in today's e-business economy.

The AS/400e occupies an enviable position in the race to become the world's leading development platform for Java. Through IBM's San Francisco project (an object-oriented application framework), EJB (Enterprise JavaBeans) development, and a customized JVM, Big Blue has given the platform formidable weapons for that race. As for Lotus Domino, the AS/400e has achieved world-class benchmarks in both performance and scalability.

The AS/400e adroitly accommodates e-commerce by extending the reach of existing applications to the Internet, as well as supporting the development of brand-new, Web-enabled systems. By successfully heralding the arrival of e-commerce and the advent of the Internet age, the platform's future looks quite bright.

Scott Steinacher (ssteinach@aol.com) has more than 10 years of experience as an AS/400 developer and consultant.

Under the hood

To understand the AS/400e's appeal as an e-commerce platform, you should be familiar with its technological underpinnings. Every AS/400e ships with a 64-bit operating system (OS/400), 64-bit database (UDB/400), and one or more 64-bit RISC CPUs. As a "pure" 64-bit platform, the AS/400e can directly address far more storage and process bigger chunks of data more quickly than 32-bit servers such as Windows NT can.

A single AS/400e can support as many as 12 CPUs in an SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) configuration with as much as four terabytes of disk storage and 2.5GB of main memory. And unlike PC-based servers, the AS/400e can support even MPP (massively parallel processing) computing tasks, because up to 32 AS/400e servers can be clustered together.

To further enhance performance, the AS/400e offloads many tasks traditionally performed by CPUs to dedicated I/O processors. Attached via high-speed, fiber-optic buses, these I/O processors let CPUs focus on more intensive operations such as the execution of program logic.

As for security, the AS/400e is an object-based system that is inherently difficult to corrupt via hacker attacks or viruses. In fact, no virus has ever been reported in the AS/400e arena.

Finally, because the AS/400e features tightly integrated components that are designed, maintained, and produced by a single vendor, the platform has enjoyed near-perfect reliability since its inception more than a decade ago, which helps explain its enduring appeal and adaptability as a core business system.

THE BOTTOM LINE

E-commerce on AS/400e

Business Case: Organizations that rely on the AS/400e for back-office applications can extend the reach of those applications to the Internet. Also, customers can develop new, cutting-edge e-commerce applications using native AS/400e tools and ISV applications.

Technology Case: IBM's AS/400e effectively combines traditional strengths such as scalability, performance, security, and reliability with native support for Java, JDK, EJB, WebSphere Application Server, and Domino.

Pros:

+ High transactional volume enabled via 64-bit technology+ Rigorous demands of e-commerce applications supported by top-notch scalability+ Low total cost of ownershipCons:

- No native support for third-party databases- Difficult to find AS/400 expertise.

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