Product review: IBM's AS/400 to give rivals tough competition

The word chameleon comes to us from the Greeks, who referred to the lizard as the "lion on the ground" because of its ability to change colour to blend into its surroundings. It seems to me that chameleon is an apt moniker for IBM's AS/400, too. It's powerful like a lion but it's adaptable too.

Working with the AS/400 during the past 10 years, I have seen it quietly morph into a server platform capable of reliably servicing legacy, client/server, and Web-based business computing. But stay tuned because if I'm right, IBM's future plans for the AS/400 will make it an even more powerful and versatile platform. I predict that in the next four years the "quiet lion" will make an increasingly loud roar -- powerful enough to rock its rivals.

It's no secret that Microsoft's Windows NT has made strong inroads into current AS/400 shops. More than 80 per cent of AS/400 sites also use Windows NT at a departmental level. What is truly interesting is IBM's response. Though it has not marketed it well, it's a clever response on a technical level.

In a unique fashion, IBM has equipped its AS/400 64-bit operating system (OS/400 V4R3) with capabilities to run both the native OS and NT on the AS/400 concurrently. AS/400 shops that run both OSes can choose to have an AS/400 controlled network that is managed by the NT graphical interface.

What's more, OS/400 and NT running concurrently on the AS/400 can share the AS/400 server resources, such as disk. I believe this capability will lead to a lot of shops using NT at a departmental level to consolidate NT services onto the beefier AS/400. That should help IBM stem the tide of NT encroachment.

Microsoft may also feel the pinch of those sites running Lotus Domino on NT even though right now Exchange is outselling Notes by a heavy margin. The AS/400 now sports native support for Lotus Domino and the venerable platform's hefty hardware configurations provide greater scalability than Domino running on Windows NT.

IBM is also making moves to make the AS/400 platform more competitive in the world of Java. IBM is working on a Java-centric version of the OS/400 for OEMs. The package is expected to include the OS/400 operating system kernel with a Java engine and Java-based applications for vertical markets, such as insurance, financial service companies, and others. That wisely plays to the AS/400's traditional strength in vertical business environments.

I believe this expected IBM OEM package promises both good and bad news for Sun. The good news: IBM will help propel Java across a greater number of vertical markets. The bad news: I think the combination of OS/400's object-oriented operating system and Java will be a star performer that could take sales away from Sun's Sparc platform.

The AS/400 lion is also roaring into application server territory and beefing up the platform for those who need to support Web commerce. The latest OS/400 release boasts a built-in Web server and IBM's WebSphere Application Server, which supports 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer encryption. The duo could up the ante for Netscape, Oracle, and others in the widening application server market.

IBM also expects to provide an AS/400 version of the Apache Web server this month. And, by the end of this year, IBM will be adding caching services -- called Fast Response Cache Accelerator -- that promise improved performance for Web-commerce applications.

Architecturally, the AS/400 will undergo some additional morphing between 1999 and 2002. IBM expects to give AS/400 customers the capability to logically partition multi-processor systems into smaller units to support specific division or departmental business functions. By 2002, IBM expects to scale AS/400 configurations to 32 processors.

I think the newly released AS/400 capabilities combined with forthcoming features will prove a formidable competitor for rivals. Is the "lion" in the "chameleon" ready to give Sun and even Microsoft a run for their money? What do you think? Write to me.

Senior Analyst Maggie Biggs (maggie_biggs@infoworld.com) evaluates application development, database, and enterprise resource planning technologies at the test centre of InfoWorld, a US-based sister publication of ComputerWorld

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