Interview: AS/400: Still here

It's over 29 years since Frank Soltis first approached IBM with his ideas for the architecture of a business computer. His concepts were incorporated first into the company's S/38 and then into the AS/400.

Despite continuing predictions of its demise, the AS/400 appears to be stronger than ever, both maintaining its existing user base and attracting new advocates. Next month, IBM will launch a dedicated AS/400 for its Domino software, and there may be similar such servers for other applications in future.

In an interview in Hong Kong last week, IBM's AS/400 chief scientist, based in Rochester, Minnesota, talked about AS/400 -- past, present and future. Soltis was on an Asian tour to address local AS/400 users.

IDGNS: How do you respond to the reports that continue to predict the imminent demise of the AS/400?

Frank Soltis (FS): Twenty years ago, people said that Cobol would die, but there's more Cobol now than there's ever been. In 1993, the newspapers were saying that the AS/400 had three years to live. But what is a proprietary system these days? In the world of e-business, it doesn't matter. You can be signing onto a mainframe from the Web and you don't know it. We've used all open standards on the AS/400. We could brand it a Unix box, but we don't want to.

IDGNS: What about the blending of the midrange AS/400 and IBM's Unix server RS/6000? How far has that progressed and does that mean that one of the architectures becomes redundant?

FS: We didn't explain the consolidation too well. The AS/400 and RS/6000 are running on the same platform -- almost. In our manufacturing plant in Rochester for the Americas and Asia-Pacific, the AS/400 and RS/6000 are using the exact same manufacturing line, it's the same in Europe with our manufacturing for EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa.) Over the next two years, we will make the hardware part absolutely identical which will enable us to lower development and manufacturing costs.

No, the AS/400 and RS/6000 will continue. There are very different markets for Unix and the AS/400 and we have to be in all of them. We have to have a strong presence in Unix. Our AS/400 business is about the size of Sun Microsystems. We will merge the hardware and software together. We're doing that for the AS/400, RS/6000 and our mainframes and Netfinity machines.

IDGNS: How do you counter two of the biggest worries for AS/400 users that there aren't enough programmers and applications for the machine?

FS: Two years ago we started pushing very heavily on Java. A Java server runs best in the AS/400 environment since both are virtual machines and both are object-based. The new applications will come in the Java world. If you're using what Sun certifies as 100 Percent Pure Java, you can write applications for any platform and they can run unchanged on the AS/400.

On the other hand, there is a huge base of RPG (Report Program Generator -- AS/400 proprietary programming language) applications. We were a little slow in recognising the need for more education to develop more people in RPG. Two and a half years ago we started to change that and there are about 400 colleges and universities teaching AS/400 courses.

IDGNS: What about the lag in porting IBM software to the AS/400? For example, you've only recently ported Universal Database to AS/400?

FS: You shouldn't see that any more. AS/400 had its own DB/400 database, but now we're all going with Universal Database as a common base. When the software's available on one platform, it'll be available on all. But you may see some staging occurring. For instance, RS/6000 has a new processor technology, so there should be another release of OS/400. But we've made the decision not to install it, but to hold off until after 2000.

IDGNS: Has the AS/400 ever really moved beyond its niche in the manufacturing industry?

FS: That depends to some extent on where you are in the world. In some countries, the AS/400 is more heavily into financial markets, but we're still mostly emphasising manufacturing, although it is used in lots of other industries from retail to medical. It's a little known fact that more ERP solutions run on the AS/400 than on any other platform.

Then the size of installations varies. In the UK, we have a lot of very large AS/400 sites, but in Italy and here in Hong Kong, we have lots of very small sites. We've shipped well over 600,000 AS/400s and we estimate that 500,000 of them are still doing business applications. We deliver a new AS/400 every 15 seconds of the business day. 1998 was the biggest year in our history, due to a number of things including the new technology we've put into the AS/400, Y2K and people upgrading their machines.

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