Big Blue beefing up AS/400's IP muscle

To make its popular AS/400 the server of choice for 'Net applications and IP-based networks, IBM is pumping up the Web performance and quality-of-service (QoS) capabilities of the box's operating system.

One of the new AS/400 features will come in the form of network adapter cards optimised for IP traffic, says Scott Sylvester, an IBM executive. The company also plans to add native ISDN support to the box by year-end. Later, IBM will add QoS and automated security features to bolster the mid-range's virtual private network (VPN) capabilities.

While the AS/400 has long been a solid departmental application box, IBM has been pushing hard to reposition it as a Web server. To complete the metamorphosis, the company over the past couple of years has been improving the box's operating system - OS/400 - to make the AS/400 more Java and Web-friendly. The company also recently announced an AS/400 model optimised to run Lotus.

To bolster IP performance, IBM intends to offer IPonly Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet and Fast Token-Ring network interface cards. The next version of the OS/400 IP stack - OS/400 4.5, available next year - will work hand-in-hand with the new cards to boost IP throughput some 25% to 50% depending on the application.

Currently the AS/400's Ethernet and token-ring cards handle three protocols simultaneously - IP, IPX and SNA. These multiprotocol cards must determine the protocols they are carrying before they can send the traffic out to the network, which can slow performance.

The firm will also improve on OS/400's VPN functions. Sometime in the next 16 months, customers will be able to automatically encrypt sessions based on preselected IP addresses, Sylvester says. Called "VPN on demand," the feature will let customers define VPN sessions with a business partner. When a user initiates a session to that address, the AS/400 will automatically assign the user a security key. The feature eliminates the need for users to manually issue those keys and set up the sessions, IBM says.

IBM will also add Resource Reservation Protocol (RSVP) and Differentiated Services (Diff-Serv) support to the OS/400 4.5 IP stack, Sylvester says. RSVP ensures that bandwidth is available to certain applications; Diff-Serv allows corporate backbones to enforce QoS levels for IP. This will ensure the right workgroups or users get prioritised access to AS/400 resources.

Along with these changes, customers will also be able to preset thresholds for the rate of traffic coming into the AS/400. If at certain times of the day the server gets bombarded with excessive traffic causing a QoS breach, the event will trigger an alarm. The server will then refer back to the preset policy in the IP stack to decide which sessions or applications get priority.

On the hardware side, by year-end IBM will also be adding native PCI-based ISDN connectivity for the AS/400, Sylvester says. This means users will be able to plug an ISDN card in to the server's PCI slot. Previously, users had to attach an external dedicated box to the server for ISDN connectivity.

These moves drew mixed reviews from Gary Cornell, an AS/400 user and IT executive at Wakefield, Mass.-based LDG Reinsurance. He gives a thumbs up to the VPN-on-demand function, particularly for companies using the AS/400 as a Web server. He says his shop uses the AS/400's Web functions only internally right now, but running them over the public 'Net would be a "great idea."

On the other hand, the IP-only adapter cards would only be of use for shops that have that protocol, and Cornell has to run SNA and IP as well as IPX to Novell users, he says.

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