Concerns rise as AS/400 Goes e-commerce

While the 700,000 or so customers of the AS/400 are notoriously passionate and loyal about their midrange box, some are less enamoured of the steps IBM has been taking to evolve it into an e-business server.

In the past few years, IBM has been evolving the AS/400 from a staid file and application server to a sexy, flexible IP-based e-commerce machine. Among some of IBM's recent moves are the phasing out of SNA Windows clients in favor of software packages that support IP applications alone; porting complex e-commerce business intelligence applications to the OS/400 operating system; and introducing dedicated AS/400 machines for running Lotus Domino Web applications.

Recently, Big Blue also started to offer developers a so-called Portable Application Solutions Environment (PASE) toolkit to port Unix applications to the AS/400. IBM will someday also provide a way for users to run Linux applications. Both moves open the AS/400 to a range of Web applications never before available for the platform. Additionally, the company has already gotten out of the 5250 SNA controller business and ceded the market to connectivity vendor Perle Systems.

Paula Richards, an IBM application technologist, said while addressing an auditorium full of AS/400 users at the COMMON technical education convention in March that the box was becoming "really gnarly," or cool. She boasted the AS/400, which powers the Web site of the famous fashion designer Gucci, can handle most e-business needs. Other high profile e-business users include Saab, Dreyfus Brokerage and Wimbledon.

The firm has done everything it can to evolve the AS/400 into an effective e-business machine, says Nora Craig, head of Craig's Creative Concepts consultancy in Williamstown, New Jersey. IBM has made available all necessary the e-business tools, she says. "The trick is picking the right ones," she says.

On the other hand, one user, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes IBM has at times clumsily rushed the Web-ification of the AS/400. "The AS/400 was traditionally a management accounting system, like the mainframe," he says. The addition of Web serving functions, such as an IP stack and firewall, were done too quickly.

Some of the products brought to the market have not worked well, such as the IBM Firewall for OS/400, which is now slated for withdrawal. The firewall was expensive to purchase and difficult to configure, he says.

Rocky road to the present

Indeed the evolution of the machine has meant some growing pains. For instance, IBM has added a Windows client graphical user interface to let information systems managers configure the AS/400, called Operations Navigator; traditional AS/400 managers used text-based Command Line controls that IS staff inputted via keyboard.

However, some users have been writing Command Line commands for 22 years, and there is no viable way to port those commands to Operations Navigator - even in five to 10 years, says Al Barsa, principal at Barsa Consulting Group, a Westchester, New York, consultancy. His firm also relies on AS/400 machines to handle internal applications.

Specifically, IBM has added features to Operations Navigator such as the ability to do Web or Domain Name System (DNS) configurations, that Command Line doesn't recognize. IBM claims most AS/400 managers like the look and feel of a Windows interface, especially younger programmers out of college. Nevertheless, there is the fear that some of the more traditional Command Line administrators are being left behind.

"What IBM has chosen to do is start adding functions to Operations Navigator only," Barsa says.

However, the company is looking into creating an API that would automate DNS configuration for Command Line users, says Ian Jarman, an IBM executive. He says, however, IBM is not planning to automate all Command Line commands, which would be impractical.

Spreading the word

One of the foremost fears of AS/400 managers is they will not be able to find qualified help. Big Blue has done a good job of evolving the machine's technology, Barsa says, but the company needs to put more muscle in education and marketing. The issues are connected, he says. "If it's not being well marketed, then schools don't know to teach it," he says.

Analyst Craig says the main problems with the AS/400's evolution are connected with the availability of getting the right e-business applications and the qualified people to install them.

Indeed, it isn't clear if a systems integrator, third party software provider or even IBM could provide an entire e-business implementation on the AS/400, says John Dell'Antonia, chief information officer of OshKosh B'Gosh, an Oshkosh, Wisconsin, maker and distributor of children's clothing.

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