Editorial: AS/400s - tough nuts to crack

Dr Frank Soltis, chief scientist for IBM's AS/400, was in town recently to discuss the future of the platform he has been pivotal in shaping. I first heard about the AS/400 back in the late 80s when it went by the project name 'Silverlake'. It's a long time ago, but I do remember the whole thing being hyped to hell. In the early 90s that followed IBM was generally reinventing itself with mass layoffs (in areas such as mar-comms), rehiring (in areas such as services), and by being busy taking some distracting technology directions (remember OS/2). Nevertheless the AS/400 platform managed to be widely adopted, scaled up and reinvented. Worldwide it has so far notched up sales of 700,000 units.

Dr Soltis thinks, given the many advances, it may have been better to rename the AS/400 (beyond AS/400e) from the mid-90s onwards. At least then it may have avoided some of the 'legacy dinosaur' barbs which concern IS managers like Oystein Berg from Caprice Australia (letter below). As part of solutions packages, the 64-bit machine has been a proven workhorse in companies like Caprice for years, reliably supporting back-office applications, ERP, CRM, business intelligence, and, latterly, e-commerce. Naturally enough, Dr Soltis sees a big e-business future for the system as a heavy-duty transaction serving platform. Customers considering their back-end transaction requirements are looking at the AS/400 and at Unix, he says.

"Obviously the biggest growth area is business-to-business and if you take a look at the types of servers that you need for that kind of environment, you need something that's capable of handling heavy transactions. That's really what the AS/400 is all about. It's not really Web serving, but a heavy-duty transaction serving platform," he said in an interview recently.

"We've been driving the scalability of this thing way up because we're seeing just a tremendous interest in these big systems, and a lot of it is [server] consolidation. We can put out a 24-way AS/400 and blow away a 64-way Sun.

"Our top-end 840 is the biggest SMP [symmetric multiprocessor] we believe the world's ever built. It's bigger than any mainframe. It's bigger than any Unix box that we're aware of. It's about 2200 mainframe Mips, which is a really big system." The power curve will continue to be pushed with copper chip and silicon insulator technologies.

A single 24-way Model 840 machine recently set a world record for Lotus Domino scalability and performance by handling 75,000 concurrent mail users with an average response time of 276 milliseconds. In this audited benchmark, the AS/400 reportedly supported 10 times as many concurrent users as the largest audited enterprise server from Sun Microsystems, and more than five times as many concurrent users as the largest audited offering from Compaq, while cutting the average response time in half. A recent IDC study claims that the AS/400e's total cost of ownership in Domino environments is much lower than that of PC servers, largely due to server consolidation.

The AS/400e's technological guts include the 64-bit operating system (OS/400), 64-bit database (UDB/400), one or more 64-bit Risc CPUs that can directly address far more storage and process bigger chunks of data more quickly than 32-bit servers, and support for up to 12 CPUs in an SMP configuration with up to four terabytes of disk storage and 2.5GB of main memory. The platform will also support MPP (massively parallel processing) computing tasks, with up to 32 AS/400e servers clustered together. CPUs are allowed to focus on intensive operations such as the execution of program logic, as many tasks traditionally performed by CPUs are offloaded to dedicated I/O processors attached via high-speed, fibre-optic buses. As an object-based system, the AS/400e is also a tough nut for hackers to crack - no virus has ever been reported in the AS/400e arena.

But the case put by Soltis goes beyond processing horsepower. Operating system advances, for example, make it easier to partition one of these beasts into multiserver configurations that can run independently for different parts of your business or interact with different business partners. Version 4 Release 4 of OS/400 arrived last year with more than three million new lines of code dedicated primarily to e-commerce.

I've always been a little bemused by people who have a Mac-like religious devotion to what is, after all, just another type of computer. But after meeting Dr Soltis and researching this AS/400 commercial break (er um - editorial) it's clear that Oystein and peers are onto more than just another beige box. But PLEASE - if your experience is the opposite of Oystein's (ie, not so good) I'd be only too happy to print your letters also.


Editor in chief

PS: It's great to welcome new editor Richard Wood to the team. Richard is former editor of Computerworld New Zealand and has several years experience in IT journalism and as an IS manager. Starting next issue, we'll be sharing this column space week about.

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