The Platform that Pays

SAN MATEO (07/31/2000) - With Y2K issues a distant memory, businesses around the globe have shifted their focus to the Internet. Web site development, groupware deployment, e-commerce projects, and legacy-to-Web initiatives have conspired with ongoing projects to place new demands on servers. As a result, many technology managers are re-evaluating their enterprise servers with an eye toward the future.

On the heels of a major upgrade announcement, IBM Corp.'s venerable AS/400 server has become the subject of renewed interest among businesses seeking a reliable, scalable platform for the new millennium. Boasting a sixth-generation, 64-bit architecture, the AS/400 continues to benefit from Big Blue's ongoing, multibillion dollar investment in AS/400 technology.

To help meet the demands of enterprise e-commerce applications, the AS/400 features native support for key Web-enabling technologies such as Java, Lotus Domino, and IBM's WebSphere. In addition, it has become a popular platform for Windows NT and Windows 2000 application serving. When coupled with recent price reductions that improve its price-to-performance ratio, the platform's appeal as an enterprise server is reaching new heights. In this analysis, the InfoWorld Test Center examines the merits of the AS/400 relative to its ROI and applicability in e-commerce application serving.

In late May, IBM announced Version 4, Release 5 (V4R5) of OS/400 -- the AS/400's operating system. Along with OS improvements, the release highlighted new AS/400 models, microchip technology, price reductions, and performance improvements. Because price and performance are integral components of ROI analyses, let's consider these factors.

While price and performance improved across the AS/400 server line, space considerations preclude detailed analysis of each model. Therefore we will examine the relative price and performance of several specific models. It is important to note that, unlike that of other platforms, the price of the AS/400 includes the cost of its relational database (DB2 Universal Database for AS/400), operating system (OS/400), Java Virtual Machine (JVM), Web application server, security and management facilities, and at least one CPU. You need not purchase these components separately, nor do you need incur annual license fees for your database.

As part of the V4R5 operating system release, IBM also announced the new Model 270 AS/400e. Tuned for e-commerce, Java, and Web applications, the Model 270 offers customers four processor performance points with a 13-fold bottom-to-top range of performance.

Thanks to copper technology, more memory, Pulsar CPU(s), and more DASD (direct access storage device) arms, Model 270 performance is comparable to that of the Model 170 it supplants but at one-third the cost. After examining list and support prices for competing solutions, I found that Model 270 AS/400e servers cost less than comparably equipped Unix servers running Oracle and Wintel machines running Microsoft SQL Server. IBM also announced the Model 250 AS/400e, a new, low-cost server designed for small businesses with mixed workloads.

IBM also heralded the Model 8xx servers with performance-boosting microchips made of Silicon-on-Insulator (SOI) transistors and copper wiring. The AS/400's new, patented chip technology helped the IBM AS/400 set several notable performance and scalability benchmarks in June.

A single 24-way Model 840 machine just set a new world record for Lotus Domino scalability and performance by successfully handling 75,000 concurrent mail users with an average response time of 276 milliseconds. In this officially audited benchmark, the AS/400 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.

In terms of server-side Java performance, the AS/400e Model 840 achieved industry-leading VolanoMark and SPECjbb2000 benchmark results. Its SPECjbb2000 scores beat Hewlett-Packard's best results by a factor of two and Compaq's best results by a factor of four.

Furthermore, the Model 840 set a new record for commercial transaction-processing performance. Based on the Transaction Processing Performance Council's TPC-C benchmark, IBM's AS/400 is the world's most powerful system for single-server transaction processing, beating comparable servers from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and Compaq.

The 24-way IBM AS/400e Model 840 server performed a record 152,346.25 transactions per minute at $59.35 per transaction, which was 25 percent better than Sun's 64-way E10000 at just over half the price per transaction. Taken together, these scores demonstrate the platform's relative and absolute performance leadership in running Web, groupware, Java, and database transaction workloads.

Price reductions and performance enhancements have clearly improved the AS/400's ROI. But price and performance are just two components of ROI. To fully evaluate the platform's return, we must examine its TCO. The lower a platform's TCO, the better its ROI. The AS/400 has unique capabilities that lower its TCO and improve its return considerably.

Server consolidation

It's not unusual for enterprises to consolidate servers to help reduce hardware and maintenance costs. One aspect of server consolidation entails replacing multiple computers with a single, more powerful machine. In terms of server consolidation, the AS/400 is very flexible because it can be used to consolidate multiple Windows NT and Windows 2000 servers as well as multiple AS/400 servers.

For example, the Integrated Netfinity Server (INS) card lets a single AS/400 manage up to 16 Intel-based, Windows NT, or Windows 2000 servers. Many businesses use a myriad of Intel-based servers to perform file, print, e-mail, and Web serving functions, as well as to test different versions of Windows.

Replacing these servers with a single AS/400 running INS improves ROI because the price of purchasing and managing one AS/400 is considerably less than the cost of purchasing and managing multiple Intel servers.

Furthermore, INS improves price and performance because it allows Intel-based servers running Windows to utilize the AS/400's RAID storage, mirrored disks, and dedicated I/O processors at no additional cost. As an added benefit, you can also use the AS/400's integrated backup facilities to manage your data centrally, so there is no need to purchase backup hardware or software for your Windows NT or Windows 2000 servers. Finally, AS/400 hardware is considerably more reliable than PC components; your maintenance costs are lower with INS because you don't have to replace parts as frequently.

In cases where Lotus Domino is implemented on multiple Windows NT or Windows 2000 servers, IBM provides an AS/400 solution that effectively eliminates the need for multiple Intel-based boxes. With Lotus Domino for AS/400, a single AS/400 can be partitioned to manage multiple Domino servers independently. Due to the benefits of server consolidation, the AS/400's TCO in Domino environments is considerably lower than that of PC servers. An IDC study found that the TCO for a 500-user Domino configuration on the AS/400 was 51 percent lower than a similar PC-based implementation.

Thanks to the seamless integration of its components, the AS/400 offers ROI benefits that extend beyond its reduced price. For example, when a new version of OS/400 is released, users are assured that it has been tested thoroughly with the same database, CPUs, security facilities, and other native AS/400 components that they currently use. Businesses that mix and match databases (Oracle, Sybase, Informix, or SQL Server), operating systems (Unix, Linux, Windows), and hardware (Sun, Intel, Digital, Compaq, Dell) may create unique environments that require relatively more testing before operating system upgrades can be installed.

Another benefit to AS/400 integration is its built-in security package. With other systems you must purchase costly add-on products to manage auditing and other security functions. The OS/400 comes ready to perform these essential security functions. Furthermore, AS/400 security can be implemented and maintained more easily than security on mixed platforms. A manager tasked with security management on a Unix-hosted Oracle application, for example, must understand, implement, and administer Unix operating system security as well as Oracle database security. Finally, because the AS/400 supports multiple layers (system, user, and object) of security including SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), VPNs, one-time passwords, digital certificates, exit points, and IP packet filtering, the potential for a costly security breach is greatly reduced.

In terms of storage management, AS/400 customers have seldom required costly DBAs (database administrators). Database products, such as Oracle, are typically managed by full-time DBAs who must create table spaces and other structures to accommodate growth efficiently. If improperly planned, application errors result when data exceeds specified boundaries. On the AS/400, IBM DB2 Universal Database for AS/400 rarely requires such administration because it is seamlessly integrated with OS/400.

With its enviable ROI, impressive performance, and support for both legacy and Web-based applications, the AS/400s future has never looked brighter.

Organizations that have relied on the AS/400 for back office processing for more than a decade can effectively extend their reliance on the platform to modern, cutting-edge e-commerce applications.

Scott Steinacher is a writer and consultant who has vast expertise with the AS/400 platform. He can be reached at

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