It Had to Happen: An AS/400 True Romance
August 23, 2004 Jeff Beddow
A few weeks ago, I was scanning the ads on eBay and my eye was caught by the improbable offer of an IBM “mainframe” AS/400 9406 system in “good condition.” The current bid was $0.99. Ninety-nine cents. For a mainframe. Living in Minnesota, I knew just enough about the IBM computers to know they were midrange, not true mainframe, computers. But that was about all. I read the eBay ad, bookmarked it, and moved on.
At dinner that night, my sons, my wife, and I joked about my getting a “mainframe” for the basement. I have been involved in computers since the late 1970s and trained on an IBM System/360 mainframe, but my work had been on microcomputers (PCs) since the 1980s. As computers got smaller, lighter, and faster, I had missed the physicality of the instrument. I missed the gravitas of a room-sized box burning numbers in its tons of EBCDIC-lined entrails.
Over the next few days, I googled “AS/400” and saw the contemporary prices and the shrinking of the newer servers to a passable workstation size. And I kept going back to the eBay ad. It showed a shoulder-height cabinet of heavy-gauge steel, housing writhing coils of data anacondas, 240 volt mains, a power supply as big as a coffee table, a CPU cage as big as a small dog house. Ah, the sheer density and “is-ness” of it came through the digital photos. One part of my mind watched in alarm as the romantic in me began to imagine bidding on the machine, carting it into the basement, getting it running, maybe installing Linux or writing BASIC code to create an FM synthesizer–unofficially the world’s heaviest digital synthesizer, I guessed.
I couldn’t help myself. On the downside, I knew that IBM had proprietary terminals, and this was just the cabinet housing an assortment of hard drives, CPU, feature cards, and power supply. The ad admitted that the sellers were salvagers, not business brokers, and they could only list the part numbers of the feature cards. They couldn’t guarantee that it would even power up. They trusted the government guys who had brought it out of the city IT department when they said it had been running the day before they unplugged it and muscled it onto the truck.
They didn’t know how old it was. Or if it was just one of many nodes in a system. Or anything, really.
Some pilot light that had been burning imperceptibly in the back of my brain for 20 years suddenly was given the fuel to roar into a full fire. I began to want the AS/400. I wanted to own it myself, to use it as a personal computer and play around with it like a “normal” suburban dad would play with a 1974 Plymouth Duster, reliving fantasies of a lost youth while tinkering harmlessly with one of the icons of that youth.
It bothered me that the other AS/400 systems for sale on eBay were selling for $1,500 to $12,000, with most running more than $6,000. And they were smaller and dark. How old could this be? Was it the wooly mastodon to the modern elephant? Was it a congress of extinctions all waiting to vote unanimously on the stupidity of my dream when I found that they didn’t work, couldn’t be supported or replaced, and were scorned by all knowledgeable professionals?
I didn’t have time to do the research. I didn’t know how to begin, actually. I could see myself calling a local consulting shop or someone at IBM Rochester and trying to explain that I knew nothing about the AS/400 but wanted to buy one and could they help? For free? And the gale of laughter would float the balloon of their scorn all the way north to Bloomington, where I live.
The night before the auction ended, I sat in the basement in front of my 2.6 GHz, Pentium 4 Wintel machine. I knew without a doubt that it could compute rings around the AS/400. In a box the size of a toaster oven, with over 160 GB of external storage and 1 GB of RAM, the Pentium was probably greatly superior to the early 1990s AS/400 behemoth I dreamed of. I couldn’t justify the move based on power and speed.
My imagination kept supplying me with analogies, to confound the laughing hordes upon their discovery of my current dream. “A bass viol player wouldn’t be impressed or happy if he could make the bass viol the size of a thimble,” I could hear myself explaining. “A mahood in India wouldn’t be impressed if elephants could be shrunk to the size of a matchbox and given the agility to run 200 miles per hour. There is something to space and time and mass that counts, after all. We don’t live just in our forebrains, one thin move from the abstractions of math and verbal patterns. We live as well around our heels, which are pounded by our loping mass of meat and bone density with every step. We live and are informed by gravity as well as velocity, inertia as well as floating point operations. We plan with our brains, but we love with our bodies.” Perhaps their laughter would subside. Perhaps simply out of pity for me.
As the 11:00 a.m. auction deadline drew near, I clicked into the eBay page, expecting to see that the $0.99 bid had mushroomed to hundreds or thousands of dollars. I would have been relieved. It would have taken away the option of sealing my folly with a trivial bid. I clicked the refresh button. The $0.99 stayed put, like the carapace of a small transparent insect that had died between two panes of window glass. Again and again, I expected the snipers to come lumbering up out of their wealthy bunkers, firing hundred-dollar increments at each other in a blazing shoot out in the final minutes.
Nothing happened. It counted down to 3 minutes left. I got my wife on the phone, hoping the sound of her voice would call forth my daylight consciousness and dispel the enchantment. She chatted brightly, not suspecting that I was trying to use her sobriety as a last line of defense against my fantasy.
It was no use. At 40 seconds I entered $10 and hit the confirm button. I got a reply almost immediately that I had the winning bid of $6.50 with 20 seconds to go. I waited to see the bid change, but the seconds counted down. I refreshed the screen with the urgency of a Vegas slot junkie. 12 seconds. 7 seconds. 3 seconds. This auction was over. I had the winning bid. A bright green check mark seemed to grin at me with hints of a darkly taunting satire.
I owned a mainframe. It could crush my cat. It could sink into my damp lawn. It could crack all the flooring in the basement. It could absorb rounds of .38 fire without stopping. My heart felt a faint warmth. This was certifiably nuts.
And I loved it.
Jeff Beddow is an amateur computer music composer, a professional Web page editor, a part-time writer, and a newly fledged collector of AS/400 “stuff” as he pioneers the frontier of “personal midrange” computing as a hobby and labor of love. If you have knowledge or parts of a 1993 vintage 9406 and want to help him light it up, contact Jeff at email@example.com.