Time Sharing: An Old Concept That’s Still With Us
July 17, 2006 Mary Lou Roberts
Time sharing is certainly not new. The term has actually been around since the 1950s, when it designated the idea (unrealized at that time) that a computer could simultaneously be shared by more than one user. Of course, we have long since achieved that goal, and these days, with the exception of most personal computers (and even these can be set up to be shared if you are clever), just about all computers are time sharing in that context.
When computers capable of sharing their processing cycles–and therefore running multiple jobs for multiple people simultaneously–became the norm in the late 1960s and 1970s, several companies sprang up offering time sharing services to other companies that wanted to avoid the costs of purchasing, renting, or leasing their own systems and paying for the data processing personnel to support these systems, or who could never afford them in the first place.
It’s an understatement to say that much has changed in the computing world today. Computing costs have dropped dramatically–logarithmically, in fact–and the company that does not own a computer is non-existent. In fact, the professional who doesn’t own a computer of his or her own is an aging dinosaur. It no longer takes an entire floor of a building to house a single computer and its card readers (remember those things), tape drives, and disk drives. While some large systems still require special environmental considerations, personal computers and many servers (like the System i5) hum away in just about any conditions. These changes negate, to some extent, the need for time sharing services as we knew them decades ago.
At the same time, the Internet has made it much easier to access remote computers and has, therefore, made time sharing services more available to more people–and not just companies, either. Individuals as well as corporations can buy time to do whatever it is they need or want to do for which they may not have capacity or access through the corporate route. The nascent utility computing market that Sun Microsystems is pushing so hard is a return to the time sharing days, but using gridded systems and software, based on glorified Internet technology, that allows small or massive amounts of computing capacity to be brought to bear fairly quickly on jobs–all for $1 per CPU hour. Utility computing is just time sharing, Internet-style.
So what’s happening in the OS/400 world with time sharing services? Who’s offering them, and who’s using them?
I admit to having been somewhat frustrated in my attempts to answer the question of who is offering time sharing services. I’ve located at least six companies or Web sites that claim to have an offering. But repeated attempts over a ten-day time frame to contact these companies by both email and phone failed. From this, one can only conclude that a) they aren’t serious about the time sharing business (maybe because the demand is so small?); b) the staffs of these companies are so small that they don’t pick up their email or voice mail in a timely fashion; and/or c) they shun publicity (not a normal state for a service provider).
There were two services, however, that gladly provided some insight into what’s happening in the OS/400 time sharing world.
The first of these services is Netshare400, run by John Ross, president of JMR Consulting. Ross started the service in 1999 (“I missed all the Y2K opportunity for testing”), and offers access to an i5 and AS/400s. He offers to customers either a shared system with some security restrictions because of other users using the box, or a dedicated i5 or AS/400.
Ross says he started the service because IBM was offering new features on the AS/400, “but people had no where to learn them outside of books or classes that did not really allow you the time to use the features unless the companies they were working for allowed them to use the company’s AS/400 to learn them.”
At the time, Ross recalls, there was one company in the United Kingdom that offered time sharing services, but because of that company’s phone system, it had to charge for time used–which Ross does not. Instead, developers are charged a single price based on the number of months they sign on for. On the i5 520, the first month is free, and the price scales from $30 for one month to $240 for one year. You get 125 MB of disk space dedicated to your stuff, three libraries to park it in, two sign-on sessions, one job queue, and two out queues. If you need Net.Data or CGI for Web scripting, you need to ask for it and work it out with Ross. Accounts on the AS/400 170 he sells access to cost half as much.
Not too much has changed in the time sharing arena since Ross launched his service seven years ago, and the growth in his customer base has come largely from word of mouth. But cost is one thing that is different: it is lower now because, as he says, “I can get a bigger i5 520 for about the same cost I paid for an AS/400 170. The Internet connection is about the only cost that has gone up, but that was because I went from ISDN to a T1 connection.”
Ross reports that many different types of people use his service, with the two largest groups being developers who want to try something new (features in the latest release of the operating system, CGI, Java, and PHP, for example), and people who want to learn the platform. Typically, those who already know the platform will buy three to twelve months at a time, and those who are just learning will buy a month at a time. He also has customers who are developers and marketers of OS/400 and i5/OS software, in addition to some who write software for other platforms but need to test ODBC with an AS/400 or System i5. He also encounters companies that want to test their OS/400 and i5/OS software on different versions. Finally, he says that he get calls after every major disaster.
Time sharing offers many advantages for users, says Ross–primarily convenience (users do not have to worry about upgrades, PTFs, backups, and other operations functions, and the startup of something new like PHP) and cost. “Users pay less for a year of service than I do for one month of hardware and software maintenance,” Ross says. But there are some disadvantages for users, too. “If users want to learn operations or they need access to QSECOFR or *ALLOBJ, I cannot provide that on a shared system. They also lose some control in that they may not be able to go to a new release when they want to or get something installed as quickly as they could if they did it themselves. They also can’t learn the setup process of something new, like PHP.”
It’s easy to start a time sharing business, Ross says, if you have an i5, an Internet connection, and a dedicated IP address. However, he points out that “Time sharing is not a high-profit business and I doubt that anyone is living off of the time share part of the business. I really do it for what I learn, and I have learned a lot from others asking questions. Before I started, I would say that I was the typical AS/400 programmer who could program pretty well in RPG III. But now I can also do RPG ILE, SQL, networks, security, and some Java.” With a smile, Ross adds, “In addition, I understand that WebSphere is a brand, not a product (pet peeve).”
Another time sharing service that started about the same time–late 1999 to early 2000–is TimeShare400. Dan Shea, the company’s president, says that his service began by offering access to a then-current machine running V4R4 with the usual development tools: RPG, Cobol, SEU, SDA, among other things, along with an HTTP server. “The service was intended for technically savvy, ‘low maintenance’ users who, given an IP address and a user ID, would be self-sufficient in terms of signing on, transferring save files, and restoring code,” he says. Today, the service makes several machines available with operating systems ranging from OS/400 V4R5 to i5/OS V5R3. Shea laments that, “Sadly, the old workhorse V3R2 machine was recently retired and sent off to recycling.”
Shea says that most customers sign up for a month initially and then, after gaining a comfort level, tend to sign up for a six-month or twelve-month stretch, while some sign on for a month-to-month billing arrangement.
Pricing for the service varies depending on account type. Individual accounts are intended for casual users who may want a machine to play with on the weekends or for contractors who need occasional access for development and testing. Company accounts are designed for multiple users who need to share resources (for example, libraries), and who tend to be heavier users of the machine. These are more expensive than individual accounts since they are intended to support the commercial development environment. Finally, TimeShare400 offers school training accounts that are designed to provide one “teacher” account and multiple “student” accounts. Shea notes that these accounts tend to have many people signed on, but the activity level varies. “Sometimes everyone is doing nothing, and sometimes everyone is hitting Enter nearly simultaneously.”
A basic developer account at Timeshare400 costs from $15 a month to $120 per year; the longer you commit, the cheaper it gets, just like Netshare400. You get one user ID, two green-screen sessions, on printer session, up to 10 libraries, one job queue, two output queues, and 100 MB of disk space. If you want to add libraries or storage capacity, it costs extra. (You can see the full price list for individuals at Timeshare400 by clicking here and going to the bottom of the page. The price list for companies, who tend to need more stuff, is here.) Corporate accounts cost more and offer access for multiple users and more sign-ons, libraries, and queues. It costs $150 a month for basic corporate accounts.
Shea agrees that the time sharing service business on the OS/400 platform hasn’t changed much over the years he has been involved: “It’s a fairly ‘lights out’ operation since the vast majority of users are technically self-sufficient.” He also agrees with Ross that the business is not a big money maker. “I started the business because I had this expensive hardware and it was sitting around unused most of the time. Making it available lets others use the machines without having to make a large capital investment.” This is one of the big advantages of using a time sharing service, along with the avoidance of maintenance headaches.
But Shea also points out disadvantages, including, in some cases, lack of access to certain functions that require a higher level of authority. “Since the machine is a shared service, users can obviously not have authorities that would allow them to see other users’ objects or source code or have access to system administration functions like changing subsystem definitions.”
What do the users of time sharing services have to say about their experiences? Bradley Stone is president of BVS Tools, a company that provides AS/400-iSeries-i5 (“whatever it’s called today” he said), low-cost software solutions, consulting services, and training manuals, and books. He uses time sharing from Netshare400 for development of his software, learning new programming techniques, writing technical books and articles, and testing code, with an average use of about eight hours per day. He even hosts his company’s Web site on the time sharing service.
Stone first heard about the service in 1999 and tried it out. “I couldn’t believe how easy it was,” he says. “I needed a machine, and instead of purchasing my own and having to worry about operations, PTFs, and all that other stuff, I couldn’t pass up the deal. The economic factors were: pay a few bucks a month for leasing a machine, or spend thousands buying a new or used iSeries, support, operating systems software, etc. It was a no-brainer for me and it allows me to pass on the savings to my customers in the form of low-priced software.”
As for disadvantages, for himself, Stone sees none. However, he does acknowledge that time sharing would not be a good option for someone wanting to learn operations and play around with system settings and configurations. But for programming and learning, “It’s great” he says while, at the same time, cautioning those who might be considering time sharing to “make sure they have everything you’ll need as far as the operating system level, compilers, and support. And third-party software on the machine helps as well.”
Jon Paris, head of Partner400, runs an education-based consultancy that provides education for System i users in all aspects of application modernization and development from tools such as WDSC to programming in RPG, Cobol, and Java. The organization also offers conference education programs with groups such as DevCon, the IBM System i Technical Conference, and COMMON, as well as other user group conferences.
Paris’ reasons for using time sharing differ a little, however. “We are based in Canada, and IBM’s programs for business partners are not very good here. This makes it tough to justify the cost of maintaining a system. For example, he recalls that, “a couple of years ago, IBM was trying to persuade business partners to upgrade their hardware. They reinstated the one percent partner lease (it had risen to two percent at the time) and the minimum order requirement was $7,000. At the time, $7,000 to $8,000 would have been enough to give use the basic system we needed. We applied for the same program with IBM Canada, and the minimum order amount was $25,000 Canadian dollars. At the time, that equated to about $18,000 U.S., which was significantly more than double and way more system than we needed.” Of course Paris could have done what others have done and set up a U.S. company solely for the acquisition of the system, but Paris felt that the paperwork that was involved to do that for a two-person company was “too great to contemplate.”
In another example, Paris point out that in Canada, IBM business partners have to pay for their software while, in the U.S., most of the software is free except for maintenance.
Time sharing was a better option, and has worked well for Paris, who says that “While we may purchase a system in the future, right now time sharing works for us. We also use a number of other systems for development, but as far as supporting our web site, is concerned, Netshare400 has worked well for us.”
And Paris reports that time sharing works well for other people he knows whose needs are similar, as well as “many who use time sharing to develop skills or software that their employers will not let them do. Many companies are foolish enough to think that the System i has no place in a Web world; therefore, they will not let their RPG programmers develop Web applications. Many of these programmers ‘play’ on time sharing services to demonstrate to their management what can be done.”