AS/400: Still Kicking After 21 Years
June 22, 2009 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The AS/400, in its current incarnation as the Power Systems server platform running the i 6.1 operating system and the DB2 for i integrated database, turns 21 this week. I think that means it can finally buy hard liquor and have a stiff drink, which is something that such a venerable platform as the AS/400 certainly deserves. I think it is safe to say that you old timers, the AS/400 faithful who predate whippersnappers like me (with only 20 years in the market) all need a good stiff drink, with the global economy in the state that it is in and all sectors of the IT space under siege.
I get a kind of satisfaction out of the fact that Microsoft is learning all about what it is like to try to peddle legacy application platforms–I mean Windows, in all of its various flavors. There’s nothing wrong with being a legacy platform, as you AS/400 shops well know. Look at how many people want to keep Windows XP, right? Nobody wants to pay more money for new Windows software, particularly if all it does is enrich Microsoft and Intel’s PC and server partners. The AS/400 was, by comparison to the Windows PC and server installed base, small potatoes, with a mere 8,000 partners and maybe 20,000 to 25,000 applications at its peak in the late 1990s. The Windows partner channel is probably one order of magnitude larger, and the installed base of applications (if you count both PCs and servers) is probably an order of magnitude larger, too. Like IBM in days of old, Microsoft doesn’t throw these numbers around very often, but I recall Microsoft’s chief executive officer, Steve Ballmer, saying that the company has either 100,000 or 200,000 partners. All I remember thinking was: damn, that is a big number.
Size helps, and it is certainly true that the vast installed base of AS/400 shops and their ga-zillions of lines of RPG and COBOL code have helped keep the AS/400–or what remains of its identity as the Power Systems i–alive for the past decade. If the 1990s were tough on the proprietary midrange thanks in large part to the open systems (but not open source) Unix revolution, the 2000s have been brutal on these platforms thanks to the ubiquitousness of Windows and the open source revolution characterized best by the Linux platform. As so-called midrange platforms go, the AS/400 is basically the only surviving member that is seeing ongoing development and an appreciable revenue stream. Hewlett-Packard‘s MPE proprietary operating system and integrated database for its HP 3000 minis was mothballed years ago (but is still supported), and while Digital’s OpenVMS platform was ported to the Itanium chip by HP a few years back, its RDB database has been owned by Oracle for nearly a decade and HP has just quietly announced that it has outsourced OpenVMS development to India.
There are some smaller mainframes running IBM’s z/OS, VSE, or VM operating systems, Unisys sells some relatively small MCP and OS2200 mainframes, and there’s still NetWare of a sort from Novell that you might consider proprietary (it is basically NetWare services running atop Linux at this point). Bull even has an emulation layer that allows GCOS 7 and GCOS 8 applications to run on its Itanium-based Novascale systems running Linux.
It would be easy to talk about the AS/400 winning the proprietary systems battle but losing the open systems and open source wars. We could do this all day, back and forth, over a bunch of cold beers down by the river, waiting for the fish to bite. And I would truly enjoy that conversation, because I don’t think the situation is that clear cut. And, in all honesty, I have never been involved in a market like the AS/400 market–I have been involved in a lot of markets not at all like the AS/400 market, and it ain’t usually pleasant–and like most of you (if not all of you) I want this market to survive and adapt to survive some more, even if it can’t thrive like in the old days when computers were more expensive and rare and making a living in this space was a lot, lot easier. (Funny how it didn’t seem like it at the time, eh?)
I was sitting on the couch this past weekend with my son, who was curious what this thing called a briefcase was. I tried to explain that people used to carry these things around to look like they were all business, and I opened mine up, which is now full of my wedding photos and slides, which my wife, Elizabeth, and I have still not put together into a proper wedding album. Henry and I looked at some photos for a while, and when I was going through the pockets, I pulled out this little slip of paper I kept for the past two decades. On that slip of crumpled paper was a message I wrote down–Sharon Brady, one of the founding editors of The Four Hundred–a phone number, an embarrassingly low salary offer that was more money than I had ever seen in my life and not nearly enough for me to live in Manhattan (which is how I ended up living in Harlem that set me on course to meet my wife). I explained to Henry that not only had the AS/400 fed and clothed me, and allowed me to help others less fortunate in our family, but in a funny way that fate works, kept me in Harlem long enough so meeting my wife was inevitable while at the same time teaching me a trade and getting me on track to a living wage. Well, something a lot closer to it, anyway.
A life turns on so few events.
The future is, as I have said in years past, never unbounded. It is not infinite, at least not for us as individuals with our four score years. The whole possibility of what you can experience in your life can be encompassed in a sphere marked out by the speed of light from the point in space time where you were born, and if you live here on Earth, as most of us do, you’ll experience a lot less than that because you simply don’t move that fast. In fact, we make a pretty tight spiral that spins in an ellipse around a pretty midrange star at the end of a spiral arm in a not too special galaxy. But even with that, the future still remains open. (Neat trick, that.) There are always possibilities, as I usually remind myself and you around the summer solstice, when we are celebrating the birthday of the venerable AS/400.
The AS/400 may be past its prime in 1998, when it had 275,000 customers, generated something like $5 billion in hardware and operating system sales, an installed base of maybe 500,000 machines, and something between 50,000 and 90,000 sales a year of new systems. But that does not mean the AS/400 is done contributing to businesses, of which maybe 200,000 worldwide are still using the boxes. I have no idea what IBM will do with the AS/400, but as long as companies want to run RPG and COBOL applications that hit a DB2/400 database, you can bet that IBM will deliver that functionality, and that means the AS/400 ecosystem can continue to serve the customers that make those choice, helping them modernize what they are doing without throwing away all of the hard work they have done.
There’s no shame to that, and I personally drank to that on June 21. I hope you did, too.