Better Than a Sharp Stick in the i
May 3, 2010 Timothy Prickett Morgan
A business computer, no matter its architecture or applications, is really just a place to have a conversation between a buyer and a seller of a good or a service and the means to record that conversation for posterity. And the tax man. It is amazing to me, some days, that I spend my days as a second or third order derivative of that conversation. I talk about the people who build the platforms that support those transactions, who are themselves once removed from the transactions. It’s all talking about talking about talking. And the funny thing is, all this talk is still interesting to me–and useful to IT shops trying to improve those conversations and therefore their business.
Here we are this week, with COMMON celebrating 50 years of serving the IBM midrange, which got its formal start in 1969 with the launch of the System/3 mini from the hinterlands of Rochester, Minnesota. I may be a whippersnapper compared to many of you out there in AS/400 Land, and I know that more than a few of you are still running System/36 iron somewhere, as if you were part of a computer museum, but the legacy that we are all a part of is truly something unique. And there is nothing wrong with the word legacy. The programmers who made ERP applications that embodied the intercourse that is business (not that kind of intercourse, but the one the Amish people meant when they named their town in Pennsylvania) have created a legacy, as have the project managers who made it all come together like an orchestra composer, as well as the system and software engineers who worked for decades to turn a punch-card driven System/3 minicomputer with load of electro-mechanical genius into a Power7-based Power Systems 720, due soon I hope, and offering nearly incalculable orders of magnitude more of processing capacity.
All to keep business people and their customers talking in ever more sophisticated ways. Facilitating business, and often automating people out of jobs. Sometimes, it seems like the computers are doing all of the business and maybe we don’t really know–as human business managers dealing with much less complex scenarios surely must have in days gone by–how business works any more. It is like farmers losing their keen understanding of the weather when they move to the city to work in a factory. And business–meaning the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of products and services–seems more like weather itself, albeit on the Internet and private networks instead of the atmosphere, and a kind of electronic storm we understand even less than the actual climate around us.
There are plenty of things to complain about with the evolution of the System/3 all the way up to the latest Power Systems. Many of us spend as much time talking about how things should be as to the way things really are. Heaven knows I have done my fair share. But as frustrating as it can be to forecast a better AS/400 market and how we might get there if IBM would only change, it is equally centering for me to realize that the AS/400 and its System/3X predecessors have confounded Big Blue’s own plans, time and time again. You know something is alive when it asserts itself, and the AS/400 is most definitely alive in hundreds of thousands of places. Despite all the people, effort, and money to kill it.
After the dark times are over, there will be three things still alive on earth: Cockroaches, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and RPG applications humming away in bunkers, warehouses, and tucked-away corners of buildings, applications that still think they are running on System/36s (when they are most certainly not) and feeding data to green-screens.
All joking aside, there is no question that most of the leading indicators you might use to talk about the System/3X minis and their progeny are not pointing in the same directions they were five decades ago. It was all up from zero, when there was not, practically speaking, a minicomputer and the Internet was still a dream. IBM sold 24,000 System/3 computers between 1969 and 1974, and that made it the most popular computer of any kind in the company’s history (as gauged by numbers); and the System/32, which was sold between 1975 and 1984, surpassed this. There were 300,000 or so System/34 and System/36 customers by the time the AS/400 was launched in 1988. And by 1993, when Microsoft was getting ready to launch its Windows NT assault on the midrange and was itself a big AS/400 and VAX shop, Bill Gates reportedly joked that if IBM was broken up, as it looked like it might be in the early 1990s, the only piece Microsoft might be interested in was the AS/400 Division. (You can read all the newsgroup postings about Microsoft and the AS/400 here, which Google has preserved for posterity.)
Now if that would not have been a sharp stick in the i, I don’t know what else would have been aside from IBM just flat-out shutting down the AS/400 biz and leaving customers in a lurch. Like Hewlett-Packard did with its MPE mini customers, DEC’s Tru64 Unix shops it inherited through the Compaq acquisition, and which it may yet do some years hence when Intel, HP, or both lose patience with Itanium and HP-UX customers who have nowhere to go.
The AS/400 business may not be what it once was, but it is still alive. The AS/400, iSeries, System i, and Power Systems machines are out there, all over the world, and they are doing useful work. This is what matters more than anything else.