The AS/400 at 22: Yesterday and Forever
June 21, 2010 Timothy Prickett Morgan
When people ask me how long I have been married, I give them two answers: yesterday and forever. I am not trying to be cute or funny–well, maybe a little–but I am actually trying to convey precisely how it feels to be married as long–or short–as I have been. I am also covering for the fact that I actually don’t know. I know my anniversary, which is October 4, as does my wife, but neither of us is very good at remembering the year.
Neither one of us is very good at remembering what life was like without the other, and it’s not that we’ve been married for four or five decades so much as we are good complements to each other. Elizabeth truly does like me the way I am, after tweaking a few things here and there with my politics, which were underdeveloped when she came along. I work hard because people depend on me–my employees and my extended family as well as the members of my household–and she doesn’t make me feel bad because I have to do what I have to do. She carries her weight, too, and has carried our household through thin years when business was not great for me. But my loving wife is perfectly useless at remembering the year when we got married because she has the same yesterday and forever problem that I have. We know it was in the late 1990s, and we’re both so pathetic that on the day when we planned to go out and celebrate our 10th anniversary, we checked our marriage license only to discover it was actually our 11th anniversary.
I guess you just don’t mark time the same way when you are where you want to be, doing what you want to do, barely remembering the time when you weren’t there. I don’t mark time at all, apparently, under those circumstances.
So when June 21 rolls around every year, as it does, I find myself thinking not so much about the solstice and balancing eggs on end, but about Soltis, as in Dr Frank, and how the machine IBM launched in 1988 has been a part of my life, giving me purpose and meaning in my work life. I have been writing this newsletter for so long, and yet it still seems like I just cut my journalistic and technical teeth on it. Another yesterday and forever in my life.
In the computer racket, five years is a long time. Technology generations are lucky if they last two or three years, which makes midrange system years even more accelerated than dog or cat years if you think about it. The neat thing about computers, however, is that each generation is not so much a new animal, but rather an ongoing evolution of the same animal. And the true genius of IBM’s midrange systems business is that you can draw a straight line back from today’s Power7-based Power Systems machines all the way back to 1969’s System/3 card wallopers. There’s an interesting new offshoot with the “Pacific” System/38 appearing out of the death of the “Future Systems” project from 1971 through 1975 and eventually being grafted onto the System/36 lineup at the birth of the AS/400 in 1988. The funny thing is that what Future Systems tried to do–create a unified systems lineup with multiple, incompatible platforms running atop virtualized and abstracted hardware–has still not been accomplished because the mainframe is still the odd man out. But the advent of the AS/400 and the convergence of the AS/400/iSeries/System i line into the RS/6000/pSeries/System p line represents the second time this has happened for shops running RPG programs.
The wonder is why IBM Rochester is not allowed to play with the scraps of failed IBM projects more often. Then again, there is no IBM General Systems Division with its minis to play off against the Data Processing Division and its mainframes. There is no clash of ideas and technologies from which to create new technologies. Interesting stuff always comes out of conflict, but Big Blue is not interested in conflict or creating new ideas in systems so much as it is in extending what it has and milking it for one more year. And let’s be honest here. That’s no different from what you and I are doing most days. We want this AS/400 gig to keep going because it is what we know and what we love, but also because the things that we built work and continue to do useful work. All of us are doing our own legacy modernization to make sure what we do is useful. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. This is precisely how nature does it. Only very rarely does a design get completely thrown out and does life start from scratch. Maybe never, for all we know.
It is hard sometimes to keep an open mind. It is easy to be negative. But I have been around this AS/400 business for long enough to know that it is resilient and vibrant, even if it is not a fad or even mainstream. I don’t think you could ever argue that the AS/400 and its predecessors were ever mainstream, although the box certainly had IBM’s fair share compared to other commercial systems designed to run applications and smack a database around. But being mainstream is not the same thing as being useful and good. The AS/400 was that, and so is the i 7.1 platform running on Power Systems iron. And so will i 8.1 be on Power8 machines and i 9.1 be on Power9 machines.
And who knows? Maybe RPG applications and DB2/400 databases will be running on an entirely different platform in the years ahead. IBM has switched hardware twice in 22 years–from the System/38 to the CISC AS/400s and from the CISC AS/400s to the PowerPC RISC AS/400s–and it would not be at all surprising to see it done one more time to get all of its systems eggs finally in one hardware basket. The crushing economics of the server racket will drive IBM to do this and has already compelled Big Blue to converge as much technology as it can. I think a highly virtualized machine with lots and lots of oomph and with layers of emulation will do the trick. But IBM may just keep extending what it has, doing as little work as possible. This seems to be the way of the systems business these days, with some few exceptions.
No matter what IBM does, The Four Hundred will be right here to tell you all about what IBM is up to and holding its Big Blue feet to the fire to give AS/400 customers a fair deal.
But for now, let’s get on with year 22. There’s a lot of work to be done with this Power7 transition and revitalizing this business. Let’s raise our glasses and celebrate what we have, and then get back to work.