AS/400 to i Mystery Solved
January 31, 2011 Hey, TPM
I finally figured out why the AS/400 does not thrive in today’s marketplace–why it has declined slowly over time.
While everyone that works on the AS/400 loves it, what they really love is the AS/400 of 10, 15, and 20 years ago. If most of the veterans on the AS/400 do not know or care to use newer features of RPGLE (service programs, subprocedures, free-format, and so forth) or CLLE (activation groups), how could we ever hope to get others to know/love the platform? All others see is 20-plus year old technology.
I think you are right. But I also think there is another facet to this situation, too.
For a large portion of the aggregate OS/400, i5/OS, and IBM i base, and maybe even the majority, I think you have called it exactly correctly. People love what they know and hate to change. I need only look in the mirror to know this is true. (Well, looking in the mirror is probably not a very good idea, now that I think about it. . . . The wife likes me this way, go figure and don’t argue.)
The AS/400 customers you talk about above–and they are AS/400 customers even if they are running on new Power7 iron–for whatever reason have not moved ahead. That’s what makes them still an AS/400 customer, just like companies with RPG-II applications running in emulation mode on AS/400s were still, for all practical purposes, System/36 shops. It’s not about the iron, it is about the applications. It is about building something that works and maintaining it. Maintaining applications is like maintaining a business or sustaining a family: it is a lot easier to keep these things going, adapting a little as you go along, making incremental improvements. It may not be less costly, but slow, evolutionary change is easier than fast, disruptive change.
Those companies that are true IBM i customers–who use free-form RPG alongside Java and PHP, who can make PowerVM partitions sit up and bark, and who build lots of their own applications or buy lots of applications from third parties that take advantage of modern languages, database features, and operating system functions–are no doubt the smaller portion of the base. I hate to say it, but I think it is true. They are also the ones paying a lot of the Power Systems-IBM i bills these days, too, and there are not enough of them to make Big Blue happy.
Some companies, for political as well as technical and economic reasons, don’t fall into either the AS/400 camp, which is moving ahead slowly, or the IBM i camp, which is forging ahead quickly. In fact, most of these other companies fall into the Microsoft Windows camp, since they ditched the AS/400 platform and went with entirely different but no less unfamiliar technologies. Making the jump from OS/400 V4 to V5 is not arguably a big jump, since features and functions largely remain the same. Ditto for the jump from OS/400 V5 to IBM i 6.1 or 7.1. But for many IT shops, who have decades of experience with Windows on the desktop and then on the server, making the jump from OS/400 to Windows and from DB2/400 to SQL Server for back-end applications is not perceived as being all that difficult–or politically dangerous. And it is also perceived as a way of saving money, although I doubt that Windows boxes are as inexpensive as the sales brochures claim.
I don’t think anyone can make a credible argument that, deep down in the guts of these operating systems, OS/400 (now IBM i) is any less modern than Windows. But slap a pretty GUI on Windows and it wins the beauty contest over OS/400 (now IBM i) every time. IBM needed to be in the beauty contest, and still does. This is what can make the platform grow.
I would love to see a Windows and SQL Server skin for IBM i that would let Windows applications run on the i box, in fact. I am going to think about what that might mean and how one might build such a thing. IBM is using the PowerVM Lx86 emulator to run Linux apps compiled for x86 on Power processors, and perhaps it can use the same QuickTransit tools to emulate Windows apps on IBM i. To do so would merely require IBM to want to try to crush Windows with its own platforms, and IBM doesn’t seem to care about platforms much these days. It cares about smarter planet, several layers of abstraction up from a single server platform.