You’re Only As Old As The Programs You Run With
June 20, 2011 Timothy Prickett Morgan
How does a venerable computer system act its age? Cleverly, I think, and only when asked to. The AS/400, which has had more names than James Garner in The Rockford Files, is still the AS/400 or “the 400” to most of us despite all the pressure of political correctness to adopt the IBM i name for the operating system and to not talk about the hardware platform as anything but a Power Systems platform. As if any old operating system is as good as any other.
The truly wonderful thing about that AS/400, which celebrates its 8,400th day as a distinct and useful midrange platform on June 21, is that it can–unlike most of us–do all the same things it could do when it was younger, only it can do them faster and better. And, the system that is celebrating its 23rd birthday and that has evolved into the Power Systems platform running the IBM i operating system can do all these new tricks that the old dog was never designed to do when it was conceived in the bowels of the IBM Rochester Labs when Digital Equipment–remember them?–was kicking Big Blue’s can in the minicomputer market. For the second time, in fact.
As my compatriot, Dan Burger, points out elsewhere in this issue, “You know, it’s only a legacy system if you allow it to be one.”
A perfect line, which for some reason made me think of that great line from Groucho Marx: “You’re only as old as the women you feel.” And apparently, at least once, in the late 1970s, we learned last month in a Piers Morgan interview on CNN with Donnie and Marie Osmond, Groucho felt precisely like a 15-year-old bubble gum pop star as he gave Marie a completely inappropriate pinch in a perfectly appropriate place. For her husband. Whom she would have to meet at age 35. With chaperones. Bearing weapons. (My wife just slapped me for being sexist and a fool for saying that. But you fathers out there with daughters know exactly what I am talking about.)
We spend a lot of time worrying about the youth of the AS/400 platform these days, or the lack thereof. It is a major theme at every user group meeting I go to (not that I have time to do many, mind you). I think it is important–literally vital–that young people be exposed to the platform and to learn how to make it useful. That’s why, only a few weeks ago, I argued that we need a free IBM i development environment that newbies can program on, and last week I refined those ideas after some comments. I have argued time and again that the AS/400 platform needs to support every new programming language that is useful, not just Java (which we got 15 years ago) and PHP (which came five years ago) but also Perl, Python, Ruby, and anything else you can think of. And I don’t mean making people hack these languages into Linux partitions and faking it, but actually embedding these technologies deeply and transparently into the system. This, among other things like adopting cloud technologies quickly, is what keeps the AS/400 young and relevant.
But youth, as they say, is sometimes wasted on the young.
As the AS/400 celebrates year 23–what is that in
In its own way, the AS/400, just by its sheer tenacity and absolute uniqueness, has become the coot of the data center. (Just like you probably are too, but I wasn’t going to say anything. . . .) I say embrace it rather than fight it. This IT business is a serious one, and our livelihoods depend on it, to be sure, but sometimes, if you think about it that way, it will blind and paralyze you. And it helps to remember that our lives do not depend on the AS/400. Well, unless you count all of those emergency dispatch systems. . . .
All that I know is that as IBM turned 100 last week and the AS/400 turns 23 this week, I stood between those two anniversaries and am amazed, almost dumbfounded, that I have spent nearly half my life in this market, not making a killing but making a living. The livings we all have made through and with the AS/400, all the things that have been done in the world with your efforts, well, the joke is not on us, friends. So laugh. And be an AS/400 coot–but just don’t take it too far like Groucho did.
Then get back to work. You have a lot of nonsense to deal with, of that I am sure. How else will we still be doing this 10 or 20 years from now? For if I know one thing, I know this. Somewhere, sometime, when I am an old man and there is even less hair on my head than there is now and my beard is as white as drifted snow, there will be RPG programs running on something–heaven only knows what–against a DB2/400 database. How funny is that?