Of Course i’s Not The AS/400
July 17, 2017 Alex Woodie
The AS/400 was a great computer. No doubt about that. In the pantheon of business machines, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that remotely compares to IBM’s long-lived midrange champion. But today’s IBM i on Power Systems platform has evolved far beyond the AS/400, and midrange professionals who cling to the old words and ways are doing us all a disservice. Are you one of them?
Chances are, you’re not. If you’re reading this article, you’re likely one of the “engaged” midrange professionals who takes an active interest in news, works to improve your skills, and embraces newer technologies available on the box. You get it, and you’re not part of the problem — but you may not necessarily be part of the solution, either.
Not to go all Trevor Perry on you (with apologies to Trevor Perry), but words do matter. What you call the platform matters. If you were to say that the IBM i server of today is “just” the AS/400, you’d be doing a huge disservice to the platform and the community that has grown up around it, even if you’re doing everything else (see: skills and tech) right.
The fact that the IBM i server is still around today is an anomaly. Out of all the midrange and mini-computer systems of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s – DEC VAX, HP3000, Wang VS, Data General MV, and yes, the AS/400 – the only platform that’s still kicking is the one that turned into the IBM i.
But the IBM i server is still around, and that is awesome. When you consider that technologists today have a veritable smorgasbord of stacks to choose form – open source server stacks, Web stacks, mobile stacks, programming stacks, database stacks, cloud stacks, and distributed-virtual-hyperconverged-exascale stacks – its continued existence is to be commended.
The fact that IBM has a 15-year roadmap for the IBM i platform also is awesome. That was definitely not supposed to happen. But it begs the question: With all those modern stacks available, why in the world would anybody choose the IBM i?
There are plenty of reasons why a business would continue to use the IBM i, but you probably already know about them: rock-solid stability, bullet-proof security, a powerful integrated database, support for modern languages, and unparalleled code-protection that lets RPG programs from the 1970s take full advantage of the huge performance gains that IBM has delivered with Power8 processors, solid state drives, huge addressable memory spaces, etc.
Yes, these are features that one could also attribute to the AS/400 compared to its predecessor systems, the System/36 and System/38 (well, except for the SSDs). But here’s the big difference: the AS/400 is dead. It had a great run, from 1988 to 2000, but was eventually superseded by the iSeries. The iSeries was superseded a few years later by the System i, which was superseded by Power Systems and IBM i in 2008.
IBM may have bollixed up the name game and sewn decades of confusion among its most dedicated installed base. But that’s no excuse, and it doesn’t change the fact that today’s IBM i server is a decidedly different beast than the AS/400 of old. Yes, it retains some of the capabilities of the AS/400, just as the AS/400 retained capabilities of the System/36 and System/38. But it also brings other capabilities to the table that were never in the AS/400 (yes, beyond SSDs)!
Nonetheless, the confusion continues to this day. It’s a topic that IBM i chief architect Steve Will plans to address this Thursday at 8 a.m. PT in a HelpSystems webinar titled “It’s Not Just AS/400.”
Will elaborated on the idea behind the talk, and what he hopes others will get out of it. “It’s about a misconception that IBM i is ‘just’ the system that came out 29 years ago,” he tells IT Jungle. “The architecture of today’s IBM i operating system has some similarities to, and some underpinnings from, the AS/400. But, in terms of the architecture, this OS is far different from ‘just’ what was released in June 1988.”
Will – who took the reins of the chief architect job following the 2008 retirement of Frank Soltis, who has been called the “Father of the AS/400 – plans to cover the major stages of evolution from AS/400 V1R1 to today’s IBM i 7.3. He also plans to talk about “inciting incidents” – or “things that happened in IT, or in technology [that] caused major architectural changes/additions/enhancements” – within the context of IBM i.
“If you’ve started using the platform in the past decade or so, this session will teach you why things are ‘different’ on IBM i,” he says. “If you’ve been on the platform since ‘the beginning,’ it will provide a refresher, as well as teaching you about the key differentiators of today’s IBM i.”
If you’ve ever met Will, you will notice that he’s very much an optimist. As is typical for evangelists, Will prefers to concentrate on the positives rather than dwell on the negatives. That’s very much to Will’s credit, as he does his job admirably well.
But the very fact that Will feels compelled to clarify this point about the IBM i platform – of course it’s not the AS/400! – shows that there is more to this story.
Here are some hard truths that you probably won’t hear Will talk about:
- IBM’s commitment to backward compatibility has bitten it in the bum by allowing customers to continue using very old platforms, technologies, and programming techniques that should have been retired or replaced years ago.
- A good number of midrange professionals (not the ones that read this newsletter, of course!) have no interest in learning new technologies or programming techniques, and are simply biding their time before they retire or die.
- The result of A plus B is an “AS/400 mentality” that breeds complacency and disrespect among the computing public.
The IBM i is a great platform, just as the AS/400 that came before it was a great platform. It’s great for many of the same reasons as the AS/400. They share many similarities, to be sure. But the IBM i platform has evolved far beyond what the AS/400 was ever capable of.
Midrange professionals who recognize this and who continue to invest in learning new technologies and skills are very well positioned to take advantage of this bounty of digital progress that IBM has delivered us on a silicon platter. But those who are content to sit on their laurels and coast along on the greatness that was yesterday’s AS/400 are doomed to find that the modern computing world has left them – far, far behind.
Considering how important ongoing technological adaptation was to the original design concept of the AS/400 – which is something that the IBM i platform has inherited, and which distinguishes this platform from every other – continuing to do nothing contributes to the continued decline of the platform, and that doesn’t help anybody.
Will’s webinar is scheduled to start at 8 a.m. PT on Thursday. You can register here.