A Frank Solstice
June 20, 2022 Timothy Prickett Morgan
When you are born in Minnesota, the seasons matter. Unfortunately, as Frank Soltis, the former chief architect of the AS/400 system and the creator of the single-level storage architecture of the System/38 and the AS/400 that is still a marvel, once quipped to us: “There are only two seasons in Minnesota: Winter, and Getting Ready For Winter.”
And so, you have two options: Play hockey when you aren’t farming, or design excellent computer systems. That’s how supercomputer genius Seymour Cray did it from nearby Wisconsin.
The AS/400 for which this publication was founded 33 years ago was born on the summer solstice, June 21, 1988, and 34 years is a long time for any system architecture to be in the field. And yet here we are, on the cusp of the announcement of the Power10 entry machines, which will be the 21st generation of processors that IBM has brought into the field that can still run RPG II, RPG III, RPG IV, and ILE RPG applications that were written one, two, or three decades ago. No, not just written, but compiled decades ago and still can run!
There is only one system in the world that has a longer history and that is still currently economically viable, and that is Big Blue’s System z mainframe. And its architecture, in many ways, has never been as sophisticated as that of the AS/400 that should have been able to replace it. The two platforms have shared common peripherals for many years now, and their processors have similarly used the same chip etching processes and a lot of common circuit blocks (like on-die caches and controllers), and people often get confused and call the AS/400 and its progeny a “baby mainframe.” These machine architectures are as different as the Old Testament and the New Testament, and absolutely unlike Coke and New Coke. If you catch my drift.
In an industry that has difficulty projecting five years out into the future, and in a time when so many things seem uncertain, as the AS/400 enters its 34th year as the Power Systems with Power10 running IBM i – we could do with better naming conventions and we will never get them – it is a comfort to us that this unique platform with its uniquely midwestern architecture and cultural ethos persists. That it will persist for another decade, who can say? But the AS/400 has persisted this far, and continually evolved while remaining more or less firm in its original architectural convictions.
And that is just about as rare as a summer solstice when the Strawberry Moon hits on the same day. That didn’t happen on June 21, 1988, but rather in 2016, and it did not happen this year, either. (The Strawberry Moon this year was a week earlier than the solstice, as it was back in 1988.)
For which, we are quite frankly, eternally grateful.