Server Platform Situational Analysis: IBM AS/400

Situational Analysis

As outlined in The Blessing and Curse of Rejuvenating Legacy Systems, every independent software vendor (ISV) finds itself in a difficult position in terms of catering to existing and prospective customers. Existing customers seek updates in incremental and manageable sizes which will not disrupt current information technology (IT) processes. Potential customers want feature rich solutions that are rapidly implemented.

For instance, customers typically want to stay on the IBM eServer iSeries server platform (formerly IBM AS/400), valuing its reliability (high availability due to clustering capabilities), stability, security, scalability, its price per performance value proposition, and ease of management. However, they also want to look beyond the traditional text character-based, a.k.a. 5250 "green screen" user interface (UI), to have a more modern, flexible way to use their software. They want to keep the rich functionality of the software, but want increased ease of integration to disparate applications, to, at least, better collaboration with trading partners.

On the other hand, as to win new customers, every ISV has to be able to feature the latest and most modern technologies, featuring rich functionality and rapid implementation tracks. To bridge this gap, many leading vendors have embarked on providing next-generation development platforms (if not even more comprehensive infrastructure platforms, see SOA-based Applications and Infrastructure—The Next Frontier?). Ultimately, the ISV needs to consider product evolution rather than revolution. ISVs must continually make product functionality enhancements, and create custom extensions, so existing customers will not have to rip and replace their current systems to benefit from the new functionality. At the same time, the ISV needs to maintain feasible integration to other applications and to complementary products.

This is Part One of a three-part note. Part Two will discuss IBM's response and detail challenges. Part Three will cover other ISV developments and make user recommendations.

IBM eServer iSeries

Nowhere is this imperative of sensible modernization so apparent as in the IBM eServer iSeries environments. The iSeries server, IBM's landmark product and a well-known successor of the AS/400 (standing for Application System/400) platform. It has been implemented on a large scale over the past twenty-five years in many small and medium businesses (SMB). This midrange minicomputer is still being praised because of its operational ease-of-use, reliability, flexibility, and scalability.

In the beginning, AS/400 was originally going to be called AS/40, as it was an offshoot of IBM System/38,. However, purely for marketing purposes, IBM added an extra zero to the name to make it appear bigger, better, and smarter. To add substance and credibility to the additional zero, in mid-1988 the president of the AS/400 division at the time, Steve Schwartz, made a bold announcement, claiming that the AS/400 could support 400 concurrent users. Analysts bought the story, and IT decision makers have since bought the box en mass. There is an estimated 400,000+ units in use worldwide, with around 245,000 named customers. Thye run hundreds of millions of lines of old application code. IBM has shipped over 700,000 systems ever since the product's introduction; however, one should note that many customers have upgraded and replaced their systems over time, but this does not indicate that IBM has lost 300,000 user systems.

Withstanding the trials and tribulations of new technology and sophisticated application reengineering, the platform has long deserved a medal for versatility and the ability to re-invent itself every few years in a an ever changing world of user requirements. One of the changes that the digital world and the iSeries must cope with in the 21st century is the onslaught of security intrusions. Not surprisingly, media is hard-pressed for security incident reports involving the platform, since attacking and exploiting an iSeries is much more difficult than attacking a UNIX or Microsoft Windows NT/XP box. That is because, unlike many other computing platforms where security is built-in as an afterthought, security was built into the AS/400 from the beginning, as part of the original design. For more information, see The AS/400 Takes You Securely Where You Want to Go.

However, because the platform had initially lacked a native graphical user interface (GUI), portability, Internet-enablement, and poor integrated with other software products (especially non-iSeries based products), its use has significantly declined lately, and users have shifted towards more user-friendly Microsoft Windows and Intel microprocessor (so called "Wintel") based systems. While most of these issues have been addressed, the reasons for the AS/400's having these shortcomings in the first place unfortunately stem from its ancient (in computer years) origins. Way back in 1988, when AS/400 was launched, GUI, the Internet, and desktop productivity applications of today were only a figment of some innovator's imagination, and were, at best, only emerging in laboratories. Also, at that time, users deemed computers as mere repositories for transactional data, and generators of reports, which often led users to premise their selection on IT systems that enabled these services at the lowest cost, and with the greatest ease of use and efficiency.

To that end, the AS/400 systems of the late 1980s and early 1990s came with a highly integrated, native programming environment that included procedural languages such as RPG. RPG, which stands for Report Program Generator, was a programming language created by IBM in the mid-1960s to develop business applications, and especially to generate reports from data. Its newest version, RPG IV, is still widely used on iSeries systems. RPG is a comprehensive toolset for designing and testing applications; it is a runtime engine, and an IBM DB2/400 universal database management system (DBMS). The tight integration between these components enabled developers to create new applications fairly quickly. These features also absolved developers from worrying about distracting, non-development issues, such as memory and storage management, which programmers on other systems typically had to consider.

In fact, iSeries has long integrated freely with a variety of other products from both tool providers and ISVs, and, needless to say, with its sister WebSphere platform. Nowadays, there are a host of Windows tools that also integrate fairly smoothly with iSeries, since many customers using Windows have tightly integrated applications using Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) to access DB2 on the iSeries. iSeries Navigator GUI was also designed so that the product could integrate well with Windows, and the function is now also available (with iSeries Power5 Release 3) from a browser. However, these developments are not widespread, public knowledge.

Customer Requirements Change

Therefore, while the product's configuration has worked well for more than ten years, from the late 1990s on, customers' requirements for enterprise applications capabilities have changed dramatically. Among many, a particular one comes from enterprises expecting their applications not only to offer GUI, but to be accessible from different interfaces and devices, including Web browsers, portals, popular desktop applications, mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDA) etc. (For more information, see Vendors Harness Excel (and Office) to Win the Lower-end of Business Intelligence Market).

These call for a separate presentation (client) and back-end (server) business logic. To be fair, there have been a variety of tools for GUI-based solutions from iSeries tool partners since the early 1990s. Seagull's GUI 400 is one such example. IBM ships this product as a part of its iSeries Access (then known as Client Access), which also includes a wireless tool kit. However, while Seagull, and other IBM tool partners like LANSA, Advanced BusinessLink have provided wireless solutions for a long time now, this too has not been widespread knowledge.

Consequently, for a long time now, iSeries has been experiencing waning ISV commitment in the enterprise applications realm, albeit it has remained the most suitable choice for some application users. There are strong indications that some industries, such as wholesale distribution, and some geographic regions, such as Italy, Germany, and Australia, still, almost religiously support the platform. Until the early 2000s, most enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors with an iSeries heritage still managed to generate the majority of their revenues from the iSeries driven business, This was largely driven by Y2K compliance issues and the reticence of existing users to switch technologies. But as the Y2K crisis subsided and went away in 2000, the platform has since captured ever fewer new ERP and adjacent applications contracts.

In addition to the technological shortcomings listed above, another primary cause of the platforms declining popularity was IBM's indolent marketing compared to those of its foes, Microsoft or Oracle. Namely, iSeries compares very well to Windows and Unix/Linux platforms in a number of important areas—it has long had an apparent advantage in reliability, ease of administration, and worldwide service and support. Indeed, the combination of availability, cost, and experience level of RPG skills had long been superior to that of Windows NT and about equal to UNIX skills.

Also, while iSeries is typically initially priced higher than Windows box configurations, its simplicity delivers the three-year or so total costs of ownership (TCO) for the two platforms to be about on par. Yet, despite this and its significant ongoing technological advances, IBM has failed to change the (possibly unjust) market perception that iSeries is an aging technology. To combat this, IBM should at least work more actively with educational institutions to ensure that students receive training and develop an appreciation for its product architecture and capabilities. IBM has begun to enter this area through its Partners In Education (PIE) program, which has over 200 schools with iSeries programs. However, there is certainly a room for improvement, given that all that is required is a local customer, ISV or an IBM representative that will sign up to be the sponsor.

Also, much of the users' move to Windows may not have had much to do with the GUI and AS/400's perceived shortcomings, but rather more to do with the price points of Wintel servers. In fact, IBM can boast a swath of ISV solutions, but, in many cases, these ISVs have trouble competing against Wintel because customers insists that Wintel is better because it costs less. IBM has been on full tilt on the latest iSeries Power5 platform explaining to the market that the iSeries is on the leading edge of computing technology with its virtualization engine and multi-operating systems (OS) deployment options. However, another challenge is that ironically, long time users of AS/400 many not want to hear this new pitch,

This concludes Part One of a three-part note. Part Two will discuss IBM's response and detail challenges. Part Three will cover other ISV developments and make user recommendations.

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