IBM aims to reinvent the AS/400 for e-biz

IBM aims to reinvent the AS/400 for e-biz

ARN: The dominant platforms used by the New Economy companies are Solaris, Linux, and Windows 2000. But within traditional bricks-and-mortar companies, the AS/400 is still a major platform. How do you see the AS/400 evolving as bricks-and-mortar companies move into e-business applications?

Soltis: Obviously the biggest growth area everyone talks about today is business-to-business. And if you take a look at the types of servers you need for that kind of environment, you need something that's capable of handling heavy transactions. That's really what the AS/400 is all about. It's not really Web serving, but a heavy-duty transaction serving platform.

IBM really has two platforms for that. One is the mainframe and the other is the AS/400. I think we actually have the better opportunity with the AS/400 because of its ease of being able to put such a system into a company and the cost advantage that it has because of its smaller staffing needs. That's really where we're positioning AS/400.

With the advent of e-business, are customers now taking a look at all their IT operations and the platforms they run on?

That's exactly what's happening with a lot of our customers. They are taking a look at the AS/400, and they're looking at Unix opportunities. They're looking at everything as far as re-engineering their businesses. I think every vendor out there really has to go back and resell. You can't sit back and make the assumption that you have certain customers built in and they'll always be with you.

What other impact is the move to e-business having on server platforms?

Customers are taking the opportunity to do things like server consolidation, especially on the back end. That's part of the reason, from an AS/400 perspective, we've been putting out some rather large systems. We've been driving, certainly, the scalability of this thing way up because we're seeing just a tremendous interest in these big systems, and a lot of it is consolidation.

What's the biggest AS/400 system today?

Our top-end 840 is the biggest symmetric multiprocessor (SMP) we believe that the world's ever built. It's bigger than any mainframe. It's bigger than any UNIX box that we're aware of. It's about 2200 mainframe MIPs, which is a really big system.

A lot of people tend to view the AS/400 as a client/server platform. Does the AS/400 platform have a perception problem?

We understand that we've had and still do have a perception problem with the AS/400. But we still feel that much of the real business in this world, however you want to look at it, is going to come from the traditional customers as they start either modernising or upgrading their platforms. That's really where an AS/400 is going to play very, very strongly. The difficulty we've always had with an AS/400 is that it is the best-kept secret that IBM had. And yet if you get out into the business world and you start talking to a lot of the companies, they're very familiar with the AS/400. It's just the average person on the street doesn't know too much about it.

How will new Web technologies manifest themselves on an AS/400?

If you look at what's really happened the last couple of years within IBM, the focus has been on the Web, the Internet, business-to-business, and so forth, almost to the point of really ignoring anything else. If you look over the last couple of years, what we've put into the AS/400 and some of the things we've talked about that we're doing in the future, that's clearly what it's aimed at. The whole WebSphere family ties it all together.

How well does an AS/400 stand up to a Unix system?

We can put out a 24-way AS/400 and blow away a 64-way Sun. We've also announced that we'll go to 32-way and there's certainly a possibility we'll go even beyond that. In fact, I want to go beyond that. We just don't have plans in place at the moment. I am a very firm believer that if you have a single SMP system, it is much easier to scale than getting into, let's say, a cluster. In a cluster, I have to take an application and divide it up. I have to have multiple copies of my operating system to manage. Even with NUMA, I still have to divide up applications, so it's more work from a business standpoint to be able to use that than to use something like a big SMP system. So don't be surprised if the biggest SMP systems continue to be AS/400s.

Where does the AS/400 fit in IBM's hierarchy?

I was very happy to see that IBM reorganised again. At IBM we continuously reorganise, but earlier this year we reorganised along the lines of our customer base as opposed to system lines. We split IBM up into three pieces, and it was sort of an arbitrary split, but it does make sense. Part of it is focused on the largest 1500 IBM customers. If you look at those largest 1500 customers, they're predominantly mainframe. The rest of the customers that are not in that top 1500 have a primary focus on two platforms. One is the AS/400 and the other is our Netfinity PC servers. Then the third group is what we talk about as Web servers. [Those] really are our Unix offerings in there. Not every customer obviously falls into one of these three groups, but that's the structure.

What's next for the AS/400?

One of the areas that IBM has heavily invested in is the whole semiconductor technology area. We've decided to use that strength and do some consolidation across a lot of our product lines. So for the last couple of years we've been merging the hardware of the AS/400 and the commercial side of the RS/6000. The scientific side of the RS/6000 is still on a different platform using different processors. We've announced that that's going to change, so that we're actually going to merge the scientific side with the commercial side over the next year and a half to two years. We're going to have common processor technology, common platforms across both of those lines. A couple of years from now, if I look at the smallest AS/400 and I look at the processor and the technology in it, it will be absolutely identical to the biggest supercomputer we build, like an RS/6000SP. That suddenly opens up some other opportunities because an AS/400 has never really been viewed as a real heavy-duty number-crunching kind of system.

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