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Integration and Evolution are Hallmarks of IBM i

IBMers Dave Nelson and Steve Will discuss how integration and evolution began with AS/400 and continue to be hallmarks of IBM i today.

IBMers Dave Nelson and Steve Will pose for a photo outside the IBM Rochester, Minnesota, facility., Image by David Bowman

Long-time system operators and programmers, of which there are many, know that traces of the AS/400, the singularly designed business computer unveiled by IBM 30 years ago this month, exist in today’s IBM Power Systems* servers—at least when those servers are running IBM i. But what, precisely, is still in there?

While it’s not as simple as popping open the cover and examining the wires and transistors, we can ascertain the essentials. Sure, there’s code, some at least, and the integrated database, obviously. Mostly though, there are pieces of function and design. Like the way the processor deals with cache, or the way the subsystem is architected, or the fact that memory is accessible only to the parts of the OS that need to use it.

“Even as clients take advantage of modern technologies that allow them to bring their applications forward on the platform, the applications themselves that they built 20-some years ago can still run today,” says IBM’s Dave Nelson, director, IBM i. “We have not changed the architecture underneath there.”

So yes, it’s accurate to say that the AS/400 lives on in today’s Power Systems servers. However, it’s important to recognize that the strongest thread between then and now isn’t a few lines of code or any particular feature or function. It’s a set of ideas. Like the idea that a quality product, one that meets people’s needs and makes their lives easier, will succeed. Or the idea that ongoing work devoted to enhancing and adapting an already successful product will foster loyalty and lasting relationships among both clients and business partners.

It’s the idea that Power Systems hardware and IBM i and every-thing that came before are simply business tools. Over time, these tools have been transformed, and they will continue to evolve. Working from this foundation, and applying the timeless ideas of basic business, these tools can be whatever they need to be.

A Business OS; a Database Machine

At its inception, the AS/400 was designed to support business workloads—a crucial need at the time. Of course, today’s Power Systems servers are highly optimized at processing transactions, and of course, this is still needed. But modern businesses don’t just deal with transactional data. Consider the buzzworthy examples of cognitive computing and artificial intelligence (AI).

Use of AI-based workloads has grown far beyond the scientific and medical communities. AI is now being deployed in everything from automobile design to customer service and marketing. So can IBM i clients run AI workloads or algorithmic calculations? Yes, some cognitive workloads can be run directly on the platform, though a more typical approach would be to deploy IBM i applications that interact with cognitive applications on other platforms. Alternatively, using IBM’s cloud-based services, extensions can be created to IBM Watson* cognitive and analytics services. The point is, through Power Systems and IBM i, various options exist. Not surprising, since these are business tools, after all.

“We’ve always been a business OS. As such, one thing we’ve always done is implement open standards and create interfaces and extensions that allow for integration,” says IBM’s Steve Will, chief architect, IBM i. “We’re not re-architecting our OS to become a cognitive or AI environment. We architect IBM i to be able to support those interfaces and extensions.

“We haven’t closed the door to running AI on our box; in fact, that’s one of the things we’re looking at,” he adds. “But we start by integrating. The ‘i’ stands for ‘integration,’ and we’ll integrate wherever necessary to make tomorrow’s business applications viable on IBM i.”

This level of adaptability resonates with IBM i clients, but as far as cognitive computing, it doesn’t end there. Nelson points out that interest in cognitive and AI is data-driven. Enterprises have amassed all this data and are continually seeking new ways to exploit this information.

“You don’t do cognitive starting from scratch. You have to have the data to go with it, then you can leverage that data in new and different ways,” he says. “Being a database machine is natural for the cognitive world. That’s the beauty of what we’ve got.”

The Power of Partnerships

Will explains how the Power Systems server and IBM i fit with two other emerging technologies: mobile access/modernization and cloud computing. In these areas in particular, IBM business partners and ISVs are instrumental in helping clients move forward.

“We have a number of partners in the IBM i ecosystem who are dedicated to taking existing client applications, which may have been written 15-20 years ago, and extending them to mobile devices,” he says. “And within the OS, we’ve incorporated the necessary technology to accomplish this.”

Still another accomplishment comes with cloud. ISVs are attracting new clients to their cloud-based or Software as a Service offerings hosted on Power Systems and IBM i. According to Will, many of these clients don’t even realize where these solutions reside. So ironically, they’re missing out on the best part of the deal they’ve made for themselves.

Will, though, is good with this. “The solution vendors are just selling value, and we’re a great value system for a business to run,” he says. “Some are beginning to lose sight of the fact that they’re using IBM i, because now our interface looks like everyone else’s. But what’s important is that we’re a reliable, securable data machine, and we can do this better than other platforms.”

Three Avenues of Loyalty

No doubt, IBM i has a rich heritage. Even better though, is the considerable promise of an exciting future.

For the most part, this is understood among the client base. Sometimes cases still need to be made, though. Will acknowledges the ongoing need to connect with new executives who generally come from other computing backgrounds and may have misconceptions about IBM i. In fact, he recently met with a long-time client facing this circumstance.

“They run practically everything on IBM i, but their new CIO doesn’t know that. He thinks that their AS/400 is a 30-year-old platform that just does green screens. So I go and say, ‘No, your IBM i environment can do these things, and with the help of your team, here are all the applications and workloads that are running your business on this platform,’ ” Will explains.

However, among the users themselves, the commitment and confidence is stronger than ever. This group, which Nelson affectionately refers to as “the worker bee level,” was of course staunchly supportive from the beginning. However, for a few years starting in the mid 1990s, those bees would buzz. They’d wonder why the AS/400 was only rarely featured in IBM television commercials and other prominent advertising. And when they got the opportunity to confront executives at events like COMMON, they’d question IBM’s long-term commitment to the platform.

Fortunately, these concerns have all but vanished. With IBM being more public with the detailed product roadmaps that designers and developers were carefully plotting from Day 1, the user community has the assurance it needs.

“For as long as I’ve been chief architect, we’ve put out the roadmaps,” Will says. “And look at the things we’re investing in: adopting new standards, making sure we’re securable. We’re investing in ensuring that our database can do anything that any other database can do. We’re going to be here 10 years from now. We’ll be here beyond that.”

Nelson believes this message has gotten through. “Our conversations have changed. These days, it’s more, ‘We’re staying on this platform. Now tell us where you’re going because we want to make sure our business needs are part of your roadmap.’ It’s a much healthier dynamic than somebody continually questioning their investment,” he says.

A Group Effort

Yes, the AS/400 was ahead of its time, and this technology does live on in today’s Power Systems servers and IBM i. But the true source of this platform’s staying power through multiple generations of computing comes from a wide-ranging group of talented people and their commitment to providing essential tools of business.

“We don’t do any of this by ourselves,” says Will. “We have a great team, but this platform has always succeeded because we’ve partnered with people who share our passion and want to help clients do their business.”

Nelson adds: “We’re talking about cognitive, we’re talking about mobile and cloud and open source. You can do anything with this platform. You can go anywhere from here.”


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