The AS/400 is one of IBM's biggest success stories with more than 360,000 machines sold worldwide since its 1988 launch.
The AS/400 plays a key role in IBM's product strategy. At the top end it is a rival to the mainframe and at the lower end it competes with models that act as local area network Lan servers. For small to medium-sized businesses that have outgrown their PC-based Lans the AS/400 poses an alternative solution.
According to analysts, the machine presents a serious challenge to some of the established players in the PC Lan field. In March 1995, US consultancy firm IDC revealed that Novell Netware is 38 per cent more expensive to run, compared with the AS/400. SCO Unix is 20 per cent more expensive and even Microsoft's NT is four per cent more expensive in a client/server environment. Although the report was based on a survey of users in the US and Germany, there is no reason to believe that UK results would be much different.
IDC's findings were confirmed a year later by another research company, Datapro, which compared the client/server abilities of the AS/400 with solutions offered by Microsoft NT, Unix and Netware. According to Datapro, while being the established leader in the PC-based Lan market, Netware is primarily a network operating system rather than a client/ server system.
Datapro also maintains that Netware is limited as an application server.
In the PC server network operating systems environment, it was established practice to off-load server applications, communications gateway and software on to dedicated software thereby increasing costs and making network management more complex.
Datapro criticises Unix for its user unfriendliness and 'arcane language of shell commands' and because it requires employing costly professional expertise to assist users. Microsoft's NT comes under fire for being immature and not supporting the high availability and recovery features required by businesses.
The Datapro report, IBM AS/ 400 - The Client/Server Solution, concludes that 'an NT strategy carries with it an element of risk and an element of lock-in'.
But not all observers agree. Bloor Research, a consultancy firm in the UK, published a report last year, New Computer Hardware: Options and Comparisons, which suggests that IBM would eventually merge the RS/6000 and AS/400 lines.
'The AS/400, in its original form, is probably doomed. When mainframe sales were first hit IBM began to promote it as an alternative mainframe.
This was a tenable strategy, but its inherently closed architecture was unpopular outside the IBM world. Strengthening its weak support for TC IP and PCs helped a little, but its price structure is weak against Unix systems.' The Bloor report flatly contradicts the views of the IDC and Datapro reports.
But the Bloor report also finds much to admire in the AS/400. 'Minicomputer operating systems were devised that could run almost as many processes as desired. Digital's VMS embodied excellent networking capabilities.
Some, like Hewlett Packard's MPEXL, included database software as part of the facilities that the operating system provided.'
The report goes on to state that IBM went further with its System 38 minicomputer, which evolved into the AS/400. 'The operating system included an embedded database management system instead of the file system that other operating systems offer. This caused some people to ask whether data management was a fundamental service that every operating system ought to provide.'
But the report states that while this environment is useful in some cases it is useless in others. Bloor points out that while not a difficult task to produce an operating system which emulates another operating system, it is necessary to provide a compiler or interpreter which maps one system on to the other.
The Bloor report states: 'But, it will not be possible to hide the fact that the underlying hardware does not properly correspond to the operating software, and such a configuration will have a limited usage; possibly in a development environment, but a poor choice as an operating environment.'
There are, for example, significant differences in the keyboard layout of the AS/400 and the PC. One IBM employee discovered, while switching between machines, that the F1 key on a PC was the help key, whereas the F1 key on an AS/ 400 shut the application down.
There are now Risc versions of the AS/400 based around the Power PC chip as well as Cisc machines as a first move to totally Risc-based systems.
In 1995, IBM announced a programme to encourage small companies to port PC applications to the AS/400. The company hoped to persuade small businesses to move off the PC platform, where Compaq is the market leader, to the AS/400.
IBM is targeting the small to medium-sized business market with its AS/400 Advanced Entry System and earlier this year appointed Northamber as its UK distributor. IBM has sold the AS/400 through its agents in the past, but this is the first time that the company has appointed a distributor.
According to Steve Raeburn, AS/400 systems manager for IBM in the UK, the aim of appointing a distributor is to position the low-end AS/400 against the high-end PC. Raeburn is confident that dealers selling the machines will have the necessary expertise to sell and maintain the systems.
'The AS/400 is easier to use than a PC and if dealers do not have the expertise then we will train them,' he says.
The entry-level model AS/ 400, priced at around u5,000, compares favourably in price with high-end PCs from companies such as Compaq and IBM itself.
According to Raeburn, IBM has been talking to Novell Netware dealers which he claims are interested in selling the machine. Since the price of hardware has fallen over the past few years there have been attempts by some PC-based suppliers to crash into the AS/ 400 market.
'It is interesting to note that there are companies which specialise in creating virtual machines. For example, California Software Products has created the operating environments of both IBM's System 36 and the AS/400 using a PC network - and it sells the software. The company claims that a six-user system using PS/2 model 50 micros is between one half and one third of the equivalent System 36 and provides far superior throughput.
An IBM representative says: 'The concept behind the AS/ 400 Advanced Entry product is that of integration.' The system weighs just 10 kilos and comprises processor, disk drive, tape back up and pre-loaded software.
One of the enduring features in making the AS/400 a success is that it comes complete with its own relational database.
In May, IBM announced that it would sell Internet-ready AS/400 servers at the same time as it signed an agreement with International Marketing Strategies Europe to distribute Web Server/400, a software product that turns the AS/400 into a World Wide Web server.
'The advantage of the AS/ 400 as an Internet server is that the 5250 - the standard monitor for the box - is equipped with an HTL gateway, which means that 25,000 AS/400 applications are available on the Internet,' Raeburn says.
The history of the AS/400 is an interesting one and plays a heavy part in today's marketing of the mid-range system. The box was introduced as a replacement for two IBM minicomputers, the System 36 and the System 38.
The System 36 was an immensely popular box among the IBM user community.
IBM expected System 36 and System 38 users to migrate in droves to the AS/400. To a large extent System 38 users were willing to make the move, but System 36 users proved more recalcitrant. They were married to the machine and its SSP. But despite IBM's entreaties many refused to migrate to the AS/400 so the company was forced take action. It responded by launching the AS/Entry.
As the Handbook of IBM Terminology, published by consultancy firm Xephon, puts it: 'Originally, the AS/Entry was the 5363, an entry-level system 36, which IBM rechristened to pretend that it was a pukka member of the AS/400 family - it wasn't because it could not run the OS/400 operating system, it could only run the System 36 SSP.
'Later versions of the AS/ Entry included the option to upgrade to a proper AS/400 by a complete processor board swop.' In 1994, IBM launched the Advanced 36 to satisfy the demands of those System 36 users that steadfastly refused to abandon their System 36 boxes.
Digital was forced to satisfy the demands of its PDP-11 user base by introducing new PDP-11 because users refused to migrate to the VAX.
The AS/400 and its predecessor, the System 38, are object-based machines and all files, libraries, programs and user profiles are classed as objects.
IBM has been offering its customers object-orientation tools since 1983, making it one of the first organisations to recognise the importance of object orientation.
There is no doubt the appointment of Northamber means that IBM intends to position the low-end AS/400 as a rival to the PC products. This strategy carries some danger for the company in that it is itself a major PC supplier.
But IBM is accustomed to having competing products within the company.
The top-end of the AS/400 competes with the low-end mainframe S/390 range and with the Unix-based RS/6000. One thing that may prevent the AS/400 from taking a share of the PC market is the lack of application software.
To date only 14 products have been ported from the PC platform to the AS/400, although IBM promises more.
Like all major hardware manufacturers, IBM is pushing more products through the indirect channel, including some of its low-end mainframes. The addition of Northamber to market the AS/400 is a coup for both companies, particularly as the AS/400 is being targeted at the SME market.
Up until the announcement of the AS/400 Advanced Entry server, the natural constituency for small businesses was the PC platform or smaller Unix boxes. If IBM can persuade software houses to port their PC applications to the AS/400 then things could look very different.
The AS/400 will never be a mass market consumer product in the PC mould, but it could prove the answer to a growing company's computer needs and present a serious challenge to the PC players.
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