As news announcements go it hardly compared with the Second Coming.
But a few weeks ago, when IBM revealed at a conference in New York that it was to set up a network computer division, there was certainly a frisson of excitement at the hint that the company was now casting off its shrouds and returning to the land of the living at a decidedly brisk pace. After years of colossal losses, the axing of thousands of workers and enough cannibalism of resources to have put the late Emperor Bokassa to shame, IBM it seemed had at last awoken.
It's a resurrection that should also have IBM's community of some 8,000 business partners singing alleluia.
The network computer (NC) builds on the capabilities of IBM's flagship mid-range series, the AS/400, without which Big Blue may have been in eternal corporate rigor mortis. When the company was severely haemorrhaging money during the troubled years of the recession it was this trusty mule, installed at some 400,000 sites around the globe, that kept the IBM wagon rolling.
The result is that today there are some 30,000 AS/400 applications in circulation, underlining the popularity of the machine since it was first introduced back in 1988.
What was significant about the announcement delivered at IBM's Armonk headquarters was not so much the fact that, like Oracle, Sun and countless others, IBM was introducing a network computer, but the fact that its AS/400 division - which had incidentally built the new terminal - would be pivotal in its roll out. Indeed, Robert Dies, general manager of the AS/400 division, will head the new section.
Dies himself pointed out: 'Unlike other platforms, where security is an add-on feature, the AS/400 has an integrated operating system that provides unrivalled security on the Internet.' The machine's file transfers cannot contain executable programs, making it more resistant than most to virus attack, he revealed.
It is because the AS/400 not only justifies itself technically but economically as the rightful platform to spearhead IBM's foray into the Internet market that the first 'thin clients', as IBM's NCs are to be known, have been engineered specifically to work with the flagship server. Based on 64-bit Power PC technology, they offer emulation for both legacy and transaction-based systems across all four servers in the AS/400 range.
IBM has yet to put a price tag on its NCs. But by being first to market, the company has demonstrated that it is serious about the Internet.
NCs have captivated the IT industry in general because of the challenge they represent to the dominance of Microsoft and Intel. They have also grabbed the attention of big business because of their low maintenance costs compared with those of PCs. Boeing, for one, has promised to buy NCs by the 'truckload' if their commercial worth can be proved.
Meanwhile, in closely aligning the forces of its AS/400 division with the NC, IBM has signalled that it is now repositioning its leading mid-range as a major Web platform offering the option of hanging off the end as many NCs as the architecture will allow.
Throw in the NC's capability of running Java applets and the prospect of using Sun's OO programming language as an application development environment on the AS/400, and suddenly there's the sound of cash bells ringing for both IBM and the channel at large.
So what's going on? Scroll back to yet another IBM conference, this time in Colorado in the summer, where Frank Soltis, the legendary engineer behind the AS/400, is waxing lyrical about its future.
When client/server burst on the scene, he says, with its open Unix architectures, IBM's knee-jerk reaction was to build links between its best-selling platform and this new world of sociable operating systems.
What happened? Its core base of users didn't want to know, preferring instead to stick to the AS/400 environment and its applications, even if it was all proprietary.
Soltis reveals: 'If you remember, openness meant that if you developed an application, you could take it and drop it on any computer system anywhere in the world - not just AS/400s - and it would work. In an ideal situation, you wouldn't even have to recompile it. It would just work. Obviously, we never achieved that.
'But what we did achieve was significant standardisation - defined user, programming and system interfaces that have since found their way to the AS/400 with the result that ever more Unix applications are being ported over to the AS/400.'
All this is underlined by the purchasing habits of AS/400 users. If they had been migrating in droves to client/server - be it Unix or something like NT - the existing suppliers of AS/400 packages might be expected to be porting their wares across to the new environments too, rather than risk losing business. But that hasn't happened. Of the 30,000-odd AS/400 solutions around, it is estimated that only a tenth have been ported to Unix or other rival operating systems.
AS/400 users are staying put and, if anything, Unix developers et al are porting their applications across, rather than the other way around.
This alone should be good news to any Vars that are already active in the AS/400 market.
During 1997 it is also expected that IBM will start to merge the AS/400 with its Unix counterpart, the RS/6000, prompting speculation that IBM might be about to kill off AIX, its Unix operating system variant.
If that happens, even more applications could be ported across to the AS/400 environment, bolstering the opportunities for Vars in this sector to reap rewards over and above anything that the Web might offer.
It was perhaps with this in mind that IBM recently announced a shake-up of the small dealer market. It would sign up 50 resellers in a trial accreditation experiment in which only authorised dealers will be able to buy through the distribution channel.
This is a reversal of a policy which for the past three years, has allowed any dealer, large or small, to buy through distributors, and may well reflect an IBM view that now the good times are here again it is time to tighten control.
Nonetheless, with the intranet market alone predicted to be worth $13 billion by 1999, it is the prospect of developing Java applications within the AS/400 environment - and also able to run on virtually every major platform without the need to recompile - that has resellers licking their lips.
The development tools to do this aren't likely to be available until the middle of 1997, but there are signs that the repositioning of the AS/400 in relation to the Web is already beginning to bring in the dividends.
In a separate move earlier this year, IBM unveiled a trio of Internet-ready AS/400 servers based on the Power PC range. All that was needed was to plug in and play. At the same time, for those with older AS/400 architectures, free HTML fixes were on offer, allowing users or developers to set up a crude Web site built on screen scrapes from the traditional AS/400 text-only feed.
Some in the Var community couldn't wait. ABS, an AS/400 specialist whose chairman is Tony O'Shaugnessy, head of the UK AS/400 users' group, set up for customers separate PC Web servers, yet still hooked to their mid-range database. His AS/400 Web clients include tile manufacturer H&R Johnson, Wedgwood and electronics group Aiwa.
O'Shaugnessy's right-hand man when it comes to AS/400 Web development is Guy Cuthbert who, while sceptical about the fuss made over Java, can see that if it does become the de facto object-oriented language, then IBM's decision to bring it to the AS/400 community can only be good news for business partners.
IBM's AS/400 division is working furiously now to bring out a beta version of the Java development environment, though realistically it's unlikely that many business-critical applications will be up and running until 1998. But that hasn't stopped some partners getting hold of the programming language now and building prototype applications to keep ahead of the game.
For AS/400 resellers, the beauty of Java is that they do not have to wait for IBM. They can develop applications on any platform and run them immediately on NCs, providing they have the capability - as IBM's NCs do - to function as a Java virtual machine, interpreting downloaded programs or 'applets' on the fly.
Moreover, once IBM does provide all the necessary development tools and compilers for the AS/400 environment, Java programs can be written there too - with the potential to market new or modified applications to all other platforms. Cuthbert notes: 'IBM is trying to position the AS/400 as a killer Java box alongside all the other platforms. If it all comes off, it will be a major thing for dealers.'
Apart from IBM being the first out with its AS/400 NCs, what will also give Vars a head start is the fact that because of its unique architecture which includes a built in database, the server is more suited than most to handling interpreted languages like Java.
Cuthbert says: 'Everything on the AS/400 already effectively runs as an interpreted language and building a Java virtual machine for that environment is extremely tangible.'
It's an optimism shared by the whole AS/400 community, as IBM flexes its long-dormant muscles and sprints ahead in the NC-cum-Web race.
A few weeks ago, in a poll conducted by market analysts Input at the London conference Serving the Networked Enterprise, it was revealed how almost half of reseller delegates were now 'betting their future' on the Internet. Most reckoned that 45 per cent of PC users will migrate to NCs by 2001, primarily because of the savings promised by IBM's thin clients and similar models.
All of this is music to the ears of AS/400 solution vendors. Ian Kilpatrick of the Wick Hill Group, which specialises in TCP/IP connectivity, says: 'The AS/400 installed user base in the UK is 360,000 and rising.'
Far from being dead, the grandad of mid-range servers, it seems, is out on the floor and break dancing.
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