The year 2000 brings a major performance boost to the AS/400 with the next generation Power4 processor due to arrive. Search400.com invited the Gartner Group's leading AS/400 expert Tom Bittman to talk with us about the upcoming changes for the AS/400 and how the system fits into IBM's long-range plans. Bittman previously worked at IBM for 11 years in management and development on the AS/400. He spoke with Search400.com assistant editor...
On how the AS/400 fits into IBM's long-range plans:
The recently-released Dedicated Server for Domino is the first step in a new direction for the AS/400, but it's hardly the last, according to Bittman. He envisions a day, perhaps four to five years from now, when a growing number of IBM customers seek alternatives to customizing general purpose servers on their own. Credit the rising cost of skilled staff required to administer cookie-cutter servers for their need for a different kind of server.
"One way that is gong to be answered is through the concept of appliances," Bittman says, predicting an increased focus on boxes that do one thing well. "This is where I think the AS/400 may have a home, beyond its current installed base, in the future." For example, he anticipates IBM will turn out an online analytical processing (OLAP) server, a storage server and a Lotus Domino server. IBM would add special interfaces to hide most of the operating system from users, concealing elements like security and user profiles, allowing them to focus on a specific business task.
These machines of the new millennium may carry bigger price tags, but Bittman bets businesses will be more likely to invest in them, given the expected savings in staff and administration. Imagine, for instance, only having to know little more than a basic end user application, like Domino constructs, to manage a server. "That's nirvana. That's the ultimate. I think prior to that we'll see more and more forays that improve cost of ownership or cost of administration for certain applications along the lines of the Dedicated Server for Domino."
New servers may drum up new business for Big Blue, but Bittman doesn't predict IBM, which has shipped 600,000 AS/400s since 1988, will abandon its installed base of AS/400 customers. Still, he cautions existing users to realize that IBM is taking a renewed interest in Unix. Plus, hardware loses some of its luster in an era when services and software generate the biggest profits for IBM, he says.
The impact of the Dedicated Server for Domino
Don't expect the Dedicated Server for Domino itself to propel new business for the AS/400. Bittman simply doesn't believe IBM is committed to the vigorous marketing it would take for the new servers to attract new users who aren't already in the AS/400 and Domino fold. In fact, Gartner Group estimates that through the end of next year, three-quarters of Dedicated Server sales will be to IBM's installed base. Those figures don't exactly bolster Big Blue's bottom line, because Dedicated Server buyers may be choosing it instead of investing in a more expensive AS/400E Server 170 or in lieu of upgrading their current system, he notes.
The Dedicated Server has only been out since early September, so Bittman says he can't gain a sense of the server's performance or gauge customer satisfaction. But he does have some recommendations for those considering the Dedicated Server. If, for instance, a business wants to integrate the new server with a Domino application on their system that they need to access from DB2/400, then he doesn't feel the Dedicated Server is a wise investment. "It makes more sense to use a 170 or maybe run it on a partition on the existing AS/400," Bittman says. However, he does believe the Dedicated Server is a good fit for those planning to use it as a strictly stand-alone machine, leveraging AS/400 skills to run Domino. "In that case, we tend to direct [clients] toward the Dedicated Server." Bittman feels the Dedicated Server is the precursor to a series of servers tied to specific applications. The most likely next step, he predicts, will be a decision-support or data warehouse server, designed to optimize queries.
What AS/400 managers can expect from IBM
"We're going to see AS/400 performance roughly double," Bittman claims, attributing the increased productivity to the use of the same type of hardware and 24-way improvements IBM recently made on the RS/6000, coupled with the next generation processor expected sometime in 2000. However, he looks for only a high-end announcement initially because IBM just came out with the 700 and doesn't want to freeze that lower portion market, he says.
On the success of the AS/400 as a web server
The number of companies using an AS/400 as a web server is relatively small, but their experiences are largely positive, according to Bittman. He expects more organizations will turn to the AS/400 for their business to business interaction and e-commerce. However, users will most likely remain loyal to NT or Unix servers to satisfy their more general marketing needs on the Web, he says.
From a technical perspective, software gives IBM its most pronounced Web server challenges. Because each user typically does something a little different with e-commerce, it's tough for IBM to find across-the-board solutions to their software problems. While these obstacles aren't specific to the AS/400, the community may feel the effects harder than most "because AS/400 users are typically looking for more turn-key solutions," Bittman says.
On IBM's ability to attract third party software providers to the AS/400 arena
"I think they're doing pretty good already," Bittman says, calling the AS/400's application suite one of the broadest available. However, he does highlight a few key areas, like add-on modules for ERP suites, where the AS/400 application portfolio could improve. Vendors flock to growth platforms, so IBM needs to take the lead to drum up interest, he says. "Every time IBM does some major marketing pushsuddenly I get more calls from vendors who are interested in the system. Surprise, surprise. Marketing works."
On IBM's marketing efforts
Bittman maintains that improved marketing would only benefit the AS/400 product line. As a longtime IBM manager and developer, he witnessed executives climbing the corporate ladder and shifting assignments too quickly to stay focused on one product line. He also thinks that heightened marketing would ease doubts from CIOs who often question their companies' large investment in the AS/400. "Users complain that AS/400 is the best-kept secret and IBM oughta talk about it more. And they're right."