Apache Yesterday, Northstar Today, Copper Tomorrow

In addition to new features and functional enhancements, V4R3 of OS/400 ushers in a new generation of AS/400 processors. Codenamed "Northstar," this processor series boasts CPW gains of up to 94 percent at the highest end of AS/400 models.

The Northstar processor will go into 8-way and12-way Model 650 and S40 machines – the top end of the AS/400 family – as well as the lower end, but hot-selling Model 170s. The CMOS 6S2 chip that the Northstar is based on uses a .25-micron transistor technology, as opposed to the current Apache series’ (CMOS 5X) .35-micron technology, allowing it to pack more circuits, and therefore more information, on a single chip.

"It’s a denser CMOS technology," explains Drew Flaada, IBM 1998 project manager for AS/400 brand. "You can pack more circuits onto a processor and increase the density."

The results of this new technology are most dramatic on the high-end machines. The CPW rating on 8-way and12-way 650s and S40s has increased from 2,340 to 4,550. On the 170, it’s improved from 319 to 460 for client/server applications (LAN batch processing) and from 67 to 70 for interactive (i.e., green screen, 5250 emulation) applications.

Lee Kroon, senior industry analyst at the Cheshire, Conn.-based D.H. Andrews Group, points out that the Northstar processor will enable the AS/400 to play an increased role in large organizations where it competes for IT resources with mainframe systems.

"The new chip technologies at the high end make the AS/400 an appealing platform for mainframe owners who already have AS/400s in their organizations," he says. "It won’t replace mainframes – most mainframe shops have too heavy an investment in their databases and applications. But it’s more attractive and cost-effective in e-business and other advanced technologies for those companies who have mixed environments with mainframes and AS/400s installed."

IBM has targeted a minimum 70 percent annual processor performance increase for the top end of the AS/400 family, which Northstar beats easily. The forthcoming Pulsar series of processors, due out sometime between the second half of next year and first half of the year 2000, will use copper chip technology to ensure that IBM continues to at least match the 70 percent standard.

"CMOS 7 [copper chips] will be even denser [than CMOS 6S2]," says Flaada. "We’re not sure how much that will increase the processing capabilities, but it will be by at least 70 percent."

The AS/400 will also benefit from IBM’s new "silicon-on-insulator" (SOI) technology, which insulates the millions of transistors on a chip, reducing harmful electrical effects that consume energy and slow performance. Transistors using SOI will run faster and use less power.

"The density stays about the same, but it improves the way electrons travel on the chip, improving the processor speed," says Flaada. "It has an amplifier effect." He says SOI technology will come to the AS/400 at about the same time as copper chip technology.