Editor's Desk: Ten Years Burning Down the Midrange Road

Born as a proprietary minicomputer that gave IBM the ability to unify its System/38 and System/36 efforts under one product line, the AS/400 made its debut in 1988. In September of that same year, MIDRANGE Systems was launched to “to meet the information needs of this fast-paced market.”

As I paged through past issues of MIDRANGE Systems in preparation for our 10th anniversary, I was again struck by the fact that while everything is different nothing has really changed in the AS/400 market.

Take for example this April 1990 quote from Steve Schwartz, then general manager of IBM’s Application Business Systems Division: “It’s amazing that we can’t dispel this notion that the AS/400 will dry up and blow away.” Yet eight years later, and after three consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue growth, the AS/400 continues to fight this perception as it rolls into its second decade.

At its launch the AS/400 faced off against high-flying minicomputer makers like Data General, Digital Equipment, NCR, Unisys and Wang. Many of these vendors have since crashed and burned. Now the battle is primarily against Windows NT. Which ironically puts the AS/400 in the position of facing down the specter of its old nemesis – VMS. Windows NT – the “spawn of VMS” – was developed by many of the key VMS programmers including David Cutler, who left Digital for Microsoft in 1988.

So why hasn’t the AS/400 “dried up and blown away” yet? The reason is simple. Instead of building a computer, IBM built a business solution.

Although the System/38’s CPF operating system also included a relational database, OS/400 was designed to take ease of use to a new level. It integrated many of the networking and network management protocols that were optional on the System/36 and System/38, while adding single-level storage and 48-bit addressing.

However, the most important characteristic of the AS/400 was its ability to run “most” System/36 and System/38 applications. This ability not only let the AS/400 hit the ground running with an existing library of applications, it also gave IBM a proof point for its promise of significant investment protection. For the past 10 years, IBM has kept this promise.

From the days of proprietary minicomputers, open systems and client/server to network computing, e-business and beyond, the technology-independent architecture of the AS/400 enables it to keep pace with the ever-changing tides of IT.

No other platform can truthfully make that claim.

While the tides of IT ebb and flow, the business mission it is there to support remains the same. This point will be drawn to a razor sharp conclusion as e-business becomes a reality in the coming years.

With the introduction of 64-bit RISC technology in 1995, Internet support in 1996, 12-way SMP in 1997 and native support for Lotus Domino and Java earlier this year, AS/400 shops are better positioned for the future than users of any other platform.

A new set of pundits may again be predicting the AS/400’s imminent demise. But I strongly disagree. How can something so adaptable that provides an unprecedented level of investment protection ever go out of style?

That is why the AS/400 ended its first decade with the strongest performance numbers in its history.

Just as IBM could not have done it without you, neither could MIDRANGE Systems. Thanks for your support.