AS/400 BI Hits Stride

After years of taking a back seat to Unix, the AS/400 appears to finally be coming into its own as a business intelligence server.

A total of 8,000 customers have embraced the AS/400 for data warehouses and data marts this year alone, bringing the total to 14,000 customers and about 150,000 AS/400s.

Ben Barnes, general manager of global business solutions at IBM, says AS/400 business intelligence revenues have doubled since last year with strong growth forecast for next year as well.

"The capacity and the capability of the platform has increased dramatically," says Barnes. "Four, five years ago, everyone thought that if you wanted to do business intelligence, you needed to do it on Unix. IBM realized this and dramatically improved the underlying hardware structure of the AS/400 for things like multiprocessing and data loading."

Barnes says that as recently as last year, it took 19 days to load a terabyte of data into an AS/400 database. Now it takes two hours. The result is that large customers with over 1 TB of data are now embracing the AS/400 for data warehousing.

"From this year to last year, we improved scalability tenfold, improved data loading 100-fold, improved query 200-fold," says Van Symons, business intelligence segment manager at IBM’s AS/400 Division. "As a result, there’s been a huge jump in our high-end business."

Symons says those customers represent maybe10-12 percent of AS/400 BI customers, but they generate about 30 percent of BI revenues for the AS/400 Division. He says many of these customers are developing three-tier data warehouses, where an operational data set feeds a data warehouse structure, which in turn feeds multiple data marts.

Barnes and Symons both say that IBM’s Rochester, Minn. Teraplex Center, where AS/400 data warehousing is pushed to its highest limits, has become an unbeatable sales tool for cinching the higher end accounts.

"Not a single [prospective AS/400] customer has left the Teraplex Center who didn’t buy an AS/400," says Symons.

"The AS/400 business intelligence business is growing fabulously and exceeding our plans year-to-year," Barnes adds.

"As Year 2000 projects become closed, customers are looking for new and different applications," offers Symons, who says he’s shooting for an additional 12-14,000 AS/400 BI customers next year.

Improvements to DB2/400 will continue. Barnes promises that by the end of next year, DB2/400 will be in "full parity" with the more powerful DB2 Universal Database (UDB), the IBM database for other platforms that supports large, complex data objects like video and sound, and unstructured data.

The process of bringing DB2/400 into parity with DB2 UDB began with the introduction of parallel loading and indexing in V4R2 of OS/400 this past February and encoded vector index (EVI) support in September’s V4R3 release.

Despite the gains IBM has made in selling the AS/400 as a business intelligence server, Barnes concedes that it’s not always an easy sale.

"AS/400 customers still need a little bit of ‘show me’ and ‘prove it.’ We have to spend a little more time on missionary sales in that space." He adds that AS/400 customers are not willing to accept piecepart solutions. "They prefer integrated solutions and we’re beginning to offer more fully-configured solutions."

Symons explains that though there are no specific AS/400 "custom server" initiatives for business intelligence, as there are for ERP and high availability, IBM does offer customized AS/400 BI packages.

"We’ll bundle the [business intelligence] software on whatever server model you desire and configure it so that it reads JDEdwards or BPCS or whatever ERP package you’re using and understands the structure of your data," he says.

AS/400 customers are often thought of as being conservative and slow to embrace new technologies. But Barnes says he doesn’t see this as an issue in business intelligence.

"I don’t personally believe that AS/400 customers as a group are any more conservative than customers of other platforms. But they are more solution-focused. They want proof that something works before they buy into it. And big companies are typically the early adopters of any new technology. AS/400 customers are more small and midsize companies."

Barnes says AS/400 business intelligence customers tend to be in the same industries as BI customers on other platforms – retail distribution, banking, insurance, health care, and, increasingly, utilities, because of deregulation bringing increased competition to that industry.

"We are seeing a little more in health care on the AS/400 than on the RS/6000 and System/390," Barnes says.