focus topic: The AS/400 as a Web server? Why Not?

The AS/400 may trail Microsoft NT and Unix as the popular first choice for a Web server platform, but given the direction of the industry some observers believe the game will go the AS/400's way in the end.

It's partly common sense. If you already have an AS/400, why buy another machine? It's also because, looking ahead to the world of on-line e-business, the AS/400's traditional strengths--scalability, reliability, security, ease of use--will be just as valuable as they ever were. Meanwhile, in new operating system releases, like the recently announced V4R4, IBM is grooming the AS/400 to become a major player.

"We're enabling the AS/400 for e-business," says Dick Kiscaden, e-business solutions manager for IBM's Partners in Development, in Rochester. "Our customers will want to include supply chain management, customer relationship management and general e-commerce applications with their other business applications. We look at the facilities we are adding to the AS/400 as a logical extension of the core business applications our customers are using today."

But is the AS/400 accepted as a Web server? To some degree, it still suffers from some early misperceptions. "Until a couple of years ago the AS/400 wasn't thought of as a Web server because the Unix boxes had the lion's share of the market and Microsoft was pushing NT with a lot of tools and promotion," says Randy Stancil, CEO of Dallas-based Design Technologies. "It hasn't been until recently that people have begun to take the AS/400 seriously."

According to Stancil, even in AS/400 shops early adapters of Web technology who were under pressure to get a Web site up and running in a hurry, acquired an PC-based server because of the number of available tools and thus the perceived ease of Web development.

"But it's not as easy as some people might lead you to believe," Stancil says. "You have to learn the new operating system and the tools. You can spend just as much if not more on that type of development."

"We don't hear anybody saying, 'We want to build our Web environment on an AS/400,'" says Julie Palen, CEO of Internoded, Inc., based in Cambridge Mass. "But what people who run their businesses on an AS/400 are now saying is, 'Do I have to buy another box or can I do it all on the same box? Do I have to introduce another platform?' Now we can say, 'No you don't.'"

This is a huge step, Palen says. "It really opens up the market for companies like mine that do Web development. We can go to companies that are running on an AS/400 and not have to try to sell them another piece of hardware."

If the AS/400 is where the data is, then it only makes sense to do Web serving on the same box. "Once you've invested your resources, time, applications and staff in an AS/400, why try to put it somewhere else," says Scott McBurney, product manager at Advanced BusinessLink Corp., in Kirkland, Wash. "The reason people think of NT or Unix first is because theoretically the AS/400 is 'Web- challenged.' Far from it. You can run as fancy a Web site as you want on an AS/400. It can do the exact same things any other server can do."

According to this logic, the companies that will take advantage of the AS/400's Web serving capabilities first are those that are already in the AS/400 customer base. As Stancil says, "Once all the information made clear, we have yet to find an AS/400 shop that would choose anything other than an AS/400 as a Web server."

McBurney points out, however, that as organizations move farther into e-business the traditional strengths of the platform, namely its scalability and reliability, will become attractive to users who initially chose NT or Unix.

"If you look at the world of Web serving," he says, "today's applications are pretty small compared to the Web applications we'll see tomorrow. An airline reservation system may have 100,000 people attached to it, but 100,000 users is not a big number when you consider the more than 100 million users on the Web. And, when you're talking about running a business twenty-four hours a day, your dependence on your server becomes vital. Reliability, scalability and stability have always been right down the AS/400's alley. The AS/400 is a very, very valid platform. If you are NT now, you won't necessarily want to stick there in two or three years."

Security, is also a primary concern, and has been improved in the latest version of the operating system. In V4R4, for example, Digital Certificate Manager has been enhanced and the Secure Sockets Layer and Virtual Private Networks now run natively. Virtual Private Networks provide a secure "tunnel" between two business partners, or a remote site and headquarters, for exchanging encrypted data but the connection is over the Internet itself, not a private network.

"According to IBM, there is no known security breach on an AS/400, and there's never been a virus on an AS/400," says Bill Benjamin, VP of business development at Oak Brook, Ill.-based Lansa. "Security is a real concern regardless of platform, but the risks are not overriding the rewards in most peoples' minds. To make people feel more comfortable, the example we use is one of our AS/400 customers, a hotel-casino in Las Vegas. If a company in the gaming industry is willing to put their system on the Web you can bet it's secure."

There will always be risks when a Web server is opened up to the Internet, but anxiety over security shouldn't prevent a user from taking advantage of the technology, adds Steve Robbins, senior analyst for Internet computer strategies practice at The Yankee Group, in Boston. "I'd rather have people focus on whether the benefits outweigh the risks. A comparison will normally show that the benefits are so great it's worth having the Internet."

The growth of business-to-business e-business over the Web, which so far dwarfs the business-to-consumer market, also favors the AS/400 as a Web server. While a business-to-consumer application over the Web is still basically a catalog sale-order entry transaction, business-to-business commerce offers a preview of the more extensive e-business use of the Internet that lies ahead.

"Dealing with business partners over the Web is more than just online catalog sales," says McBurney, "With business partners, we use all the applications that manage a supply chain--general ledger, accounts payable, human resources--the entire application suite. The business applications area is where the AS/400 really shines."

Still, as IBM's Kiscaden observes, it has been the promise of business-to-consumer e-business that has generated the most excitement in the industry--and which must be conducted without the assurances of private intranets or extranets.

"The facilities we have put into the AS/400 are targeted to enable both," Kiscaden says. "From a technical point of view, it really doesn't matter whether the person coming in from the Internet is a consumer or another business. We did a lot of things in R4 to enable the use of the Internet as the common 'wire' for the exchange of information. As the Internet becomes a more reliable connection, people will use it instead of the private networks that they build and manage themselves."