A Millennium Transition for IBM and the AS/400

IBM's AS/400 is currently the world's most widely used commercial midrange system with over 650,000 installed worldwide. Yet, in these days of rapid technological change, it seems that to stay current computer hardware, software and applications must continuously change and become the new "flavor of the day." So how is IBM positioning its server for continued success in the new millennium?

Keep in mind that there is also value in a system's ability to support existing legacy applications and interface to heterogeneous computing environments. IBM AS/400 strategist Ralph Clark believes that the AS/400 server has ensured its dominance into the next century by enhancing its features rather than reinventing them; by adding new capabilities to the hardware, software, middleware and operating system that enable Web-based applications. He said, "IBM's customers believe that instead of bringing in a new system, it's easier to extend from the center out." I agree.

It seems the newest versions of AS/400 servers are trying to do it all. And in this case IBM has something it can truly boast about. First arriving on the scene in 1988, the AS/400 is continually being upgraded to feature larger capacity, smaller size, faster processing speeds and lower pricing. The AS/400e uses 64-bit RISC technology, and with it, IBM launched an initiative called "Software Change Management" that is giving it the lead over its competitors.

Also, the AS/400 has a layered architecture or interface between software and hardware--don't be surprised to see competitors scramble to create that early in the next century.

Currently, millions of Web-based application users are forced to accommodate their work to many barriers, including applications that are tied to one standard application server. IBM's goal seems to be to bring the same familiar PC environment features to Web-enabled applications. The "net" of all this (pardon the pun), is to improve server-centric computing at the user and group level, and to help customers migrate to Java and Web technologies.

Expanded AS/400 offerings include, just to name two, Lotus Domino for AS/400 and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). There is also a dedicated server for Domino, unveiled by IBM this past August. Also, a large number of AS/400 customers have begun using Java to develop their e-commerce applications.

Cross-platform, Web and e-commerce developments are becoming increasingly complex. IBM can--and should--provide single vendor solutions at a time when companies need simple ways to make the shift to enterprise computing. Clark says the AS/400 appeals to "the driver as opposed to the mechanic," and "the music lover as opposed to the audiophile." I couldn't say it better.

A relatively new ASP Prime Solution Center for AS/400, staffed with AS/400 server experts, helps businesses recreate all or part of a real-world business environment. I see more and more vendors jumping on these ASP opportunities.

To truly ensure its success in the new millennium, IBM must focus on an enduring AS/400 value proposition. It needs to continue its appeal to customers who seek proven solutions. But that's only part of the answer. IBM is not the only technology leader to bring Web-enabling solutions to its customers. So the other challenge for IBM is to effectively break through the competitive clutter through aggressive advertising and marketing campaigns.

And finally, IBM's AS/400 division would be wise to continue its focus on the small and medium business market, where about 60 percent of its revenues have come from.

I believe that more companies will view the AS/400 as an "open server" in the years ahead and will add on development tools such as Enterprise JavaBeans and IBM's VisualAge. They'll look to the AS/400 to manage all of their work from different environments. That's quite a competitive advantage.

What a plethora of goodies!

Consistent with Lou Gerstner's goal to keep a totally integrated AS/400 "synergistic and solutions-based," IBM must continue to open doors to heterogeneous computing platforms, including Microsoft environments. Integrated architecture is key and that's where I see AS/400's sustained leverage in the years ahead. The competition will not be standing still so may the best systems and solutions win!