The tried and true iSeries offers versatility, a solid performance reputation -- and lower pricing.
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By Johanna Ambrosio
Like Madonna, the AS/400 keeps reinventing itself. Around as a platform for over 20 years, it was first known as the System/38, then as the AS/400 and most recently is being called the iSeries. IBM relaunched the computer family in October 2000 in a bid to build the reputation of the servers as Internet machines of various stripes.
According to a January 2001 report by Summit Strategies, some 700,000 of the servers have been shipped. IBM claims that the iSeries is the only server in the industry to allow customers to run four different operating systems simultaneously: OS/400 (the native operating system of the AS/400); Unix; Windows NT or Windows 2000; and Linux. IBM also says the product line scales from a single processor to a 24-way processor.
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The machine's versatility and reputation for near-constant uptime make it a great choice for anyone who wants to run a small or midsize business and not worry about the details of how or why the platform works. So says Rich Partridge, vice president of enterprise servers at independent analyst firm D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, NY., who also notes that "only IBM" is using the iSeries' new moniker. Most everyone else is still calling it the AS/400.
Partridge explained more about the machine's key applications in the corporate world in an inteview with TechTarget.
Q: Why are people buying them?
A: The AS/400 has a very loyal following. This customer base doesn't usually worry about speeds and feeds, what MHz the chip is or what the machine's cache is. Those attributes are not important, because this customer base is typically not about pushing the state-of-the-art. They want an application tailored to a particular environment -- manufacturing, medical office, and so on. Typically, a value-added reseller will customize and build the machine with the correct hardware and software for the application. The customer drops it in and runs it. These customers don't want to develop their own significant IT expertise in-house, and they don't want the inconvenience of melding together incompatible packages.
Q: What are the drawbacks to the AS/400?
A: In the past, one drawback had been a higher cost relative to other computing platforms. The AS/400 wasn't a commodity, and it wasn't something that you could look for in the back of the computer trade publications and beat someone down for the best price. It wasn't like the Windows/Intel world, where you can mix-and-match one of these and one of those.
Q: You said this used to be a drawback. What's happened?
A: Some of this has changed. IBM has merged the underlying AS/400 hardware with its PowerRisc [Unix-based] series of machines, so now it's the same underlying hardware for both families. IBM didn't want to expend a lot of dollars on a unique chipset and separate development, so this has been happening over the past two years. That said, the AS/400's operating system does have different features and protection modes from the PowerRisc family. And just because the PowerRisc has the newest chip powering it, that doesn't mean the same chip will be released for the AS/400 at the same time. The two products have separate release cycles, so the same things aren't available for both at the same time.
Q: And that means...?
A: You can't go out and find a gray-market PowerRisc box and then run OS/400 on top of that. First, it may not work. Second, you wouldn't be able to have the hardware and software certified and supported by IBM or pretty much any third party.
Q: So, is the price of the AS/400 falling?
A: Yes, it's now more competitively priced. The customer base is still more interested in the specific applications running on the machine than they are a particular price/performance metric. But IBM recognized that they might have lost some business to people that were concerned with pricing and that were doing some comparison shopping. So IBM addressed that by taking some costs out of the underlying hardware. There's not a significant price differential -- the AS/400 still requires more handholding and more customization to make sure the customer understands how it all goes together. This could still make it more expensive than if a customer assembled an application on his own, on an Intel/Windows platform.
About the author: Ambrosio is a freelance writer in Marlborough, Mass. Reach her at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
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