IBM’s iSeries Offers A Safe Haven
[Note a version of this first appeared in the June 2002 issue of the 3000 NewsWire.]

In mid-May IBM hosted a special two-day meeting at its iSeries (formerly AS/400) headquarters in Rochester, Minn. About two-dozen people representing a cross-section of the HP 3000 ISV, developer and consultant community paid their own way to hear IBM’s story about the iSeries and why it should be considered as a migration target for those moving off the HP 3000. I joined this party to see what IBM has to offer 3000 customers.

To summarize the opinions after the second day — a dozen or so IBMers gave up their Saturday by the way for our convenience — they seemed to range from “the iSeries looks interesting and is worth more investigation” to “the iSeries is the best choice for migration from the HP 3000.”

What convinced these hardened and self-described HP 3000 bigots, most with at least 20 years experience on the platform, to even consider the iSeries? Here’s my report on a sample of what we learned about the iSeries and IBM.

More 3000-like than Unix

I observed some the things that make the iSeries feel more like the HP 3000 than a Unix system does.

The iSeries has an integrated database, the DB2 Universal Database. You do not have to buy a database from a third party and worry about how well it integrates with the system. Nor do you have to try to use an Open Source database where both support and compatibility can be problematic. DB2 is either first or second in analysts’ ranking of the worldwide marketplace, depending upon criteria used. It is supported on systems ranging from the desktop all the way up to the largest mainframe.

DB2 also appears to be quite feature-rich. Mike Whiteley, one of the participants at the conference with a lot of HP 3000 database experience, had a chance to look into DB2 more deeply and was quite enthused.

“The DB2 database appears totally SQL92 standard,” he said, “although just like any other RDBMS it has optional ‘extensions’ such as platform-specific storage specifications. My opinion of the DB2 database ‘explorer’ GUI is that it is better than offerings available from many vendors who specialize in such things.

Of particular interest is the ability to build a data file on a file system and have it ‘auto magically’ appear in the DB2 database as a table, all ready to be accessed by any ODBC-compliant application, once columns have been defined.”

Like the HP 3000, integrated tape backup and recovery are part of the basic iSeries system. While there are third-party providers of these kinds of programs, just like in the HP 3000 market, for many iSeries sites the supplied tools appear quite adequate.

The iSeries also has an integrated spooler management system that appears even more robust on first look than MPE’s. One thing you can be sure of with IBM, they know printing. The IBM officials claimed you could even print from the iSeries spooler to a printer attached to a PC

Integrated batch and batch scheduling are also part of the basic iSeries package. It looked like this basic functionality falls short of the functionality in MPE. An advanced scheduler from IBM costs extra, and of course adds functionality to the basic package.

Backwards binary compatibility is also a part of OS/400. Got an old System 38 binary you’ve lost the source to? It should run just fine on the latest iSeries.

The iSeries’ general ease of management is similar to the HP 3000. Oftentimes we heard the phrase “it just runs”. Sound familiar?

On first glance the iSeries seems to have an even richer set of APIs than MPE/iX, if by no other measure than the sheer number compared to MPE/iX.

The iSeries supports various clustering and fail over capabilities. Everything MPE can do and more. Netbase or Shareplex functionality is also available from third parties.

3000 wishes granted

Some of the things the iSeries has today are features we have long wished were available on the HP 3000.

The iSeries is fully 64-bit; i.e. they’ve had for some time what we were promised. Binaries for AIX, IBM’s flavor of Unix, run on the iSeries using a technology called PASE. Imagine if HP-UX binaries could run on the HP 3000.

Hardware mirrored or RAID 5 OS and data volumes are part of the iSeries. How long have we been asking for even software mirroring of the system volume set? The iSeries actually supports RAID controller cards, just like your favorite Intel server.

Posix smoothing does not appear to be an issue on the iSeries, at least not to the same degree as on the HP 3000. I’ll admit, however, the extent of this smoothing cannot be determined to any degree of certainty in a two-day overview.

The iSeries is SAN enabled; i.e., a native fiber interface is already working in the customer base.

The iSeries already supports capacity upgrade on demand. Superdome anyone? This feature made it to the HP-UX systems from HP, but didn’t arrive for MPE systems.

The iSeries supports logical partitioning of the system. You can have multiple logical machines defined on a single box running any combination of OS/400, Linux and, shortly, AIX. Furthermore, the iSeries partitioning model gives you the flexibility to allocate part of a processor.

IBM has created a fairly aggressively priced program for developers with its 1 percent per month lease. HP gave DSPP members generous discounts on HP 3000s — but you are still talking many thousands of dollars up front versus several hundred dollars per month.

The iSeries supports modern languages such as a very highly rated implementation of Java and C++. We were told that most of the OS400 operating system is actually written in C and C++. Since this is IBM, the iSeries also supports a standards compliant COBOL.

New tech territory

Next, what are some of the things that the iSeries has that maybe most of us never thought about having on the HP 3000 but that are pretty cool when you think of them?

The iSeries has an integrated GUI interface that gives you the ability to manage one or more machines, locally or remotely. Several third parties have similar tools for the HP 3000, but they do not appear to be as richly functioned.

The GUI interface that comes with the iSeries also is integrated with DB2 database. All kinds of database maintenance and inquiry can be performed through the integrated GUI. Third parties provide some of this functionality for the HP3000, but none that I am aware of provide anywhere’s near the functionality of IBM’s product.

Up to 32-way SMP is supported by the iSeries giving a performance range (using IBM’s relative performance numbers) of over 2 orders of magnitude from bottom to top. The iSeries supports up to 256 GB memory and 72 TB disk at the high end.

Similarity and transition

From what I could see in a few days, IBM has gone beyond HP’s recent technical refresh of HP 3000s with the iSeries.

The iSeries supports both SQL and “native” access to the DB2 database. It appears the nature of that native interface (from the System 38 days) may allow easy modeling of many TurboIMAGE databases, both physically and logically, without having to employ SQL wrappers.

A graphical interface seems to be the default for most operations. You can create and manage your own products with the iSeries GUI, from installation, to distribution across systems, to controlling user access. The iSeries GUI can graphically display performance data.

A host-based mail application from the vendor has a place in the iSeries, as it once did with the HP 3000. Lotus Domino (think Microsoft Exchange on steroids) runs natively on the iSeries, either in a partition or on a standalone box.

The iSeries comes with an integrated (light) version of IBM’s J2EE compliant Websphere application server. Additional functionality is optionally available.

IBM described everything in OS/400 as an object, at least according to IBM’s definition of object. Bob Karlin, another of the HP 3000 consultants at the meeting, pointed out that this is not the same thing as saying the iSeries is Object Oriented. The “objects” cannot be instantiated, there is no inheritance, there are no methods and there is no encapsulation.

Other observations from IBM’s presentations:

IBM provides copious (free) documentation on the iSeries, complete with code samples for just about everything. One of my continuing frustrations with HP’s 3000 documentation has been the lack of code examples.


Finally, what are some of the intangibles that the iSeries has going for it?

The unabashed enthusiasm for the product displayed by the IBMers made me think back to how it used to be with HP and the HP 3000. The vendor operates a program for the iSeries called PartnerWorld that is similar to HP's DSPP. However, IBM seems to take better care of its ISVs and developers.

The iSeries has greater than 200,000 supported customers and approximately 500,000 supported systems (out of an estimated 750,000 total systems worldwide).

IBM seemed willing to discuss a few missteps in iSeries development. For example, IBM thought SNA was a superior networking protocol to Ethernet. But when the world clearly was going to TCP/IP, IBM embraced the more standard protocol (despite some admitted false starts — “the first attempt was less than optimal”). They now even support gigabit Ethernet on the iSeries.

Potential warts

Is the iSeries perfect? Of course not. But IBM did not get to be IBM by emphasizing weaknesses and ignoring strengths, so it is going to take longer to find the warts than it did to find the blossoms. Here are a few I observed already:

The iSeries pricing model is a labyrinth — get out that Bourbaki danger sign. The iSeries comes with an almost bewildering array of (fee-based) options. It is extremely difficult to determine a comparison between HP 3000 and iSeries models. Furthermore, IBM has usage-based pricing, making it even harder to determine appropriate sizing.

The iSeries command interpreter (CI) is not as friendly or intuitive as MPE’s, especially for writing CI programs. It may be as powerful, but it almost had me wistfully thinking about shell scripts.

I had several conversations with the IBM people about backup functionality. It would appear they do not support what we think of as online backup of the DB2 database. This is strange, since they are forever comparing DB2 to Oracle and Oracle has supported online backups for many years. IBM’s preferred “solution” appears to be mirrored systems. This issue requires serious study.

In questioning IBM about the length of time necessary for a software update, they responded, “plan on a day.” Ugh.

In our presentation’s lab demonstration, the GUI appeared somewhat flaky. Of course, this could simply be attributed to a dozen or more geeks using what is primarily a system management tool all at the same time, and all on the same system.

So, where do I stand on all this? The iSeries is not a one size fits all solution for HP 3000 owners looking for a replacement platform, but is certainly worth further investigation. It may turn out to provide a soft landing for some former HP 3000 customers, ISVs, developers and consultants.

For others, HP-UX, Linux or Homesteading may be the right way to go. What I think we found out is that the iSeries represents another option — a viable one for some, to those HP 3000 customers who are migrating and asking the question, “Where do we go from here”?