Rochester, Minnesota really only has two bars; and both were doing a brisk trade last week as a 150 foreign journalists and consultants converged on the home of IBM Corp’s AS/400. The Lab’s main complaint is that five years after its launch no-one is writing about the machine. This despite the fact it brings in $4,400m a year in revenue ($13,500m if you count allied businesses such as disk drives) and would be the world’s third or fourth largest computer company if split off from the rest of IBM. The reason that not much has been heard about the machine, is of course that there wasn’t much to say – AS/400s sit there and do their job – not the most scintillating of stories. However the Lab shipped in the pundits at a time when it is all change for the machine: the underlying hardware is being moved to RISC PowerPC-derived chips, the operating system is being re-written in C++ and there are loads of little changes going on to position the machine as a database server, as a network manager and as an object-oriented application system. But first the question everyone is waiting for: will the new generation of AS/400 be called the AS/400, or there AS/500 stickers already being piled up in the warehouse? The answer seems to be that no decision has been taken for sure, but AS/400 is most likely to be retained. This makes sense: IBM is making some fundamental changes to the way the machine is built, but is desperate to show that the switch will not affect compatibility. Under these circumstances a name might not be the best of ideas. We gave a quick run-down of the hardware changes in CI No 2,198, but the visit served to untangle the web.
The heart of the new machine…
The new version of the AS/400 being worked on will use PowerPC RISC chips; that much was already known. But Frank Soltis, senior Engineer and Scientist for AS/400 System Architecture and Strategy fleshed things out a bit, when he explained that the PowerPC chips in the machine will be significantly different from the generic implementations available to other manufacturers. In particular the company has added extra circuitry to speed up decimal arithmetic, it is also adding a 32-bit mode to ensure backwards compatibility. While these processors are technically 65-bit chips, as reported, that last bit is generally hidden from view and so IBM calls them 64-bit in mixed company. RISC technology is advancing at such a pace that IBM is actually working on two different AS/400 PowerPC chips. The first of these should be ready in 1995 and is being developed by the Rochester Lab itself, with Burlington, Vermont doing the fabrication. 1996 or 1997 will see the second version, currently being designed in Austin, Texas, appear on the scene. The two versions should differ only in speed. Even the Rochester design should be no slouch, but Soltis describes the very fastest Austin-built CPUs as running a 300MHz to 400MHz and giving Cray 2 performance on a cool 50W power. Availability of faster chips have pushed the prospect of AS/400s with more than four CPUs away into the future. However Soltis still says to expect a properly parallel architecture by the late 1990s.
…the soul of the new machine…
At the hardware is being redesigned, so the OS/400 operating system is being completely re-written in C++. This will take 12 to 18 months, so the software should be ready at about the same time as the chips. Those contemplating moving their programmers onto C++ might like to note Soltis’s comment that the learning curve is much steeper than we thought… There is a period of time where they are not terribly productive – in fact, anything they do you throw away. Even after a four-day intensive bath in AS/400-ese, it is not clear exactly what we should expect from object-oriented OS/400. The key point appears to be that it will be able to use technology from Taligent and the forthcoming Workplace OS-based operating systems. In other words you should be able to pick out bits of AIX, OS/2 and Taligent and use them within the AS/400. Does this mean that we will see Unix running
on AS/400? Certainly, absolutely and definitely not was the consensus from the IBMers – but then Glenn Van Benschoten, AS/400 System Manager talked to Computergram about the possibility of running multiple personalities alongside OS/400 on the new machines, so there still appears to be some room for debate here.
…and the stacks of storage
The rest of the machine will have to change to keep up with these developments and Glenn Van Benschoten, AS/400 System Manager, came to the show with his pockets bulging with the new technologies that IBM is working on. The ever-decreasing size of the system components should ensure a happier tailor within a year or two. Van Benschoten is promising a 2Gb, 3.5 disk drive by the end of the year – doubling the capacity of the drive launched last year. But it is 2.5 technology that is interesting the labs at the moment. Currently its maximum capacity stands at 250Mb – too small to be of interest to the AS/400 builders. However capacity appears to be doubling every year, Van Benschoten says, with 1Gb and 2Gb commercial drives not too distant, the upper limit for the technology? 5Gb he reckons. For those who think that even 2.5 is too big for a drive, Van Benschoten produced a 1.5 box from inside his jacket – these, he said, should be available in with 1Gb before the end of the decade. Similar things are afoot in the tape cartridge market where IBM’s 8mm drives today take 5Gb of data, but will take 10Gb before too long – one of Van Benschoten’s favourite phrases. More specifically he promises a library product in the near term (12 to 18 months) that will allow all the good things like automatic migration of data between disk and cartridge as required. The product will start out in 8mm guise on the high-end machines says Van Benschoten, before moving down the range on other cartridge formats. Those other formats will also see their capacities grow quite quickly – quarter inch should soon go to 2.4Gb, with 10Gb appearing longer term – all before compression.
Not quite 52 varieties
One of the AS/400’s strengths is the ‘one size fits all’ aspect of its operating system and hardware. However the Labs have plans for a number of market-specific AS/400s. We mentioned the huggable luggable single user version, which is in the works, but there are also database server and network server versions. The developers at Rochester have always been proud of the closely integrated database that lurks within OS/400. But they are frustrated by just how low-profile it is – there is talk of giving it a product name. In the mean time the Labs are working on a version of the Machine with hardware and software modifications designed specifically to improve its software as a database server. Meanwhile a local network server version is also envisaged, this will incorporate input-output processors running OS/2 and LAN Server. The result? It will look like a very large LAN Server box to the attached clients. No word on just when these models will emerge, but the impression is it could be as soon as late this year. – Chris Rose