From Silver Lake to IBM i – A POWERful Story of Evolution
A birthday celebration, of sorts, is underway. It’s the 30th anniversary of a major milestone in the history of business computing: the birth of the IBM Application System/400, aka AS/400, code-named “Silver Lake” (to maintain secrecy before the big announcement) and its operating system – OS/400. Silver Lake is in Rochester, MN, where the AS/400 was ‘born’ and continues to be developed.
Of course, most people know that AS/400 evolved over the last 30 years to become the IBM i operating system running on IBM POWER hardware that we still use today. Let’s look at the evolution and key events the AS/400 experienced starting in 1988 to enable its architecture and operating system to still be relevant in 2018.
An Architectural Marvel from the Outset
When the AS/400 was unleashed on the business computing world in 1988, there were numerous ground-breaking aspects with the launch. It was the first platform that was fully object-oriented, even down to the operating system which featured integrated hardware and system software, allowing customers to focus on their business applications instead of systems operations. Architectural design highlights included TIMI (Technology Independent Machine Interface), Single-level Storage, Object Persistence, and the microcode layer known as “SLIC” (System Licensed Internal Code).
With Single-level Storage, applications didn’t need to know about storage device specifics or hardware thanks to TIMI and SLIC. Programs work with objects. Objects are accessed by name, not by address and storage is automatically managed by the system.
This architecture has delivered many benefits over the years, enabling OS/400 to evolve with the underlying hardware and has also made the platform virus-resistant compared to many of its competitors. It’s also important to note that from the outset, the platform was designed for business computing which is generally more I/O-intensive, another major benefit of Single-level Storage.
AS/400 architecture was particularly important when IBM changed the processor technology, especially when they moved from 32- to 64-bit processing or from Complex Instruction Set Computing (CISC) to Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC). In some cases, recompilation may have been required but there was never a need to change existing applications. There’s code written in the 90s that’s still running on IBM i systems today (something most other operating systems can’t claim), and it’s all due to the architectural evolution.
Unprecedented Software Application Offerings
In April 1988 when the AS/400 was announced, over 1,000 “packaged software applications” were also announced. Upon delivery of the first system in June 1988, there were over 2,500 software packages available for AS/400, a record in the software industry at that time.
It was the wealth of application software offerings that helped to propel the AS/400 to rapid growth with 250,000 servers shipped by 1994.
For the thousands of businesses and IT professionals that have bet their business on this platform in its various incarnations, the IBM i is legendary for reliability and low cost of ownership.
By 2004, there were over 750,000 IBM i systems shipped worldwide, but since that time, there has been some decline, with organizations over the past decade replacing what they had considered to be legacy systems, despite the steady evolution of the platform and its capabilities by IBM and their business partners.
A Passionate User Community Next to None
The COMMON User Group is the “…world’s largest association of IBM and IBM-compatible information technology users. The organization represents professionals involved with the application of Power Systems and related platforms within a wide variety of business environments.” (excerpted from common.org). Formed in 1960, COMMON is almost twice as old as the IBM i.
COMMON’s membership growth during the 90’s corresponded to the AS/400’s steady user base expansion, including countless Local User Groups (LUGs), some of them large enough to have conferences of their own in the US and around the world. For many years, COMMON conferences were scheduled twice per year, Spring and Fall in various locations in North America, with attendees approaching 5,000. The conferences went on for a week and included large vendor expos, 5 days of classroom training, COMMON User Discussion sessions (CUDs) and spontaneous Birds of a Feather sessions (BOFs), as well as many other opportunities for users to share information, including suggestions or gripes with IBM representatives.
During this time, many COMMON Speakers became influential in the IBM community, and some left lasting memories on the COMMON stage during the Opening Session or special presentation, including memorable presentations using Lego blocks, magic tricks, and the one night only performance of the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Servers ballet at COMMON 2000.
By the mid-2000’s, attendance at COMMON began to decline for a variety of factors and they changed to one main conference per year circa 2010. But the spirit and dedication of COMMON membership continues to be a driving force in IBM i ownership and development.
Evolution and the Name Game
Since its inception, IBM has continually redesigned, rearchitected, and rebranded the platform. Here’s a quick list of many significant name changes the platform experienced over the years:
- The “AS/400 (Application System/400)” is launched in 1988
- “AS/400e” is announced in June 1995, the first models to be based on the 64-bit RISC PowerPC® AS processors
- “AS/400e”, code-name North Star, launched in 1997, with a 12-way system using Power PCA35 microprocessors (Apache technology), providing significant improvements
- “eServer iSeries” is the new name, in 2000, as the journey towards POWER (standing for “Power Optimization with Enhanced RISC”) chips begin and in 2002, the first POWER 4 servers are announced
- “IBM eServer i5” servers extend the “IBM eServer iSeries” family, launched in 2004 with the introduction of the POWER5 64-bit microprocessor. At the same time, OS/400 (the operating system) is rebranded i5/OS
- The name was changed once again to “System i” in 2006, with IBM’s Systems branding initiative
- The terms “IBM Power Systems” and “IBM i” premiered in 2008, when IBM announced System i integration with the System p platform. The unified product line is called IBM Power Systems and features support for the IBM i (previously known as i5/OS or OS/400), AIX and GNU/Linux operating systems.
And today, the appropriate way to refer to the platform is the IBM Power server running IBM i, or just IBM i.
Loyal IBM users (customers and partners) trying to keep up with the names changes, have often vented their frustration and questioned the IBM marketing engine and branding choices. On occasion, some self-appointed evangelists have taken it upon themselves to chastise vendors, bloggers, and customers who continue to use the term “AS/400”. This has resulted in some spirited and entertaining debates at conferences and in the blogosphere over the years and continues to this day. One writer jokingly (we think) proposed that IBM should rename the operating system Bruce to do away with all the confusion.
Throughout these transformations, the original architecture of the IBM i with the abstraction layer afforded by TIMI and SLIC has enabled the new servers to go to market without significant disruption to their user base, the thousands of businesses with mission-critical systems on this platform. IBM i on Power Systems has kept pace with the exponential demand in the business and technology world to provide faster, more powerful and more enhanced capabilities.
And for that, we should all be grateful.