And It Keeps On Computing

Dec. 21, 2004
Users testify to the versatility of a venerable system.

What high-tech device has been around for 13 years, has its own operating system and database built in, and is used by 250,000 companies, most of them manufacturers, to help manage their bread-and-butter operations? If you guessed IBM Corp.'s venerable AS/400, you're right. Whenever manufacturers gather to sing the praises of computers that have kept on ticking, the tried and proven AS/400 always gets the biggest play. This machine, once called a midrange computer and now referred to as a server, was given up for dead more than once over the years. Analysts and software companies said the AS/400 was too proprietary, too rigid to adapt to a Unix- and Microsoft Windows NT-dominated world, and too inflexible to support the demands of e-commerce. Were they ever wrong. Today, with more than 700,000 units sold, the AS/400, now called the "eServer iSeries," may be as popular as ever. But don't take IBM's word for it. Just ask any of the more than 200 software companies that have written their applications to run on this machine. They include some of the top names in software for business, including SAP AG, i2 Technologies Inc., Ariba Inc., and J.D. Edwards & Co., as well as smaller firms such as Lilly Software Associates Inc. And more are signing on each month. In August, for instance, Siebel Systems Inc. announced it was launching a new version of its popular software for customer relationship management to run on the iSeries. Remember, though, we're not talking human or dog lives, in which 13 years is no big deal. In the computer business, 13 years is an eternity. Literally hundreds of computers, computer companies, and software applications have come and gone in that time. Instead of merely giving its midrange box transfusions or putting it on life support, IBM chose to extend its active life indefinitely by endowing it with new strengths and fresh capabilities. One way IBM was able to keep the AS/400 competitive with midrange computers from Sun Microsystems Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Co. was to open it up to function with other non-IBM systems and standards. Today, Big Blue claims that the iSeries is one of the most "open" in the industry, capable of running a variety of operating systems and application platforms, including Linux, Java, Domino, HTML, Apache Web server, Windows NT and 2000, and Unix. Flexibility is another competitive edge. Like the athlete who can compete in several events, the iSeries server can be harnessed to run Internet Web sites, drive enterprise business software applications, and churn data six ways to Friday's payroll. Finally, there's durability and dependability. Most companies like the AS/400/-iSeries because it's a self-contained machine that needs little tweaking, almost no tending, and often runs indefinitely without anyone worrying about failures, downtime, or "rebooting." At J.C. Steele and Sons Inc., a maker of heavy-clay machinery, an iSeries 270 server provides the processing muscle to run the company's Visual Manufacturing ERP system from Lilly Software. "Because the (iSeries) runs itself with almost no operator intervention, the Visual/iSeries combination is a lot more cost effective than most people think," says Donald J. Koepnick, controller at the Statesville, N.C., firm. As with any aging thoroughbred that must fend off younger competitors, the AS/400/-iSeries machine continues to have its disbelievers. In fact, some are still predicting its demise. At least one leading software firm, PeopleSoft Inc., is placing its bets elsewhere. "I think the AS/400 is on its last legs," says Mike Frandsen, general manager for supply-chain management at the Pleasanton, Calif., software firm. The AS/400's database, DB2/400, "doesn't compete" with other databases such as Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, and IBM's UDB, says Frandsen. The latest edition of PeopleSoft's applications, PeopleSoft 8, released a year ago, does not support AS/400, while the version it replaced, PeopleSoft 7, did. IBM product managers dismiss the PeopleSoft snub, saying it had nothing to do with performance of the iSeries machine. "There is a history with PeopleSoft -- they made a directional change in 1999," says Kimberly S. Stevenson, vice president for iSeries marketing in Somers, N.Y. "The database was not the reason. It was more of a relationship thing between PeopleSoft and IBM." While IBM doesn't release sales figures for iSeries, Stevenson says there has been no downward trend. "Some years sales of iSeries are up, and some years down. There is no trend over the last three or five or even 10 years. But there certainly is no trend line down." Of course, the real test of any product is what customers think. "We've found it to be an exceptionally reliable machine -- probably the most reliable box in the industry today," says George Wasickanin, network manager at Crosman Corp., a manufacturer of air guns in East Bloomfield, N.Y. Crosman is running its entire Lotus Domino suite of Web site applications, including two Web sites as well as all back-end functions to support them, on a dedicated iSeries i270 model server. A key goal for the company was to successfully integrate its online B2B operation with its enterprise software system from J.D. Edwards. The manufacturer wanted to connect with dealers, enabling them to have a window into Crosman's operations, so they could place orders and monitor shipments while also being able to learn about such things as upcoming Christmas specials. Crosman has an inventory of 680 air gun products. "Since going live in February, we have not had a glitch with the hardware," Wasickanin says. "It has run like a top." The company's Web sites field some 3.5 million hits monthly, including 200,000-plus sessions with dealers. Crosman also has two other AS/400s, an iSeries i820 running its ERP system, and an AS/400 720 to host its data warehouse, sales forecasting, and daily business. By and large, IBM iSeries/AS/400 buyers tend to be a pretty loyal bunch. "The iSeries inspires a level of loyalty that is nonexistent elsewhere on any other platform," says Buell G. Duncan III, general manager of IBM's midmarket servers. "Our customers think of it as a manufacturing tool for their business." He might have added that it's a tool with a solid reputation for durability and uptime -- two words not generally associated with computers. "The system is known for its constant uptime, and that's critical to our business needs," observes Brian Masters, SAP project manager at Webcraft, a printer and distributor of direct mail in Lawrenceville, N.J. Webcraft uses midrange IBM computers to run each of its four manufacturing plants and recently began using SAP R/3 on IBM's iSeries. At newborn-and-infant-apparel manufacturer Warren Featherbone Co., IBM iSeries servers underpin the company's electronic-data-interchange applications. "Initially it was used for orders, but today it's for orders, invoices, advance shipping notices, payments and funds transfer, and forecasting," says Gus Whalen, president and CEO of the Gainesville, Ga., firm.

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