Out of the Blue: Perspectives on the IBM midrange

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I am sitting on the floor with a clutter of articles and manuals fanned out in front of me. The subject of my interest and my confusion glares back at me with all the eloquence of Scrabble tiles. TCP/IP, POSIX, X.25, OSF, SQL, NFS. (What can be made of that?) Gradually "itys" begin to emerge: Interoperability, Portability, Scalability, Connectivity, Usability. I try to squeeze it all through the cheesecloth of industry standards. Still confused.

I'm trying to figure out if the AS/400 is an open system and I can't even find agreement on what an open system is, much less if the standard applies to the AS/400.

Open systems is to computing what the United Nations is to international relations: a place where everybody can talk to each other without fighting. And like U.N. debates, the open systems discussion is full of disagreement and Bosnian complexities.

Understandably so. With so many factions, each with its own laws and conventions (operating systems and architectures), and each secretly delighting at the potential misfortune of the others, a world of open hearts and open architectures is an uneasy ideal. Yet increasingly, customers are insisting that such natural enemies as mainframe manufacturers Amdahl, IBM, Unisys, Fujitsu and Hitachi; midrange and workstation providers Sun, NEC, IBM, HP and DEC; PC operating system combatants MAC, Windows, MS/DOS and OS/2; PBX suppliers ROLM, AT&T, NEC and NTI; networkers Novell, Ethernet, Token Ring and Banyan; and even word-shufflers like Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, become not only competitors but comrades. But just what constitutes coexistence? Here the experts disagree, although a frequent candidate for open systems' lowest common denominator (one with great Scrabble-potential as a double-letter score) is UNIX. According to Arno Penzios of AT&T, "open systems" is nothing less than "a code-phrase for UNIX-derived systems."

On behalf of the AS/400, IBM is quick to dissent from that opinion, and it has company. Bud Huber from User Alliance, for example, believes that "UNIX is a proprietary operating system," one that only incorporates "several open systems attributes." David Troy of OSF points out, "Open systems are not about any one piece of technology." And Geoff Morris of X/Open sagely observes: "Open systems is a process toward a new way of doing business, and not an end in itself."

The problem with many experts, IBM says, is that they've dwelled too long in the dark regions of protocols, interfaces and function calls. Customers, IBM claims, have nobler aspirations, and don't give a rat's hind-quarters about standards per se. While more than 90 percent of surveyed customers wanted improved productivity, cost effectiveness, flexibility and protection of their investments, only 54 percent thought that adherence to some international standard was important. In short (here the astute reader can feign surprise), customers want precisely what the AS/400 provides.

Still, at some point most customers will want the shin bone connected to the leg bone, even if the leg bone comes from some totally alien species. So, to pacify customer's concerns, IBM held an AS/400 Open Systems Implementation Forum. It invited four of its customers who excel at multi-species leg-bone grafting, to explain how the AS/400 plays in the open systems arena. In truth, their testimony is compelling.

Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts is the oldest institution of higher learning for women in the United States. Like any academic institution, it has a garage-sale assortment of hardware and a variety of "open system" requirements. Platforms include: IBM, DEC, Sun and Macintosh. Connectivity requirements range from Ethernet and heavy E-Mail demand, to file transfer and query capability.

The college installed an AS/400 B50 in 1991 which has grown to be the primary machine for administrative applications. It supports about 90 terminals and PCs under PC Support connected over a token-ring LAN. A DEC VAX 6320, with 30 nonprogrammable terminals running financial applications, is linked to the AS/400 with TCP/IP via a communications controller and an ASCII protocol converter. Both systems are on a backbone Ethernet which supports 750 assorted computing devices on campus. Any terminal can talk to any other on the network and file transfers are possible via the aforementioned TCP/IP. OfficeVision/400 delivers distributed text and word processing across the entire network. It ain't plug 'n' go, but it's undeniably open.

Down in Miami, when tourists aren't getting shot, they often escape the charms of the city to take a Royal Caribbean cruise. Royal Caribbean has worldwide communications requirements supporting 15,000 travel agents on a variety of remote systems. Additionally, RC links with various airlines' reservations systems, and supports over 1,000 in-house users. Ron Sieman, vice president of Information Technology, says: "The AS/400 connects to virtually anything. In fact, we haven't found anything it can't connect to."

Just to prove it, he created connections to some 2,000 assorted systems. Credit-checking is performed with outside services through the SNA protocol. Links to the airlines' reservations systems funnel through an IBM Series 1. Using token-ring and Ethernet protocols, additional links were established to numerous UNIX-based Sun, Tandem and NCR workstations.

While impressive, such a compelling tangle of cables and protocols avoids a fundamental question: Does it require an army of analysts to keep it afloat? Communications are nothing if not tricky. What is possible is not always easily doable, especially for small shops. It's no accident that among the presenters at the Open Systems Implementation Forum were a university, a Pentagon contractor, a major cruise ship company and an advanced circuitry manufacturer. None of those concerns would suffer from a shortage of specialists making Perotish salaries unscrambling the scrabble of transmission protocols. From the perspective of a more modest shop, open systems may simply be computers and peripherals that plug together and work together without thought to attendant complexities.

That brings us back to the fundamental question of just what is an open system and, parenthetically, to Richard Nixon and William Shakespeare. The unlikely duo of politician and playwright were able to answer that question much more concisely than industry pundits. Richard, with the persuasiveness of biological certainty, once said: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...it must be a duck." William divined: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." (OK, so William said it better.) As applied to open systems, these men seem to be saying: Forget the labels. If you can make a system do what you want it to do, it's open enough.

Victor Rozek has 17 years of experience in the data processing industry, including seven years with IBM in Operations Management and Systems Engineering.