Based on the evidence of its recent campaign to promote the platform's suitability for ERP and supply chain management (SCM) applications - in the e-business context, it seems that IBM is taking the gloves off at last and playing to the established strengths of the AS/400,
One of the most popular uses of the AS/400 is for running the kind of enterprise-class business automation software that ERP suites have evolved into. And the natural follow on to a fully functional ERP environment is to add SCM, helping to spread the benefits of a more tightly controlled set of business processes outwards to suppliers and partners alike. While there is much talk about the potential for running Lotus Domino groupware or Java on the AS/400e series, the promise of a combined thrust for sales based on ERP/SCM looks to be an equal, if not more solid and compelling prospect.
The AS/400 can already run many of the top ERP vendors' software as well developed ports, including the market leader SAP. Interestingly, Baan seems to be getting a fair amount of joy out of its sales onto the AS/400e systems, despite the rough passage it has experienced overall in recent times. In addition, JD Edwards and JBA have a considerable user base on the platform and continue to appeal to the mid market companies now wanting the benefits of ERP-style business automation. All these vendors have a keen interest in developing the SCM angle as well, creating a sense of easy synergy with their mostly long-time partner IBM.
Typically for IBM these days, the company as also dug up some research to prove the AS/400's value proposition to ERP/SCM users. The DH Andrews Group in the US recently detailed the findings from a survey of 25 out of the top ERP vendors worldwide with ports to the AS/400. Eighty per cent of these vendors reported that ERP implementation was significantly shorter on the AS/400 compared to other platforms, namely Windows NT and Unix. It is clearly too early to judge the comparable speed of implementation on Windows 2000.
Figures quoted by IBM from the DH Andrews poll show that, on average, the AS/400 ERP projects were delivered 3.3 months faster than those based on Windows NT, and 3.7 months faster than Unix. IBM also feels empowered to claim from these findings that customer satisfaction is considered to be higher for ERP on the AS/400 by the vendors involved. DH Andrews concludes that ERP on the AS/400 is a 'must consider'. (http://www.ibm.com/as400/erp)
Given the AS/400's qualities, such results are not intrinsically surprising. What is a positive shift is the fact that IBM is promulgating such marketing messages so clearly. Other pages on the AS/400 site show IBM clearly spelling out why the AS/400 is a winner in the ERP space. Among the advantages claimed are speed of application performance, 99.94 availability, low total cost of ownership and the AS/400's legendary security factor.
Yet the blithe spirit that has gripped the AS/400 marketeers seems to suddenly know no bounds. The company also claims that ERP is 'seamlessly integrated' with such applications as SCM, business intelligence (both fairish points), knowledge management and e-business. These statements rather oversimplify the full story of where ERP is at right now. SAP is developing its Business Information Warehouse module concurrently with allies among the more significant independent BI vendors. However, this typically involves the addition of a data warehouse of some kind. Running such tools against the ERP data store is generally not considered to be an ideal practice right now.
Pushing the seamless connection between ERP and KM is, however, going a bit far. In particular, there is still some way to go before the enterprise information portal concept is totally attuned to ERP systems - as IBM is trying to propose. Such portals blend information from various sources, and deliver it as customised content for end-users. Clearly such portals are becoming important, and there is no reason why the AS/400 cannot become a server of choice at the back-end for such solutions.
These are not trivial points, although a bit of over-exuberance from the AS/400 team is not something to be too critical about at this time. Adding a well-engineered data warehouse to the picture bridges the gulf between the still proprietary ERP world and the open content idea behind the enterprise portal. Let it be remembered - although the situation is improving, it remains far easier to put information into an ERP suite than it is to retrieve it. But if there is a server that can help solve this problem, then the AS/400 does look superior to the immediate competition.