One of the biggest changes to the AS/400 market during the past five years has been the number of tool suppliers rushing to port their products into the world's second largest market. This is something that IBM Rochester has been addressing for the past two years. It believes that the latest hardware and operating system releases show the way forward. . . or does it?
Big Blue has always been very good at selling hardware, but its record with software is uneven at the best of times. Three key players have gone public to say that they see no need to use any of the extra tools currently available.
Malcolm Jones, founder and chairman of best-of-breed supplier JBS Computer Services, said, "To date we have found little or no need to use anything other than the utilities available with DB2 and the AS/400's own internal database. These allow our sites to do almost anything they need to do."
Major iSeries reseller JBA/Geac recommends its sites that they only need the tools built into DB2 and SQL, while Philip Burchill, development manager at leading AS/400 site QAS, admitted his firm had no plans to progress beyond the native AS/400 database.
He added, "We haven't identified a need to use DB2 or any associated tools. The native AS/400 database and data compression techniques give us everything we want, including security. We have found no problems with loading data to and from PCs."
IBM's strategy is to develop the 10% of medium to large sites which generate 30% of Rochester's revenue. This has left many users wondering whether Big Blue really knows what it is doing.
It is a badly kept secret that many AS/400 sites would love to see IBM nuke Microsoft, rather than Oracle, and there is much anger that Big Blue's missiles are pointed at Larry Ellison, rather than Bill Gates.
IBM has produced some entry-level packages called Start Now. While these could be better marketed, it does show Rochester's thinking. Reading between the lines, Big Blue knows that while the large sites will bring in lots of short term revenues, most real growth will come from upgrading the 90% which are SMEs into the business intelligence (BI) world.
Currently BI is perceived as only something for medium to large sites with big cheque books. As the technology now exists to roll it out to most SMEs, has IBM missed the point?
Garry Cleaver is technical sales director at Cirencester based Apex Computers. He said, "We will shortly be working with IBM to evaluate BI products. This is likely to include Business Objects and Brio. Currently everything we do which is not infrastructure is on Lotus Notes.
"The short term problem that IBM has is that in most SME sites Microsoft is better known than DB2, even though we have shown there is no problem importing data from multiple OS/400 and DB2 databases, and presenting it via Notes in the SME environment.
"I think that Lpar (logical partitions) could help sell DB2 to SMEs, as they can move everything onto a single box. Technology like WebSphere will also help get DB2 and its associated tools into more SMEs," Cleaver added.
So how does IBM see the AS/400 database market? Barry Thorn is Big Blue's BI consultant for the iSeries. He said that a lot of work had been done to make the AS/400 version of DB2 fully compliant with the MVS version.
Thorn added, "The code bases will be different, because the two machines have different architectures. There are also different market drivers. The iSeries tend to be more shrink-wrapped. We know that we have to support native file systems as well as SQL. OS/400 has got higher compliance rates with the Ansi SQL3 standard than any other database on the market.
"This includes triggers and stored procedures even though, in the iSeries world, sites expect DB2 to be hidden from users. We have to win the hearts and minds of the developers and the followers of fashion.
"Most sites have a healthy mix of legacy, Wintel and e-biz. They want to integrate everything, rather than move everything onto the same platform," he said.
Echoing this theme was Princeton Softech's sales manager Tony Goodman. He said, "I expect to see more sites using data migration, editing and relational data comparison features of our tools. We support DB2 UDB, Oracle, Sybase, SQL, Windows NT, Informix, and will shortly be supporting IMS, VSAM and sequential files.
"In the short term, I expect the trend for sites to move to Oracle on their client-servers; but the pain will see many of them migrating back to DB2.
"I also expect management to want better control over just what is on their databases. Too often the only strategy is 'purge and pray', with managers praying they purged the right bits of data. The trend to thin client is making it impossible to maintain databases in the traditional way on a production environment, especially in the e-biz age.
"So we have released an archiving tool. This allows sites to search and browse their archives without having to restore the data onto the production database (for example, finding a transaction of five years ago). Many sites asked us for this feature," Goodman added.
Colin Armitage, managing director of The Original Software Co, agrees that the growth of e-biz is creating demand for better extraction and inquiry tools. He added, "We have just upgraded our Extractor400 tool. This allows the creation of live database subsets for specific project needs which can be logically linked.
"Sites can also manipulate their data to check for duff entries, and archive data more easily. This helps to keep production databases thin, and minimise accidental input errors. It costs £6,500 per CPU.
"Our Inquiry400 is free from our Web site. To date we have had over 300 downloads. This builds enquiries which use dynamic SQL for testing prior to roll-out. For example, you could select 20 typical customers from every city or county. The record chain HMV is evaluating this for its 250 stores, each of which has an AS/400," Armitage said.
The latest entrant to the AS/400 world is Oracle specialists Precise Software Solutions. Based in the heart of Cambridge University, managing director Andy Knight said that his firm's technology was being ported to run on DB2 UDB. This will run on the AS/400 inside a Unix partition under the Lpar option.
Knight cut his teeth on developing tools which managed Oracle databases via the backdoor. This means that few resources are consumed. He added, "The DB2 version will have the same look and feel as the Oracle version, the differences being in the functionality of the two databases.
"More sites want to tune their databases because workloads are growing and indexing strategies may change. Gone are the days when you could hide the database internally. Most databases now have external input.
"You may also want to know who are really your 20 biggest customers, your 20 most common complaints, or which statements consume the most resources. Precise/Indepth for DB2 UDB costs between £3K and £30K, depending on processor size," Knight concluded.
While all the techies are busy playing with the latest toys, senior management urgently needs to re-assess its security policies. Richard Eve, vice president Europe at Safestone, warned, "The more you manipulate data and the further you distribute it, the greater the need for good security on your network.
"This is a business issue, not a bit of technology you add on as, one, most Fortune 10,000 companies still have mission-critical applications running on their AS/400s in their back offices, and two, all those SMEs who use the AS/400 as their main platform have forgotten how vulnerable they can be.
"Just because you think you control the official exit points won't stop authorised users getting in and changing things," he added.
Safestone partners with RSA Security Inc to offer SecurID for the iSeries and works with Qs Software to offer integrated security for J D Edwards' software. It recently rolled out secure Internet banking for the Channel Islands arm of banker Kleinworth Benson.
This was to ensure that the database was kept secure and client confidentiality was intact. A side benefit was that the security provided by Safestone Technologies now makes the AS/400 easier to audit.