Web solutions spur AS/400 sales

IBM estimates that worldwide AS/400 sales exceed 700,000 with new kit shipping at a rate of 'one every eight minutes or so'.

IBM estimates that worldwide AS/400 sales exceed 700,000 with new kit shipping at a rate of 'one every eight minutes or so'.

They would, wouldn't they but the statement raises few eyebrows - as Original Software md Colin Armitage puts it 'the problem is to know how many are still in use but, with the loyalty of the AS/400 base, I would expect this to be high'. 'Repeat business', continues Armitage, 'remains the core of the AS/400 success - if you own a box that's ridiculously reliable, and runs any application you require, then why would you want to change? That's always been the case, but there seems to have been a recent surge of the machine into non AS/400 accounts, and I think this has been web solution influenced, and led by pre-loaded ERP solutions, like SAP, and the pre-configured Domino boxes.'

Neil Cross, md of Barnstaple based AS/400 specialist Chorus, shared the stage with Big Blue at the UK launch, and believes the machine to have been made in heaven for web applications. WebTrader is one such, is an e-commerce application designed by Chorus for the AS/400, and is unsurprisingly considered by Mr Cross to be particularly good. Version one of the product is an HTML generator written in good ol' RPG with version two in Domino which, like Java and other masterpieces of the New Age, is said to run extremely well on the AS/400.

'AS/400', says Cross, 'is a very different environment from PC.' What he means is that it's markedly superior - 'the built in security gives you a head start and the system just works - they say an NT based system needs about 50 per cent more consultant time to get and keep it going, and I reckon that's about right.'

Basically expressed, there are two types of web application for the AS/400. One is where you happily start with the clean sheet so popular with football managers, and e-commerce applications, such as WebTrader and JD Edwards' OneWorld, have been thus contrived.

The other is the less fortunate hybrid - often implemented when the chairman, having stampeded the board into baying for its immediate operability, requires the IT division to undertake this simple task with the toys it's already bought - OpenConnect director of business development Ed Weaver concedes there are times when it looks that way.

OpenConnect, hailing from Dallas, Texas, was named IDC's 'leading Web-to-Host provider' in 1998 and 99, describes itself as ' the leading provider of innovations for e-business', and claims it 'helps mainframe-centric Global 1000 companies integrate web technology with existing host based business processes to deliver e-business solutions in a simple, secure, and scaleable manner'.

i-WARE, registered as a trademark in 137 countries, is the name of the game, but Mr Weaver is some way ahead of his PR department in the Plain English Stakes.'There are loads of AS/400s', says Weaver, 'sitting around with perfectly sound, useful, applications, which are crying out for a web browser. Simple example - let's say you're a salesman' (Mr Weaver has no truck with poncey expressions like sales executive) 'you're in the customer's office, and he wants to know right now the best deal you can give him on however many left handed widgets he's just told you he wants. Yes, you could phone Susie in sales, and wait while she accesses various green screens, and adds up how many you've got, how many you need, when you can get them, and all that stuff, but being able to zap the answer into your palm top does look a bit more on the ball.'

AS/400 architecture, maintains Weaver, is such that this 'webification' of existing applications can be done - 'screen scraping and Java applets aren't a problem' - and his is a good example of a working Intranet in operation.

Speaking of which - and there is always the awful possibility that an opposition salesman might have discovered one's current dearth of left handed widgets - he agrees that, whilst security is always a headache, the AS/400 is inherently better designed in this respect.

Ed Weaver is reticent to comment on relative web sophistication between Europe and the US. It is, he thinks, 'about the same - I'm sure when you click the submit button on quite a few sites developed in either continent, what really happens is that someone, somewhere, still gets sent a fax.'

US business software developer JD Edwards, rather mysteriously, styles itself 'the leading supplier of agile e-business solutions in the enterprise application market', and, while sharing the view that trans Atlantic technical sophistication is 'at about the same level', marketing director Trevor Saloman believes the take up of serious web business applications in Europe has been relatively slow, compared with that in the US - 'it's impossible to quantify this accurately, but it feels as if the US is 12 to 18 months ahead.'

Saloman is positive that the US/Europe gap is narrowing rapidly, and quotes as an example the German stationery manufacturer Herlitz, whose AS/400 based system has, he says, used the Edwards core ERP solution to achieve 'one of the smartest web applications around.'

There are, expounds Saloman, various ways of producing web applications - 'build it yourself, buy it, make partnerships' - any, or all, of which are valid, as long as customers 'have a simple migration and co-existence path, and they're not left high and dry'.

The AS/400, he says, is a natural for business-to-business web applications - 'it's as if it was architected for it' - and 'unless someone invents something better' Trevor Saloman expects use of the AS/400 to grow in response to the continuing demand for 'web applications that work, work now, and will keep on working'.

Business Applications So; the AS/400 lends itself well to web applications, people are developing them, but what is actually available? Some suppliers have been mentioned - there are others, such as JBA, SAP, and SSA - and the short answer is predominantly business applications - 'everything', says IBM's Paul Fryer, 'that's implied by the expressions e-business and e-commerce'.

AS/400 recruitment agencies also note a trend to web applications. 'A year ago', says Drive IT boss Duncan Abbott, 'the core skill requirement was RPG. Right now, if you've got Java as well, then you're a hot property - many of our customers are offering cross training and an increasing number of our applicants are learning Java.'

Web development specifically for AS/400 is happening apace, but the system's sheer longevity dictates the existence of applications which will undergo 'webfication', which Colin Armitage rather warily describes as 'traditional green screen applications being screen-scraped to produce applications where the visual interface is browser enabled', and 'a good first step for AS/400 shops who want to make their applications rapidly available on the web'.

Tactical Solution 'It is', he continues, 'a tactical solution, and will only increase the maintenance load - any changes made to the underlying green screens will have to be made to the screen-scraped version, and possibly to an additional layer if the application has already been screen-scraped.'

Webification is not Mr Armitage's desirable solution - neither, probably, is it anyone else's - but, in a scheme of things where even the odd High Court Judge may be aware of the existence of Sod's Law, it happens and it will go on happening. Proper testing, says Mr Armitage, is the answer which has nothing whatever to do with the coincidence that his company's product line includes 'market leading test and prototyping technology, through our TestBench400 and SimuSys400 products'.

'Marry that', says Colin Armitage, ' to the recent Java, Pase, ERP and Domino announcements, and you have an awesome machine.'

Clean sheet or incumbent lineage - either way the makers could be on a www.winner with this AS/400 thing, and it is only fitting that the lastwords should belong to IBM, where confessed devotee Paul Fryer enthuses about simplicity, platform independence, and reliability, on which he quotes Gartner on down time at around nine hours a year, compared with some 224 on lesser systems.

It seems reasonable to ask why, if the AS/400 is so seriously wondrous, it is not bought by everyone, but Mr Fryer says he has no wish to sound cynical. Encouraged so to do, he analogises that a consultant recommending an AS/400 solution is 'a bit like a turkey recommending Christmas'.

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