Here is a story about analysts from Gartner Group taking the recently-retired IBM boss Lou Gerstner out to lunch just after he was appointed. After giving him the tablets of stone from Mount Sinai, Gartner told him to kill off the AS/400 and close down Rochester.
Gerstner's response was typical. "How many millions of dollars profit did Rochester make last year?" As long as the old Garden Shed Division continued to make good profits, it could look forward to Gerstner's continued support.
So to those in the iSeries market, the news of a mainframe-class iSeries machine - the i890 - comes as no surprise. All that IBM Rochester has done is to keep the promises that it made to the user community last year. But it did catch out many of the pundits who routinely predict the death of the mid-range machine.
Rochester generates more sales than the whole of Microsoft, and is said to make more profit per dollar of turnover than any other part of IBM. Its current focus is on the 10% of mainframe-class sites which deliver 35% of its sales revenues.
In addition to the Power4 technology, IBM is also delivering the first part of Project eLiza, which aims to give all sites self-managing and self-healing technology. This is being marketed as Enterprise Identity Mapping, and allows sites to track a user's multiple security identities across a network. It should enable developers to write simpler and more secure applications which get rid of the need for users to sign on to every server they use.
Coupled with the hardware is the launch of OS/400 V5R2, which is scheduled for delivery this month and will go on general release at the end of August. In addition to supporting up to 32 OS/400 partitions running any mix of Linux, OS/400, Windows, Java or Unix applications, there is also support for 64-bit Linux at the kernel level.
Other V5R2 features include switched disc clustering, which reduces downtime for scheduled server maintenance; DB2 support for multiple databases on a single server; the latest SQL and Java Transaction API standards; Java 2 Micro Edition drivers to support secure applications from cell phones and PDAs across the wireless Web; and new Web caching and Secure Sockets Accelerators (SSAs) which double the capacity for secure Web pages.
So what does IBM see as the main target market for these machines?
According to Peter Kastner, executive vice-president at research firm Aberdeen Group, it is server consolidation for all medium to large installations. "The AS/400 has been mature for over a decade now," he says. "Although IBM lost 25% of its revenues in the run-up to Y2K, Rochester is leading the way back. The price per mips from Intel continues to drive hardware costs down, but I don't expect to see many sites switching to Wintel.
"The secret of Rochester's success is that over 85% of systems are sold via business partners. This also reduces the cost of sale. Even Microsoft privately recognises that this is a market it needs to sell into. That is why it bought Navision. This will be incorporated into the Great Plains range as a viable alternative to SAP R/3 in the ERP world."
Geoff Petherick of IT lobby group Eurim predicts that the iSeries will continue to grow at above industry norms. He says he would not be surprised if sales grow by 20% to 30% during the next 12 months.
Petherick says Eurim members are generally pleased with the effort IBM is putting into the independent software supplier network. The company is actively encouraging high-quality business partners, and Rochester recognises that if it wants to make more money from software then it has to provide more added value.
Some business partners still believe that IBM has not changed its spots and only supported Computer Weekly and Eurim's anti-stiffing campaign - a crusade against unfair software licencing practices - so that it could see off the competition.
Stephen Way, director of the mid-range division of the IBM Computer User Group (now called Common UK), says he expects a lot of his members to take up the new hardware and software.
The UK has a lot of major AS/400 sites, and Way anticipates that many application service providers and outsourcers will be early adopters of the LPar options. This and other topics will be discussed at Common UK's annual conference, which takes place on 18-19 September at the Royal Court Hotel, Coventry.
Way is pleased that IBM has listened to the user group on V5R1. "V5R1 was very flaky when it was first released. With V5R2 IBM has put right many of these problems. When upgrading, I would urge all sites to follow the road maps available on the IBM Web site. They also need to make sure that they have the right tin, especially the cumulative PTF package," he says.
However, there are some aspects of IBM's strategy that Way believes users are not buying - at least not yet. "I haven't seen much evidence of sites rushing to take up Linux or the Unix option under OS/400. And there is little demand at present for the 128-bit version of OS/400. The 64-bit version does everything sites want, and there are still lots of spare addresses. Where 128-bit will score is on storage addressing in the future," he says.
The message is clear: the Garden Shed Division continues to make a difference.
Partitioning on the iSeries
At the heart of the mainframe-class iSeries machines is the Power4 32-way server. This nearly doubles the processing power compared with the previous top-of-the-range i840 machine.
The technology allows sites to run up to 32 OS/400 and Linux partitions on a single box. This means that a major user could port the workloads of at least a dozen of its 20 machines onto a single i890 without having to change any code or data.
Although there is a small hardware overhead in using 32-way technology, compared with installing a single large CPU, it allows sites to dynamically change the size of partitions.