IBM's minicomputer is alive and kicking

The minicomputer is supposed to be dead

It wasn't supposed to be this way: Last week, IBM gave the AS/400 a new lease on life. At the Common 2008 user group meeting in the US, IBM announced that its venerable minicomputer hardware is being merged with its Unix product line, once called the RS/6000. Result: The system formerly known as the AS/400 just got cheaper, more modern -- and harder to kill.

Don't you just hate it when things like that happen?

After all, we don't want these legacy systems to survive. We want them gone. We want to move their users to something that's easier for central IT to handle: mainframes if necessary, but preferably x86 server farms.

That way, we can manage everything in a consistent way, with maximum efficiency and without any distractions from legacy hardware or software.

Business effectiveness? Uh, sure, if you have to bring that up. But mainly, we want standardization. We want convergence. We want it over the carcasses of those dead minicomputers.

And IBM isn't helping.

True, our business units that use minicomputers like them. They like the pretty-close-to-lights-out operation. They like the fact that programmers know exactly how the built-in database will work.

They might not like the business-critical custom applications they've ported from one IBM minicomputer model to the next for 30 years, from the System/34 to the System/36 and 38 to the AS/400 to the iSeries to the System i. But they like the fact that they don't have to spend their IT budgets to rewrite those apps or even figure out decades of accumulated business-logic sediment.

And they didn't much like paying a premium for what, in recent years, was the same hardware IBM used for its Unix workstations and servers. But they paid it. They were pragmatic: It was the most cost-effective way to go.

Now IBM has eliminated that price premium and also made the new common hardware more attractive, with smaller footprints, blade form factors, fancy water cooling, sound dampers and reduced power consumption. It actually looks like the minicomputer is not dead -- and it may even be getting better. And that's just wrong.

Why can't Big Blue be like Hewlett-Packard, which has driven its HP 3000 customers crazy by trying for years to kill off their minicomputers? HP stopped selling the machine in 2003 and has attempted to drive a stake through its heart ever since. Sure, those users have managed to pressure HP into extending some level of support until the end of 2010. But they're living under a death sentence, and they know it.

Like IBM, those users don't get it. We in IT have a blueprint, a road map, a grand plan. It's based on best practices, industry standards and everything else that will make the IT department look slick, smart and visionary -- especially in the eyes of IT industry deep-thinkers.

Keeping legacy applications alive just because they're crucial to the business? Keeping legacy minicomputers going just because that's the only way to run those legacy apps? What kind of IT best practice is that?

Pragmatism be damned. We know the way things are supposed to be. Just because it's useful, cost-effective and mission-critical doesn't mean it's right.

The minicomputer is supposed to be dead. There's no place for it in the grand plan. All the really smart IT deep-thinkers say so.

Isn't it time for IT to take a stand against it -- even if that kills us?

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Frank Hayes

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