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5 IBM i Architectural Principles Drive Business Innovation

IBM i architecture
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“Why can’t we store and process XML and JSON documents? Query the web via HTTP function calls to APIs in the cloud? Get in-memory database capabilities?” These are requests that Michael Cain, senior technical staff member at IBM, regularly hears from clients. There’s just one problem with adding these capabilities: They’ve been available from the beginning.

“For example, the ability to take advantage of all the memory available in the system has been a hallmark of Db2* for i for 30 years, since the AS/400 was introduced,” says Cain. “If you count the System/38, you can add a decade.”

The AS/400 has evolved into the IBM Power Systems* platform running IBM i—with the “i” for “integrated.” But the innovation built in from the start was designed to meet the needs of business then and create value that would last for decades. That meant a system that could seamlessly incorporate new technologies, both hardware and software, and reinvent itself every few years without disrupting clients. So you may wonder: Did it work?

A Business Computer

Developers were charged with developing a midrange business computer to perform simple operations on massive amounts of transactional data—as opposed to complex operations on small amounts data, as is the case for research or science. The solution had to be affordable to clients with minimal technical expertise. And the team that took up the challenge rode the perfect storm to success.

The IBM Rochester group had the technical capability, financial resources and independence to try new concepts in the S/38, introduced in 1978. Many of the key attributes still found in IBM i began here. By 1988, the group had the savvy to build the AS/400, taking the best of the S/36 and S/38, adding new twists to meet changeable needs, and turning that into the quintessential system for business. Read more about the launch of the AS/400 in “The AS/400 Represented a Bright New Day for IBM”.

The Five Sacred Architectural Principles

In his book “Fortress Rochester: The Inside Story of the IBM iSeries,” Frank Soltis, the former chief scientist behind the AS/400, calls the five principles underlying the platform sacred. Yet users may take them for granted, not recognizing how they support smarter business decisions, better programs and tough budgets.

Technology independence: By ensuring programs never speak directly to the system hardware, but instead to the Machine Interface (MI), developers gave clients 30 years of software investment protection. You can readily take advantage of hardware enhancements in terms of processor speed, price and performance, address space and bus and I/O technology.

Object-based design: Use of object-based design helps control and protect system resources. Everything within the system—programs, data files, message queues—is an object. Methods work only on the objects they’re supposed to, so a virus masquerading as data can’t become executable code and create havoc. In short, the system’s security and integrity are solid.

Hardware integration: The AS/400 hardware, OS and relational database management system were tightly integrated, like a modern computing device you might carry in your pocket. The integration continues today, making the system easy to install, use and maintain. And as business needs shift to processing more data faster, designers have worked to implement the highest-performance memory and I/O subsystems in the industry.

Software integration: The OS also integrates software for security, communications, backup/recovery and the database. The OS works as a single entity, so IBM gives clients a new release of the entire OS when it changes. That makes for rapid deployment of new business solutions and an exceptionally low total cost of ownership.

Single-level store: The OS addresses and accesses all data in memory. All objects are referenced, stored and retrieved by name, without regard to their physical location. If objects need to be moved from auxiliary storage—flash, SSD, HDD—to main storage, IBM i handles it automatically. Businesses with multiapplication, multiuser environments can multitask much more efficiently.


The Heart of IBM i

The heart of the IBM i platform is a database that provides the nomenclature and scheme to store, access and process data relationally. Db2 for i has been systematically enhanced since its inception in 1995 and, in some cases, re-engineered with each release, but the foundation and architectural tenets remain.

As noted previously, technology independence was a founding principle, but developers also recognized that the amount and types of data would continue to expand and extend in ways unimaginable. They had the foresight to design a system that could grow and maintain performance and scalability in a financially responsible way.

Developers in 1988 couldn’t predict the cybersecurity threats that plague businesses today, but the platform’s built-in security, governance and control protects data from those who tried to misappropriate or misuse it.


Back to the Future

The question for businesses today is not how to store transactions, but how to extract more information, insight and value from data. To do that, executive and business leaders look for IT solutions that are flexible, extensible, scalable and timely. IBM i coupled with Db2 provides the foundation to meet these requirements elegantly and successfully.

But Cain notes that in many cases, clients don’t use a large portion of the capabilities they already have in the IBM i. And they may not realize it, because it’s hard to fathom that the original AS/400 developers had the foresight to build capabilities that still seem new today into a system celebrating 30 years. Clients don’t have to wait for IBM to develop innovations and technologies to handle today’s business demands—they just need to take full advantage of the system they already own.

Diana Kightlinger is a Montana-based journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering technology, business, healthcare, power and the environment.



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