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Blowing the Dust Off of an IBM AS/400 Server (hackaday.com)
55 points by _JamesA_ 34 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments



When I grew up, my mom was working on an AS/400 at work. I spent many hours watching her fly through all the screens.

She knew exactly the right combo of Function keys followed by how many TAB she needed to start typing. She could do it without looking at the screen or the keyboard, just the sheet she had to enter/modify in the system.

It was incredibly fast, 99% of the time.

She hated the move to Windows. All the sudden, everything was slow, error prone, fiddly. Keyboard navigation was mostly gone and although employees could start working with less training, she knew the move was generally a big step backwards.

She despised computers with passion from that day on. Today she's retired and uses an iPad only.

I'm a UX designer/developer. There is something to be said for these old terminal systems, when it comes to repetitive daily tasks.


I have worked with AS400, and its concept of an input queue is great. Basically, none of your inputs are ignored if the system is busy, they are cached by the terminal and sent one by one when the system responds.

To give you an example, imagine hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del, entering your login and password, hitting Enter, entering FFOX to run Firefox, hitting Enter, hitting F3 to open a tab, entering news.ycombinator.com, hitting Enter, hitting F3 for another tab, entering another URL, hitting Enter and it just works. Your machine can be waiting to show you the login screen, or applying some global policies, or launching Firefox, but it will never lose your input.


I do enjoy this aspect about terminals - how you can type a few lines with enters while a long running process is executing.

However, I wish there was a way to ignore (or cache?) this buffered input if the process exits with an error or something else of the sort. Does this exist?

It can quickly get dangerous otherwise!


I worked on an AS/400 system 4 years ago during an high school internship in Italy. It's still used in a medium-size company. It was painful at first but since my first language was Pascal the difference was bearable. Sure it helped me with my formation as a young developer. Anyway, it was fast and sure AS/400 still can be competitive but in a business pov it is a mess: there are almost no developers with an adequate formation and the old developers are close to retirement. My main accomplishment was to run battleship and some other games, I'll find the link with the library to install if I have time.


I developed for AS400s back in the day and IMHO only the iPad comes close to the consistent UI that data entry workers need and expect. I remember my employer introducing a Windows GUI front end and being told by major customers that they needed to offer green screen entry again or they would buy my employer and make them do it.


A relative of mine works at a not-so-small place (some 100s of terminals) that used to run AS400s. Years have passed, but It's still green screens galore. He explained me that most of the personnel have memorized the menu so well that they can do their job without hardly ever looking at the screens. Changing that would spell catastrophe in terms of re-training and lost productivity alone.


My father worked on AS/400 applications as a project manager. When they moved to Windows he changed job, but still in the same field. Among his former users, the preferred replacement was Visual FoxPro applications that looked pretty much exactly like the old AS/400 programs---not any newfangled client/server or browser-based thing, even though there were already some available.


> She hated the move to Windows. All the sudden, everything was slow, error prone, fiddly. Keyboard navigation was mostly gone and although employees could start working with less training, she knew the move was generally a big step backwards.

She was right.

Autohotkey can solve a lot of these problems.

Though it can require some politics playing to accept it as a legitimate tool.


Autohotkey is wonderful (and I can relate to the issue of getting it accepted as a legitimate tool). I also think that the beauty of the AS/400 UX is beyond just keyboard shortcuts. It probably has more to do with consistency, context awareness and that the most important functions are reliably available everywhere. But I never worked with it myself, I only have looked over the shoulders of some green screen users, so maybe there is more to it.

Another thing is that the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) paradigm was, at least in part, born because of the insight that the block oriented approach of the green screen terminals wouldn't scale beyond a certain point. I'm more interested in the ideas that made IBM 5250 like UX successful than in a modern interpretation of it. Using keyboard shortcuts is certainly one of these ideas and so is tiling windows instead of stacking them.


> I'm a UX designer/developer. There is something to be said for these old terminal systems, when it comes to repetitive daily tasks.

Out of curiosity, are you then employing the experiences of your mother when designing user interfaces?

I'm a programmer, and I rarely design anything more complex than a static website or a CLI. I have no illusions about UI design being easy. However, I am disappointed that it seems most UI designers, whom I do assume to be competent, are working on UIs that are optimised for ease-of-use by the novice, rather than the expert.

I use and enjoy several programs that have "expert-optimised" UIs. Emacs is one, and the Unix shell is another. However, these are grown in an ad-hoc way, usually by people who did not think too hard about UI. I wonder what an optimised expert-oriented UI would look like, if it were developed by true UI experts.


Terminal-style input queueing is made impossible by the OS most of the time. You can't queue input commands for a window that hasn't appeared yet, because they get sent to some other window that currently does have the focus. Per example upthread:

> imagine hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del, entering your login and password, hitting Enter, entering FFOX to run Firefox, hitting Enter, hitting F3 to open a tab, entering news.ycombinator.com, hitting Enter, hitting F3 for another tab, entering another URL, hitting Enter and it just works. Your machine can be waiting to show you the login screen, or applying some global policies, or launching Firefox, but it will never lose your input.

You'd have to wait after starting firefox for it to appear to get your input queued correctly.

Within a browser you can mostly hit Ctrl-T and start typing, although I've seen this break down. Edge for some reason was bad at this.

Within websites there is often anti-user javascript which causes problems: the absolute worst offender is Facebook, after you've put focus in a text box you need to wait for it to settle or your text will come out in the wrong order.


Well, Windows (and all window-based, graphical UI) encourages you to use the _mouse pointer_ with it's clumsy properties like navigating a visual field and upon locating an interactive element, using at most 5 different action buttons (clicks and scrolls).

Compared to that, these old systems were modal (edit, browse, etc modes) and keyboard-based with it's ~100 action buttons, where pixel-by-pixel navigating was not needed.

From an efficiency standpoint, petting a computer with mouse-based navigation is ridiculous. It might help a newbie until they explore a software's features but later on it's a waste of time. And your mother knew this very well.


Those old modal interfaces were dead ends that ultimately didn't scale. Try using a CAD program sometime, or for that matter even a spreadsheet, without a mouse.


You missed the "pixel by pixel navigation" part.

There are obviously a plethora of use cases (mostly graphic design software, games, etc) where a pointing device would benefit far much better.

OTOH I would love to see a vim-like excel/spreadsheet software.


My first job required the use of an AS/400 for data entry. Hated it at first, but really grew to appreciate it for what it did. That single machine ran an entire manufacturing site. When we were forced to use a Windows front-end to enter data, it was an order of magnitude slower, it was that cumbersome and inefficient. Other front-ends, doing real-time visualisation of the plant operations were actually useful. But the AS/400 fills an important niche, and it's one which I don't think modern systems do a good job at replacing.


My father's employer moved from an AS/400 to some poorly implemented Oracle system about a decade ago.

Hates it every day and still gives me examples of how the old system was superior and faster.


Fastest UI for expert users (fastest to slowest):

Keyboard > Mouse > Touch > Voice


You'd be surprised to think that the IBM AS/400 still keeps the lights on for a number of large business.

Working in professional services a number of our clients still use AS/400 mainframe environments, with data migrations to other environments becoming more and more common.

I worked on a data migration from an AS/400 environment to an SQL DB. I kid you not, the database schema for the AS/400 environment was printed on old A3 scrolls that looked tea stained.


Yep, I currently work at one and know of another in town. Both companies have thousands of employees. It will still be a while before we ever get off of it too. We're taking steps but it has been around for a long time and is pretty reliable.


Exactly, they are quite often a back end system for many major companies.

For simply that reason, they work and rarely have any issues. The problem is that those with the expertise to manage them and fix them in the event that things do go wrong are diminishing. And that's a big risk for businesses.


"You'd be surprised to think that the IBM AS/400 still keeps the lights on for a number of large business."

I wouldn't be given the people that use ours, day and night shifts, have never seen it crash or freeze for the decade or so they worked here. They say it only goes down when a cheap sysadmin accidentally unplugs it trying to swap out a different server or if they have to image stuff after suspected hacks. Otherwise, they're the Energizer bunny of servers.


UPS's import system runs on one. Home depots retail system did until at least 2010.


> If you’ve never seen an IBM AS/400 machine, don’t feel bad. Most people haven’t. Introduced in 1988 as a mid-range server line, it used a unique object-based operating system and was geared specifically towards business and enterprise customers. Unless you’re a particularly big fan of COBOL you probably won’t have much use for one today, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth playing around with if the opportunity presents itself

Oh boy, I've seen multiple businesses that utilize AS/400 system(s). I even know a few people who manage them, building out applications, etc... They are still very much used.

You'd also be surprised how many records about you still exist in said system(s). Hell, I was using an AS/400 system only 3 years ago for business purposes (I'm not a COBOL developer, but something had to be fixed).


Considering we are buying a new iSeries with the Power 9 this year, I expect to have an AS/400 descendent in our server room for another 10 years. The last one lasted 13 years.


Don't be assured of that: the failure modes of silicon increase every time you shrink it due to physics just being a huge problem. That's one of reasons new stuff doesn't last as long. The new systems will run on nodes with more problems developers have to fight. I suspect they systems won't last as long.

I appreciate the data point on that one. Sounds like it aged well. Which CPU('s) did it have?


Well, since IBM generally shows up with replacement parts before I even known there is a problem, I'm not terribly worried about its length of service.

The current one is an IBM 9406-800 which I do believe is the SStar which is the RS64 before the POWER 4.


Now that's good service. Far as CPU, I found there are several of them. They are on a range of 180nm-500nm nodes. Most of the older, long-lasting stuff was on those nodes. So, that fits. It was also the ones just before merger of those AS/400 chips and POWER families into POWER4 to become new standard. Interesting stuff.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_RS64


That's pretty much the standard of service with these things. We are going with an S914 running IBM i 7.3 for the next machine.

Interestingly, the old machine has a tape drive that is not supported on the new Power 9 boxes (its a non-LTO QIC drive). I guess the good thing is now I can keep a single stock of LTO-7 tapes. I am a bit odd and have an LTO-7 drive connected to our FreeBSD server for a "last chance" backup.


AS/400 is the neatest computer system architecturally that I think has ever been made.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_System_i


What in particular do you find really cool? I think the binary translator is really cool, I want to find more details about it.


What about the 2200/MCP etc. from Unisys? Does anybody here have experience with them and can shed some light on it?


I have passing familiarity. A former client used an MCP-based system (first an A Series, then later a Clearpath system on PC hardware) to run their line-of-business system (a small bank). A friend of mine worked for Unisys right out of college in the early 70's writing ALGOL code for the MCP. She says that it has its roots in the old Burroughs B5000. From what I've read they are odd beasts, and have some really interesting hardware-level security architecture. I never got to play with the system, aside from typing a couple of commands now-and-again into the OS "shell" (called MARC-- Menu Assisted something-or-other), and a little bit of editing in the editor CANDE.


Used those in the 80's - 90's, great machines! The most reliable and well secured systems I've been on.


It's the invisible machine. They are all still running core systems in a lot of companies.


Far from invisible in the Des Moines market. Mainframe is still king of CA systems in the CAP model.


Des Moines is roughly the size of Bloomington, MN.


Nice to see AS/400 turning up on here.

When I started my first proper "IT" job, back in the late 90s for a big multinational, they were running their payroll system off it. The main node was about a decade old at the time.

The input system for it was a 16 bit VB4 desktop app that wrote text files to a netware share that this picked up.

I am always impressed at how these bits of old tech, sticky tape and string were so unbelievably reliable and scalable across thousands of users. I actually actively miss working on this sort of stuff.


We're running our ERP on an AS/400. That is nowhere near to die in the foreseeable future.

I was actually trying to learn RPG mentioned in the article last week, a blast from the past!


Yeah, it seems like the author isn't aware of how common AS/400s still are in business environments. Thankfully, I have so far managed to dodge having to learn how to use it by suggesting that the other members of my team continue to be the point people for it.


ha! I used to look after an AS/400 running the company ERP (JD Edwards).

Pretty solid box. never ever ever crashed or got slow or anything. just a mind fuck to do anything with.


I'm literally staring into the "black hole" of an AS/400 right now on my second screen.


I have 4 BlueZone Mainframe Display windows open right now connected to AS400 servers. I do every single day at work :).


Ran the Hercules emulator with a z/OS image last year. It was a fun project and the UI is super-fast.

Currently working on another mainframe os but wish that I can some day find a place with an i-series or z-box (IBM mainframes).

Only in my 20s, but these systems will be around until I retire. The hardware might change, but the cost of educating developers in RPG, COBOL, control languages etc must be far lower than translating the code.


In my halcyon enthusiast-learning days I tried to approach Mainframes and the IBM world to learn anything I could about the different platforms, architectures - basically getting into it. IBM's arrogance kept me at an arms length, and I kind of hold a grudge towards them to this day. What in the world did they gain from taking the stance of being enthusiast-unfriendly? For instance they refused to sell me a fast-synch monitor for my RS/6000 workstation purchased from a defunct company. And so on... Good thing that Linux steamrolled most of its Unix/AIX dominance. Like a sweet revenge served cold.

To be fair, one day a few years ago I did get access to my clients' mainframe last year. A Z-something big-iron running on of the frames on AIX which I had shell access to. It was a "whoa man, I'm in. I got access to the mainframe!"-moment. My favourite tools were installed by someone else, so it was quite enjoyable; midnight commander, zshell and bourne again shell were present :).


I used DB2 hosted on AS/400 at my previous job 4 years ago. I'm sure it is still in use. (the application is quite important for that company)


Heh. I work with AS400, and BlueZone Mainframe Display, every day at work for nearly 13 years now. Hundreds of us do, we do the bulk of our work in it actually.


Is there a web framework geared to AS/400 UX that has client side keyboard caching?


still have bunch of those at work(large bank)


Same here. Large insurance company.


PWRDWNSYS *IMMED




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