The AS/400 Represented a Bright New Day for IBM

Steve Will remembers the bright sunshine.

On June 21, 1988, at IBM Rochester, the conditions were picturesque, an all too rare occurrence in an all too brief Minnesota summer. To commemorate the official introduction of IBM’s new AS/400 business computer, employees like Will gathered in the parking areas outside the massive facility.

“I remember distinctly the celebration in the parking lot on announce day,” he says. “Groups of people who it seemed like had been working without ever seeing the sun for the previous six to nine months were now finally getting to come out and celebrate something that we had all worked on together. It was a very exciting time to be a programmer.”

Will, now the chief architect for the IBM i OS, had only been with IBM for three and a half years in 1988. Compared to most Rochester employees who were developers on either the System/36 or System/38, Will was something of an outsider. He had actually been working on Fort Knox the never-completed initiative to combine the System/38 with the mainframe when he was pulled into Silverlake, the code name for the creation of the AS/400. Much of the hardware from Fort Knox made its way into AS/400 Release 1. To help facilitate this, Will developed much of the low-level communications between the processors.

Dave Nelson has similar reflections on another seminal event in the early years of the AS/400: the transition from the original CISC-based 48-bit processors to the 64-bit RISC processors in OS/400 V3R6 and V3R7. As someone new to the AS/400 team (Nelson previously worked in storage) he was struck by the dedication and passion of everyone involved.

“We had people working two shifts. That wasn’t mandated, but everyone wanted to be as productive as possible,” he says. “Or you’d come in here on a Saturday and the place would be at least half full. Again, no one told them they had to be here, but they wanted to be here because they wanted the project to be successful.”

Will believes everyone involved with each of these milestones knew they had done something important.

“At both of these points we were introducing essentially a brand-new architecture into business computing,” he says. “We were delivering something that was going to stand the test of time.”

Nelson, who’s now a director for IBM i, adds: “The AS/400 was very, very important to IBM’s product portfolio. People knew that, and it drove them. The AS/400 turned the day for IBM.”

—N.T.

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