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IBM goes live with Smart Cube appliance server

The modern day AS/400

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After nearly two years of development and more than six months of a beta spin in India - where there are some 35 million small and medium businesses that are looking to computerize their operations - IBM has finally brought its Smart Cube appliance servers and the related application software Smart Market to the United States.

The Smart Cube appliances and their related strategy, formerly known by the codename "Blue Business", seek to create server appliances that avoid Microsoft's Windows operating system like the plague. They deploy Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (on Xeon iron) or IBM's own I 6.1 operating system (for Power iron) on a range of server appliances that IBM monitors and manages remotely. They also come with a wide range - well, at some point in the future, anyway - of application software that can be automatically downloaded, installed, and managed by Big Blue in conjunction with its software partners.

The idea behind the Smart Cube is one that Big Blue has had much success with in decades-gone-by. More than 20 years ago, IBM launched the AS/400 minicomputer. It had an integrated relational database management system (which was called DB2/400 by customers), a database-aware RPG programming language (already in use by lots of customers and great for implementing business logic), a single-level storage programming model (which meant programmers didn't have to move data between memory and disks), and a slew of other features.

While the System/38 predecessor to the AS/400 had most of these features, the three things that made the AS/400 take off were a much lower price (System/38s, MIPS for MIPS on relational database work, cost several orders of magnitude more than IBM's mainframes), much more powerful machines, and - most importantly - thousands of application vendors who were ready to go to market to sell the box on day one.

The AS/400 took off like a rocket and quickly became one of Big Blue's most popular systems, peaking with over 275,000 unique customers and generating more than $5bn a year in sales for its first decade on just hardware and systems software alone and helping to drive as much as $14bn in IBM product and services revenues per year at AS/400 accounts in the early 1990s.

The Smart Cube cannot replicate that kind of success - not with the Windows server platform having the largest portfolio of applications in the world right now and certainly not with such a low number of customers. We're talking an order of magnitude more applications than the 20,000-strong OS/400 application pool at its peak, and perhaps more. And the systems business and the customers buying systems today are radically different and, in many ways, more computer savvy while at the same time less inclined to invest in the people and the hardware and software needed to create business systems. So the Smart Cube is a 2009 approximation of what IBM thinks a modern AS/400 would look like.

As such, IBM wants to start with the applications and to make the underlying iron as invisible as possible. Right now, the Smart Market application store - the iTunes analogue if the Smart Cube is an iPod - is pretty skinny. According to Matthew Friedman, vice president of marketing for the Smart Business platform at IBM, the US portion of the store has 45 applications available from 17 software houses, with the one IBM chose to emphasize at the launch being none other than Intuit and its QuickBooks Enterprise accounting software.

The Smart Market that IBM set up for the Indian market, where it started prototyping the Smart Cubes last December, has 38 applications. The key, as was the case with the AS/400, is to pair local resellers of applications with their own expertise in niches with the system and go to market with a single package.

The secret sauce in the Smart Cubes is not the iron, but rather a framework and set of common APIs that application vendors have to adhere to called the Smart Business Application Integrator. It is this systems software that allows IBM to support the SLES 10 and i 6.1 operating systems, a stack of systems software, and all Smart Market certified applications in an automated and absolutely consistent fashion. Friedman says that IBM has over 150 patents relating to Application Integrator.

"This is real automation, not just integration and bundling," Friedman brags. Such automation was a hallmark of the AS/400, which was the first machine I know of that had remote customer support, allowing IBM to reach into systems and fix them from its Rochester, Minnesota, facility over a modem line. Since then, IBM has added all kinds of proactive maintenance and monitoring services to its AS/400 and successor products, and of course, other system makers have done likewise.

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