Blowing The Dust Off Of An IBM AS/400 Server

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.

So when a local IT company went belly up and was selling their old hardware, including a late 90’s era IBM AS/400e Series, [Rik te Winkel] jumped at the chance to take this unique piece of computing history home. He knew it was something of a risk, as maintenance and repair tasks for these machines were intended to be done by IBM certified technicians rather than the DIYer, leaving little in the way of documentation or even replacement parts. But in the end it worked out, and best of all, he documented the successful process of dragging this 90’s behemoth into the blinding light of the twenty-first century for all the world to see.

After getting the machine home and sitting through its thirty minute boot process, [Rik] was relieved to see the code 01 B N pop on the server’s display. This meant the system passed all the internal checks and was ready to go, he just had to figure out how to talk to the thing. Built to be a pure server, the machine didn’t offer any video output so he’d have to log into it over the network.

[Rik] noted that there was no new DHCP entry in his router for the server, but of course that was hardly surprising as the machine would have certainly had a static IP when it was in use. So he shut the server down, plugged it directly into his laptop’s Ethernet port, and watched the output of Wireshark as it went through its arduous boot sequence. Eventually he started to pick up packets coming from the IP address 10.10.10.9, and he had his target.

There are a few clients out there that allow you to remotely log into an AS/400, so he downloaded one and pointed it to the server’s IP. He was surprised to see the operating system was apparently in Dutch, but at least he was in. He tried a few common usernames and passwords, helped along by the fact that this OS from a somewhat more innocent era will actually tell you if you have the username right or wrong, and eventually managed to hack the Gibson with the classic admin/admin combo.

So he was in, but now what? [Rik] decided that he couldn’t truly call this machine bested until he could pull up the Hackaday Retro Edition, so he started work on writing a program to let him pull down the page directly on the AS/400 in IBM’s proprietary Report Program Generator (RPG) programming language. You know, as one does. He didn’t quite feel up to writing a whole HTML parser, but he got as far as generating a HTTP GET request, downloading the page’s source, and opening it up as a local file. That’s good enough for us.

Our very own [Al Williams] documented his adventures poking around an Internet-connected AS/400 machine, which might serve as a helpful primer if you ever find one of these delightfully oddball computers kicking around the local recycling center.

95 thoughts on “Blowing The Dust Off Of An IBM AS/400 Server

      1. Wow, I actually was a certified IBM wiz with their AS 400 back in the day. But, it did it’s thing as a server. I worked for the school board and whew!! I thank God for me understanding the 400. Mastering it was a true learning and retaining numbers experience. I Loved it. Have an awesome day.

      1. Yes – IBM i (the current operating system that was originally on the AS400) has an integrated Apache Webserver which dynamically converts the old green screens to Web GUI for logins. There are also many remote login, or remote 5250 (green screen) desktop tools that allow you to connect remotely over the internet.

    1. I remember back in the day you used to have enough time to go get a cup of coffee while your desktop started up. Now if it’s not on within 20 seconds, the user is probably going to complain.

      Not that I’m complaining…

      1. Psssht! Back when Windows 98 was new and shiny, I had a PC that could boot to desktop and have everything fully loaded in only 45 seconds. That’s from poking the button until I could hear the hard drive stop moving its heads.

      2. I remember that as well. It took forever and a Danish waiting for the thang to get right. Oh, remember dial up to get on the net? I’m 49 and things have truly improved. But, the old servers deserved to be dusted off☺ Have a great day.

    2. Oh yeah. I picked up a couple DG Clariion servers because I wanted to play with registered ECC RAM — the machines had 32 DIMM slots and I started picking up RAM on eBay just to see what I could do.

      I got about half of the slots filled (16 DIMMs was 4GB, I believe) and ran out of both money and curiosity, but at that time, POST was taking upwards of 10 minutes — the BIOS insisted on doing a lengthy memory check every time. It’s fairly typical for servers; they don’t reboot often, and they need to be reliable when they do.

    3. When I worked 911 a decade ago, it was all on an AS/400 server. I remember them doing updates after midnight occasionally and it taking that much time to reboot and having to do everything on paper cards, then somebody else had to enter all those into the system once it booted back up.

      As far as I know, they are still using the same system, but with PCs as terminals instead of the VT-220 terminals for a better looking interface.

      1. To be pedantic, they use 5250 terminals on as400s. The protocol is really strange (and like classic ibm, not documented anywhere…well it might be somewhere inside a vault in ibm, but that’s never getting opened and probably will get burned down one day) and over twinax.

        1. To be really pedantic:
          1) There has not been an AS/400 for more that 17 years – there’s a nice post here on one development company’s attitude towards the current system. https://www.cnxcorp.com/blog/wild-evolution-as400-ibm-i
          2) The 5250 protocol is documented and has been implemented by a number of third party and open source vendors.
          3) While there is still hardware support for older twinax devices the vast majority connect using PC/Mac/Linux based emulators over TCP/IP

          If anyone is into hardware hacking for IBM i (which is the name of the current evolution of the system) then these guys are the experts – Dr. Franken and the Frankeni team have been taking these babies apart for many years. http://www.idevcloud.com/systems.html

      2. Wow, from a AS400 Certified Lady. That was many moons ago. I’m 49 and whew!! I did the month end for the school system. It was some order pizza, get your brains crunk,right and exact. There was no time for mistakes. Whew. I am retired now due to Multiple Sclerosis, but thanks to the Ole’ School computers,servers,language and crypto, and algorithms.

    1. “diatribution”
      Wow! A portmanteau of diatribe and distribution!
      May I suggest “diatribulation” as well?
      If that was just a typo [Doug Griffis], I ask your forgiveness, I think you’ve discovered a new corporate buzzword!

      diatribution: a scalding email sent to cow-orkers when “Reply All:” is clicked.

    2. That was my experience as well, over a decade ago when I administered one running at a beer & wine distributor. Very reliable, and while a bit funky to wrap your head around the nomenclature, very easy to administer. And, perhaps most importantly, pretty hands off — very rarely did it require attention.

      We replaced the AS/400 with a later model (now termed “iSeries”), and the migration was extremely painless.

      I miss that machine; fortunately, there are free accounts to be had online.

  1. Most people think this is a dead software/hardware but it is in fact still used to this day is ordinary places. I still use it at the CAT dealer I work and know for a fact most car dealers use it… I have seen it in healthcare systems begrudgingly… The truth is no one has made a better system that tracks so much across the board…

  2. You know, the 400 is still available. Been renamed a few times by IBM. System I, iSeries, etc..
    Os is up to v7r3.
    Pretty much everything is stored in a database, and some of the long boot time is to keep that data consistent.

  3. Wow, talk about not knowing your subject! Thousands of AS/400s in service today, running everything from batch RPG to pgp to C to Java in addition to secure websites.
    Try some research next time.

    1. Just because there are still some of them in use doesn’t mean they aren’t antiquated and rare. Nothing in either this post or the linked article says they aren’t in use anymore, just that they aren’t common.

      Try reading next time.

        1. But how is that inaccurate if most of these machines are sitting around running legacy applications that may well be written in COBOL?

          A search on Indeed right now shows plenty of people still looking for COBOL AS400 devs.

          1. It’s true there is a lot of legacy code in RPG & COBOL running on this IBM small to medium business system. However the versions of those languages are far more modern than you might expect. IBM has trickled down many of their mainframe system inovations to the platform in both hardware and OS. The platform supports virtual machines or as they are called on the system LPAR’S (Logical Partitions). The system has Apache web servers an Tomcat. It can compIile and run C code, C functions can be embedded in RPG and COBOL code. You can run linux and Aix in LPARS. The system uses a modern version of IBM DB2 as it’s DBMS. The of what the system can do is a lot longer than this. Finally judging the as400 by this old version of the system is like judging WinTel PC’s by a Pentium 2 running Windows Millenium

        2. New deployments on the iSeries are somewhat rare. Not many organizations move from Linux to iSeries. Most migrations from other architectures to POWER go for the AIX-based pSeries (which shares common hardware with the iSeries – they are now mostly the same, different only by the software they are licensed to run).

      1. They are a lot more common than most computer people think – it just that nobody ever sees them, and honestly, nobody cares. I have hear there are over 100,000 installations today (although I would like a more concrete number, and IBM tends to be tight lipped). IBM minicomputers/midranges (the same thing, actually) have always been legion, just mostly hidden.

        These older AS/400s are indeed antiquated, but as others have mentioned, it is still an up to date system. Sure, the old CISC based machines are no longer made, and the new machines are POWER based, but one of the original design philosophies of the AS/400 hardware is that the underlying architecture could radically change without disrupting anything. AS/400 hardware is a true black box (beige box?).

        Anyway, the article has kind of a misleading tone.

      2. You can buy a new one today. OS400 (IBM i) runs on the newest Power9 hardware. It’s difficult to communicate to someone who hasn’t used one, and it’s not the fastest platform out there, but in terms of control and reliability it leaves the competition in the dust. That’s not a boast – I was sysadmin for an AS400 alongside a DEC Alpha system running OSF/1 (not linux, Unix), and the AS400 outperformed the DEC in everything except speed. Still, sub-second responses from 250+ terminals wasn’t anything to look down on.

      3. That’s not true. They are not antiquated and rare. You are just grossly misinformed. Many fortune 500 company’s, banks, supermarkets, and pharmacieticals use th see highly dependable servers. Today they are used as database and web servers. They are no longer called As/400. They are known as either iSeries or IBM Power Systems.

        These servers are the highest end of servers you can purchase and small shops normally won’t buy them because the a starter server will cost you at least 100k.

        I work for a company that writes web portals and all we use are these servers. We have hundreds of client and also a Saas model to boot. These servers kick ass and ate much better that than any DB server and MS server combined hands down.

  4. I had to work on one about ten or fifteen years ago, logging in over the Internet. A queer process it was too. I don’t remember much about it, but I recognise the colourful lists of options, which were very ready to lead the user in circles. I also remember being advised that it had surprisingly little disc space – tens of megabytes were important, at a time when laptops had gigabytes available.

  5. Cool experience. Great machines. A lot of them are still in use although they quit making them in 1999. You would think they are still making them though, because so many people insist on calling new systems by that grand old name!

  6. The AS/400 is unbelievably cool. I have 6 of them from the old one here to the System i5. This last one is running in our basement and we play a lot with. It retrives the temperature from Philips Hue sensors, it controls our lights, it sends mail trough our Exchange server, it prints, we are developping some stuff for it and it works like a charm. I love this machine.

  7. I have been been coding on the as/400 platform most of my life, I started on the system 38, that’s a rare machine. The 400 I work on today hasn’t been shutdown in 2 year and over the last 15 years has only been down for upgrades. I use Java, Sql and RPGLE. It has a complete disaster recovery, mirrored to second as/400. The machine reliably serves applications on a global scale to more than 1000 end users. It’s never been hacked, attacked or had a virus, and no dust.

  8. I currently work on on an AS/400 (currently called IBM i). These boxes are great. The biggest downfall to them is they are too reliable. Typically you would have one or two people to administrator them and at some point they would leave the company. Someone would realize that no one knew anything about it and instead of getting people who did or getting training they replace it. I have seen this happen a number of times. Currently I know of one shop that is doing this and they are up to 27 wintel servers to replace it.

    They do get knocked when people see the green screens because they think they are legacy equipment but they can run modern applications written in PHP and Java.

    1. No, they use 5250 terminals, however, most of the people are running IBM Client Access software on windows to connect to it. There are many other 3rd party software running 5250 emulation on Windows, in early 90, some were using 5250 emulation card installed on the PC.

  9. They did not stop production of the AS400 until 2008. It is still well supported by IBM. It is one of the most versatile machines that IBM ever made. I’ve been working as a programmer on the system since 1992. They have made so many enhancements to the system and the software, that it’s not your granddads computer anymore.

  10. I just gave away an AS/400e server 170 (9406-170). /shrug. The original hard drives were pulled and getting a properly running (licensed) OS/400 instance is a pain. Though I’ve heard Linux would have run on it.

  11. We bought one of the 1st AS400s back in 1988. We are still running the new version of the AS400 Power 8 V7R3. 30 years and running, never been hacked never had a virus. We take it down every 3 years to load the latest software, ie never ever has to be “rebooted”. We have updated our application software along the way, y2k, custom rpg code etc. We have never had an application it cannot run, email, webserver, edi, remote diagnostics, sequel, SQL, rpgle, tons of clients and options. We have 6 remote offices connected and our only worry is to make sure we have power in the building, because if you have power the AS400 is running, period.

  12. You Microsoft aficionados need to jump out of your fish bowl and discover the ocean (i.e.real world) of computing in the 21st century. When I started in computing IBM had a motto… The work THINK. It was on placards,signs, hats, shirts and proudly displayed in every displayed computer room, data center and office everywhere. No one had to ask what it meant. Sadly, Microsoft also has a motto…REBOOT. My how the world has changed.

    1. How to get started with those system? It doesn’t seem to be easy to just buy one to put in your living room to play with. Haven’t seen any job openings to work with this system either, nor do I remember any course at uni dealing with them.

        1. Thanks, interesting project, unfortunately it’s currently down due to abuse of the service :-/ … So, are there good resources, tutorials, books for learning the system? I find the “LIC” and hardware abstraction particularly interesting.

          1. Mine seems to be OK. It was withdrawn from service a while ago because certain account holders were abusing the “free” accounts to run training courses. Then the owner put it up again with warnings, but perhaps he’s withdrawn service from new applicants.

            If you’re really interested, there are some paid accounts available elsewhere, I can’t remember URLs at the moment. Look for public as400 or IBM i servers. Or try midrange.com

          2. There are two levels of hardware abstraction. Your source code compiles into binary object, then the operating system translates that (on first run) into object code that runs on the hardware. The hardware in a desktop-level server is not the same as a big multi-rack system (it’s not like upgrading from an Intel Core i5 to a Core i7), but the hardware-specific microcode on each machine can take binary object from any AS400 system and translate it into machine code specific to that machine. That’s why code written for operation on an entry-level machine can run without re-compiling on larger and larger machines.

  13. All of you are unbelievably ignorant and should be ashamed of yourselves. The /400 was never intended as a pure server, that’s stupid. It was intended as a multi-user interactive system and later morphed into a server, but is still primarily used as a 10 to 10,000 user interactive transaction processor.

    Almost no one except banks use COBOL on it. The common language is RPG ILE which serves all types of services, although PHP and other languages are used for web-based interactions.

    Looking at a late 90s version of a /400 as a modern machine is like comparing a model A to a Maseratti. I guess you think since they both start with ‘M’. They must be the same thing. The smallest /400 today has more than 20 times the power of a 90’s model and the largest ones have hundreds or thousands of times the power

    Your dumb-ass workstation which boots up so fast can’t support 1000 or 5000 simultaneous interactive users can it?

    And to wish its command language was like Unix is like wishing that Bach sounded like AC/DC. They language is compact and elegant (considering all the stuff it’s designed to do) , unlike the adolescent geekiness of Unix .

    Maybe before you write and article you should find out what you’re really dealing with.

        1. I don’t have recent experience, but when I was actively running as AS400, C++ and Java weren’t in the picture (they are now, of course). Anyway, we were a pure RPG/CL shop. ALL the application software was written in RPGII/III/400, and controlled by CL. One of the drawbacks of an AS400 was speed, so any code that you compile into native binary/object – as opposed to JIT or interpreted languages – made a big difference in performance. IBM even offered a BASIC language for the AS400, IIRC, it was an interpreted language, not compiled, so no-one used it.

          So, being able to compile Control Language programs (CL – the nearest equivalent would be *nix shell scripting) was fantastic – especially when that compiled binary would port straight to another AS400 without re-compiling. One fantastic aspect of the AS400 range was its range, as I stated elsewhere – from desktop-style entry level servers, to racks upon racks of equipment – the code would run on larger and larger AS400s as your business grew, without the need to re-write or re-compile.

          1. Interesting, but I think since Unix Shell programs were never intended (and used) for performance-critical tasks, it doesn’t really matter that they can’t be compiled. And since they are interpreted, they are hardware-independent anyways.

            Btw: Compiled ARMv6 code can run almost anywhere too, from the tiniest microcontroller to big servers – also quite a range :-) The main concern would be to ensure ABI stability.

        2. CL programs can be much more than a wrapper around application software. There are system-level APIs (such as process control) available to Control Language programs, and there are lots of things you can do without writing an RPG or COBOL program at all. Like BASH scripts, some CL programs are BIG – it’s almost a programming language – there’s variables, flow control, etc. Being able to compile them gives a performance and stability quality that scripts don’t have.

          1. Oh yeah CL! It’s so easy to use when you know even a restricted list of commands… I’ve just finished writing a program for managing my tape backups and my tape library. It’s 7 different programs, about 5K lines of code, a great pleasure to develop. This is made basically to have a nice screen to SBMJOB five SAVLIB per week, and then print a report to tell the user which tape he has to store, and then which ones he has to bring back. I remember a few years ago dreaming of touching one of these machines, and now i have several of them, an 9406-520 for the last one and i’m so happy to learn a new thing each time i use it.
            I can often see developers and admins have great memories about these machines. I can’t now imagine my IT life without it so i’ve learned new things with. Everyone who came at my place have seen one or two green screen somewhere here.
            If three years ago (before i got the chance to use the i for the first time) someone told me how i would love it today and that i would have one for myself, i coudn’t believe it.

  14. Hah, not only have I seen one of these, we use i-Series for our critical business infrastructure. It was real fun when a box died and we had to scramble to swap to our disaster recovery box…

  15. AS/400 is a plague upon the world and shall be eradicated with fire. I have never worked on a more arduous and convoluted system in my life. Recalling RPG makes me want to commit suicide. 5250 on twinaxial cable – so many engineering hours wasted on such garbage.

    The only good thing about this system was the service manual. Pages and pages of troubleshooting diagrams.

  16. Back in 98 I had a summer job at an office of a big corporation installing Windows NT and some data management package that replaced their AS/400 system on all the user’s computers.

    I remember thinking they were idiots for making that switch. The AS/400 with it’s Curses-like interface may have looked outdated but it did what it was supposed to do reliably and quick. The replacement on the other hand with it’s Windows-based GUI looked totally up to date (for that time) but it was slow, buggy and crash prone.

    None of this was my problem of course. I was paid well (by my estimation as a student) to do a job and I just did the job I was paid for.

  17. The early AS/400 systems didn’t have ethernet, so bring up would have started with looking for a 5250 terminal to plug into the twinax port or something that speaks token ring.

  18. I work on the modern versions of these machines everyday. Extremely reliable machines.

    We had a client that was doing multiple stages of a renovation, months later they need to upgrade the machine but couldn’t find it. They finally did, it was quietly running in a room that didn’t have a door because the remodel.

    Another client just did a cost benefit analysis trying to replace them with ‘modern’ hardware, the cost differences were 10’s of millions of dollars. Two people running the machines were expected to jump to about 40. They abandoned the switch.

    1. Is that just a retelling of the old story about the Linux server that nobody could find for years then when it finally stopped working due to hardware failure they found that years before during remodeling it had been sealed behind a wall?

  19. I indeed have a soft spot in my cold pimp heart for the AS400. Those things were hard to kill. As others have pointed out, having an early Linux-like boot time can be a hair-puller for mission critical operations. So many memories of working on other gear in the rack room while the AS400 continued to do its thing.

  20. I’ve worked on them for the last 40 years or so and am on one now. Very complex and bullet proof machine, but you are coming at it from a network perspective.
    I can say that it’s still the most bullet proof and versatile machine out there and quite a few are stilll up andrunning.
    It’s a total enterprise machine, capable of running like a mainframe, in a network or a web server.
    But, I guess you have to know how to use it.

    1. My sole experience with one was in college where we were learning SQL/400 and RPG on one. We even had remote access, we could log in from home over the ‘net using a 5250 terminal emulator. The instructor was fond of calling out lazy students when they tried to claim “the system” was buggy; his response was “I’d bet my life on the reliability of this machine, I wouldn’t let you walk my dog”.

  21. By the way, in regards to your comment of using ” eventually managed to hack the Gibson with the classic admin/admin combo”.

    FYI There is NO “admin” IBM user profile on OS/400. Some (CLOWN) that owned that AS400 must have created that user profile with that password. With that logic, I would not be surprised if they left opene all kinds of back doors to hack the system by not implementing proper security techniques used to lock down the system.

    1. Sure… I totally share your opinion. I have a very short experience but on the around twenty machines i had to do something, maybe 3 or 4 had the qsecofr password changed, and it never was the 3 or 4 one that had the DST qsecofr changed…
      Someone seeing on the net i like to play with these machines offered 1000 euros to help him to regain access to the machine. He came to take me over the same day, i’ve IPL, typed qsecofr as login and password and it was ok. Except the IPL, time for intervention less than 5 seconds. I was forced to refuse the money…
      I work for a wine and food distributor (who is ruining himself by spending millions in a failed deployment of an well known unusable ERP). But they had a DPS/4000 in the 80’s, and then an AS/400 in the early 90’s, and some others.
      Depending on where you are located, maybe i could help you to have a machine. I have several that i had saved from junk.

  22. I work on one that is about 4 years old. It replaced the one that had been runming since the 90s. It has only gone down when the hvac system broke. I cam evem connect to it with a 5250 emulator on my Android phone. This is in a hospital, every hospital in the company (130 something) run on these. All pf the medical charting is done through a web interface so the doctors and nurses never see the Green Screen.

  23. Sadly for IBM – and those of us who work on IBM i – while there is often publicity when companies move away from the system there is never any publicity when they give up (often multi-millions of $s later) and instead update their existing application base.

    The other major problem in “spreading the word” is the number of companies who regard the box as their “secret weapon” and don’t like it to be known that it is at the heart of their systems. They would rather see their competitors waste millions of $s moving to new and less reliable platforms and chuckle to themselves quietly as they count the extra profits.

    Reliability and scalability are huge plus points. Need to handle double the number of transactions per hour? Simple add more disk, memory and CPUs. The OS handles most of the load balancing for you so very little extra admin or anything else needed. I have one major client (major US corporation) that has not had _any_ unplanned outages in over 7 years. None. On the Windows and Linux side of the house they are a weekly sometimes daily event. Number of staff running the IBM i (programming/ops/everything) about 20% of the Windows/Linux staffing levels. And the system handles some 95% of all transactions that take place in the company.

    That’s why people use it.

  24. I was part of a team that got an AS/400 before the release date and was it was referred to as SilverLake. We had Banking software ready on the AS/400 release date. It was and still is a very solid machine. Like others said, the only down time was when we did upgrades. We used PCs as terminals using 5250 software for the AS/400 and 3270 software for the VSE and MVS machines. The initial post said he got in with admin/admin which is not an AS/400 standard. The user id to get into is QSECOFR (security officer) and QSYSOPR (system Operator) as that is where the root of the system control. I liked the line commands which made it easy to find a needed command even if they sometimes were a bit disjointed. The database system was good and functional. We could connect from our system to any one of hundreds of bank’s systems to resolve any issues. Always said If I ever got back into being a DP manager at a bank I would want an AS/400 or whatever IBM calls it.

  25. I worked on AS/400’s back in the early 90’s to mid 2000’s, rock solid machine for its time and had seriously major horsepower with the ERP systems of the day. OS400 was sound, security rated at the highest levels and downtime was extremely rare.

    The only time I had any issue was with the CISC to RISC move as a guinea pig site but the Rochester lads were fantastic with the help and were a complete delight. IPL’s were painless as were CUMPTF’s. This was a plug, play and forget system in a good way.

    A lot of tech was pioneered on this platform and it was a big success for IBM when they were not doing so well.

    Good days for me and I learned a vast amount from the standing on the shoulders of the IT giants involved and the experience has carried through to today.

  26. frequent power outages along with no UPS unit makes for a long day. The UPS had been unplugged because someone noticed that it was smoking. I’m just a tech, but it seemed to me that there was a constant state of Debugging with the AR400. It is still in ‘use’.

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