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IBM Rochester, AS-400 absorbed 10 years ago

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IBM's Rochester site for a couple decades was known as the headquarters for the AS-400, one of Big Blue's most popular machines ever.

The story goes that Rochester actually misled IBM's head office during the development of "Silver Lake," the code for the AS-400. IBM actually wanted a different machine. The AS-400 hit the market in 1988.

It was a big hit. Rochester controlled almost all aspects of the AS-400, which made the Med City site very important to IBM … and difficult to control. The campus became known as "Fortress Rochester."

"Within IBM, Rochester is rarely regarded as team player and is more often viewed as a competitor than an ally," wrote Frank Soltis, often called the Father of the AS/400, in his book "Fortress Rochester."

The Rochester machine became a huge profit center for IBM and a tech superstar in its own right.

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During some rough economic times in 1990s, IBM looked like it might be sold or dismantled. When Microsoft’s Bill Gates was asked if he would buy IBM, he reportedly replied that all he would be interested in buying would be the AS/400 division.

IBM eventually started started reining its sassy Med City child by spreading parts of design and manufacture of the AS/400 and its descendants across several sites.

That trend culminated in April 2008 with the announcement of the then-new Power System servers.

The build-up to the announcement was reported (by me) like this:

Mark Shearer, a vice president of marketing and offerings in the IBM Business Systems group, was quoted by System i Network magazine as saying that some of the biggest news "since the launch of the AS/400 (in Rochester) 20 years ago" will be revealed this week at the COMMON System i user group conference in Nashville, Tenn.

"So that’s the standard you can measure me against … and I know you will," Shearer also was quoted as saying. "But this is an extremely, extremely important week."

Then on April 2, I wrote:

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In a shock to the system, IBM is rebuilding and rebranding Rochester’s favorite computer from the ground up and breaching "Fortress Rochester."

That means goodbye, System i … so long, iSeries … farewell, AS/400.

IBM is launching the Power Systems product line, one part of which calls for "unifying" System i and System p midrange computer servers.

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"I think you’ve hit on a central point. In the past, the AS/400 was the best of Rochester … and the process design, engineering and processing design were all done in Rochester," said Jarman Tuesday.

That was 20 years ago. IBM has since changed. Today, design and manufacture of the System i is spread across IBM units in Texas, North Carolina and New York as well as Rochester. This change furthers that.

"The way we integrate production has changed very much," he said. "The real significance of this announcement is that Rochester and System i has moved from being a district product into the mainstream."

For the record, 2008 was the last year that IBM made an annual public report about how many employees it had working in Rochester. It reported  4,200 Big Blue workers in the Med City then.

In January, IBM reported to the federal government that it had 2,791 employees working on the Rochester campus.

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IBM recently sold the campus and now just leases eight of the 34 buildings on the sprawling campus, formerly known as "Fortress Rochester."

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