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Cubist Threads, by Blair Wyman

I recently returned from an iSeries and AS/400 conference in the amazing city of New Orleans. Thankfully, my job doesn't call for a lot of traveling, but twice a year my management unleashes me on whatever unsuspecting city happens to be next on the list of locations for this conference.

So far my impact on the various conference environs has been relatively minor, mostly limited to temporarily depleting the local supply of crispy bacon and well-done wheat toast. My incurable vanity, though, enjoys the notion that I'm making some impact as I proselytize for the Java programming language with the iSeries customers I meet at these events.

Making the case for Java on the iSeries is somewhat of an uphill battle, I must admit. Server-side Java is a great fit there, as the benchmarks show, but making the case, to long-time RPG programmers, for switching to Java is a tough row to hoe. What, in an already productive programming environment, can motivate as fundamental a change as that of your primary programming language? Other than by "management edict," I'm not sure how many from our wonderful and august body of iSeries and AS/400 developers will be swayed to Java by force of argument alone.

The conference was, by any measure, a wonderful success. More than 3,000 folks attended the five-day conference, hearing about all the goodies in the new release of the iSeries system. We just started shipping our largest release ever, V5R1, with more than 4 million lines of new code. Operating system development is definitely a horse of a different color, compared with applications development. I remember the fun I had writing a Mandelbrot set engine that exploited my then new 8087 math coprocessor. While significant, it was maybe a thousand lines of code, at most. Those were definitely simpler days.

On the JVM front, there isn't that much that was new in this release: some enhancements to the garbage collector (parallelizing the sweep phase) and some improvements in our JIT (basically a port of the JIT we get from the IBM Tokyo Research Lab) are probably the biggest hitters in the JVM support. Many of these improvements will be provided for earlier releases after the fact - lots of our customers stay a release or two behind for a while, as the new releases shake out. So far, V5R1 has "solidified" nicely, though the customer experience is the ultimate proving ground.

On the surface, a description of this conference probably sounds a lot like any number of technical conferences. The attendees went to education sessions and labs, polished up their programming techniques, heard the latest news about enhancements and new functions, accumulated vast hoards of "trash and trinkets" at the exposition, and rubbed elbows with their peers at receptions, dinners out, and nice catered get-togethers. What's unique about this particular computer conference, called COMMON, is its remarkable longevity.

When this conference of IBM midrange computer users was first held, I was barely beginning to do some work in the area of debugging. Of course, since the year was 1960, the debugging I was doing involved riding my steel-wheeled skateboard over migrating swarms of red ants on the neighbor's sidewalk. However, even then, I was toying with optimization techniques for the mass eradication of tiny insect life: flat-bottomed "thongs" (as we called the traditional open-toed South Dakota summer footwear, complete with irritating strap between toes one and two) turned out to provide the maximum Kills Per Thwap (KPT) factor. I guess that while I may have been destined to be a programmer, I'd never have made a very good Buddhist.

What's that? Yup, I said, "1960." Phones had dials. TVs had dials. Radios had dials. (Aren't you glad you used dials?) I was an utterly oblivious 3-year old when this conference first convened; it has been going strong ever since. (Hopefully, my oblivion has been tempered in the meantime, though the jury is still out.)

What, Dear Reader, were you doing 40 years ago? In many cases, I suspect the answer is a cause for mystical speculation, since you were... um... not. For those of you old enough to remember 1960, what do you remember about the computers of the day? How many of those computers are still being produced exactly as they were then? (Outside the air traffic-control arena, my guess is that the answer is a big, fat zero.)

So what is it about a conference that can give it such longevity? What, among the evanescent loyalties in our mercurial industry, can survive 40 years of evolution and revolution? Perhaps I'll leave my speculation on the One True Answer for another time - at least I got to use the word "evanescent."

Author Bio
Blair Wyman is a software engineer working for IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, home of the IBM iSeries. [email protected]

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