The IBM AS/400 9406 D35 CISC Midrange Computer – Part 1: How I Got One

Hi there vintage computing passionate! Once again I acquired a unique machine, and this time happens to be a computer, well more precisely a midrange computer, but there will be some way ahead until I turn its power switch on, so bear with me into this journey.

Note: I will bother with so much of a story only in this Part 1 post, so you can skim through it or skip it, I will then keep writing on the subject.

First, due to little time, these posts will be made on the fly, and, later I might get back to add more details about any process I went through with restoration. I’m already half through cleaning and inspecting all the bits, and just now I had the time to make the first post, thus a big amount of already recorded material will probably be posted in bulk, during the next weeks.

IBM 9406 D35 CISC midrange computer
IBM 9406 D35 CISC midrange computer

Some background

I’m a collector at heart (appreciating and taking care of old stuff), and like many collectors, sometimes after work I take some time to search online for rare brands, special models and all the forgotten stuff most people find useless today (rare machines/works reaching the bin or e-waste being wiped from the face of the earth is a sad thing)

Since my 20’s I liked any IBM-made thing that came my way, from laptops to desktops, mouse and keyboards and any other bits this company created like hard drives, token ring network cards and so on. It was about their quality and pleasure of using them that you could experience.

Now in my 40’s, after some good shakes from life that finally came to settle, I realized I don’t really have any IBM computer in the collection’s sense, just owning a few old Thinkpads, a relatively old U1 IBM x86 server (that served me well from within a storage closet), two keyboards and probably a mouse lost somewhere. Before long, the IBM hunt spree unleashed, and somehow I stumbled on the ‘midrange‘ term. I knew about mainframe computers since a longer time though, probably due to their wider publicity, but the midrange term (and AS/400) was pretty new to me.

A lead into rare breeds

While reading all I could about midrange, I stumbled on an YouTube video, and, either in description or the comments I find out about this Discord server: IBM i Hobbyists. At he time I joined, most members had experience with older, rather than newer AS/400 (currently IBM i) systems, so this proved to be a great place to jump into, as we will see in future posts.

Next thing I know I refined my ‘hunting’ to midrange, however, rarer IBM stuff is hard to come by in my country, except a few AT keyboards, maybe some 486’s or Pentium machines and a lot of x86 servers in all kind of configurations and shapes.

The reason of that: my country was a developing one during the boom of the late 80’s – early 90’s IBM business offerings, not being a target market for the high-end models, and so the best stuff in Europe were made in Italy, Germany, Finland and also delivered across other developed countries like Spain, France, Belgium and so on. Needless to say, the States are having the big pie being IBM’s home country, just that shipping costs to Europe makes shipping even of a smaller pallet a lost dream.

The tripping point

A few months passed since I joined the IBM i Discord and I was now a bit familiarized with both the members and the terms surrounding the AS/400 engineering marvel. One evening while randomly searching for IBM stuff, I encountered on Ebay what seemed to be a nice AS/400 machine, at a relatively good price, but with a huge shipping cost.

Hey, everyone can dream, so I posted about it on the IBM i Discord to find out more, only to discover that machine is in fact a unit (module) holding the PSU, tape drive and control panel of a larger system living in a 32U rack. The member responding me also posted an example picture of a equipped big beige rack, and that was a wow moment.

Restless searches

Somehow, from my local classifieds I managed to grab a 3196 terminal and a RS6000 motherboard along with some MCA cards, so I gently entered the more special world of IBM early machines, being CISC and the PowerPC CPU eras. But I was in for more. As I already exhausted the Ebay listings on old IBM stuff (mostly US-based and priced quite high), I started to look at local classified sites of countries where IBM had factories and/or where they targeted their business-range offerings outside the US, in search for some older and rare IBM machines. Not surprisingly, interesting IBM stuff surfaced from these European sites and my hopes started to consolidate.

In the meantime my next plan was this: being aware these machines doesn’t sell for cheap and that shipping costs are high (mostly because big weight), I started to sell some of my old x86 computers/accessories to raise some spending budget for the new attraction. That was accomplished to some level.

Spain, friends and the purchase

So how I got the IBM 9406 D35 CISC midrange computer.

One of the local classifieds sites holding decent amount of IBM stuff was for Spain, where it also happened I have a friend. One day while doing search variations going beyond just ‘midrange’ or ‘IBM’ or any specific model, one ad picture took my attention: A beige modular machine that seemed a complete system. At first my mind draw it like a somewhat larger desktop unit, not realizing its actual size, until I loaded more of the pictures, and here it stand: the big beige rack made of individual units the member on the IBM i Discord told me about, that was in the early offerings of IBM’s high-end AS/400, and that was that: tunnel vision activated, stuck on how to buy before it goes away (could have been other passionate, e-waste or gold scrappers).

There was zero information on the type, configuration or its function status, with only a few pictures from the front with a few closeups on the control panel and tape drive. However, with any machine that old (over 30 years) you can only take the risks. Listed without price, and only as local pickup, my only chance was for that friend in Spain to help me out, and chances were good as few months back this friend needed a favor too.

That same day I messaged the seller, managed to get the phone number and forward it to my friend (he can speak Spanish). A meeting was arranged for the next day and my friend went at the place. I knew I only have one shoot (or maybe two if I were to borrow money) and that was my whole available budget (farewell to x86’s). Negotiations has begun and I started with a relatively decent offer of 400e, which the seller countered to 600e, being afraid to not mess things up I instantly agreed. Big news! The system was now secured and just waiting for pickup. (The same seller had two smaller AS/400 systems that I ultimately got to have too).

The shipping struggle

The 9406 beige system was now waiting in the seller’s garage to be picked up, and rather soon in about one week, at my insistence, it was picked by my friend and placed in a door hallway of a friend of my friend. Another step was completed, and now the system is waiting for the big move of some 4000 Kilometers to my place, which is not an easy and neither cheap task. Also, we just stepped into the new year, and, in the first part of January things are moving slower overall, so I gave all this a rest.

In the meantime I kept on raising budget for the shipping while looking for ways and companies that can handle it. During this time I have also begin to learn more about these unique machines, plus digesting everything I could on the IBM i Discord server (lots of AS/400 talks in there) so I can be a bit prepared when dealing with the system.

After some reach out, in late January I finally came to a price term with one company doing frequent routes between Spain and my country. I was the man in the middle like they say, intermediating every information back and forth, and when the timing was good, my friend packed the rack, then one sunny morning the truck arrived and picked it up. The long journey was on.

The intercept

The trip lasted three days through all the countries between us, and late evening before the morning of delivery I was announced the truck can’t make the route to my place because it can’t keep up with schedule, so I was required to be positioned 35Km away at a transient point and intercept the truck with the system from there. I was quickly to make some calls and arranged for a truck and another friend to come and help (we are dealing with some 250Kg’s). Once again, a friend that previously asked for a favor which I gladly responded to, was now going to help me.

We are now at the meeting point, and within 30 minutes we are in contact with the other driver, thankfully. We faced our truck next to the unloading area of his truck, and the transfer could not get easier than that, as both trucks had similar height plus the rack being on wheels. We just dragged it in, secured and we drove home for the unload.

Being in my country with people I know and speak to in my language, made the intercept and the unload a swift process, and the mission was complete. I managed to bring the big beige AS/400 rack here, but it is now resting outside, under the door overhang next to some fire wood, waiting to be accommodated.

The system’s new home

We live in a two room house, and the room I can get the system into does not have an external door (it was planned but not done yet), and the indoor access to it is only 58cm in open width, the rack being 65cm. Also, because the amount of black dust I noticed on first sight on the insides, the system is badly in need of a good cleaning before going indoor

Because the above reasons, it needed to rest outside until I’m able to clean it and make the wall cut for the external door. However, this is late of January with temperatures reaching -10 Celsius on some nights (a mild winter), and because of this, I made it a priority to disassemble the internals in the arrival day, do a quick air clean and move them inside to avoid freezing temps (with one exception).

The PSU unit is heavy, bulky, and it required another person to get it out of the rack (favors anyone?), thus, I just placed it under a shed in the yard, as anyways the room was already overcrowded with components laying around. What could happen with a power supply if resting in cold for a few days? Anyways, I removed the tape drive and the function/display module from this unit, as these were easily removable, and placed them inside.

At the time I didn’t knew the PSU unit holds two lead acid batteries (which would have made possible to carry by myself if unloaded) and the parts of the control panel, which is a critical and key component for these systems.

As the evening is settling in, the rack remained outside. Disturbing view of the empty carcass laying there, but within about two weeks when the weather was milder and the time allowed it, I was able to make the door cut and move the system inside where it can live again (if I can resurrect it).

Thank you to my friends who helped buying and getting the system home.

Thank you to my dear wife which didn’t get upset and was ok with bringing this system in our home. Not only that, she also said it looks nice in the room. As we live in a relatively small home currently, this sets for even more appreciation.

That’s enough of the story telling, it’s now time to get into the deeper subjects of this machine, and this is what the next posts will be about. It will be a long process, so check back often for the journey.