With community bankers moving quickly into using networks of personal computers, International Business Machines Corp. is playing catch-up by adding better client-server capabilities to its AS/400 line of midrange computers.

The newer model can integrate more easily with a wider variety of open or client-server systems.

In the past, combining IBM equipment with software and hardware from other vendors - when it was possible - required the use of routers and bridges, the necessary links between the AS/400 and PC-based systems. But the computer giant said the improved file-serving capability of its new operating system lets the AS/400 connect directly to most personal computer and Unix systems.

Work Seen Becoming Easier

"For us, and we've been running an AS/400 for years, the openness can only make life easier," said Ray Ammons, the vice president and data processing manager for Riverside National Bank.

Riverside National, a $480 million-asset bank based in Fort Pierce, Fla., bought its AS/400 five years ago and has been using personal computers systems in its branches for four years. Each of the bank's nine branches runs a local-area network, provided by Novell, which are connected through a wide-area network. These systems, in turn, are joined to the midrange computer through gateways.

Although Riverside's interconnected system has already been put in place, Mr. Ammons said that IBM's new, more flexible units will be useful when the bank upgrades its computers within the next 18 months. With a new model AS/400 at its core, the bank's computer system should run faster and more reliably, he added.

At First National Bank North Dakota, based in Grand Forks, the managers have espoused more of "a wait-and-see attitude," said Greg Sorum, the bank's senior vice president.

"It would be nice to have one central machine to link all the systems for administration," he said. "But in performance, that's where the question comes up."

Although the new model AS/400s may allow banks to skip use of some of the gateways to personal computers, Mr. Sorum said they would still require banks to buy extra equipment to link the systems. First National officials are waiting to see the pricing on IBM's new midrange computers before they commit to the line.

As small banks continue to expand their usage of PC-based systems, compatibility becomes an increasingly important factor. And the once all-powerful IBM has had to learn to compromise with this reality.

Early last month, Big Blue announced that its new generation of large-scale mainframes had also been updated to work better in client-server environments.

"IBM has been talking about this for two years, and it's nice to see them living up to those commitments," Mr. Sorum said.

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