Volume 21, Number 12 -- March 26, 2012

Two Factors In The IBM i Migration Equation

Published: March 26, 2012

by Alex Woodie

There comes a time in every corporation's life when it must confront the "m" word and consider migrating computer systems. Whether the company uses Windows or IBM i or Unix or z/OS, its leaders will inevitably make a decision to either stick with what they've got, or move to something different. Companies running IBM i face a unique set of circumstances that work both ways in the migration equation, including a skills shortage and sticky ERP systems.

The mad rush toward mobile, cloud, and social computing has IBM i shops re-thinking their business application strategy. Just as IBM i professionals felt they were getting their heads around the best way to modernize their applications with Web technology, another set of requirements has been foisted upon them, which inevitably gets them thinking about the "m" word.

There is no doubt that the IBM i platform can be a good system to meet the evolving requirements. IBM has continuously evolved the platform over the last 25 years, and kept it up with standards. In fact, IBM i is more compliant with the POSIX Unix standards than any Unix operating system. That's right--IBM i is more Unix than Unix itself.

But even Unix is looking a bit long in the tooth these days to business executives. IBM may have emerged as the king of Unix, but people don't care as much as you might think because Unix is a shrinking business. Big Blue makes more money lending to customers than it does selling hardware (Power Systems, mainframe, System x, and storage combined). For IBM, software in general, business intelligence software in particular, services, and "Smarter Planet" are its main priorities for the next four years.

Besides, operating systems and server platforms aren't the big deciding factors in IT decision-making that they once were. The combination of Microsoft Windows Server and Intel X86 processors has, for all intents and purposes, won the server battle, with Linux on X86 being chosen by the Unix diehards when they need a new platform. Windows nonetheless dominates all other platforms in terms of units shipped and revenue. For many companies, there is no platform decision to make; Wintel is default. This is particularly true of SMB shops.

OK, so what now? Operating systems aren't cool anymore, the cloud is red hot, and consumer-oriented tech companies like Facebook and Apple dominate the tech discussion. That said, you still need to maintain your company's IT systems, and since you can't run your ERP system on an iPad (the battery would get too hot), that means doing boring cost/benefit analyses to see if the cloud makes sense, and if not, which on-premise business system best fits your needs.

Over the last decade, much of the IBM i installed base--perhaps as much as half--has migrated off the platform. That suggests that the IBM i shops still left may be more committed to the platform. And while most IBM i professionals would swear their company will never migrate off the system that has served their business so well for so many years, ASNA's Roger Pence knows better.

"We know for a fact that people do [migrate], and we know that the reasons for migration are as much political and social as they are technical," Pence said. "It just takes one new IT manager who grew up with Windows or who grew up not using a green screen to make unfortunate choices sometimes that have big implications."

One factor working against the IBM i platform today is the age of the base. Look around at your next user group meeting or COMMON conference, and you'll see plenty of grey beards. The work done by the Young i Professionals group and the IBM i Academic Initiative in bringing younger people into the fold is commendable, but it hasn't made much of a dent in the problem.

"If you consider the average age of RPG programmers, being of the Baby Boomer era, they're slowly and gradually approaching retirement age," said Andy Kulakowski, the CEO of migration specialist Fresche Legacy (formerly Speedware), who is well versed in the factors going into IBM i migrations. "I would say that is the single greatest threat facing that community."

Fresche Legacy recently acquired a code converter that translates from RPG to Java and C#, and Kulakowski plans on using that to capture more business among companies migrating off the IBM i platform to Hewlett-Packard's Unix or Microsoft's Windows server platforms.

While some see the pace of migrations accelerating due to the RPG skills shortage, others don't detect big shifts in the momentum of the IBM i server, for the simple matter that most IBM i servers are tied to an ERP system, and implementing new ERP systems is expensive, difficult, and fraught with uncertainty.

"The core functionality that's in some of these new ERP packages sold today is not that different than what these [older] products have in them," says Larry Dube, the president of IBM i application support vendor Precision Solutions Group. "To be honest, products like PRISM and PRMS--and JD Edwards World especially--they work. So the cost to upgrade to something else is basically just the cost to upgrade to similar functionality. So there's some resistance to do that."

This "resistance" to move is perceived as a problem by ERP vendors with big "legacy" installed bases--companies like Oracle and Infor. But in fact, this defiance to follow prescribed migration paths may have slowed the migration off the IBM i platform.

Companies eventually have to upgrade or change their ERP systems. Requirements change, and the cost to retrofit older systems to fit new business processes--such as those developed to address new opportunities exposed by cloud computing, mobility, and social media--will one day exceed the cost of moving to a newer systems that are better matched to needs. It could be one year or 100 years from now. But when that day comes, the IBM i pendulum is bound to shift, in one direction or the other.


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