Global Perspective Requires CIO to Think in Transitional Terms
May 3, 2010 Dan Burger
Warren Fristensky figures he’s built about a dozen data centers in his 30-year career. He doesn’t see that ever happening again. “I would not build a data center today,” he says. “I would go to someone to provision it and get into a managed services environment that would evolve into a cloud environment over time.” After three decades in IT, Fristensky has done a fair amount of evolving himself. He’s currently CIO at John Wiley & Sons, a global publishing company that has a long and happy relationship with the IBM i.
Wiley is a collection of niche publishing operations. It’s a global company with a presence on all continents except Antarctica. All told, it booked $1.6 billion in revenue in 2009, with half the revenue coming from outside the United States.
“Our technology strategy is built inherently around common systems, globally shared enterprise data, and integrated systems that deliver flexibility, long life spans, and long-term stability in IT investments,” Fristensky explains. “It’s also built to avoid big bang implementations that leave big holes.”
The IT architecture is divided into a front-end, customer-facing, product side that is content rich and Web-based and a back end where the financial transactions and all the customer information are run on the IBM i. Somewhere between 500 and 600 Intel blade servers and Sun boxes fuel the front-end furnace, while nine IBM iSeries servers (now branded in its most modern form as the Power Systems running IBM i) provide the muscle on the business end.
Fristensky describes the Intel-based Web sites as huge content repositories where the customer interaction takes place, but recognizes and respects the iSeries for anchoring the business. “When you want to look for something and buy it, the API goes back to the iSeries. When you check out, during the product purchase process, you are on the iSeries. It’s seamless, and real-time, and it’s been in place for over 10 years. We have spent very little money to create e-commerce that is totally integrated, real-time, without expensive middleware. That has been a benefit to us.”
Playing a key role in the e-commerce aspect of connecting front end with back end is IBM i independent software vendor LANSA, which helped Wiley build a Web-based order entry and inquiry system using LANSA for the Web. All customer-facing applications are built using LANSA on top of Synon–application software that once dominated the midrange market. The LANSA-Synon combo has been used at Wiley for close to 10 years.
Describing the development environment he oversees, Fristensky says “about 5 percent of our system is batch RPG. The preponderance is in Synon, with all the Web stuff in LANSA. We have encapsulated the Synon objects to do common things–create a customer, create an order–into API structures so they are exposed to LANSA or other services that make use of them. All new data and files and tables go into Synon and they are copied across to the LANSA repository, so the data is all sharable and accessible by either environment.”
The business intelligence suite that Fristensky has in place is implemented on IBM Cognos software over an Oracle database powered by large Sun boxes. “It’s quite expensive,” he says. “I spend more on BI than on all of our backend fulfillment iSeries boxes–from soup to nuts.”
Wiley has a global enterprise data architecture, which, Fristensky says, keeps the mass of data orderly. It’s fed daily into the BI suite with little of the ETL work many business intelligence systems require. Some coding structures–the ones that vary among the publishing company’s worldwide holdings–require mapping. He describes it as a data warehouse-business intelligence suite in contrast to an operational data store. Cognos runs on the iSeries, and cubes for operational data stores were built on the iSeries. The system has been in place for more than five years.
“We are not using the top-end iSeries, but we run some pretty powerful boxes,” Fristensky says. “IBM has delivered capacity well beyond our capability to consume it, but we will implement new Power7 boxes in December and migrate to the 6.1 operating system.”
Partitioning is used to separate production from development and the production side is split into business segment partitions. Partitioning is also being used to run a Singapore facility from the United States. Unix and Linux partitions were tested, but performance was less than expected due to some difficulties related to performance tuning for each of the platforms. Fristensky determined it was more trouble than it was worth, so the Linux and Unix partitioning plans were abandoned.
“We continue to enjoy a tremendous value from the iSeries,” Fristensky says. “Our competitors have spent tens of millions of dollars in system implementations to retrofit their publishing business. We have been self-sustaining.”
That’s what he meant about staying clear of “big bang implementations that leave big holes.” At the time Wiley built its homegrown ERP system, no packaged ERP fit the company’s business requirements.
“It was appropriate over the past 20 years to develop our own ERP,” Fristensky notes. “But it may not be appropriate for the next 20 years.”
As he plans for the future, Fristensky sees additional transformation taking place. He predicts that online customer visits will grow from the 2010 forecast of 650 million to 1.2 billion by 2015. It’s the CIO’s job to help the company capitalize on those customers and potential customers. He also expects the company’s products–which have traditionally been printed with ink on paper, and its services as an information provider–to morph as more people consume applications on devices such as Apple‘s iPhone and iPad and Amazon‘s Kindle.
There will be a transformation on the business IT side as well.
“We have enjoyed a long lifespan and long stability, long-term value of investment in the iSeries, yet the critical mass of the industry at large is not behind that platform by a long shot,” Fristensky says. “We are looking over the next five years or so to transition out of the iSeries. We will do it at a time of our choosing rather than having it chosen for us.”
The AS/400’s progeny is not the only platform that is going to see some changes at the publisher.
“The same story is happening in the Sun-Oracle space,” says Fristensky. “We are monitoring the Sun-Oracle situation to determine what we may wish to consider in the future. We are planning for technology transitions and ways to externalize and outsource and provision services that we can buy as a commodity. We are also looking at buying packaged software compared to migrating our software into a new platform, which could be Java or .NET. I suspect that we will buy more software in the future than what we develop. We would not develop from scratch a new ERP infrastructure. We see LANSA as a bridging tool that operates today in a multi-platform mode. We use it to generate Web apps on the iSeries. We are taking Web apps, shrinking them, and running them on a laptop. LANSA allows us to have a laptop version of the back end.”
The velocity of change has the CIO planning for life in a dual world for an indefinite period of time. To get through the transition, Fristensky says front-end functions will run in a .NET environment but will be ODBC-ed into the iSeries database. Eventually he sees key chunks of data transitioned into an SQL-type environment.
The transition from the iSeries does not mean Fristensky expects the platform to disappear. He says the iSeries will outlive him, but he is worried that people with iSeries skills will become increasingly difficult to acquire.
“People who know the iSeries, RPG programmers, Synon programmers, and LANSA developers, have an average age of about 54. The folks are aging out. I have outsourcing services in India with folks a lot younger. We could extend the life another 20 years, but the question is whether this is a strategy we want to pursue and what is the benefit to our company.”
Fristensky was the keynote speaker at the LANSA user conference in April. He’s been a keynote speaker at the CIO 100 awards, for Forrester Research, and for IBM Cognos.