.NET in the Midrange: Not Migration So Much As Integration
October 11, 2010 Dan Burger
The fact that Microsoft is making an impact in IBM i shops is no shock. Sometimes the sparks fly and you can feel the electricity in the air though depending on who is doing the talking and what the listener wants or doesn’t want to hear. Many of the AS/400 faithful bristle whenever Windows or .NET is mentioned, but you can’t ignore the growing need to integrate these two systems.
Two weeks ago in The Four Hundred, Microsoft platform migration executive Dee Hester talked about the successes his company is enjoying in the IBM midrange market. His calculations had some IBM i flavor, but included data that factored in Unix and mainframe in the basket of “competitive wins” he was showcasing. (We’ve noticed that IBM has trouble separating platforms, too. This platform blindness thing must be an epidemic in certain executive circles.)
Since talking with Hester, I’ve checked in with several IBM i software vendors who have set up their shops at the intersection of Windows and i. Their views of the landscape mostly differ from the view Hester presented, but there is agreement about what’s on the horizon.
Just as Hester’s view is colored by his job description, the same is true for most everyone. And I’m not just talking about those with a Microsoft point of view. It’s true the vendors who are working with .NET solutions are going to see more Microsoft activity than those who don’t. But if you want to find fish, you better look in the water.
One common thread in all the talk is the increasing number of Microsoft .NET developers in IBM i shops. Don’t take this as an across-the-board fact in all shops. But it’s an identifiable and undeniable trend. RPG and Java developers building fences won’t stop it. There are business reasons for adding .NET development staff in certain cases, just like there are business reasons for adding RPG and Java developers in other cases, although the cases for adding RPG staff seem to be the rarest.
The business reason that sits at the top of the list for most companies is information integration. It’s not migration.
“There is the ongoing maintenance on the line of business apps running on the iSeries, but in a separate silo within the company there are .NET developers writing departmental applications,” explains Steve Gapp, president and chief executive officer of LANSA, a company that specializes in integrating business systems. “Maybe it’s a CRM app or something of that nature, and it’s not integrated with the customer file and transactional data on the IBM i. So it creates problems such as duplicated data, applications running inside silos, and you have more than one version of the truth. Over time, even with integration, companies don’t want that scenario to continue perpetuating itself. They want a single database and want the solutions integrated.”
Five years ago, it was rare for ASNA, an IBM i ISV with perhaps the most history working with Microsoft and .NET development, to find anything other than RPG developers in its customer base and prospect list. “Now approximately 80 percent of the shops we talk to have both iSeries and .NET development teams,” says Michael Killian, vice president of sales. Microsoft is being used to build front ends to the core apps running on iSeries, but also to build standalone applications, he says.
Killian agrees that the primary concern for most organizations is integration.
“This is about the ability to take advantage of new technology that is either unavailable on the AS/400 or difficult to do on the AS/400,” he says. “It’s not just the graphical interface. Most often it is the integration with the Microsoft Office suite. Some of those things can be done on the AS/400, but they tend to be more cumbersome.”
Hester, Microsoft’s lead executive for migrating midrange platforms to .NET and Windows, claimed 121 midrange conversions to the Windows platform in 2009 and said 719 more were in the pipeline. A “win” in Hester’s book included not only complete replacement of packaged solutions running on IBM i, but also re-hosted and rewritten applications.
Richard Schoen, president and chief technology officer for RJS Software, is another IBM i vendor with a unique view into the Windows world. His company’s document management software runs on both IBM i and Windows.
“Our business was built on the iSeries–80 to 90 percent of our customers came from there. This year, 40 to 50 percent of our new sales are from our Windows-based product and half of that amount comes from pure Windows shops. The other half comes from iSeries shops that have decided to run document management on Windows,” Schoen says.
Although not claiming to have a broad handle on the number of IBM i shops that are migrating to Windows or claiming that IBM i to Windows conversions are commonplace, he knows when customers are involved in a move.
“Migrations are increasing,” Schoen says. “It’s a business decision.” An example he is currently involved with is a customer with a core business application that’s being replaced. “It’s antiquated,” Schoen explains. “The software vendor isn’t doing a lot with it. Our customer didn’t make the decision to migrate based on platform. They looked at the business-feature benefits.”
There’s no wholesale conversion of applications out of the IBM i environment to the Microsoft environment, according to Dan Magid, the head of strategic product planning at Aldon, a change management software vendor.
“In our customer base, WebSphere and Java are more prevalent,” Magid says. “But Microsoft is making inroads because it has an offering in an area that people are very interested in. It’s very expensive to re-do core applications. But at the same time not many companies would decide to develop a whole new application from scratch in RPG. Most people are making the decision to do that in some other technology–WebSphere and Java certainly, but also in Microsoft .NET.”
Adding disbelief to the statistic that Hester used that claimed 24 percent of customers were willing to rewrite mission critical applications, is Eamon Musallam, looksoftware‘s product marketing manager.
“We are not seeing anything at the level Dee Hester referenced in your article,” Musallam says. “It might be that we are facing different sections of the market,” he says diplomatically while mentioning his view that “companies aren’t willing to invest the kind of money needed to do large rewrites. It’s rare to find anyone on IBM i who will give up an existing mission critical app to run it on Windows.”
Musallam describes two extremes with screen-scraped applications at one end and the code completely tossed and aside and applications redeveloped on the other end.
“The norm is in the middle, where the code is being reused for building new modules where needed,” Musallam says. “As an example, take a manufacturer with the goal of building an e-commerce site–a product catalog and credit card processing. It requires new development to make that happen, but not recoding everything. It’s a combination of taking what is being used today and complementing it with new development.”
ASNA is the vendor most likely to be working with companies that have made a decision to leave the IBM midrange. And Killian honestly assesses the process as one that takes time. Most often it is done in a staged approach, he says. It begins with data integration objectives and some user interface enhancement projects. One of the most difficult aspects is bringing the two development groups together, breaking down the barriers between those groups, and getting the .NET people to start learning IBM i and the vice versa. Once you get the first project out the door, it becomes easier to move through the phases.
LANSA’s Gapp believes the number of migrations to .NET is increasing. One of the reasons he points to is that “people can’t get the applications they need on the IBM i today.”
In many shops, Gapp believes the RPG development team is understaffed and their skills are not current with the technology and the modern business requirements.
“The scenario I gave is primarily suited to companies that have custom applications,” Gapp says. “They control the development or a package that was customized. Many of those are very happy with the i platform, but they have concerns about the longevity of their applications–how they will move them forward and keep them maintained.”
Regardless of an increasing number of .NET migrations, Gapp says there are many occasions where the absolute goal is not migration.
“A lot are doing this because they want a modern environment with a modern IDE which has Windows or Web as a user interface. They don’t want to be reliant on RPG as the underpinning language.”
You can’t have these discussions without talking about skilled personnel, whether it is RPG, .NET, Java, COBOL, or a fourth-generation language. The topic of skills focuses on the extent of the skills and, particularly in the case of RPG, the number of people who will have kept their skills current and will be around in another 10 or 20 years.
“The changes that are happening are really about application functionality,” says Schoen. “If the current apps have been grown over the last 20 or 25 years, it may not be cost effective for the current staff–that probably doesn’t have the skill sets–to carry a company forward with some of the things the business wants to do, especially when it comes to Web development and building customer-facing features.”
Decisions are being made on what business benefits are the applications providing and where can the skill sets be found to build and maintain new things in the future.
“This is not a focus on migrating off the platform, Gapp says.”I would use the term ‘migration ready.’ Companies see .NET as a way to put themselves in a risk-free zone. They talk about an incremental approach that re-engineers the app to a modern app. They want to get to a safe harbor.”
The entire IBM i installed base is not going to remain committed to the platform. It’s unrealistic to think that. But a huge percentage is continuing to invest in that operating system and the Power Systems hardware. And a portion, a growing percentage, views .NET as a powerful tool to reach business goals. They don’t see it as threatening. They see the best of both worlds.