End of V5R3 Support, Not End of the World, for Virginia County
May 2, 2011 Dan Burger
There are 95 counties in the Commonwealth of Virginia. And based on a few phone calls I made last week, it seems fair to estimate about 75 of those local governments run their core business applications on what most people there would call the IBM AS/400. That includes some just-out-of-the-box iron as well as some machines that are getting a little long in the tooth. Clarke County has a six-year-old IBM iSeries 520. And that’s where this story begins.
A week ago, Clarke County’s Joint Administrative Services (JAS) committee met to contemplate, cogitate, and deliberate whether an upgrade of county’s high-mileage hardware and software systems. The cause for this is the approaching end of contract for hardware maintenance on the iSeries and the ERP software provided by BAI Municipal Software.
During the discussion things got a little out of hand and misinformation flooded the meeting room leading to references of looming hardware obsolescence and a potential risk to servicing the citizens of Clarke County. If you’ve witnessed the rampant dissemination of erroneous information during a public meeting, you know how this can easily happen.
“Our hardware support is about to expire,” explains Gordon Russell, the director of IT services for Clarke County. “It just happens to be time to buy new iSeries hardware and the software, too. The V5R3 we’re running is no longer supported by IBM. I can renew hardware support on the current iSeries 520 or I could buy a new machine. It’s my opinion we should just buy a new machine.”
His explanation came to me via phone. Those who attended the meeting or read about it in the local newspaper are likely to believe the county cheese is about to slip off its cracker.
A large portion of the credit for the doomsday reactionism came from a comment that the price of replacing the current system would top $1 million. Without the investment, there would surely be continued inefficiencies caused by outdated hardware and software.
Russell says the million dollar figure is misleading unless put into the proper context.
“That high-end number is a cost projection for five years into the future having fully integrated every aspect of our work processes into a single ERP system,” Russell says. “But if you step back from that and say we just want to take care of modernizing a system to deal with our core financials, general ledger, payroll, purchasing, tax and cashiering, and commission revenue, now we’re down to the couple of hundred thousand dollar range to take care of that. The $1 million dollar figure also assumes we would be bringing in new functionality. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with what we have now.”
What Clarke County has now is not a good situation though. Like many organizations in the public and private sector, there are silos of information and systems that do not work well with one another resulting in a large degree of frustration. Part of the problem, as Russell sees it, lies with an ERP vendor that only offers green-screen interfaces with its applications. The software, by the way, is well entrenched in most of the county governments throughout Virginia where AS/400, iSeries, System i, and IBM i environments are humming along without a lot of attention required.
According to Eric Morrow, a technical support and training specialist at BAI Municipal Software, the ERP company has 100 accounts in Virginia, and it normally sells its entire software package, but that’s not the case in Clarke County. Morrow believes some of the integration problems there would be solved by implementing BAI modules.
“If we could get onto a modern ERP system, we would be better off in the next 25-year framework,” Russell says. “We’ve been with the vendor since the 1980s, and they haven’t moved forward. I don’t think we need to be running green-screen applications anymore.”
Although Russell suggests buying a new Power Systems server running the IBM i operating system as the most practical way out of the upcoming expiration of hardware maintenance, he is not likely to become a member of iManifest or appear in any video productions supporting the platform.
“Ideally, I would prefer not to [buy a new Power Systems server], but in the practical realm of things we have two fundamental applications that only run on an iSeries and we are not about to migrate all of the county treasurer’s functions off the iSeries and onto a new software,” he points out.
“It would be nice to find an ERP system or a different general ledger and accounting system that runs on something other than an AS/400, because I run a dozen different servers and they are all Intel-based Windows or Linux servers. Dealing with the AS/400 in that mix is just kind of a pain. If I could dedicate myself to just being an IBM guy, I could be comfortable with a modern ERP system that ran on that platform. But I am spread too thin. We have a lot of other servers and platforms and applications.”
Until Russell took the Clarke County IT director job, he never knew there was such a thing as an AS/400. At that point he described his feelings about the server as having to “deal with it.”
Morrow points to BAI’s large user group community in Virginia, which trades information and best practices that result in getting more out of the software and hardware. Clarke County does not participate in the user group.
The best case scenario, which Russell doesn’t believe exists, would be a solution that could pull together the islands of different databases and many disparate systems into a centralized ERP environment that would modernize the county’s business processes and give it a platform to grow into.
On the plus side of buying a new Power 720 server to replace the county’s old iSeries, there will be a three-year warranty that will eliminate the approximately $5,000 per year hardware maintenance fee that is currently in place.
And although I’m not a proponent of prolonging a painful software situation, there’s nothing like a failed public sector business software implementation to rile folks up. I suspect Clarke County will decide to sidestep the migration option, at least for the near future. And it seems unlikely the system will come crashing down around them.