There’s Something Happening Here
August 11, 2014 Dan Burger
What makes working worthwhile? A paycheck that puts a smile on your face and a work environment that doesn’t smother your personal life? How important is it to be working for a company with a progressive approach to IT with people who want to grow professionally and who want to be part of what drives business success?
If it was your responsibility to determine which technologies would be most useful to your business and how they fit in a budget and a skill set, could you lead those projects?
“There is a line in the job descriptions of all my employees,” says Roxanne Reynolds Lair, CIO at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, a high profile IBM i shop with a track record of IT driving business success. “That one line says simply, ‘You have to keep current.'”
When your business is education and your customers are predominantly young adults, keeping current is essentially keeping the doors open, the lights on, and the classrooms full. Technology thrives in an educational environment, but rather than dismissing this as not applicable to “the real business world” this should be considered the test track for what can be done elsewhere and what can be done on IBM i. And if you think education is not real business, where every competitive advantage is fought for, take a closer look at what we have here.
FIDM made the decision to transition its application development efforts from green screen to GUI in 2003. At that time a group of senior developers began learning Java for the purpose of creating the front end for browser-based RPG applications, while the backend development continued to be done with RPG.
“It was not a mandate, but all the RPG developers were given the choice to learn Java and PHP,” Lair says. “We have modernized our RPG development, too. We are in a continuous modernization process, but the skill that is most in demand in our shop today is front-end Java development. That’s where I have the biggest bottleneck with resources.”
Historically the college relied on a lot of custom development work, but that would change as Lair looked for better ways to maximize the IT staff. New skills would be part of the change and packaged software began taking the place of the custom work. Because financial software packages are very similar in what they offer, that was an early software package choice. Integration with the home grown business apps was a requirement.
Another packaged application that eased the development load on in-house staff combined the capabilities of a career center, job postings, and resume matching. The integration here did not come without a fight, however, even though the vendor promised it would be easy. A combined effort involving the vendor and FDIM staff led to an open source solution.
Tweaking packaged software and modernizing existing applications became part of the IT rejuvenation process.
Strategically the packaged software allowed staff resources to be applied elsewhere. Maximizing IT personnel, broadening skills, maximizing the organization’s investment in IBM i, aligning IT capabilities with business objectives, and proving business value has allowed FIDM to modernize without blowing up its budget.
“We don’t have deep pockets,” Lair says. “We do a lot by maximizing our existing budget and skills. I find ways to make things work–e-commerce, the portal, and things that set the framework for business. Innovation doesn’t have to mean rip and replace. Innovation can be incremental. You build on top of what you have. We do a lot of that.”
As an example of maximizing IT resources, Lair points to the use of WebSphere Portal, which is used to create three separate portals: one for students, one for employees, and one for the general public (the website at www.fidm.edu).
The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising runs on an IBM Power 770+ with 11 partitions. WebSphere Portal has its own partition and there are partitions for the database, content management, e-commerce, email, Domino, collaboration software, and a test environment are part of the partitioning scheme. The Power 770+ box has 24 cores, with 19 currently activated.
“I can activate cores when I need them and capacity on demand without bringing in more system administrators. I can maximize my staff–get development and upgrades done easily, for instance–because we know the hardware and software stack can continuously push out improvements and modernization without learning things over again on a new system,” Lair takes pleasure announcing as she implicates the costs involved with server farm management.
The FIDM system also includes a Capacity BackUp box for high availability and external storage purposes.
Downtime for backups, preventative maintenance, and for software upgrades is limited. The three-hour downtime in the middle of the night that was used to backup the website became an obstacle for the Institute’s global customer base.
“We decided to use PowerHA with Global Mirror and V7000 storage remote copy and flash copy, which cut backup time from three hours to zero. It’s on a single partition for now, but we are looking to add it to other partitions where the need exists.
A glimpse at the projects currently under way begins with the planned upgrade to the IBM i 7.2 operating system that became available in May. It is running in a test partition already. There is a rollout of Connections collaboration software that extends across multiple departments, Lair points out, needs evangelists in each department to make it a successful implementation and adoption.
Expanded analytic capabilities, pushed for by finance and marketing requirements for predictive analysis, are on the to-do list after finding OLAP-constrained DB2 Web Query unable to meet the needs of power users. Cognos Express has been chosen for this job.
Tivoli Security Identity and Access Assurance–a set of five IBM software products that administer, protect, and monitor user access to online applications and data–is also on the implementation list.
A database modernization plan has the green light as does a multi-year plan to achieve wall-to-wall wireless in all campus locations.
Lair says wireless capabilities are two-thirds complete. Authentication will take place through the portal and students will be limited to using a single device until network and bandwidth limitations are more fully explored. “We want to monitor and manage it,” she says. The prospect of allowing students to authenticate three devices seems reasonable according to Lair, who says BYOD policies and permissions need to be in place.
Mobile computing is a fast-growing, but still emerging, technology. Delivering mobile apps requires a close eye on security and efficiency for the development team. Authentication gets done through the portal and on the back end, not on the device.
When Roxanne Reynolds Lair is not managing the IT department at FIDM, you’ll find her encouraging IBM i shops to modernize and maximize their systems for competitive advantage. She frequently speaks on these topics at technical conferences like the IBMOCEAN user group conference, where she spoke in July. She also finds time to serve as a volunteer coordinator of the annual COMMON IT Executive Conference, which she has managed to do for 15 years.