Advice For IBM i Shops: Balance The Old With The New
June 27, 2016 Dan Burger
Most C-level managers realize that progress is impossible without change. Yet making changes can be so damn difficult. Realizing that there has to be some changes made is a good start, but it’s taking that next step when companies actually achieve progress that leads to long-term success. And in the middle of it all is IT. How do companies with legacy IT systems change to keep up with progress?
“One of the considerations that I feel is important is longevity,” says Steven Wolk, chief technology officer at the appliance and electronics chain store PC Richard & Son. “We’re used to longevity because we run on IBM i.”
Engineering IT to last in an era when taking a nap means there will be new technologies being touted when you awake is a bit of a conundrum. It’s what keeps many companies sitting on the sidelines waiting for the right time to make a move. Wolk says companies that don’t think in terms of IT longevity are more likely to grab hold of technologies that won’t be around five years after they are implemented. But there can be a fine line between the benefit of longevity and the inefficiencies of legacy.
“From a technology perspective, we are big believers in staying modern and not too focused on the past,” Wolk says. “That means there’s nothing wrong with using green-screen applications where appropriate. We certainly have plenty of them. But they are productive and practical business interfaces. But we also do a lot with Web and mobile.”
“Some programs are not upgraded because it’s not cost effective in terms of time invested to do minor upgrades. If an application requires major changes, the RPG gets modernized to be more efficient. Like any shop we have programs that have not been touched in a long time. There’s no reason to change them. Decisions to modernize or build new applications are made on a case by case basis.”
The great majority of applications are developed internally by a staff of 25 developers. All of them code in RPG, which, along with DB2, is used for business rules. The development team has a variety of skills. Some have Web and mobile development capabilities, with PHP, HTML, XML, and JSON skills part of that skills package. Wolk says those technologies were chosen because they are considered industry standards and are expected to have the longevity he mentioned earlier.
“We cross train as much as possible so people learn new technologies,” Wolk says. “But we have to be cautious about using technology in strategic areas where lack of future support will come back and bite us.”
New development is done in free form RPG. Wolk says it’s more productive and the developers prefer it. Part of the development team uses the RDi graphical development tools, while others continue with the green-screen tools.
“We provide training and encouragement to do graphical development. Eventually all our developers will get there,” Wolk says.
Use It. Don’t Abuse It.
Too many executives miss the fact that they can use what they have to get what they want. Step one: Understand what you have. Executives that understand the IBM i platform have a big advantage over those who don’t. No matter how limited the options may seem, the untapped value may be just under the surface.
Outside the realm of application development, Wolk has a wellspring of IBM i rewards that add value without the added baggage of mind-numbing complexity. A favorite topic that he considers to be one of the most important and least used features of the IBM i operating system has been a feature since the pre-AS/400 era. There’s that combination of technology longevity and new-found efficiency again.
“I can’t imagine companies not making use of journaling. There are a lot of shops that are not journaling because they fear it will cause performance degradation. That was true 25 years ago, but not anymore.”
The list of benefits Wolk derives from journaling include recovery, application commitment control (making sure transactions are completed) and forensics (who did what, when and how). These are all seldom used capabilities that provide extra value to an IBM i system, but are mostly overlooked in practice and in comparisons with other systems.
To gain insights into commitment control, see Paul Tuohy’s article titled Looking for Commitment by following this link to a back issue of our Four Hundred Guru newsletter.
Wolk will be presenting a session on journaling (and sessions on several other topics) at the upcoming OCEAN Technical Conference in Orange County, California. He’s done sessions on journaling at COMMON as well.
“It’s really not a complicated topic. Learning anything new can seem complicated at first. When I first started using journaling 25 years ago, I did everything wrong. I made every mistake you can imagine. You just need someone to show you how. That’s why I started doing this presentation. It starts with the basics and leads to taking advantage of journals in practical situations,” he says.
Wolk wrote an article titled Journal Forensics 101, which was published in IT Jungle’s Four Hundred Guru newsletter dated March 6, 2013.
Another operating system feature that Wolk believes should get more attention is exit point solutions for security.
“Those that don’t use exit point security are probably exposing their data more than they realize. Their applications and their systems are secured for application-level access and they don’t realize how many ways there are to access data,” Wolk points out.
As a major retailer, PC Richard has PCI regulatory compliance to address.
“Every retailer has to deal with PCI, but PCI is just a baseline. It’s nothing more than a place to get started. You hear about all these retailers that get breached. Everyone one of them was PCI compliant. Anyone who says they are safe because they are PCI compliant is selling themselves short. We look at compliance and security as two different things. We keep going past compliance to make sure we are secure.”
Progress and change isn’t necessarily tied to new technologies. It’s more closely associated with new solutions. As we see many times over, technology gets rediscovered or rebranded to make what’s old new again. The underlying value is the key. What’s really important is the solution, not the technology. Solutions mark progress.