Overdue Upgrades Perplex IBM i Shops
January 31, 2018 Dan Burger
When decision makers describe their IT environments by saying the more we know, the less we understand, there’s a problem that needs to be solved. Maybe you have the brains on staff to figure out how to put heat-resistant handles on this steaming pot. Maybe not. But the problem isn’t going to solve itself and those who don’t search for an answer become part of the problem.
This specific problem bubbles to the surface when organizations fall behind on unsupported versions of the operating system and unsupported software. It’s risky business and a gamble that has little chance of paying off. Is there a cheap and easy way out?
No, and it’s not going to get any cheaper or any easier by kicking the can down the road.
But there is a way out. People need to hear there are ways to work with vendors and newer technology with a favorable outcome. The best results come from tackling this in a systematic way.
Last week, I heard the story of a global retail business that acquired multiple companies as the organization pursued its business growth strategy throughout several years. Along with the acquisitions came a variety of IT systems–some with outdated and unsupported systems. Core businesses were being run on i5/OS V5R2, V5R3 and V5R4.
In some instances, the acquired companies had staff that still supported the system. In some cases, there were only power users, but no technical staff. Some of the software was custom and other software came from ERP vendors such as JD Edwards, MAPICs and EDI vendor Extol.
Integration into a single IT system was inevitable, but not exactly inviting.
David Contreras, a consultant with more than 20 years inside the IT departments of many businesses that depend on IBM midrange computers, was hired to help analyze the situation. His job was to strategize how to accomplish the multiple software upgrades and integrations with multiple other platforms. It was another consultant’s job to handle the OS upgrades.
There were 14 servers that could be consolidated. That meant dealing with system names, IP addresses, communication interfaces, user profiles and many other issues–finding systems that common elements that could be merged and when they don’t match, determine which policies and procedures should be the preferred way to unify the systems.
As he analyzed more than a dozen systems, Contreras found most had no “tribal knowledge,” a term used to describe insider knowledge of how the IT system and the overall business practices worked in an integrated environment. Documentation was poor or non-existent due to reasons such as programmers leaving the company, jobs being eliminated after acquisitions, and outsourcing.
“The big thing is whether you know the system,” Contreras said. “You may think you know the system, but it takes a granular analysis and ultimately documentation to really understand what the system is capable of providing. Many companies have no documentation of their systems or inventory of their software. And we found a lot of applications that were never being used.”
Some software was being supported and other software was long out of date. Contreras was trying to get old software to the supported release. Some software required as many as three separate upgrades. Data migrations and data mapping were also required in some instances. More than 30 vendors were involved in the upgrade process, which was designed for support at the IBM i 7.1 release, a realistic target when this project got under way more than three years ago. It was completed in 2017.
“I had to wrestle a bit with some of the vendors to get the technical data required for upgrades,” Contreras said. “In some cases, when software maintenance wasn’t current, the vendor required all conversations go through the sales department, which meant another level of negotiations to accomplish the upgrade.”
The upgrade process with software vendors can get ragged for several reasons. One cause and effect can occur when sales people don’t see immediate commissions because of the extended amount of time it takes a company to get to a supported version. Helping customers with upgrades that have immediate sales commission opportunities is the natural way to prioritize customers. The result is that sometimes the sales team doesn’t make you and your questions a high priority.
Contreras also found vendors that would not stand behind the upgrade process when it involved software that was unsupported for many years. In those instances, if something blows up, you need to figure it out without vendor assistance. We’ve also heard of vendors requiring a king’s ransom in penalty fees to make up for and even exceed the cost of the standard maintenance fees that would have been collected if the maintenance had always stayed current.
“Negotiation is important,” he said. “The vendor gets a revenue stream that was not expected, and the organization is off the hook for excessive penalty fees and licensing costs. People get treated fairly on both sides.”
You might assume that large enterprise companies are better at keeping current on software maintenance and documentation than small organizations, but it’s not necessarily so.
“I’ve worked with some of the biggest companies in a variety of industries, including financial institutions, and sometimes I wonder how these companies stay in business. They are screwed up,” Contreras said. “Another way of looking at this, though, is that this is one indicator of the strength and value of the IBM i system. It keeps going despite the lack of maintenance in many situations. People aren’t taking care of it, but it takes care of them.”
We plan to have additional conversations with David Contreras on overcoming overdue upgrades in future editions of The Four Hundred.