Insurer Chooses IBM i Database Re-Engineering Over Migration
March 26, 2018 Dan Burger
How do you want your database designed for the future and what problems have you created in the past that need to be fixed before you can think about the future? Old databases, originally designed for a business environment that has changed and continues to change, are not compatible. You may not be feeling any pain today and you may have no plans to change your business/IT alignment in the future, but much of the technology-driven business world is changing, which at some point will leave you alone on an island with a boat but no motor and no paddle.
The hands on the clock are turning. It’s your move.
Some executives are unable to visualize it. What they do see is risk, disruption, and money spent on something that hasn’t been a problem in the past. It’s a solution looking for a problem. The same could be said about an umbrella, a sea wall, or a vaccine. None of those things are worth anything until you really need them.
Visualization comes easier for some than others. At the database level, visionaries see improved data integrity, better performance and scalability, more flexible reporting options, easier integration with Web services and more applications, and faster development. They consider the potential risks and disruptions and minimize them.
Assura Group is a company that figured out how to get a database modernization project done. It’s business challenge was to extend its IBM i and Power Systems technology investments, enhance its use of data, and integrate with solutions on other platforms.
The health insurance company has 800 users simultaneously working on its systems without performance issues and with near-100 percent uptime – an advantage that precluded thoughts of leaving the platform. However, the dependence on specialized skills tied to the monolithic database environment dependent on data description specifications (DDS) and out of date code was a top concern as the people who have those skills are quickly reaching retirement age.
The legacy database was troublesome in other ways too. The database was not well documented and current processes used by all applications were handicapped by the lack of structure, making new integrations, with cloud and mobile as two examples, difficult.
As it planned for a database modernization, this $3.1 billion company based in Switzerland kept a careful eye on minimizing disruption to operations. From the beginning, it brought in Itheis, an IBM business partner that helped formulate a strategy for converting the IBM Db2 database to SQL without recompiling its programs.
To automate the conversion process, which otherwise would rely heavily on manual labor, excruciating puzzle-solving skills, and be painfully tedious and slow, the folks at Itheis recommended a tool called Xcase from Resolution Software.
“Xcase for i caught our eye as one of the most mature tools for automating the move to SQL,” recalls Laurent Crelier, lead architect and deputy director of the Assura IT department in a case study posted on the IBM i website. “We were impressed by the fact that it doesn’t add dependencies, and therefore complexity, to our systems. With more than 1,000 tables in our database, we worried our environment might be too complicated, but Itheis conducted a proof of concept exercise that proved it would work. It was an easy choice to outsource management of the modernization project to them.”
Guided by and working in conjunction with Itheis, Assura re-engineered the database in three releases that were developed, tested, staged and rolled into production. From start to finish, the project was completed in nine months. Planned downtime was limited to 15 hours and there was no impact on operations.
“Itheis helped us address some irregular behavior we encountered during the testing process, so once each modernization pack was rolled out into production, we preserved the exceptional performance our users are used to,” Crelier said in the case study. “By creating two instances of the same database, we had a safety net in case anything went wrong. Along the way, we eliminated many redundancies and integrity issues, and developed detailed documentation. We also discovered that Xcase for i is a highly effective management tool, so we still use it to maintain the database.”
Resolution Software CEO Elie Muyal, during an interview with IT Jungle in August 2016, described a project that must have been the Assura project, although Muyal was unable to identify the company at that time.
He described the company as considering a migration from Db2 to a different database, but noted that after risk, cost, and time comparisons, a decision was made to remain on IBM i and undertake a database modernization.
“The accumulated knowledge of 30 years was in the Db2 database and it was determined that evolution in a familiar environment that has new technology to offer was a better choice than drastic change and higher risk,” Muyal told IT Jungle. “They realized that Db2 performance would be better than the performance of either Oracle or SQL Server, but only if modern techniques such as SQL defined tables, identities, and time stamps were incorporated along with naming conventions that make sense and putting relationships in place–in other words, implementing best practices for a modern database.”
Database re-engineering is no small matter. But neither is a database migration. If you are weighing your options before making a database decision, a wise choice of reading material is a white paper written by Kent Milligan and Dave Hendrickson titled DDS and SQL – The Winning Combination for Db2 for i. It’s available here. There’s much to be found in the Related Stories section below as well.