Modernize Your Apps, Leapfrog The Competition
April 23, 2018 Alex Woodie
The IBM i server has a well-deserved reputation for reliability and low cost. It also has a reputation for not being the most agile and cutting-edge platform on the market (which is also well-deserved). However, thanks to innovative modernization techniques, IBM i shops can get the benefits of innovation and perhaps leapfrog competitors who wasted resources buying middling tech along the way.
City Furniture faced this predicament recently. The South Florida chain of furniture stores wanted to extend into the showroom the same type of experience that customers first encountered while perusing the company’s website. The company figured that putting Apple iPads into its employees’ hands was a good start. But company leaders were worried that its IBM i architecture was incompatible with that bright iPad future.
“We built everything in-house, on an AS/400-type architecture,” said Steve Wilder, CFO and CIO of City Furniture, according to a well-written April 3 article in Diginomica by Jon Reed. “And so we’ve struggled with: How do we become more agile? How do we take advantage of new technology? We frankly can’t move quickly enough, because we’re tethered to a large amount of technical debt.”
The company, which owns and runs 15 City Furniture and 12 Ashley Furniture HomeStore showrooms in the area, runs its business on custom-built RPG programs that trace their way back to 1979, when City Furniture was just starting out as waterbed retailer, according to the Diginomica story. There were no packaged apps for waterbed retailers at the time (there still probably aren’t any) and so Waterbed City (as City Furniture was known back then) partnered with IBM to develop its own applications.
But to Wilder, the thought of trying to build flashy new iPad apps that front-end the old RPG business logic seemed like a tough go. Would City Furniture be better off modernizing the IBM i backend before trying to remake the computer experience with iPads?
Wilder sought an answer to this question from whence all IT knowledge flows: Gartner.
“Gartner convinced me you can leapfrog your competitors because you haven’t made huge investments already,” Wilder said, according to the Diginomica story. “And you have the opportunity through adopting APIs and web services, you can create these cutting edge, user-friendly edge applications.”
City Furniture worked with IBM to develop APIs that wrapped around the core RPG business logic, allowing the company to build its own iPad applications without worrying what backend server is doing the heavy lifting. Customers and employees can use the iPads to explore product details, such as size, dimensions, availability, and even to complete transactions and schedule deliveries. Employees and customers have “no idea” what’s actually powering the snazzy mobile apps, according to Wilder.
The company also added payment capabilities by using mobile point of sale (mPOS) card readers from Ingenico Group, thereby eliminating the need for employees and customers to walk through the massive showrooms to the central office to buy their new furniture.
“Our goal at City Furniture has always been to provide consumers with the best customer service and in-store experiences,” Wilder says in an Ingenico press release. “Their solutions allow us to accept different forms of payment from anywhere in the showroom, while offering a more engaging sales experience. This gives us a significant competitive advantage because not many retailers are using mobile payment systems, especially in furniture retail.”
City Furniture’s RPG programs may be unique, but there are many IBM i shops in the same boat. They’re looking at aging applications with green-screen interfaces and wondering if they can be brought forward into our modern digital world, or whether they should be sent to China for recycling.
These IBM i shops (who are more likely to call themselves iSeries or AS/400 shops) should look closely at what they have. They should consider the benefits of sticking with the IBM i on the one hand (low cost, proven reliability, and custom business logic) and weighing them against the costs (ugly 5250 screens, dwindling talent pool, fewer packaged apps).
Sticking with the IBM i server will not be the ideal decision in all cases. There are likely situations where the costs clearly outweigh the benefits. Perhaps the business logic on the server is woefully outdated, the spaghetti code refuses to straighten out, or the program that runs on it represents such a small part of the business that it can’t justify running a non-standard OS (like IBM i) on non-standard hardware (like Power Systems). Windows- and Linux-based Intel servers are cheaper upfront, developer resources are easier to find, and the cloud beckons with promises of standardized business processes.
But what’s clear from the City Furniture story is that the IBM i server and applications that run on it can still play a role in supporting the delivery of technological innovation. It may not be on the bleeding edge of computational invention anymore, although innovations like single-level storage and its Technology Independent Machine Interface (TIMI) were lightyears ahead of competing systems. But it’s not so outdated that it blocks all attempts to modernize around it.
Today’s IBM i server is a proven, rock-solid system that has survived nearly 30 years in a cutthroat business climate. The fact that it’s still relevant and adaptable to innovations like mobile computing and microservices shows that it will reward those who take the time to modernize the applications and databases than run on it.