County Battles IBM i Server’s Legacy Image – And It’s a Problem
September 19, 2018 Alex Woodie
Like many municipalities, Grand Traverse County in Michigan relies on an IBM i server to run day-to-day operations. And like many municipalities, it’s encountering a number of challenges as it seeks to modernize core applications, including usability and security concerns. But it’s also battling widely held perceptions that the IBM i platform is old and washed up.
“We live in the computer age, but many of us live in a county that’s more Atari than PlayStation 4,” starts the September 8 editorial in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a local newspaper that has documented the county’s IT challenges over the years. “The AS/400 was pretty great in 1988. But then again, so was Pong.”
While the assessment may seem harsh – especially considering the county is actually running a Power Systems server equipped with Power 7 processor – there is a considerable backstory to the country’s IT travails that inform the county’s current dilemma regarding making a wholesale change to cloud or Windows platforms.
Grand Traverse County provides IT services for the county, which has a population of 92,000, as well as Traverse City under a support contract. The IBM i platform is the critical backbone to delivering those IT services, and powers the applications used on more than 800 PCs and laptops.
“Over the last three decades, IT administrators and programmer analysts created home-grown custom and modified applications to fit County operations,” the county writes in its Strategic Technology Plan, which was written by Flint, Michigan based Epic Technology Solutions and released in July 2017. “Almost every department in the county and city rely on the IBM system for day to day activities.”
The bulk of the county’s IBM i applications, including financials, budgeting, human resources, utility billing, and court records, were written in-house decades ago, according to the county’s plan. The county credits IBM with providing “a hardware path for operating this legacy software on newer iSeries/Power series RISC hardware.”
But sticking with the IBM hardware and “choosing not to convert to newer Windows/86x [sic] or cloud hosted applications and instead choosing the legacy applications has significant pitfalls,” the county states in its strategic document.
Those “pitfalls” include a “deficit for enterprise application investment,” namely the availability of Windows-based applications that “can provide many usability, security, support improvements,” as well as better collaboration, cross-application reporting, sharing of data, and overall usability.
Other factors favoring migration off the IBM i platform, the county asserts, include the difficulty in finding IT professionals with IBM i skills, which has led the county to outsource support to contractors that charge between $180 and $250 per hour; as well as IDC statistics that show the IBM RISC platform has lost most of its market share.
Serious Security Concerns
The IBM i applications are the source of “significant security concerns,” the county writes.
“The AS400 based applications that are running on the IBM Platform are in-house programmed over decades,” the county states in its strategic plan. “This results in many application revisions by multiple programmers with little or no oversight into best practices for security and usability. This lack of oversight creates what is referred to as spaghetti code, or code that is difficult to untangle and secure.”
The county has uncovered multiple security concerns through various audits and assessments over the years. “Concerns including vulnerabilities identified with the IBM AS400/iSeries system, networking configuration, HIPAA compliance, and even backups,” the county says in its plan. “Also, ransomware is an important concern for government IT operations that the County is not adequately protected against.”
The security concerns came to a head in 2016, when a database file residing on the IBM i server that contained budget data was “mysteriously deleted,” setting fiscal 2017 budget planning back four weeks, according to a story in The (Traverse) Ticker.
The county concluded that the deletion was triggered by someone or something within the organization, but it was unable to determine if it was a mistake or sabotage, Grand Traverse County Administrator Tom Menzel wrote in an email to county commissioners, according to The Ticker.
The fact that the database could go missing, without leaving a trace, spoke poorly of the county’s security and audit controls. Menzel reportedly said that it was the sign of “an organization that has not invested in its core technology . . . . And now we are paying the price for it,” according to The Ticker.
Earlier that year, the only two IT technicians who were familiar with Grand Traverse County’s IBM i platform, including a programmer and the IT director, quit their jobs, leaving nobody in the IT department who was familiar with the platform. There are other folks in the county’s IT department, but they’re “unfamiliar with DOS,” the news site says.
“It’s such a mess,” The Ticker quoted Menzel as saying. “Our systems are so archaic. We spent decades not investing in our infrastructure . . . and now it’s reached a crisis point. We’re paying for those past sins.”
57 IBM i Apps
Grand Traverse County has created a strategic IT plan, the centerpiece of which is to move applications off the IBM i platform in favor of Windows, in addition to other activities, like upgrading its network. The county recently approved a network upgrade that will cost nearly $500,000.
But the cost of migrating off the IBM i platform will be much higher than that. All told, the county, which has a $66 million budget for fiscal 2018, is seeking $6.4 million to overhaul its IT systems, with a good portion of that going to migrating off the IBM i.
According to the county’s strategic plan, new ERP software will cost $850,000, while migrating off the IBM i-based court management software will add another $300,000. With 57 applications residing on the IBM i, it’s likely the migration would be a multi-year, multi-million-dollar effort.
To be sure, there are many Grand Traverse Counties out there. In a world defined by limited budgets and many competing requirements, there is a lot of pressure to shift funding that would go towards maintaining IT resources into other more pressing needs. But eventually, as Grand Traverse County has found, those funding shifts will come back to haunt you.
Whether or not the county is better off modernizing its IBM i applications or migrating to a brand new platform with brand new applications is something the county will have to grapple with. These are not easy decisions, to be sure. It will likely come down to whether it’s worth recovering the custom business logic housed in those old IBM i applications, or if it’s less expensive to just rewrite it from scratch.
But one thing is for certain and that is that the platform is not the same as the applications that run on them. There is a huge difference between the applications that run on IBM i and the platform itself, but all too often, the two get thrown into the same bucket.
The reality is that today’s IBM i platform is just as capable of supporting new, modern, and secure applications as it is capable of supporting old and unsecure applications. If the county doesn’t spend the time and money to maintain the newer Windows or cloud applications, they will eventually deteriorate, just as its IBM i applications have become so brittle over the years.