Thoroughly Modern: Driving Your Synon Applications Forward
November 25, 2019 Chris Koppe
CA 2E, formerly known Synon and still called that by many, is a highly specialized programming language and a productive 4GL development environment. Used by a small number of IBM i shops, Synon has enabled organizations to rapidly create complex applications and systems that run the core of their business operations. These applications are often homegrown and serve as the backbone of business processing while providing organizations with differentiation against their competition.
Although Synon applications provide great value, they are inherently difficult to access and share information with the organization. In many cases, these operations ecosystems are 15 to 25 years old, with extensive knowledge and business rules buried within them. All of an application’s information is contained within the Synon model and that model is for the most part, inaccessible, except through the Synon interface.
As businesses push to move quicker in a digital environment and Synon resources grow scarce, continuing to run these applications as-is is risky. It’s critical to develop a strategy that not only mitigates the risks but one that preserves your investment and helps your organization thrive in an increasingly disruptive business environment.
Synon Challenges And Opportunities
The gravity of this situation has led many Synon organizations to question how long the environment and ecosystem will be sustainable for. The good news is that there are solutions available for any budget and size of organization.
Each organization’s environment is different and a wide variety of modernization options exist. There are low impact monetization options, like database modernization and user interface re-facing, and there are also more advanced transitioning options where you can move your Synon to modern languages.
No matter the path you choose, having a clear roadmap is critical. Developing a solid strategy for your Synon environment can help you maximize your investment in IT while boosting agility, reducing costs, addressing skills shortages and improving the maintainability of your applications.
Addressing Skills Shortages
Maintaining and evolving a Synon environment requires specialized programming skills that are diminishing over time and expensive to retain. Many of the IT leaders that I speak to are struggling to replace retiring programmers because traditional replacement resource pools are limited or in some cases non-existent.
This challenge is also tied to agility. Businesses want to approach their market differently, innovate where opportunities present, and catch up to their competition. . . . And they want it done quickly. As such, IT departments are facing increasing demand for changes to their applications. Delivering these enhancements depends on having adequate resources. Do you know when you will hit critical mass of falling short of resources?
Outsourcing can be a great resource management solution and there are vendors like Fresche Solutions that provide staff augmentation services and managed services. This gives organizations access to additional Synon developers as needed to support ongoing activities and initial modernization steps.
Automated analysis and documentation tools help new hires get up to speed and quickly grasp application functionality and flow and reduces the risk when they make changes.
Improving Access To Data
Another key challenge that we engage CA 2E Synon users for is access to data. Most Synon environments also manage the database through Synon. This results in a cryptic database with cryptic names for tables and columns, and information that is inaccessible to the business, consumers, reporting tools and web services.
A common scenario that I have encountered is undocumented business rules, application design and architecture knowledge. That information is often contained in the heads of the developers that created it. When those individuals leave the organization, their knowledge of the application and how it’s constructed, its design patterns and features – as well as the business rules that are embedded and where they came from – also leaves the organization.
There are tools such as X-Analysis to automatically document the design patterns, business processes and rules that are contained within your Synon applications. This exposes the information so anyone in the organization, whether they are a Synon developer or not, can access it.
Delivering A Modern UI
It’s common knowledge that Synon environments are also green-screen development environments, often with green screen user interfaces. As organizations push to move faster, they want modern interfaces that are accessible to partners and channels. Unfortunately, this is hampered by the Synon application ecosystem.
There are many options available for generating intuitive, graphical application interfaces that are in line with modern skill sets. Using a tool automates the process, often reducing turnaround time and costs. Leveraging your Synon applications with graphical interfaces is also a great way to take advantage of modern technologies (web, mobile, open source) and integrate with other systems.
More often we see compliance as a challenge for Synon shops and pretty much any organization that’s running mature systems. Compliance comes in a variety of different forms. Sometimes we see regulations like GDPR in Europe, where we have data privacy issues that affect data management. We also see increased concerns around security and access to data across a wide number of industries. Modernizing older code and replacing unsupported technologies makes it easier to reduce liability and pass government and client audits.
Improving Maintainability And Addressing Long-Term Support
The future of Synon is unclear as to whether or not the product will be deprecated at some point in time. There are also components in Synon’s runtime that use technologies that are on a best-effort support basis. This poses a potential business continuity risk for Synon applications.
Depending on your strategy, you might choose to transform your Synon applications to a more modern language. This can help address skill shortages by opening up the developer pool so you can maintain your applications going forward. Taking an automated approach to converting your environments offers minimal disruption to the business and improves agility because a modernized application portfolio makes it far easier to respond to evolving business needs and integrate with other systems.
Achieving Sustainability With A Solid Strategy
To start, I always recommend assessing the strategic value of your applications and how they contribute to your competitive differentiation. When we ask clients about their applications, we also ask them how the applications are different in their industry and, from a business process perspective, which of the applications ultimately support their capability to do things better than the competition.
More often than not, we find that a lot of the features that support differentiation are actually built into the application. For example, one of our clients is the only vendor in their space that can receive an order and ship in the same day. No one else in their market can do this because of the complexity involved of the orders and their sizes. We identified that any IT application involved in that order and fulfillment process was supportive of that differentiation and replacing any of it with a package, ran the risk of losing competitive differentiation for the organization.
That’s just one reason why it’s so important to assess the value of the application and how it can contribute to your differentiation. From there, we often partner with the organization to provide additional skills and capacity.
Depending on your vision of what you want to achieve, you may just be happy with just outsourcing some skills and keeping the status quo for a few more years. Or you may decide that it’s time to develop an exit strategy from Synon. In that case the question becomes: How do I modernize my applications and how do I transition it to something else?
Regardless of the strategy you choose, it’s important not to lose sight of the business value. The business side of the organization does not want to fund large IT initiatives unless they can deliver something meaningful and tangible to the business. It’s important to understand what the business gets out of this, aside from risk mitigation around old technology. There must be a more innovation-oriented opportunity that can be attached to this program, where the business would be excited to fund it.
My final recommendation is to engage a company like Fresche to help you achieve your Synon modernization objectives. Modernization often involves many moving parts including core applications, databases and files, as well as integration with other technologies and systems. We are IBM i experts and have extensive experience in developing roadmaps and executing successful transformation and modernization projects that are specific to each client.
I’m hosting an online session with my colleague, Richard Downey on Wednesday, December 11, at 1pm ET. We’ll do a deeper dive into some of the Synon challenges we’re seeing and discuss how you can address them. You can register here.
I’m also happy to hear from you if you have any questions or want to share any of your own experiences and strategies for your Synon applications. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This content is sponsored by Fresche Solutions.