The IBM i Community Adapts To The New Normal
March 30, 2020 Alex Woodie and Timothy Prickett Morgan
As we enter the third week of the unprecedented coronavirus lockdown that has shut down large swaths of our country, IBM i shops are adapting to the “new normal” along with everybody else. For essential employees in certain industries, that means working in an uncertain and potentially hazardous environment, while for the rest of us, it means telecommuting from home.
If you work in finance or insurance along the two coasts, chances are good your headquarters has been closed down and your colleagues sent home to work remotely from laptops, smartphones, and PCs. But if your company makes or moves stuff in the industrial heartland of the United States – home to the nation’s strategic paper-products supply – then many of your essential staff are likely trucking right through the coronavirus lockdown. (And if they’re actually in the trucking business, they’re likely enjoying the empty roads.)
Robert Swanson has a good vantage into COVID-19’s impact as a senior partner with CNX, the Chicago software firm that traditionally has served BPCS and PRMS shops and today develops tools for modern IBM i application development. According to Swanson, 75 percent of his contacts in manufacturing and distribution are running normally, but companies in the food and medical products business are actually busier than normal.
“But a common theme across the board with these companies now,” Swanson tells IT Jungle via email, “is that any employees who can possibly work from home – accounting, customer service, engineering, and so forth – are being actively encouraged, urged, or required to do so.”
The work-from-home order has spurred demand for all sorts of remote access tools. For IBM i shops that have already bought or developed Web-based interfaces to their core systems and applications, the change is not great. But for those shops that have not adapted to the modern Web world, new 5250 terminal emulators (preferably Web-based) will be required.
In response to the surge in demand for Web-based terminal emulators, multiple IBM i vendors have rolled out discounts and other offers for their emulators. That includes CNX and its Fusion5250 product, which it launched in May 2019 to allow users to access unmodified 5250 screens in the same framework they’re using to access modern IBM i applications developed with its Valence toolset.
“The noticeable uptick in inquiries on our Fusion5250 product this month, even before our COVID-19 announcement, leads me to conclude that prior to this work-from-home emergency, there were still large swaths of employees who never connected to their company servers while outside of the office,” Swanson continues. “I’d bet that with this precedent firmly implanted now, the concept of personnel working remotely will be far more common and accepted across many companies and job functions, even after all the coronavirus pandemonium has subsided.”
Rocket Software is also giving away licenses to its BlueZone Web product, which provides a Web browser-based emulator for accessing remote hosts through TN5250, TN3270, and VT (Unix) protocols. Any company can download the software and get full technical support from Rocket through October, says Chris Wey, the general manager of Rocket’s Power Systems Business Unit.
“We’re doing that because we really care about the health and safety of our customers,” Wey says. “So those customers who have that requirement to connect to those host systems and might attempt to be in the office, with BlueZone Web, they can do that from home today. That really aligns with our core values of empathy, humanity, trust, and love. Now more than ever, we think those core values are driving our decisions as a company.”
Rocket Software, which has nearly 1,500 employees around the world, sent its workers home early in the crises, says Rocket chief marketing officer Jeff Winter. The software company, which is headquartered near Boston, Massachusetts, is also working out arrangements with its clients in the hospitality and travel industries to help them cope with the dramatic slowdown in business.
“A number of those customers are coming to us asking for new payment terms, various types of flexibility,” Winter says. “Going back to our corporate values of empathy, humanity, trust, and love – and we also talk about never letting a customer down – we are working with those customers. We know some of those industries are really hard hit.”
Knowing that keeping IBM i systems resilient is of paramount importance to business in these trying times, high availability software maker Maxava is making its Monitor Mi8 product, which we reviewed here, available free of charge to customers using its Maxava HA clustering software so they can monitor and manage their machines remotely. The Monitor Mi8 service will be free to Maxava HA customers until the end of September and at that time, depending on how the coronavirus outbreak is going, the company will extend the offer. The freebie license will come with the basic IBM i and Maxava rules plugged in, but if customers want to use the multisystem-capable tool on other platforms or applications, they will have to pay to add these features to the rules engine at the heart of the Monitor Mi8 service. The base Monitor Mi8 service costs $300 per partition per month on a P05-class machine and the price scales up with the IBM i software tier, as most services do.
As for the effect that the cornonavirus outbreak is having on Maxava’s business, Allan Campbell, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said: “For us, at least for now, it is just business as usual. We know a lot of people are struggling out there, but we can all work from home and we are all spread out around the world. I’m Scottish, so as a company, we still don’t have any borrowing, and so we are a long way from the precipice. We are all going to get through this together.”
That is exactly the case. We sure as hell can’t get through it alone.
New Generation Software is trying to keep business as normal as possible during the viral pandemic. “We have made adjustments to enable most of our staff to work remotely and carry on as usual with development, technical support, sales, and marketing,” says Bill Langston, director of marketing for the IBM i business intelligence software provider based in Sacramento, California. Only a small number of NGS employees remain in the office, he says.
“NGS is an essential business because NGS supports other essential businesses such as pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, health care providers, banks, distributors of essential products, etc.,” Langston says. “Consequently, NGS does intend to continue business operations as usual, as much as possible, while observing COVID-19 preventative measures.”
ERP giant Infor has made changes too. According to CEO Kevin Samuelson, employees working “in affected areas” will be allowed to work remotely, and the company is even closing some offices temporarily. “Using technology/online tools, we plan to continue business as usual, progressing toward planned milestones and providing you with support,” Samuelson says in a letter posted to the New York City company’s website. “Our workforce is equipped with laptops, VPN access, and conferencing tools to be able to work from home as needed. We are committed to providing exceptional service to our customers.”
Raz-Lee Security has similarly sought to scale back on activities enough to protect customers while not endangering customer support. Shmuel Zailer, CEO of the security software firm, says phone, email, and Web meetings will continue as usual. The only thing that changes is that on-site meetings are replaced by virtual meetings.
As a security firm, Raz-Lee is considered an essential company. “Many of our customers are hospital chains, healthcare providers, banks, financial institutions, insurance companies, airport authorities, supermarkets, and other vital enterprises during a crisis,” Zailer writes in a note to IT Jungle. “Our support team, including pre/post sales, has been working even harder than usual to help all our customers through this.”
The Israeli company’s R&D department has shifted its focus to its anti-ransomware software, “to protect organizations against the activities of cybercriminals looking to take advantage of the global crisis,” Zailer adds. “Some ransomware crews have been kind enough to vow that they will not target medical organizations during the current pandemic. But that just means that everyone else is fair game.”
It is interesting to note that, as the novel coronavirus wreaks havoc on humans, IBM i servers just keep running, notes Nick Blamey, northern European director for ARCAD Software, which is based in France and has a US headquarters in Peterborough, New Hampshire. “You can only admire the stability, security, and resiliency of the platform,” he says. “It is typically only application changes which create risk, something that ARCAD solutions eliminate through automation.”
ARCAD’s customer base in the banking and insurance industries are ramping up protections to protect against fraud, Blamey says. Customers with call centers are coping with higher than normal volumes regarding transactions and payment cancellation, and online transactions are also up.
“In this time of shelter in place, we are seeing developers taking on tasks from other developers, working on source code which is not so familiar to them,” Blamey says. Teams that can work with Web-based code repositories and tools, such as Git, GitHub, and Jira, have a built-in advantage, he says.
Meanwhile, the IBM i event calendar continues to change rapidly. System i Developer has turned its RPG & DB2 Summit (previously scheduled for last week in Dallas, Texas) into a virtual event slated for April 9. The event will use be using Zoom technology to live stream the sessions directly to viewers. The company will send out Zoom details today (March 30) and will host a test of the Zoom system at 1 p.m. tomorrow (March 31).
iTech Solutions Group is also moving forward with its Virtual Days of IBM i Education on April 8 and 9. “We’re providing two full days of complimentary education to the IBM i community virtually,” iTech president Pete Massiello says.
Virtual Days of IBM i Education will presentations by iTech Solutions employees, including Massiello, Richie Palma, Lauri LeBlank, Steven McIver, and Steve Pitcher (click here for more info). The Danbury, Connecticut company is also holding several other webinars in the coming weeks.
COMMON meanwhile is still working to transition its POWERUp conference, which was scheduled to take place in three weeks in Atlanta, Georgia, to instead take place at the end of August in Tampa, Florida.
“The transition is going well,” COMMON president Larry Bolhuis tells IT Jungle. “We are still working through all the legal steps and contracting involved with cancelling one venue and expanding another, but we’ve been fortunate that Tampa will have the same footprint as what was planned for Atlanta – so we expect the same number of sessions, complementary events, and Expo in Tampa.”
People who registered for the Atlanta event will be automatically switched to the Tampa event, Bolhuis says. Emails have been sent out informing attendees of that, and any attendees who can’t make the Tampa event have the option to switch to the POWERUp 2021 event, slated for Columbus, Ohio, or they can cancel their registration and request a refund.
In the meantime, COMMON will be ramping up its virtual events, including previously scheduled webinars and webcasts. The group is also adding a Virtual Summit in early May that will give IBM i (and Power Systems) folks a chance to interact. “More details to be announced in a couple of weeks,” Bolhuis says. “But the goal is to have a large virtual conference, with approximately 150 sessions, discussions, and an Expo component.”