COVID-19: A Great Time for Application Modernization
February 1, 2021 Alex Woodie
If your IT department has been waiting for the right time to start your digital transformation, then you’re in luck: With hundreds of millions of folks around the world stuck in their homes and largely limited to interacting via the Internet, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic lockdown represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build new digital channels to reach them.
COVID-19 is taking a brutal toll on our country in terms of lost lives and lost livelihoods. There’s no upside to that, no way to spin that into a positive. But for IBM i shops that, for whatever reason, have resisted the call to modernize legacy applications up to this point, then the silver lining of COVID-19 could be a renewed motivation to get moving.
It’s an opportunity that some organizations with older IBM i and mainframe applications are now taking, says Ed Airey, a senior product marketing director with Micro Focus.
“Every organization now needs to rethink their digital strategy, even if they thought they had a pretty good handle of where they were moving and how they’re going to engage in a digital landscape,” Airey says. “Nobody really anticipated this [COVID-19] in terms of what would happen and for how long. And there’s still quite a bit of uncertainty as to how long that will continue.”
Micro Focus has seen an uptick in interest among mainframe and IBM i shops during the lockdown, Airey says. The New Englander can’t put a hard number on it, but he says the number of conversations he’s having with these IBM host customers is going up.
“I think it also gives us a platform to engage with customers that are thinking about new ways of doing things,” Airey tells IT Jungle in a recent interview. “I think that’s what this has created. It’s created an opportunity for organizations to reservist their strategy around their application, around how they access those systems, but also how they provide services for customers.”
Micro Focus is ramping up efforts to get the word out to customer and prospects that it can be a partner in their application modernization and digital transformation initiatives. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to these types of projects, according to Airey, but there are some major themes that repeat themselves.
“We typically would take the conversion back to the company [and explore] what the IT leaders’ strategy is for that organization. Because it all starts there: What is their agenda for what they want to achieve for their business?” says Airey, who joined NetManage as an engineer in 2001, and has been with Micro Focus since it bought NetManage in 2008.
Typically, companies adopt modernization strategies that seek to take incremental steps in a piecemeal fashion. “No one wants to do everything immediately,” Airey says. “It’s usually a step-by-step approach based on some milestones, some goals and achievements they want to deliver back to the business, and help to put together a roadmap.”
For some organizations, digital transformation means adopting modern development techniques, such as DevOps. For other organizations, it could mean making applications more agile, such as by creating new Web or mobile user interfaces to replace 5250 or 3270 screens. For others, it’s about breaking up monolithic applications through the use of APIs and microservices. Moving applications into containers is another form of modernization, as is moving applications to the cloud.
“We don’t necessarily set the destination for organizations. We let them set those terms,” Airey says. “But we give them choices as to how and where they can start. Oftentimes, a customer will want to do more than one of these things. But they’ll probably have a priority and they’ll probably have something they want to do immediately. So we help them put these building blocks together, put this map together, so that they can have a strategy that start to deliver returns immediacy but then also pushes them down a path. That’s what digital transformation is. It’s a journey.”
For IBM i shops specifically – including the large number of RUMBA customers that use the company’s 5250 emulator – the focus is often on the legacy application itself. Micro Focus offers tools to help bring those green-screen applications into the 21st century. But the company also has solutions for migrating portions of IBM i applications into the cloud and running applications in a hybrid manner.
“If they have an application running on System i and they wanted to run a portion of that application on the cloud – well, certainly there are tools out there, and with expertise from Micro Focus and some of our SME partners, we can help them move that workload to the cloud if that’s strategic to them,” Airey says. “Or if they want to continue to run a majority of that system locally on System i or perhaps move only a portion or a module or two to the cloud and run it in a hybrid model, that’s very feasible as well. And in fact, that is becoming more common.”
Micro Focus develops COBOL compilers for mainframe shops. According to Airey, the company provides support for 50 different runtimes for COBOL code. Unfortunately, IBM i shops that develop in RPG don’t have those kinds of options, as IBM is the only company that develops RPG compilers, and it only supports its own Power Systems servers. Most of the tools that Airey has seen for re-platforming RPG code involve migration of the codebase to Java or C#.
While IBM i shops don’t have the same level of options for moving their appellations as mainframe shops do, that doesn’t mean the interest is not there among IBM i shops.
“We’re certainly seeing increased desire to have these discussions and an increased desire in organizations understanding their options,” he says. “There are inhibitors and there always will be. People don’t know what the economy will look like six months from how. There’s always a hesitancy around budget and how much we do now versus layer. But the willingness to engage certainly couldn’t be higher.”
Tech startups are hungry to disrupt established companies across all industries, and the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 is providing the means to achieve that end. The question is not whether established companies with established business models will start to feel the pain of increased competition, but when.
“There has to be an urgency to do something,” Airey says. “It has to be a problem that’s painful enough to solve, a necessity to solve, that’s going to deliver a good return.”