Want to Modernize? Great! Now Get to Work
December 8, 2021 Alex Woodie
Application modernization has been one of the more popular topics through the course of 2021. After the initial scare of COVID-19 wore off and the pandemic wore on, many companies came to the conclusion that older applications were hobbling their ability to compete in an increasingly digital world. While it’s clear the desire for modernization in the cloud is building, what’s unclear is the extent to which that will translate into action at IBM i shops.
The COVID-19 pandemic and economic lockdowns rewarded two groups: companies that had largely digital business plans, and those who could run their applications in the public cloud. Not surprisingly, the mantra from the C-suite to the IT department over the past year and a half has been to accelerate digital transformation and accelerate the transition to the cloud.
Unfortunately, for the vast majority of IBM i shops, both of these mandates bring their own set of unique difficulties, at least compared to companies that run their core applications on industry-standard servers. While companies with large investments in Windows and Linux may or may not have the same level of technical debt associated with established applications as IBM i shops have, at least their path to the public cloud — and the bounty of compute and managed services that exist there — is much easier.
Hard figures are tough to come by, but the general perception is that a large percentage of IBM i shops are running “legacy” applications that that are wholly unsuited for the modern enterprise. The reality is that many of these applications continue to meet the needs of the organizations today, but may not necessarily meet their long-term business needs.
If we peek at the HelpSystems Marketplace Survey for 2021, we see that 76 percent of IBM i shops report running homegrown applications that were written in-house. That doesn’t necessarily mean than 24 percent of companies run strictly packaged applications, such as the ERP systems from Oracle JD Edwards, SAP Business Suite, and Infor that are so popular. It’s more likely that the average IBM i shop runs a mix of packaged applications and homegrown systems, with individual shops leaning more to one side or the other based on cultural factors and past decisions.
However, the modernization cookie doesn’t crumble along equitable lines, and understanding the difficulties that are inherent in one path or the other will be critical for companies to chart a cost-effective and achievable path forward. The world is rife with stories of failed ERP migrations, such as UK retailer Travis Perkins’ ill-conceived plan to consolidate multiple legacy systems onto a single cloud offering.
On the one hand, the topic of application modernization is getting more press. For example, just last week, Amazon Web Services unveiled a new service to help IBM mainframe customers move into its enormous cloud. AWS clearly has done its homework and offers a more in-depth (and expensive and time-consuming) full refactoring option with Java as a targeted runtime, as well as faster (and cheaper) “lift and shift” option that likely relies on some form of emulation.
AWS Mainframe Modernization is not dissimilar to the IBM i migration offering that Microsoft hatched with its partner Skytap in 2019 to get RPG applications converted into .NET to run in its Azure cloud. Both plans make extensive use of partners and systems integrators to help with the difficult work of understanding what the old code does, and replicating that with a newer language and runtime combination in the modern agile manner. (For a word on the dangers of using “body shops,” we recall Third Stage Consulting CEO Eric Kimberling’s warnings about letting the meter run unattended in these large ERP projects.)
However, the companies that rely predominantly on in-house technology will have a more difficult time moving forward with application modernization than those shops that have partnered with an ERP software company and have stayed current with its offerings (the “and” operator there is crucial, as heavily modified packaged applications share many of the same traits and problems that homegrown apps do).
The key for many IBM i shops, then, becomes figuring out a way to chart a path forward into the world of modern applications with the greatest chance of success and the least possible pain and expense. There are many hurdles to overcome along this journey, and we have covered that extensively here at IT Jungle in 2020 and 2021.
For example, Amy Anderson, a digital transformation architect with the IBM Rochester Lab, noted how far the worlds of fixed-format RPG code running in IBM i instances are from the favored destination on technology executives’ wish lists. “I often joke that every executive says they want to do containerized microservices in the cloud,” Anderson said during the June NAViGATE conference hosted by COMMON. “What does that mean? How do we get there from here? Those questions are not easily answered.”
Anderson’s advice echoes what we have heard from many IBM i experts over the years: In short, invest in a period of application discovery and analysis to fully understand what your monolithic codebase does. Only then are you ready to craft a plan to break the monolith apart into smaller chunks of more maintainable microservices.
That discovery component can be difficult, especially for shops where the primary developer has long since departed, and there is little documentation. This is a major source of technical debt, which is an affliction that IBM i shops are no stranger too.
“We’re seeing a lot of IT debt out there,” says Rich Ollari, an IBM i veteran who is one of the ringleaders of the new group of modernization experts who call themselves the Mod Squad. “They’re so far behind the curve.”
Ollari and his partner, Danny Duncan, are looking to help small and midsize IBM i shops that typically do not get the attention of the big consulting companies and SIs. In many cases, their clients’ existing utility billing system mostly works, but it lacks some specific new capability, and the code is so old that they’re afraid to touch it. The knee-jerk reaction from decision-makers is to just junk the old IBM system and start fresh, but that would often be a big mistake.
“What we’re cautioning people to do is, don’t get caught up in this nice new pretty little screen. Make sure it really does what you needed to do,” Duncan told IT Jungle. “That’s what we’re finding — that these heavily customized homegrown packages are in, in a lot of times, difficult to replace with a modern-day package.”
Overcoming technical debt is not easy. Chris Burns, a consultant for with Tri-Delta Resources, presented a compelling session on the dangers of technical debt during the recent POWERUp conference sponsored by COMMON. Burns advised IBM i shops how to avoid not getting into technical debt in the first place. But once they’re in debt, there are some ways out.
“Technical debt — it is a scourge and every business feels it. Some manage it better than others, but we all have it. It’s going to come due when you can at least expect it and can’t afford it,” Burns said. “It’s a people problem. It starts with people. It can also end with people. Technology plays a big role. Technology can enable it. But it starts with people.”
It is tempting to lean on technology during a modernization project. After all, the “t” in IT stands for technology. But that would be a mistake. In fact, according to Chris Koppe, a senior vice president at Fresche Solutions, you should go out of your way to ensure that technology is not leading the way.
“It’s critical that modernization doesn’t start with technology,” Koppe said during the POWERUp conference in October. “It doesn’t start with what kind of tools do I need to modernize. It starts with strategy, and strategy is really business strategy and IT strategy. We need to figure out what is it that’s happening at the business level and what does modernization do to support that.”
Koppe repeatedly emphasized the importance of figuring out where you want your business to go during his compelling POWERUp session. Yes, business applications and technology play important roles, he said, but it’s critical to maintain that separation between the technology and the underlying processes and how they impact the business itself.
“If you want to build a proper roadmap and a proper strategy, we need to think about how we are realigning our modernization plans and goals to our business strategy,” he said. “It starts by understanding our business strategy.”
These are exciting and scary times to be a business. COVID-19 continues to play out as a once-in-a-generation disruption event, and the shakeout is not done. It’s exposed technical debt and rewarded those with forward-looking plans. IBM i shops are unique in the sense that there is tremendous business value contained within the customized applications. But extracting that value and putting it on a modern footing for success without destroying the business is not simple. Those that do find a path will be well prepared to weather whatever the next storm happens to be.