The IT Balancing Act
May 1, 2023 Bill Langston
Medical research suggests that how well you can maintain your balance is a powerful predictor of your longevity. Balance is also a good indicator of longevity for your IBM i environment. The challenge is striking the right balance between “vertical” technology that helps your company work efficiently and accurately, and “horizontal” technology that reduces risk.
Over the past few years, unprecedented forces shifted IT priorities and may have knocked your company’s IBM i environment off balance.
Enabling IT Balance
IBM i exists because of how well it runs complex business applications and manages data. We take for granted that the Power servers it runs on can also run AIX and Linux. Recently, IBM even announced .NET support via Linux on Power Systems. Taken together, that’s a uniquely versatile foundation that enables companies to balance IT function, performance, and risk.
Powerful “One-Offs” and Tools
IT Jungle has previously written about the tendency of IBM i customers’ ERP systems to be vertical “one-off’s” not easily replaced with standardized packages. This is the result of IBM creating and repeatedly augmenting a platform that simplified application development for business-minded IT professionals. Thousands of companies took the opportunity to develop and modify software to operate in unique ways to differentiate themselves from others in competitive, high transaction volume, regulated, and often low margin industries.
Originally, RPG, COBOL, and CL did most of the work, but IBM i customers didn’t write everything themselves. They also invested significantly in third-party application development, automated operations, query and reporting, change management, form printing utilities, and other tools. By integrating those third-party tools and utilities with applications, IBM i customers could automate workflow, meet compliance requirements, analyze data, improve customer service, and more. They used IBM i for vertical advantage.
The Rise of “Horizontal Technology”
In-house IBM i application development and new third-party tool integration is less common today. IBM has worked to keep IBM i in line with broad software industry trends by modernizing RPG, supporting popular open-source languages, and offering new development applications. There is an active ecosystem supporting application modernization, but many IBM i customers have shifted their focus.
Blame it on the Internet, technological complexity, the maturity of ERP software, a skills shortage, the hybrid workforce, or Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) – but over time, the scales tipped in favor of investments in software and services related to security, high availability, disaster recovery, backup, data transfer, and network monitoring. Horizontal technology solutions took precedence.
Horizontal Technology – Ripe for Outsourcing
Interestingly, while horizontal technology solutions are essential and increasingly sophisticated, they can be performed by people who know very little about your industry, business goals, ERP software, or data. As a result, horizontal technology is easier to outsource to a Managed Service Provider (MSP) than business vertical technology like custom application development or analytics.
The best MSPs serving Power Systems customers employ specialists to support IBM i. That’s less true of larger cloud providers who sell infrastructure and software vendors licensing SaaS. Independent IBM Power MSPs will let you run all the IBM i applications and complementary tools you need. They can provide you with infrastructure and partitions for production, development, and test environments, but most do not have vertical technology skills.
The bottom line: You need horizontal technology, but one-off IBM i applications, unique operational processes, and data analysis require an investment in people with vertical skills and complementary tools.
Scientific Management – The Original Vertical Technology
ERP applications and the third-party solutions that complement them represent the digital descendants of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s principles of scientific management as well as Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s time and motion studies from more than a century ago.
Taylor and the Gilbreths developed their theories and recommendations based on insights drawn from closely observing how workers performed their jobs and the resulting outcomes. They gathered data in their pre-digital time to look for ways to improve processes, workflow, efficiency, and quality. Taylor and the Gilbreths were vertical technology thinkers. Preventing damage from fire and water might be the only horizontal technologies they considered.
Data – The Intersection of Horizontal and Vertical Technology
The connective tissue for every technology and business, data is where horizontal technology providers see an opportunity to transition into the vertical realm. Hardly a day goes by without a story about big data, data science, artificial intelligence (AI), NoSQL databases, and cloud analytics. Despite decades of ERP experience, managers continue to say the data they need is still difficult to access, hard to understand, and stale by the time they see it.
The ERP software vendors who would like to replace your one-off IBM i applications hear these complaints. That’s why they spend a lot of time talking about analytics during their webinars and demonstrations.
The potential of analytics is also an argument Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and their partners use to encourage companies to migrate data to their cloud-based data lakes and nonrelational databases. AI is going to change how work gets done, but when you hear that you need another database and platform, recognize that there are different types of data and analytics. Data lakes are designed to store unstructured data such as audio and video files, email, social media content, clickstream, and log data.
The importance of analyzing your unstructured data depends on your industry and marketplace. That’s for you to decide. On the other hand, ERP data on any platform is usually stored in a relational database. In an IBM i environment, it’s probably on premises or on one more dedicated LPARs in a MSP’s datacenter. Make sure your co-workers know IBM i is an actively supported operating system and Db2 on i is a highly scalable database that IBM continues to enhance. If you want people to believe you, find ways to improve their experience.
Timely data access, visualization, and operational analytics developed with integrated IBM i tools and application program interfaces (APIs) are arguably the easiest way to do that.
Reviving IBM i Software Development
IBM i remains a powerful vertical technology enabler running on an evolving long-term platform. You can very likely improve your one-off IBM i applications and squeeze yet more insight from your Db2 on i database. Despite concern over the graying of the first generation of IBM i specialists, free and low-cost education is widely available regionally and online from user groups and IBM i champions. People entering the IT workforce today are well versed in database architectures, SQL, analytics, and open source. Given some flexibility to work remotely, many older RPG and COBOL programmers welcome an opportunity to continue working while also teaching the next generation how to maintain and revitalize IBM i applications.
Industry analysts used to argue that IBM i didn’t offer the languages and tools being used on other platforms, but that limitation isn’t true today. Now, it’s very likely your company can do just about anything you need or want to do on IBM i with tools, solutions, and languages from ISVs, IBM, and the open-source community. This isn’t the time to treat your IBM i applications as finished projects or deprecate IBM i as a target for new applications and tools. You don’t need to recreate a 1990s IT department, but after an era with horizontal technology in the lead, it’s time to catch your balance.
Bill Langston is director of marketing at New Generation Software, Inc.
This content was sponsored by New Generation Software.
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