Thoroughly Modern: Unlocking the Full Potential Of Your IBM i Applications
May 15, 2023 Greg Patterson
IBM i is the backbone of mission critical applications for over 120,000 customers worldwide in every conceivable industry and company size, particularly with companies ranging from $50 million to $1 billion in annual revenues and specializing in manufacturing, distribution, financial services, and healthcare. In other words, IBM i supports a significant share of the global economy.
Although the IBM i platform is very productive, there are many things we can do to modernize our applications and provide more value to the business. But this is easier said than done. Some of the biggest challenges that that we face relate to skills. It’s a lot harder to find RPG developers than it is to find somebody who knows Linux or open source tools. Thankfully, many of those technologies – programming languages, databases, frameworks, version control, CI/CD tools, and more – have been integrated into the platform.
Customer applications that I see every day on IBM i have often been around for 20 or 30 years, or longer. They work, but because they are often monolithic in nature, they are challenging to maintain and lack agility. Many of us have onboarded new people – either IT staff or end users – and when they see a green screen, their faces drop and eyebrows raise. We know that we can do amazing things with the platform, to show that IBM i is so much more than the ‘green screen’.
When I first started on IBM i in the early 2000s, it wasn’t as straightforward to integrate with other technologies and administrators were often unwilling to share access to the system. Now, there are secure methods to integrate with the platform and provide self-serve access to end-users, customers and partners.
Here are some of the challenges affecting IBM i shops – and the performance of their businesses – because the two are inexorably linked:
- Skill set shortages: A retiring workforce can leave the company in a vulnerable position with little expertise in older technology.
- Aging, brittle applications: It’s difficult to estimate the impact of changes to older applications, which hampers integration with other systems.
- Lack of agility: Responding to current business demands (mobile, web, cloud, business intelligence) is challenging when you are using older technology.
- Difficulty onboarding new employees: New hires typically have never worked with a green screen application. Training time increases and the look of the existing interface is often a hurdle to overcome.
- Limited data access: Most companies require a wider range of employees to have easy access to self-serve reporting.
- Inaccurate data: Older database technology does not have the now-standard functionality for data accuracy, integrity, cleansing, etc.
- Liability of unsupported technology: Unsupported technology can lead to regulatory compliance issues and make it difficult to pass government or client audits.
- Dated look and feel: Applications are often the public face of a company. Upper management, partners and customers react negatively to non-graphical interfaces.
You can quickly give any RPG, COBOL or CA 2E (SYNON) application a graphical interface. It doesn’t matter if it’s a homegrown or a third-party application, and what OS/400, i5/OS, or IBM i release it is. This is a good start but it isn’t always sufficient.
Some larger-scale transformation strategies include:
- Package Acquisition: This replacement strategy is ideal for commodity type applications or modules.
- Emulation: Rapidly lift-and-shift legacy applications and databases to another platform while retaining monolithic architectures and technologies.
- Automated Conversion: This delivers the highest degree of automation, but often at the expense of generated code quality and maintainability.
- Rewrite: The most expensive approach, ideal when the application no longer meets the requirements of the business. Highest execution risk.
- Tool-Assisted Rewrite: Automated discovery and extraction of business rules and other design artifacts to enhance a manual rewrite approach.
- Transformation Factory: Optimal degree of automation that generates maintainable code with an acceptable cost/risk profile.
Rewriting an application is typically the most expensive transformation approach. While this approach carries risks and often involves a longer timeline, there are valid business reasons why some applications are better suited for a rewrite. Perhaps you need to modernize smaller applications that are highly customized to the business and/or closely integrated with various systems. Or, you might be looking for an innovative solution that doesn’t exist and requires a custom solution.
There are ways to automatically discover and extract business rules and convert some of the legacy RPG or COBOL code to other languages such as Java. There are also different techniques available for moving your applications to other platforms, such as emulation software.
Automated conversion tools are available, too. Our conversion process has a discovery process at the beginning and analysis often finds that companies are only using about 60 percent of an application’s code base. This means that you don’t necessarily have to modernize the entire application. Fresche has what we call a “transformation factory.” It generates modern code that is easier to maintain and evolve. The new code can still run on the platform and, if necessary, off platform. These projects provide predictable results in a predictable timeframe.
That said, in most cases we encourage modernizing your applications and databases so you can meet your business goals while preserving your investment in IBM i. One of the things we encourage people to think about is that IBM i is more than application code and a database to feed it:
We regularly work with customers who are evaluating the future and wondering whether they are going to stay on the platform. Regardless of whether or not you stay on the platform, it’s important to remember that you will need to deal with more than the RPG, COBOL, or CA 2E (SYNON) code and the Db2 for i database. You will also need to consider the user interface and your strategy for making sure the modernized applications are maintainable going forward.
The key to the success of moving your IBM i applications forward is developing a strong business case with a fundamental understanding of how each of the project’s elements and concepts fit together, as well as how technology can be leveraged to fulfill that business case.
The best place to start is with an application portfolio assessment and disposition mapping, which might look something like this:
Modernizing the various applications above can seem daunting when you look at it as a whole. But you don’t have to do it all at once. Many clients going through a larger transformation will use one of our 5250 refacing products as a starting point to provide a modern interface in a short period of time. We can build out from there by developing new applications, and transforming existing code, database and user interface, depending on the clients’ needs.
Ultimately, the goal is to have modern applications that support the business in its current state and provide room to grow. These IBM i applications may still be running on premise or they might run in the cloud. The most important first step is developing your strategy and building the business case to sell the benefits of modernization internally. We often help clients build that business case by talking to executive and technical teams to understand the current state of their IT, then developing a roadmap for modernization.
It’s key to have these discovery conversations before we touch any code.
Finally, there’s so much more that IBM i shops can do to modernize their applications. Fresche’s full suite of solutions cover a broad spectrum – our goal is to offer products and services that IBM i shops need to get their applications and systems current and keep them there. A few examples include:
Assess and Plan:
- Application assessment and health check
- IT strategy and planning
- Modernization/transformation roadmap
Integrations and APIs:
- API development and implementation
- Custom legacy and/or X86 environments
- Integration for cloud and SaaS environments
Maintain and Support:
- Expert IBM i application and ERP support/helpdesk
- EDI, integration, skills for RPG, JDE, PRMS, BPCS/LX, MAPICS/XA
- Flexible staffing models with no minimums
Cloud and Managed Services:
- Remote infrastructure management, SysAdmin services
- Cloud hosting and migration (on-prem, hybrid or cloud)
- HA/DR, backup, archive solutions and OS upgrades
Enhance and Innovate:
- Custom application design and development
- Extending ERPs and homegrown applications
- Reporting and dashboard development
Modernize and Transform:
- RPG/CL program conversion to Java, PHP, and microservices
- Application and database modernization and transformation
- Automated code generation and/or manual rewrite
User Interface Development:
- New user/client/partner interface design and development
- Web and mobile application design and development
- Green screen modernization
Security and Compliance:
- Ransomware protection and exit point security
- Compliance, encryption, and auditing
- Multi-factor authentication (MFA), SIEM integration
So, reach out to us and explore digital ideas, discuss a project, or validate your strategy with our business and IT strategists. Get moving!
We have a team of experts who can help you build a portfolio-based strategy that is tailored to your business needs. I encourage you to get in touch to discuss your goals and how we can help. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with a strategist here.
Greg Patterson is an IBM i modernization specialist at Fresche Solutions. He has been in the IT field for two decades, the last dozen with Fresche. In addition to business development activities, Greg also coordinates pre-sales technical demonstrations and discussions, performs business analysis and is sometimes involved at the coding level for specific projects.
This content is sponsored by Fresche Solutions.
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