Thoroughly Modern: Proven Strategies For Innovating IT And IBM i In A Digital Age
June 12, 2023 Chris Koppe
Over the past 20 years I’ve worked with countless organizations on their IBM i modernization and transformation strategies, enabling them to harness the value derived from their mission-critical applications. Transforming outdated RPG, COBOL and CA 2E (SYNON) applications not only lowers costs and mitigates risks, but it also unlocks new capabilities to innovate and future-proof your business. How are today’s organizations focusing their modernization and transformation efforts? Where should you start?
What is Driving Innovation On IBM i?
It’s important to begin by examining IT’s role in innovation. Over my 35+ years in the industry, I’ve worked with dozens of IT organizations whose primary focus is day-to-day maintenance and small enhancements. Often, programmers are not considered thought leaders even though everyone benefits when IT departments are aware of the business, the competition and the market. This knowledge allows IT to bring ideas to the table that can make the business stronger, and we should push that responsibility deep into the organization.
What is driving innovation in your market? It could be other companies in your space, either existing or new digital natives. They could be engaging clients differently, expanding product lines or territories, using modern technologies or acquiring other companies.
Disruption could be another driver. Think about how Amazon impacted retail, how Airbnb impacted hotels, and how Uber impacted the taxi industry. We see disruptors enter almost every industry and don’t have the baggage that well-established, long-standing companies have. It’s true that disruptors are often less mature or robust, but that lack of baggage enables them to be nimble. Disruptors often approach their business from a digital perspective and put themselves in the client’s shoes by asking “What do clients want? How do they want to engage?” This allows them to imagine their engagement process from the ground up in a modern world, while many companies who run existing older applications on IBM i are trying to retrofit a new engagement process on top of a legacy system.
Cost optimization is another catalyst for innovation. How can we work better, smarter, faster, more efficiently? What do your clients need today? How can you make it quicker and easier for them to engage with your business? Are there new needs that could be met? Is someone else potentially looking at solving those needs?
The Current State Of IBM i Modernization
When a client tells me that they want to modernize their IBM i applications, I always ask what modernization means to them. Modernization can be as simple as updating a user interface or deploying a mobile application. It can also be broad sweeping – infrastructure/cloud hosting for better availability, uptime and scalability, modern technology ecosystems for portability, or AI and robotics for business process improvements.
Organizations often partner with Fresche because they want to improve agility and their ability to respond to changing demands in the market. Agility doesn’t come from code and code syntax – it comes from architecture. Most IBM i applications, whether they’re written in RPG or COBOL, are generally monolithic in architecture and have become brittle. Modern languages and technologies such as PHP, Java, Python and Node.JS use layered architecture and frameworks. This modern architecture provides structure and separates the presentation layer, business logic layer and data access layer. We’re also seeing an increasing number of organizations implement APIs and microservice architectures.
Modern architectures exist on IBM i and are a key factor in improving agility. For example, when making application changes within a layered or multi-tiered architecture, you change small service components that are used in the areas that they’re consumed from. This allows you to respond more quickly to business needs. DevOps and continuous integration deployment ecosystems are also agile development elements that accelerate change.
We’re also seeing a need for database modernization. A lot of our clients have 30-year-old systems with record level access architecture. SQL is a great technology that offers access to additional features in DB2. Database modernization can quicky improve data accessibility, data integrity, data quality, and data security.
Compliance, security, and encryption cannot be overlooked as a modernization driver as companies realize how critical it is to secure business operations, data governance and overall stewardship of IT assets and related intellectual property.
Finally, we often work with clients who need to offer flexible working environments and external access to systems and data. End users also want the applications to be visual and portable. As a result, graphical interfaces and mobile enablement are typically key components of the modernization journey.
Roadmapping Your Journey
In a recent educational series for IT leaders, I discussed how my team and I engage with clients during the strategy and roadmapping development stage. We recommend starting with your vision when building your IT strategy and modernization roadmap. How will the organization look five years from now? Is it going to grow organically? Will you target your competitors’ clients? Will you create new offerings and expand through a broader product portfolio? Will you acquire other companies?
Within that vision, what will IT look like? How should the systems respond to this evolution? What are the goals, objectives, methods, prioritization, and rationale? Once you’ve established the vision, you need to create strategies for getting there. The strategies will materialize in the mechanics of how – that’s the roadmap. So, the roadmaps lay out the journey, and you have milestones along the way to know that you’re achieving success on that journey.
Your implementation strategies, tactics, resources and skills are important but can also introduce constraints. IT departments don’t have unlimited budgets, talent, or resources so it’s important to be realistic. Are you going to be constrained by your current staff or do you need new skills? Is time a factor? Does the organization want to modernize within a couple of years? Additional constraints could include the organization’s appetite for investment, and whether the organization is okay with increasing operating expenses. Perhaps they’re happier with capital expenditure type projects. Knowing these factors can help you shape your roadmap in a way that delivers value incrementally and on a regular basis.
You also need to focus on creating a strong business case. What does the business get out of these efforts? Are you going to enable them to work smarter and save money? Are you going to enable new capabilities, new product lines, new innovations, new routes to market, new engagement models? This should be clearly outlined.
There are several ways that you can articulate business value. It could include improving time to market and agility. Your efforts could enable business growth. It could include competitive disruption (either responding quickly or being the disruptor). Business continuity and risk reduction is another value area. Compliance, be it regulatory or security compliance, these are other areas where you can communicate value for the organization.
Finally, you’ll need to define how you’re going to achieve your objectives. How much time and effort do you need? What are the tools that you need to accelerate this process? What are the skills and resources that you need to support the effort? Are you going to leverage internal people? Are we going to be bringing in consultants and experts?
Real-World Modernizations Roadmaps
We have a client who engaged Fresche for strategy and roadmap development because their application architecture couldn’t support the business’s growth objectives. We all know that RPG skills are becoming rarer, and the client viewed upcoming skillset shortages as a long-term sustainability problem.
The client had attempted several one-off modernization projects but none of them produced the result they needed. They finally realized that they needed something more strategic. At the time they had hundreds of bespoke databases, each for a different location, within their organization that they needed to consolidate. They wanted to stay on the IBM i while having a path to IT portability and sustainability for options like hosting applications in the cloud. They also had some technical issues with field expansion and data access. Based on this information, we collaboratively developed a roadmap with them where we prioritized database consolidation because it was restricting business growth.
From there, we focused on transformation, starting with a minimum viable product (MVP) approach to validating the strategy. That’s the smallest thing we can transform and deploy to production to confirm that it’s going to deliver the results and value expected. It’s important to note that this roadmap wasn’t just about using new technologies. There were several business processes that needed to be reassessed, and in some cases, reimagined. The resulting roadmap was a hybrid approach of preserving and transforming processes that work well and redesigning processes that no longer met the needs of the business.
Another client of ours had four developers that built and knew their system, but three of them left within a two-year period. The last person was expected to retire in a few years. A critical amount of knowledge walked out the door and the challenges in supporting the applications were becoming more dire.
Their primary modernization driver was de-risking the business, enabling sustainability, and addressing the knowledge management problem. So, how do we recapture knowledge about the system to support and maintain it? How do we evolve to a more supportable and sustainable ecosystem? The client’s corporate standard was Java except for the remaining RPG-based applications. We also determined that there was a need for cloud-ready, web-based applications as well as improved agility and development efficiency.
Both client examples examined the business priorities and were developed to align current systems with the client’s vision of their future ecosystem. Every modernization journey is unique. In some cases, you’ll see business drivers where business continuity is key, while enabling growth is the primary driver for another organization. Sometimes it’s about dealing with sustainability and skills and knowledge loss.
We’re always happy to help organizations with IT strategy, modernization roadmap development or setting priorities. I invite you to schedule a free modernization expert with our IT strategists and modernization experts. You can request it here.
I’m also hosting a webinar on Thursday, June 22, at 1 p.m. ET where I’ll discuss business process improvements, proven strategies and incremental modernization in more detail. You can register here.
Chris Koppe is SVP of Strategic Transformation at Fresche. Since joining Fresche in 1988, Chris has helped hundreds of companies develop and execute successful application management and modernization strategies across a variety of platforms, languages, databases, and technologies. This insight has allowed Chris to accumulate a wealth of best practice expertise that covers everything from strategy and planning to implementation to deployment and project governance for large-scale IBM i modernization projects.
This content is sponsored by Fresche Solutions.