Updating Your Modernization Mindset

IBM i (OS/400, i5/OS)
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IBM i modernization is tactical. We need to change that.

Strategy versus tactics. That old argument.

I was at COMMON Sweden’s annual conference last week presenting sessions on IBM i administration and modernization. It was very fitting to get a text from my 11-year-old son asking if I would grade his school essay about the video game Fortnite. In his paper, he argued that Fortnite allowed players to work together in teams and strategize how best to win the game. Just so you’re aware, Fortnite is a game in which players parachute into a game zone and fight until only one person or team is left standing.

My small amount of constructive criticism is that the overall strategy of the game is to be the last player standing. That’s what you want to achieve at the highest level. How you get to that point is completely tactical. The tactics help you facilitate the strategy.

When we talk about modernization from a general IT perspective, we tend to speak much more strategically. I found an IT modernization definition online and massaged it a little bit to be the following: “The continuous evolution of an organization's existing applications, with the goal of aligning IT with the organization's business strategies.” It’s fairly high level, straightforward, and to the point.

When we talk about modernization in the IBM i world, we very seldom talk strategically. I posed a question to Twitter, LinkedIn, and private Slack channels and got some interesting feedback. The question was, “How do you define IBM i modernization?”

Here are some of the responses:

  • Going to the cloud
  • Outsourcing development/administration
  • Rip/replace “legacy” systems with “modern” systems
  • Free-form RPG
  • Modular programming
  • Procedures
  • Prototypes
  • Using Linux partitions
  • UX, UI, web, mobile devices, open source
  • Using SQL instead of record-level access
  • Using tables and views rather than physical files and logical files
  • Moving away from a 5250 interface
  • Moving to a modern, single-page interface
  • Correctly using constraints, triggers, identity columns
  • Using RESTful services

Not bad. But every item on this list is entirely tactical. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s accurate.

I looked further.

One of the most ever downloaded Redbooks (if not the most) is called Modernizing IBM i Applications from the Database up to the User Interface and Everything in Between. While probably the most detailed and comprehensive book on modernization, it’s entirely tactical. Its sole purpose is to help you modernize every nook and cranny of an IBM i partition. It should be required reading for every IBM i professional. It’s a monster of a book that will help you with the tactics of modernization.

But not strategy.

A main struggle in our community has been having to justify the IBM i platform to executives and other decision-makers. Many customers have to justify upgrades, PTFs, and regular hardware refreshes, although these are standard infrastructure modernization practices. I believe this is the case because infrastructure is not seen as a part of a greater IT strategy in spite of IBM i being the central business information hub of the average technology infrastructure in our community.

You have to keep your assets current. Why? It’s simple.

Regular infrastructure maintenance ensures that your next maintenance event is easier, low risk, and low cost. I had to migrate a customer a couple of weeks ago to a cloud solution. It was their only option as they haven’t invested in their system since it was installed 12 years ago. No PTFs. No full-system save. No hardware maintenance. They didn’t view IBM i as part of their business strategy, although it ran the entire business. Their POWER5 had a hardware failure, and it would’ve cost more than the price of a new POWER9 just to replace the parts and get them back in business. Their tapes were ¼” so it took additional time to convert them in order to get them into the cloud solution. It would’ve been much less if the tapes were a more recent LTO version.

When we think about modernization, we seldom think about infrastructure. There are three very important dates coming in the near future: December 31, 2018; March 31, 2019; and September 30, 2019. These are dates when a good number of POWER5, POWER6, and POWER7 servers go out of service. And when I talk to customers about these dates, they’re almost always shocked, such as when I was recently talking to a major software vendor with hundreds of partitions on POWER6 and POWER7. These dates should be on the mind of anyone running those heritage systems.

So I started thinking about an IBM i modernization strategy. Something that is partly tactical. It has to be: It literally has a technology specified in the title. In our community, we’re bound by the commonality that we are all using the IBM i operating system. Here’s what I came up with:

“Leveraging the value proposition and continual growth of the IBM i operating system to both protect and future-proof existing business investments, facilitate overall business strategies, and ensure cost-effective IT development and operations.”

I’d love any suggestions to make it better. Maybe it’s worth thinking about. Maybe if we formalized the necessity and the importance of IBM i within our organizations then it would allow us to modernize our infrastructure on a regular basis. Maybe if we had a strategy built around IBM i we wouldn’t have to justify its existence to new CFOs and CEOs. Maybe if we had approval of this strategy by executives it would be easier to get internal approval to do some of the tactical items we all want to do to help facilitate it. Those tactical items help us down the road when we want a modern developer to read code that looks modern, helping to alleviate hiring problems because we don’t need someone with RPG III experience or someone who understands what the heck a database member is. It’s important. But none of it matters without a strategy.