Did You Inherit an AS/400?

Posted by Bill Onion

February 27, 2015 | 1:27 PM

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iseries-main-blogCongratulations! You have been promoted to a new role within your organization, and along with the title you have new responsibilities and a new team. And, somehow along the way, you inherited an AS/400. You might be asking yourself, “What’s an AS/400?” or “Isn’t that an old hardware system with cranky developers?” or even “I thought that green screen system was dead.” There are still plenty of rumors out there – the AS/400 is a dinosaur (true), the talent pool is shrinking (true), and the AS/400 is a closed system and cannot integrate with anything else (true). However, it’s not as bad as it seems.

IBM i (and predecessors AS/400, iSeries, the Power i, etc.) has been around for decades (here’s a great timeline), and during its lifetime, it has been a workhorse for thousands of companies around the world. It sits quietly in the corner, without complaining too much, and just continues to run and process transactions. However, more and more, this system is being labeled obsolete by the new systems (and the younger generation). It has been accused of being a closed system and hard to integrate. Further, companies are starting to ask questions such as, “Where can we find talented RPG developers?” and “What schools are teaching RPG?” and “Who even writes in RPG anymore?“ Finally, the folks in the business community are tired of the green screen, and are pushing for a browser-based system.

These questions and many more are being asked in the boardroom and at the executive level. Since good answers are hard to find, the natural next step is to find some way (and money) to replace this system as fast as possible. However, while all those rumors about the AS/400 are true, the same cannot be said about IBM i. IBM i is as modern a system as there is in the marketplace. It is packed full of amazing tools for the development team to leverage the power of the Internet. And, it still has all of the very best features of the older AS/400 and iSeries architecture. Given this, an alternative approach for organizations is to upgrade and modernize the system instead of replacing it. A modernization project will let the system (and the organization) use the latest technical capabilities delivered by IBM.

First things first, let’s fix the name

First, the AS/400 does not exist anymore; that platform has been gone for a very long time. Neither does the eServer, nor the iSeries, nor OS/400. IBM has taken this system through several iterations and changes (that’s a long story for another time). In 2008, IBM delivered IBM i on Power System. Power Systems hardware is a new hardware platform that was the result of the merger of System i and System p. This was a larger merger than S/36 and S/38 into the AS/400. IBM i is simply an integrated operating system, database and middleware that runs on the IBM Power System hardware platform. 

Modernize, schmodernize – what does it even mean?

If you were to ask 20 people what it means to modernize an AS/400, you would get 20 different answers. That said, these are three of the common issues we hear about the “old AS/400:”

  1. Columnar format RPG is a pain
  2. I hate the green screen
  3. I can’t get to my data on the 400

Given these common complaints, many companies think the best approach is to replace IBM and the “old AS/400.” The lure of a new ERP (and related hardware) system can be tempting, and based on the system demos from the vendors, it can look like the new ERP systems can solve every business challenge. However, ripping it out because of perceieved weaknesses is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. There are many compelling business reasons keep the IBM i platform and make it a central part of your IT strategy.

First, the IT folks that have been supporting the existing software likely have been around for a long time. These folks are seasoned veterans and know your business inside and out. Changing the system and related technology probably means replacing these folks, which is a significant brain drain on the company. Second, an ERP replacement project is a very big project. There’s a reason that companies don’t do these very frequently. If done poorly, it can be a hard and painful process. Third, by focusing on smaller modernization projects, the company can also focus on other projects that deliver real business value –those that generate additional revenue, or decrease costs. Think eCommerce!

Here are some smaller modernization solutions that can change the way people view your system:

Software development: Making life more efficient for the development team

The first and easiest approach to updating the system is to update the tools used for software development. First, upgrade the operating system to use the latest tools and security capabilities (if the system is not on V7Rx – upgrade today). Next, make the jump to the latest version of RPG, which now supports free form (or Free Format) coding. This version is practically unrecognizable when compared to the legacy, columnar, version from the 1980s. This newest version looks very similar to any web-based development language (Java/PHP/C+), and is more developer-friendly. Another approach is to use IBM’s PC-based development environment for IBM i, called Rational Developer i (RDi). This toolset gives the RPG developer all of the tools available to the typical Java developer, including an amazing debugger tool and the ability to compile a program without being connected to the system.

Re-Facing: Putting a pretty face on the green screen 

There are many vendors competing in this space, and several are very good. In general, these systems replace the 5250 emulation software (Mocha, IBM Personal Communications, etc.), and replace it with a browser (IE, Chrome, etc). These systems use two basic approaches to accomplish this. One approach is to load a small piece of software on each client, where the code interprets the 5250 data stream and passes the info to the browser. This is very similar to an emulation approach. The second approach essentially builds HTML based on DDS. This is then served from a web server, and is accessed from the client with just a browser (no software download for the client). Both approaches are good, and each approach has advantages and disadvantages, and related cost justifications.

These are just two simple approaches to this topic. There are more options available and plenty of information on this topic, both from IBM and via web search.

Integration: Sharing the data locked inside IBM i 

While IBM i is an amazing processor of transactions, it seems that there still exists a preconceived notion that the data locked inside the system is difficult to access. This could not be more wrong. There are many methods of sharing inbound and outbound data with IBM i. One approach is to leverage IBM’s WebSphere MQ. This software tool coupled with XML documents provides an extremely secure and reliable point-to-point communication system. Another option is to create web services and expose business functions to the web. Yet another approach is to use a tool like Mule Enterprise Service Bus, which can read and write data directly to DB2 databases, or even call RPG/CLP programs. Again, each approach has its benefits, and the specific project needs will determine which is best for that particular scenario.

That sounds expensive, what is this going to cost?

That’s the million-dollar question!

There are many advantages to a modernization project, especially when compared to a full-system replacement project. Cost is certainly a big consideration and, frankly, a modernization project will be significantly less expensive. A modernization project allows the company to selectively update certain segments of the system, like a re-facing project, for example, without changing everything else. Also, these projects can be broken down into manageable sprints so that they can be accomplished without a huge distraction to the company. With a bit of planning, the company can focus on the most impactful items first without losing sight of the primary objective of generating revenue.

Don’t forget the reason the iSeries was selected in the first place

People and organizations enjoy looking at new and shiny software system and tools, and these new systems look even better when compared to the “old system” in place. It’s no wonder “the 400” is often viewed as an inferior system. The rumors about the AS/400 are true: the AS/400 is indeed dead – and has been for years. However, the same cannot be said about Power Systems and IBM i.

IBM i continues to be the best operating system on the planet, with a rock solid architecture still in place. This system just runs with an uptime of +99.9% and processes transactions faster than any other system around. The database, DB2, is simply amazing, as it automatically performs processes that other systems need a roomful of DBAs to accomplish.  

So, if you’ve inherited an AS/400, be sure you understand what you have before you assume it’s an old and outdated system. When given a fair look, IBM i is as sleek, sexy and modern as any system out there. IBM i integrates a trusted combination of the DB2 relational database, industry-leading security, standards-based Internet technology, and networking and storage management capabilities. These provide an excellent foundation for efficiently deploying your business applications and providing a software system for sharing your data and business logic across the organization.

Need More Information? Contact Us.

Topics: IBM i, RPG

About Bill Onion

Bill Onion is Managing Director of Briteskies, where he has a distinguished track record helping B2B and B2C companies integrate e-commerce solutions. His expertise in the eCommerce world includes Magento and WebSphere Commerce software systems and his enterprise software experience is focused on the Oracle/JD Edwards platform. Bill has many years of consulting experience in various industries, including distribution, warehousing, retail and manufacturing. Bill is an avid runner, is very involved with Scouts, and cannot help but to root for the Browns every fall.

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