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IBM i and Meeting the Challenges of Modernization

March 22, 2021 | Technology trends

Claire Connor

Claire Connor
IBM i Solutions Architect

IBM i remains a vital platform for many businesses

In the world of technology, the launch of IBM i in 1988 feels like a lifetime ago. It is testament to its durability and continued importance that many organizations still rely on the platform to power business-critical applications. But as demand for digital transformation and modernization grows, IBM i is increasingly perceived as a legacy system that is being eclipsed by private and public cloud systems.

More often than not, this perception in unfounded. In reality, IBM i remains a vital platform for many businesses, running business-critical workloads and applications that helped found their organization and place in the market.

However, this isn’t to say that the modernization process for IBM i isn’t without its difficulties. There can be lots of spaghetti string knotted between IBM i and the rest of the IT organization, where a lack of a standardized approach makes the connectivity process complex. When modernizing, businesses need to look beyond aesthetics and tailor the process based on the unique needs of the organization.

Changing perceptions

The first point to address is the perception that IBM i is outdated. For sure, it’s been around for a long time. However, this doesn’t mean the platform hasn’t modernized and kept up with the times, particularly when businesses have invested around it.

The user interface can play a big role in fuelling this perception. Our research1 showed that 23.1% of IBM i engineers still use green screen or terminal emulation UX, a world away from the drag and drop interfaces that graduates and new starters are used to. An IT manager may pass an IBM i admin’s desk, see the green screen interface, and assume the platform is outdated. In reality, these older interfaces are still used for a reason. The admins and engineers know the platform inside out, and for them the older UX is the most efficient (and comfortable) way of getting the job done.

This isn’t to say more modern, graphical user interfaces (GUI) can’t still be used on IBM i. It’s a matter of what approach allows admins to be at their most productive. It can be a challenge for organizations to implement GUIs when faced with pushback from experienced staff who are comfortable in what they’ve been doing for years, especially when told it has a financial implication. However, this may perpetuate the perception of IBM i being out-of-date and will continue to drive away younger talent and creates a barrier to entry for businesses acquiring much needed new skills and personnel.

Addressing the skills gap

Whilst such perceptions around UX are primarily unfounded, they do allude to a more pertinent skills gap issue. We’ve seen teams being squeezed down over the years, with 11.5% of our survey respondents having more than five admins attached to the IBM i platform. Many of these experts are also approaching retirement age, with a shortage of appropriate talent ready to fill the gap. The level of expertise is growing smaller, whilst the workload remains much the same. This leaves admins and engineers with little time to invest in training newer recruits who may not be as familiar with the platform.

There are a couple of ways to address this. Firstly, you invest in the platform. Organizations can acknowledge the longevity of IBM i and its continued importance in running their business-critical applications and be resolute in dedicating time and funding towards bringing new starters up to speed. In order to give admins time to explore and implement more modern additions to the platform, organizations can engage with partners who can take on some of the day-to-day burden needed to keep the lights on. Such partnerships have the additional benefit of pooling experience, encouraging cross-training that addresses the skills gap without sacrificing day-to-day efficiency.

The challenge of modernization

Although modernization around the IBM i platform is certainly not impossible, it does carry its own set of challenges. The history of the platform, whilst testament to its longevity, can complicate the modernization process. Each time an addition has been made over the years, a lack of standardization creates a lot of spaghetti string between the IBM i application and the rest of the IT organization, with different bespoke code often used in each instance.

Today we try to standardize using API’s, allowing for external management across multiple platforms. But tackling this historic complexity, whilst maintaining functionality, can be a challenge for organizations. There are a number of ‘people processes’ to mitigate problems with the system and protect core business, which can result in slowing the pace of change and earning IBM i the label of ‘not agile’, even if that does not need to be the case. Balancing speed, stability and security can be tricky.

For some businesses, the best option may be to re-platform elsewhere. Undergoing such a migration whilst minimizing risk to a business is undoubtedly a challenge, and one which usually spans a number of years. This can be particularly challenging for organizations who have squeezed their teams over the years, as those necessary skilled resources have no additional bandwidth to take on a large and delicate project such as this. This can either lead to the stalling of such projects, or the engagement of specialist partners or consultancies.

As we have seen, IBM i is not the outdated legacy platform that some believe it to be. There are many reasons why it continues to be critical for organizations 30 years after its introduction. For businesses who use the platform and are anxious to undergo modernization, the key is to pick the right approach based on the unique circumstances and challenges of the organization.

To learn more about the opportunities of IBM i, click here.

1Research Paper IBM i: Meeting the challenges of modernising the platform formerly known as AS/400

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