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Old Code Meets New Ideas in Latest App Modernization Projects

The heat is on. For all the talk about IT integration and innovation, words that get casually tossed around as if saying them was doing something, there is progress being made in the area of application modernization.

By Dan Burger, ITJungle
Original article
Published: March 2010

The time for talk is turning into the time for action in the IBM AS/400 community, which IBM has renamed the iSeries, the System i, and now just IBM i. The lower case i, IBM used to be fond of saying, is for integration and innovation.

Integration and innovation don't come easy, despite all the promises that say they will. However, advancements in IT, specifically in the area of application modernization, have changed the landscape considerably in the past few years. Part of this has to do with software development, or what the vendors like to call solutions. Another major factor is that companies have done some testing, learned a few things about the modernization process, and are beginning to make real strategies for how it can be accomplished with goals and objectives that take into account entire enterprises rather than random quick fixes. Application modernization projects are meeting business challenges. This isn't a tidal wave of change, but the tide is changing. Considerable investments of time and money are being noticed. Integration is a trend, which is different than a fad. It fits the "must have" criteria, not the "nice to have" criteria. And integration is innovation.

The biggest reasons it has taken so long to gain some semblance of momentum for application modernization projects are attributable to the enormity of the integration puzzle and a wounded economy that kept a lid on investing.

Legacy applications are the focal point of IT modernization planning and business process management that includes consideration of areas such as new application development, Web apps, composite apps, and database modernization as part of the picture in a growing number of projects. In most instances, the quickest, easiest, and least expensive projects tend to be the launching pad. Some projects don't go any farther than the launching pad, however, and although some barriers to integration may have been eliminated, the problems of complexity, high maintenance, and limited functionality remain unsolved.

"A lot of people are dealing with old code and they have new ideas," says Eric Figura, the director of sales and marketing at Business Computer Design. "New Web application development is one topic. Compared to just a few years ago, we see more companies wanting to develop new apps that access new databases, but also tying that into existing code, existing logic."

Figura also noted an increased interest in accessing data on multiple platforms and a desire to break away from proprietary solutions. His best guess is that approximately 25 percent of the companies BCD talks with have a non-proprietary system as a goal.

Some folks would jump to the conclusion that companies with such a goal are pushing their old AS/400s out of second-story windows, but Figura refutes that notion.

"We see a lot of people making a push to keep applications on the i. We are doing proof of concepts to show why it's wise to stay on the platform," Figura says.

These are projects with a combination of new application development and modernization of selected existing applications. The selection process examines the inventory of applications, determining which are most critical and which are of low technical quality--meaning they under-perform and require high maintenance. Figura describes them as "big retrofit projects," and says they are often being undertaken by organizations that have some experience in the application modernization area. Their experiences, however, have not necessarily been good.

"In some cases they were just not getting where they wanted to go," he says. "They are frustrated."

Some of this is due, Figura says, to beginning the modernization process "in a hodge-podge fashion without a good structure. Some things being done on the network, some things being done on the i. They don't have a clear, cohesive plan. Some do, but some don't."

As much as anything, IBM i shops are looking for innovation to lead to integration, which then leads to more innovation. Application modernization projects have, in the past, had a tendency to splinter and lose focus. To achieve real success in the big picture of improved business processes requires excellent project management with an eye toward meeting objectives such as improved integration, increased functionality, better performance, reduced application maintenance, and a high degree of reliability and scalability.

If legacy applications didn't fall short in at least one or probably multiple categories, companies wouldn't have application modernization on their minds. But it's also true that in 99 percent of the situations, modernization is a better choice--a wiser investment--than replacing entire systems and starting from scratch. The existence of tired old applications is not automatically the death knell for a given platform, be it the IBM i or any other system that has been doing its job for 10 years or more.

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