Out with the old?

People always remember their first car. Whether it was new or used, it never failed to get you where you needed to go, whenever you needed to go there. No flash. No fancy options. Just a dependable vehicle that was good on gas.

That is until wear and tear made the repair bills pile up – then it was time to move on. IS managers may view their legacy systems the same way – reliable as they may be, there comes a time when you have to ask yourself if you’re still getting value.

The year 2000 problem has forced many IS shops to abandon their outdated applications, but not all in-house systems are necessarily date sensitive. Some organizations are learning that more than date compliancy can be gained when moving away from mainframes.

First, it is important to note that mainframes are far from dead. Analysts at Meta Group Inc. estimate that 70 per cent of the world’s corporate data is stored on mainframe systems.

Alan Freedman, a servers and workstations research manager at International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto, said a legacy migration is an expensive exercise for many large companies. Banks, major manufacturers and insurance companies have invested a lot of money in their big iron over the years, and have built up a knowledgeable staff and level of comfort, he said.

IBM’s S/390s still make up 65 per cent of all high-end server sales, according to IDC Canada. As well, revenues for legacy equipment manufacturers are expected to be stable or increase slightly over the next several years, as the switch from bipolar to CMOS processors lowers the cost of making mainframes.

But the story is quite different for smaller companies. “For a lot of companies, their new applications are on an open system, on Unix or NT or something like that, and as more and more of the applications are put on these platforms their legacy systems are just an added cost. They can get rid of that whole administrative system by buying larger Unix server systems,” Freedman said.

Guy Gauthier, senior manager of information systems with Montreal-based Lloyds Canada, a division of Lloyds of London, managed an IBM VSE mainframe which had been in place since 1984 and which performed a variety of insurance- and statistics-related tasks for Lloyds. Using a tool from UniKix Technologies, he is able to simulate the mainframe environment on a Unix platform, thereby helping to ease his 80 users away from VSE and onto IBM AIX.

For Gauthier, the issue of whether or not to migrate was easy. Unix applications abound, he said; applications for VSE do not.

“The main objective was to get on a more open platform, and this we have achieved. Also, we have reduced our production time by around 10 per cent. And…there’s a lot more [Unix development tools] in the market then you have under VSE.”

What’s typical about Lloyds of Canada is the choice of platform. According to IDC Canada, bigger companies that may have once purchased mainframe systems are buying primarily Unix servers or mid-range systems. And on the lower end, Windows NT server can even do the job of some legacy applications. So if companies turn from legacy systems, they can get more for less.

Resources are another factor. Getting support for mainframes is not as easy as it was even five years ago. And try getting a student fresh out of an IT program to get excited about taking care of a 20-year-old IBM mainframe.

“It was getting harder to find people, and we know that they weren’t in our long-term picture,” said Chris Fisher, general manager of information systems at the City of Regina, which is in the final stages of migrating away from a mainframe environment to Unix servers.

“So we weren’t keen on training new people…and if we saddled them with supporting the payroll system (on the mainframe), they know that they’d have to keep working with this old system until we retired it. So it didn’t give them a rosy future,”

Making the decision to move is the easiest part. It’s leaving the centralized world of green screens and character-driven data that can create problems, experts say

First is data transformation issues. Mainframe data may require extensive clean-up in preparation for on-going interface integration. Many companies may not even know how their legacy databases are constructed, let alone what’s inside them. And typically the legacy code has been extensively patched over the years to account for bad or changed data.

Second, users may not like the new, and usually more complex, environment. And IS shops may not be prepared for the higher level of support demanded in a client/server world.

Ted Naito, MIS manager at Western Star Trucks Inc. in Kelowna, B.C., experienced the client/server challenge first hand as he helped move an estimated 500 users at Western Star’s spare parts division off of an HP 3000 mainframe and onto a Baan Co. ERP system running on NT.

“The challenge is the individual desktop that we have to manage that we didn’t have to manage in the other environment,” he said. Using dumb terminals very little can go wrong with clients, but in a distributed environment drivers, configuration problems and user errors can cause problems.

Making the jump from mainframe to client/server may require radically new ways of thinking for an IS shop, but it still doesn’t take into account the rapidly encroaching trend of Web-enabled applications.

Experts say that those considering a non-Y2K related migration away from legacy systems should ask themselves if they intend to move any of their new systems to the Web.

Mainframes store a lot of disparate data. Re-hosting that data on a Web server in most cases may not be feasible nor desirable, said Don Thompson, partner, responsible for customer relationship consulting services for Deloitte Consulting in Toronto. That’s why he advises IS shops to proceed with caution when it comes to legacy migrations. In many cases, with a bit of work, the mainframe can act as an effective Web server, eliminating the need to move to a client/server environment, which Thompson believes should be considered a “last resort.

“With the appropriate security and firewalls, you’re going to interface your Web server back to your legacy system to grab the information that you need. That’s the most effective and most efficient way to do it. And it’s also the most rapid way to get your applications up and running.”

Michael Conchatre, manager of information systems at Ducks Unlimited Canada in Oak Hammock Marsh, Man., came to a similar conclusion several years ago when he decided to keep his IBM S/390 ESO running VM/ESA, with data stored in a Adabas database, even though DU, with its 8,000 volunteers in 40 offices, was moving to a Web environment.

He installed an EnterpriseWeb/VM server from Beyond Software Inc. to sit on the mainframe and field browser queries from DU’s intranet and Internet site. The server uses CGI script to initiate Natural routines which gather Adabas data and convert it to HTML, which is sent to the user’s browser. Although dealing with the Web’s stateless environment was a challenge, Conchatre said he wouldn’t have done it any other way.

“I think we all like it better. It’s a little different to wrap you head around, but once you’ve done that it’s actually better because it makes you write everything as virtually little stand-alone objects.”

Even Fisher said the City of Regina would like to put its non-core applications, everything from golf tee-off times to swim class registration, on the Web. Therefore, he’s not going “whole hog” with client/sever until the issue is resolved. “For sure we’re moving from the mainframe onto the Unix box. But we don’t know how much client/server will be replaced with Web technology in the next year or so,” he said.

Ducks Unlimited and the City of Regina aren’t alone; IDC predicts that worldwide Web-to-host browser license shipments, estimated at 67,000 in 1996, will top 17 million by 2002. And experts say slapping a front end on a mainframe can save companies money.

But for those IS shops with more modest goals, making the move away from legacy environments to more open platforms has been a positive move. Hugh Kelly recalls the “bunch of non-functionality” he had to cope with in his old MVS legacy system, called Pinstripe, before he moved to a client/server system to facilitate the adoption of Oracle Financials software. Kelly, vice-president of information technology with the Liquor Control Board of Ontario in Toronto, said he’d be hard pressed to find any advantages to the old system.

“I think if you were to ask some of our clients, they would say yes, but I think that’s more of a familiarity of usage thing than really doing it better,” he said. “When one looked at the on-going cost of maintaining that old application and trying to put new functionality into it…this will be a less expensive [option] over the total product lifecycle.”