Speedware strikes deal to port AS/400 apps and data

Montreal-based IT modernization company Speedware Ltd. has struck a deal with a German company to bring migration software for IBM Corp.’s venerable AS/400 minicomputer to the North American market.

Sykora-ML Gmbh, headquartered in Baden-Baden, Germany, has largely been marketing its ML-iMPACT software in Germany and Italy to date, according to Garry Ciambella, director of product development for Speedware.

Unlike AS/400 emulators, the Sykora-ML offering actually takes RPG and command line code for the AS/400 – rechristened the iSeries in 2000 – compiles it and generates native .Net and Java code, Ciambella said.

“Your code is still your code,” he said. “It’s just in another language.” Developers of the original code would still be able to follow the logical structure of the code, he said.

A “wrapper” around the software provides a graphical user interface (including an option to run an old-school green screen interface), manages printing in the new environment and allows access to data in the AS/400’s built-in DB2 database. This allows some latitude for the customer in the migration process, Ciambella said.

“You’re not obliged to deal with the data migration at the same time as the application migration,” he said, though customers would typically migrate the data to an Oracle or SQL Server database.

But given the AS/400’s reputation for reliability, why would an enterprise want to migrate?

There’s an old saw about the AS/400: “If you want to do computing, use Unix. If you want to get work done, use an AS/400.” Charles King, principal analyst with research firm Pund-IT Inc., said there are tales of the minicomputer’s durability that verge on urban legend (an AS/400 was supposedly once completely submerged in water; the operators dried it out and turned it back on without a hitch.)

“The platform has a justified reputation for reliability and resiliency,” he said.

While there is churn on legacy products in terms of vendor support, application availability and the like, IBM has done a good job of keeping the platform up-to-date and keeping the developer community engaged, said King.

Kathy Gregson, program manager for mid-market with IBM Canada Ltd. in Burnaby, B.C., said the company runs a developer program for ISVs out of its Rochester, Minn., laboratory, ensuring developers have access to materials and expert advice.

“In the last two years, it has got a lot of focus,” Gregson said.

While the iSeries as a brand was discontinued last year, it hasn’t gone away, she said.

“I think that’s a misconception out there,” Gregson said. IBM’s iSeries and pSeries (an AIX- and Linux-based minicomputer) were rolled together into the IBM Power System, which runs AIX, Linux, Unix and IBMi — the evolution of the original OS/400 operating system.

“People have been talking about the death of the AS/400 for almost as long as they’ve been talking about the death of the mainframe,” King said. “I don’t think it’s on life support by any stretch.”

Still, given that the AS/400 debuted in 1988 and the market footprint of more recent platforms, qualified AS/400 developers may become harder to find. “There have been some concerns about that,” King said. IBM has countered with initiatives to bring people into the iSeries community, much as it has in the mainframe market, King said. But a young person contemplating a career in technology will “want to choose a platform with some staying power.”

Quite a bit of the return on investment from porting to on open standards platform is on the staff side, said Ciambella. A company doing internal development on the AS/400 might have “teens of RPG developers” on staff. They can be hard to come by, he said, and “they’re costly beasts.”

And, he said, market trends aren’t favouring the AS/400. Ciambella estimates there are 200,000 to 220,000 of the minicomputers left in the wild. That number is down from about 400,000 at the turn of the century. About 40 per cent are production servers in North America, another 40 per cent in production in Europe, with the remainder being development machines for independent software vendors, he said. About 8,000 vendors were associated with the platform in 2000; that number is now closer to 2,500, he said.

Meanwhile, budgets for modernization of the AS/400 are increasing, to $200 million today from $120 million in 2005, Ciambella said.

In terms of both acquisition price and total cost of ownership, open standards servers are considerably cheaper than for minicomputers. “Instruction for instruction, machines have gotten so much smaller and so much faster,” Ciambella said.

Christine McDowell, manager of strategic alliances for Speedware, said the software and migration service package is priced per line of code for production environments; ISVs pay by the server. Customers have the flexibility to take over some of the services aspect of the migration to lower the cost, she said.

McDowell doesn’t expect the continuing economic gloom to be a drag on migration sales. Because of the quick ROI and lower TCO, she said, “we expect companies to want to do this sooner rather than later.”

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