Application Modernization: An Interview with Trevor Perry

September 16, 2016


HelpSystems: In your own words, what do you see as application modernization?

Trevor Perry: It’s been a buzzword for about 20 years now. I’ve been in the application modernization business full-time for a dozen years or so and the concept continues to evolve—it always means something new depending on who the vendor is. For example, I’ve heard of some companies selling enterprise modernization, legacy modernization, infrastructure modernization, and even platform modernization—these are simply more buzzwords.

In my words, a modern application has a superior user experience. What would the application look like in terms of user experience, architecture, and coding languages if you built it from scratch today? Make your existing applications look like that—from user experience to both front and backend—and you have performed a modernization of your applications.


HS: Who or what industries have you seen pursuing application modernization initiatives? What are the indicators that compel businesses to make the change? How long is it taking?

TP: My role is a modernization strategist for Fresche Legacy/looksoftware. In my experience, the pursuit of application modernization is not specific to certain industries or even the size of the organization.

In the IBM i community, there are two groups sparking change: new blood in IT and business application end users. More developers and end users are becoming aware of the limitations of their applications, such as being unable to access the web, and they’re starting to ask what can be done about it.

More IBM i shops, programmers, and especially midrange user groups are also asking modernization experts like Paul Tuohy, Mike Pavlak, and me to present relevant topics such as RDi (Rational Developer for i), PHP, and other tools. The user groups are doing more in this space.

Additionally, there is more vendor noise around this space, touting how their legacy applications have been retooled, which goes beyond simply getting rid of the green screen.

How long is it taking? It varies. IBM i Access for the web is available immediately, but that’s not a modern application. That’s just putting an existing application into a browser. If you want to repurpose the application to integrate with other things and add a dashboard it may take one to three months. You might also need to reengineer the entire architecture to allow PHP and external user access via mobile for instance, which would take longer still.


HS: Our recent marketplace survey shows that application modernization was the number one priority for IBM i projects over the next five to 10 years, topping concerns over high availability and skills deletion on the platform. Are you surprised? Is our IBM i community of users and software vendors behind the curve? Are they/we catching up?

TP: I’ve been telling our community that if we don’t know what IBM i can do, then we don’t have a story to tell. The community is slowly catching on, but the IBM i legacy developer still tends to think that a new interface needs to work the same way as in green screen and can become a bottleneck.

Make sure that you understand the capability of the system and the developer tools available there. Don’t tell the business what the platform is, tell them their application is there and available to them.

When your business brings in a new developer out of school, be a partner and mentor to them. Teach them the business rules and help them cut through the red tape in the organization to deploy something completely new that the end user will accept.


HS: Why do we still see resistance to change, even when IBM and other vendors are doing more and more graphical and abandoning the green screen including and especially the development tools? Our survey shows that only 17 percent of respondents say their application is strictly graphical where 40 percent say they are green screen. Is it such that system administrators are more likely to use green screen while end users demand graphical user interfaces for their ERP, financial, and healthcare administration applications?

TP: The IBM i developers need to get past that feeling of feeling stupid about new development techniques. Do you still call it by an old brand (AS/400) or do you use the new brand (IBM i on Power)? Are you keeping up with technology improvements?

The issue is simple, human fear; we are creatures of habit. The idea that “I’ve been using this for 20 years and I’m genius with it” is very limiting.

Also, businesses don’t know the capability of the IBM i platform. If the business is still green screen, they may think they need to throw away the application and server and totally replace it, which you know would be a mistake.

Show the business that it can look like this—graphical and modern! People need to step up and show the capability. New users on the operations side might be more likely to use a GUI—and new users and administrators to the platform demand a graphical interface.


HS: What are the benefits of modernizing applications? Are your customers able to justify the cost of modernization? Are they seeing any ROI?

TP: It typically costs between $3,000 and $4,000 per person to train them in on an old green screen application. With just a graphical user interface, I’ve seen my customers have up to an 80 percent improvement in productivity—one business went from entering 80 orders per day with the old application to 500 orders per day after a three-week modernization project.

I recommend finding a small pilot project with a good ROI and spending a little money on the project. Test different technology and find the best approach that works for the team and the company. Explore the available tools, don’t just do screen scraping. Your development team will become well-rounded and overall be more flexible.

With modern applications, you’ll also benefit from superior user experience, agility in development, and reduced maintenance. The other benefit is that IBM i will be around for a longer time in your organization and the community at large.


HS: Who is leading this effort? Is it a top-down initiative or is the user community creating a demand?

TP: The first pain point in the majority of modernization initiatives is to get rid of the green screen. That usually comes from the user community, but it doesn’t have much leverage until somebody up in the business management says it’s time. However, if you have somebody strategic in the CIO position, it’s always IT leading it.

However, the cloud is taking IT out of the picture and the business side is taking over in some cases, for example a business intelligence tool that is being sent to the cloud through the business.

In some cases, the modernization demand might be more bottom-up, but IT needs to be proactive. Unfortunately, IT is usually a bit late to the party.


HS: How do you recommend an organization or the IBM i community at large be a catalyst for change?

TP: First, find out what your IBM i can do and promote the platform within your organization.

RPG programmers, learn the other supported and modern languages. Don’t be afraid of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Reinvent yourself as though you were only five years into your career. Go to COMMON, reach out to user groups, and keep an eye on the internet of things.

Look at what’s out there and what’s coming: iPads, the Apple Watch, and so on. A large percentage of modernization initiatives are for mobile applications—it’s probably one of the biggest things driving modernization these days.

Take the application you want to deliver to a mobile device and make it accessible and workable as a mobile application; don’t just scrape your application onto an iPad—it’s not designed that way, you’ll have to apply some different techniques…and that’s okay.

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