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Modernize Infrastructure and Development Languages to Bridge the IT Skills Gap

IBMers Terry Thomas and Nicki Anzivina describe how training and technology advancements can help organizations modernize.

Illustration of a blue cube against a white textured background.

Image by Ben Fearnley

Modernization isn’t just a “one and done” task in the world of IT. The concept encompasses thoughtfully planning infrastructure, updating programming, reducing risk, and embracing new concepts and technologies to fuel business growth. IBM Power Systems* clients are well positioned to accommodate new technologies, bridge skill gaps and stay ahead of the competition.

“Modernization is an essential goal for organizations with legacy infrastructure and applications,” says Terry Thomas Jr., director, Cognitive Systems Enterprise Offering Management, IBM. “Organizations need to take a holistic approach to address skills gaps, resolve legacy architecture challenges and quickly meet changing market needs." Modernization allows organizations to hasten product development, provide improved offerings and performance, boost dependability and fortify security.

AI and cloud are two must have technologies for business that allow organizations to manage numerous data sources. As a result, businesses can make better informed decisions and provide customers with services and products they need. 

To benefit from AI and cloud, “organizations need to have a strategic, streamlined and simple modernization strategy to help close skill gaps in the organization,” says Thomas. The strategy must: 

 

  • Deliver new infrastructures in minutes instead of weeks or months
  • Increase the productivity of internal IT
  • Provide solutions that are simple to deploy, manage and scale, and that can be operated by IT generalists
  • Enable flexible consumption so IT services can be consumed only when needed and paid for only when used
  • Provide continuous innovation, including new features and capabilities added without disruption or maintenance windows
  • Deliver seamless integration into new AI technology and offerings
  • Provide a one-stop shop for all maintenance and warranty issues

 

Closing the Gaps

IBM Power Systems offerings enable clients to close the gaps with AI and cloud offerings. Both IBM i and AIX* on POWER9* are available in several leading public clouds, including the IBM Cloud*. Clients can choose new Enterprise Cloud Editions that provide an all-inclusive bundle for hybrid cloud implementation on premises. IBM Cloud Management Console and Enterprise Pools 2.0 let clients pay only for the services they need. Clients can run new workloads alongside AIX and IBM i partitions, including SAP HANA and H20 AI. They can also connect Oracle or Db2* databases to Watson* and use Python-based machine learning packages as part of the AIX open-source toolbox. 

Training is critical to close the skills gap. The time it takes to teach skills has increased radically, according to a recent IBM Business Value Study, “The Enterprise Guide to Closing the Skills Gap”. This is due, in part, to rapidly changing technology that's difficult to keep up on and requires highly technical skills. In 2014, it took an average of three days to close a capability gap through training; in 2018, it took 36 days.

IBM has a wealth of options that clients can access for training. IBM Garage* enables clients to work shoulder-to-shoulder with IBM professionals to understand how to use IBM Cloud and microservices to expand and modernize their environments. IBM Systems Lab Services assists clients with planning, designing and implementing IT infrastructure. 

Training Students on the Power Systems Platform 

Training efforts include educating college and university students through the IBM Power Systems Academic Initiative (PSAI). “PSAI’s objective is to provide market-ready skills on IBM i and AIX,” says Nicki Anzivina, program manager, PSAI. This includes open-source and modernization skills. “If we modernize, we can meet the needs of the current open-source environment and produce students who have a preference for Power Systems when they graduate,” she notes.

Currently, PSAI offers a wide range of courses, including four on cloud, 20 on IBM i, 14 on Linux*, 18 on AIX, five on Zend PHP, five on Red Hat and one SUSE class. The Zend and PHP classes offer students a current way to use open source in an integrated development environment. In addition to the courses, PSAI offers its Academic Cloud, a modernized environment that participating colleges and universities can access for their needs. “If a college needs its students to work on IBM i with Java*, Python and open-source materials, we can set that up for them,” Anzivina points out. 

Curriculum changes are ongoing. In 2019, several AIX courses were updated for content and the look and feel of the system. In 2020, the AIX curriculum is adding a course on advanced PowerVM* virtualization and performance.

Updates planned for 2020 are based on extensive research done in 2019 on users’ needs. “The IBM i community was very vocal about their desire for more modernization in the courses. They also wanted a more open-source approach,” Anzivina says. 

To satisfy these requests in 2020, PSAI is expanding its open-source offerings for AIX and IBM i. For AIX, PSAI is working to update its cloud offering to handle more advanced command sets for open source. Turning to IBM i, PSAI is updating green-screen courses to be more adaptable to open source, and creating a series of how-to videos on IBM i for YouTube. A PSAI newsletter focusing on IBM i is in the works as well.

PSAI works closely with the colleges, universities and IBM Business Partners to structure curriculums and create programs. A recent three-week course in Italy provided 25 attendees with IBM i and open-source instruction and networking (see “IBM i Academy Builds Modernization and Open-Source Skills,” below). 

IBM i Academy Builds Modernization and Open-Source Skills

In November 2019, a group of 15 IT employees and 10 college students in Italy attended a three-week intensive seminar held at IBM near Milan to learn about IBM i, modernization and open source. 

Called the IBM i Academy, the project was a joint venture of IBM and Faq400, a user group that works with IBM Business Partners, ISVs and colleges. Distributors Computer Gross and Tech Data also participated in the project. The curriculum was based on PSAI’s courses. 

The attendees spent the first week learning about the Power Systems* platform and IBM i. In the second and third weeks, they were introduced to SQL, Rational* Developer for i, free form RPG and Integrated Language Environment concepts. Attendees were tested on their knowledge gained during the more than 100 hours of course work and received an IBM certificate at the end of the course.

IBM i Academy attendees also participated in a one-day workshop on Nov. 21 called “Hands-on Open Source and Modernization” presented by Faq400. The event explored application modernization, open source and IBM i’s versatility.

“The IBM i Academy was successful in introducing attendees to the technical aspects as well as providing networking opportunities with IT professionals and gaining a better understanding of the IT job market,” says Hildegard Gerhardy, Academic Initiative project leader for Europe.

Thanks to the positive feedback, PSAI plans to hold IBM i Academy seminars in other European countries this year. 

“Organizations need to take a holistic approach to address skills gaps, resolve legacy architecture challenges and quickly meet changing market needs.”
—Terry Thomas Jr., director, Cognitive Systems Enterprise Offering Management, IBM

A 2-Way Street

Modernization becomes a two-way street for IBM i developers creating business applications. Advances in programming languages like COBOL and free form RPG give greater flexibility for modular code development. Unfortunately, experienced developers sometimes haven’t kept up with the latest changes in these languages. Newer developers may arrive at work with knowledge of languages like Python and Java, but not RPG. In a savvy IT shop, the more experienced developers can teach the newer ones how to work with IBM i, RPG and COBOL and the newer developers can show the older ones where other languages have strengths and about technologies such as web and mobile. 

Both old and new employees profit from a collaborative arrangement. “Some newbies can jump in with freeform RPG and work effectively with that code,” says Susan Gantner, partner with consulting firm Partner400. “But experienced RPG developers using free form RPG benefit from format and syntax changes, too, because those make the code more clear, improving their productivity.”  

Efforts to modernize code can have surprising outcomes. A company approached Gantner to teach employees who were experienced in Java how to code in RPG. She agreed to teach if the company converted its existing fixed-format RPG code to free form RPG; the company complied. In the few weeks between the first week of RPG classes and the next session, the employees had a surprise for her. They had used RPG to rewrite some code they had originally written in Java. The employees found RPG easier and more effective to use for those tasks. 

“Younger developers are open to languages,” Gantner says. “They don’t care what language is used for a program. They care more about the language’s capabilities and ease of use. RPG and COBOL are every bit as modern as newer languages."

Some companies have found that replacing RPG code with another language is not only expensive and time-consuming, but it’s also often far less efficient at runtime, particularly for data-heavy logic applications. They now know it’s better to refactor their RPG code to free form with modern modular coding styles and to make certain their developers are up-to-date on that language. But languages such as PHP or Python may be better for other tasks that can then interface with the RPG code. “You’ve got to take advantage of everything that’s available and figure out the best language for the task at hand,” says Gantner.  

Dedicated to Client Success

IBM is poised to help clients succeed, including success in modernizing systems and skills. “IBM is committed to providing innovative technology for new and existing clients and continues to lead with security, reliability and relevant solutions in the new age of cloud and AI,” Thomas says.

IBM Power Systems clients can rest assured that their business’ livelihood and reputation will be supported by ongoing Power Systems innovations. By taking a holistic approach to modernization, clients will be well-positioned for the challenges ahead.

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