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Book club opens new chapter with conversion to Windows

There are definite pluses, including ROI savings, and productivity and performance gains, in moving legacy Cobol mainframe apps to Microsoft Windows servers, says Leo Theberge, CIO at a Canadian book club.

But there are also pitfalls to be avoided. Speaking from experience, he offers his counterparts tips on making the conversion as painless as possible.

In the past year, Theberge's company, Quebec Loisirs, a book club with 280,000 French-speaking members, moved core business systems from an IBM S/390 mainframe to a Compaq ProLiant Windows server. The job was done in six months by a four-member migration project team.

"The conversion went not easy, there are no easy projects in IT, but it went very well," he tells eADT. "I was surprised."

The book club's customer administration system (CAS), which processes book orders and maintains membership accounts, was written in Cobol for CICS on the leased IBM mainframe running VSE. There was some PL/1, a programming language circa-1960, involved as well. This was all technology that was older than the programmers working on the conversion who range in age from 23 to 28.

To complete the conversion to Windows while keeping the mainframe operational so day-to-day business operations were not interrupted, Theberge treated it more like maintenance than a new project.

"A mainframe conversion is mainly an operations project rather than a development project," he says. "The process of modifying the programs is not that hard. It's just access methods and the instructions inside the Cobol code that have to be changed. And that's about it."

His staff did the conversion with tools and a server from Micro Focus designed to what the vendor calls "lift and shift" mainframe apps to Windows servers projects. But Theberge cautions that beyond programming staff, IT needs to have a database administrator onboard because in a customer service application data is the common currency.

"The one thing that is very, very important in that kind of conversion is having your DBA reconfiguring the data," he says, explaining that the book club is no longer using ancient VSAM files but DB2. "There's big work to be done before [converting] to have a clear vision of what your data architecture would be afterwards. That's one of the big things to do."

Theberge says CIOs and managers should also review leasing and maintenance contracts of the mainframe hardware and software before starting a conversion project. When it comes time to actually unplug the mainframe, it's good to be as close as possible to the expiration date of the lease and maintenance agreement.

In terms of ROI, he calculates that moving from Big Blue iron to the Compaq server is saving the book club approximately $150,000 per year. And while the mainframe's biggest selling point continues to be the near-zero downtime, he says he's getting "99.7% availability" on the Windows-based system, which is comparable with the uptime of the old VSE system. As for productivity, he says the Micro Focus environment running on Windows is able to handle a day's transactions in seven minutes, whereas the batch process on the mainframe took more than two hours.

The whole conversion went so well that Theberge says his next step will be to begin moving to .NET.

About the Author

Rich Seeley is Web Editor for Campus Technology.

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