IBM's AS/400 was first introduced way back in 1988, but a quarter of a century later, the midrange platform still plays a crucial role in IT for electronics retailer Dick Smith. Here's how it plans to eventually get rid of the aging system and replace it with a cloud-centred platform using different best-of-breed components.
Paul Keen, general manager for IT at Dick Smith, outlined the company's plans at a media briefing yesterday hosted by connectivity software provider MuleSoft. Keen has been working at Dick Smith since November last year. He said he was attracted to the role because of the rapid growth Dick Smith had experienced after being sold by Woolworths in late 2012 and listing as a public company a year later.
During the period of Woolworths' ownership, technology had not been an investment priority. That helps to explain why the AS/400, a system which IBM still sells in a modernised form under the System P branding, had lasted so long. Dick Smith has two AS/400s running its enterprise resource planning and point of sale systems, one for its Australian operations and one for New Zealand.
Another factor was that despite relying on a green-screen interface, the machines get the job done. "It works. It really does work," Keen said.
The biggest problem associated with the system is finding staff who know how to work with it. "It's one of the really prime reasons [to move] — it's a really huge risk," Keen said. Training staff members to use the system generally takes 6 months, though Keen said once the skills are in place, the system is efficient to use.
The long-term vision is to replace the AS/400 systems with individual best-of-breed software packages to run individual tasks, with a centralised Amazon Redshift data warehouse for long-term storage. Dick Smith has begun that process, shifting its payroll operations and with reporting underway. "All data lives in Amazon Redshift," Keen said. It's a process of "removing legacy by stealth", with the AS/400 remaining in place until everything is switched. In-store point-of-sale is likely to be one of the last elements to shift.
Another key motivation for the switch is the need to be able to rapidly integrate with other external services. In recent years, Dick Smith has had to roll out rapid integrations with eBay and Catch Of The Day, something that would have proved tricky without the shift to using more efficient integration tools. "If you want to innovate fast, you need to integrate fast."
That doesn't mean the AS/400 will be disappearing in a hurry. "It will take years," Keen said. "It will be a natural evolution."