Keeping the past alive

ITworld.com –

In the movie Space Cowboys, Clint Eastwood plays a retired engineer -- the only one on the planet who can repair an ancient Soviet space satellite loaded with nuclear weapons and thereby save the world from destruction. Who says legacy skills don't come in handy?

Blending the old with the new

The Internet has given us fantastic new ways to communicate and do business. It has given us real-time interaction, an inexpensive platform for communication, and the possibility of a tighter supply chain -- not to mention new entrepreneurial opportunities in e-commerce. However, according to Zona Research, more than 70 percent of the world's critical data is still located on legacy hosts such as S/390 mainframes and AS/400s. Companies moving to e-commerce are finding that they must integrate their Internet commerce systems with existing backends, which in many cases are quite old. A new skill set is required to bridge the gap: skills that encompass not only a familiarity with the older systems and the Internet but also an ability to connect the two.

In fact, Zona Research claims that the "host-access Web server," an emerging platform that maintains a connection between browser-based users and legacy applications, will play an increasingly important role in the enterprise.

Bruce Matichuk, CTO of connectivity-solutions vendor Celcorp, describes the "interesting paradox" of legacy-system skills: "Although they are incredibly important, it's getting more and more difficult to find key resources that understand them and can work them, build them, enhance them, and integrate them." It's hard to understand a legacy program written 30 years ago. Matichuk says that sometimes you don't have to, because of modern- day integration tools. Nonetheless, you do have to have some familiarity with the older system and, Matichuk adds, "you've got to do some bit-twiddling on the host to make it work. Those skills are very important and I think will be in increasing demand."

Staying power

As a Zona Research report, "The Emergence of the Host-Access Web Server," says, "the CIOs of over 2,000 global enterprises are not about to throw out over $1 trillion worth of mainframe and other host applications currently running their businesses." What those managers do want is to be able to extend those host-based applications to a new class of Internet user.

Although there's not much demand for people to run the hulking vacuum-tube, punch- card-interfaced mainframes of yesteryear, legacy systems don't just disappear when an upgrade is released. The VAX is a case in point. Since the release of the Alpha system several years ago, the VAX has undergone a phasing-out. Compaq just announced that the last model would be delivered at the end of 2000. But on January 1, 2001, IT departments around the world will fire up their VAXes and continue to run their mission- critical applications on them. Compaq plans to support its VAXes until 2010, and it's quite likely that they'll be around for years after that.

As Zona Research notes: "For the same reasons that IT managers do not rip out their mainframes and throw them away, they are also not likely to rip out their entire installed bases of LAN/WAN terminals and replace them with Internet technology. Instead, the deployments are more likely to be incremental, resulting in IT managers looking at a combination of SNA and IP-based client access, and a combination of Intranet-based and Internet-based clients accessing the IP side of the host access picture."

Career possibilities

Integrating legacy systems with e-commerce is an important part of business, and demand is growing for people who can do it. (Surprisingly, no specific certification deals with this issue.)

Mary Ellen Fortier, spokesperson for Compaq's OpenVMS Marketing Division, points to two career paths for people with such skills: "There are career opportunities for integrating [legacy systems] with other industry-standard environments, like Windows NT or Unix. But there's one other piece, and that's taking existing environments and modernizing them: Web-enabling existing environments."

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