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Taking a Tour of IT History

Washington colleges continue study of migration

This week's issue of the Olympic College's newspaper The Olympian includes news of the HP 3000. In specific, the paper reports about the fate of systems which support admissions, registration, financial aid and graduation tracking. This nearly-total range of college operations relies on an HP 3000 the college has been working to replace since 2003. In fact, more than 30 colleges continue to count on this 3000 that college IT directors like Jack Hanson say will be hard to maintain and find parts for after 2010.

Projects move more slowly in the academic world, a fact that could be even more true at the Bellingham,
Washington community college. Olympic College is part of the Washington Community College Consortium (WCCC), a group of schools which operated HP 3000s that were destined to become a single .NET server. Hewlett-Packard first earned the approval to do the migration, with Transoft to perform the work. In the fall of 2003 we reported:

The deal with the Washington colleges migrates 34 colleges' HP 3000s into a centralized data center to be run by the colleges’ Center for Information Systems (CIS). The applications written in COBOL II on the 3000s will become AcuCOBOL applications under Microsoft’s .NET, said Transoft CEO Paul Holland, after about 18 months of migration work between Transoft and HP Services.

The Olympian and the reports to the Washington State Student Services Commission & Councils tell the rest of the story. Plans for a move away from an in-house system failed, so HP had to back away from the engagement and settle up on what couldn't be finished. The colleges still intend to run on another platform by 2010, The Olympian reports, the end of HP's support. One bit of the delay might stem from what the colleges hoped to convert: reports written in Protos, a unique mix of COBOL and fourth generation language.

Sure enough, since the colleges are public entities with open reporting, you can locate online documents on the 2004 schedule of migration and progress report, the options assessment more than four years later (PDF file, see page 7), and now the news that the colleges want to move forward after "a $14 million rehosting project was cancelled last year." The project was big enough to involve services in Atlanta, London and India. Not to mention the oversight from Washington's colleges.

That migration's 2003 target platform, Windows, was influenced by nearby Microsoft (perhaps donating software) and HP Service's desire to put up a win for the .NET solution to show 3000 customers. Protos, however, can be a knotty piece of software to unravel into another language, since the vendor has closed down operations for many years now. Protos distinguished itself by compiling into COBOL, but the gap between its reports and .NET — the latter created 10 years after development ended on Protos — may have been too wide to span.

Then there's this bit of information from an early draft of the 2004 report: "HP's contractual obligation is to transfer 400 reports from the current systems. This leaves a great many reports needing to be developed by CIS and/or campus resources."

There's little to be gained by now in finding fingers to point, but something can be learned here. Understanding how to move code to a new platform requires an understanding of the 3000's aspects even more than expertise on the target, according to several migration services firms in the 3000 community. Even a vendor-assisted migration might require significant in-house resources to finish a mission-critical rehosting like the one at WCCC.

The migration could now carry the WCCC's 3000 apps anywhere, according to the latest report. Collegiate Project Services is contracted "to do an assessment of the needs of each college campus through a variety of questionnaires and one-on-one interviews," according to the Olympian's story. Colleges are having more input this time around than during what was called Re-hosting, but was actually rewriting. The effort is now called "Go Forward," to leave room for whatever solution seems best. One big difference this time around — the colleges are looking at replacement software. Rewriting is still on the table according to a resource manager at Olympic College. But keeping that Protos-type element in mind might make a strong case to try to replace.

In about a month, the assessment will be completed along with a recommendation, with the results distributed to all 34 colleges by May. This will all be in advance of the work to be done, like testing a replacement set of applications or plunging into another rewrite. WCCC figured to have HP's migration project complete by 2005. Considering that migrations take about 18 months on average to finish, the schools will only be five years behind their plans.

Missed deadlines and canceled projects are all routine steps in making a migration, even though there have been many sites which have skipped both of these snarls on the path away from the 3000. But the lessons to be taken away from these schools are fundamental to understanding the challenge of leaving the platform. The older the application's history, the more business logic must be moved, and the fewer IT developers will be on hand to help understand. Factor in key software that's not supported any longer and you get both a hurdle as well as a reason to make changes, like moving away from a language like Protos.

Since the Olympian's story is online, it's available for comments, and one HP 3000 veteran has already offered an alternative. John Ryrie of TAG Software in the UK said that maybe getting some inexpensive replacement 3000s, parts and non-HP MPE support might be a smarter course to follow.

Perhaps another option for IT to consider would be to look to companies who supply second-user equipment, especially given the current shortage of cash. In my opinion there will be HP 3000s around for a long time to come, as well as operating system support from companies other than Hewlett-Packard. If it works...

That's not exactly helpful for almost three dozen colleges who have already agreed on migration and financed their intention. But with N-Class servers on the market for as little as $4,000 these days, standby hardware and a good contract for third party support seem a small backup investment for these interim homesteaders.