Auto Distributor Grows Mainframe Data Fields

Southeast Toyota Distributors LLC is undertaking a mainframe IT project that typically gets little attention but can cause major headaches for Cobol users: field expansion.

Southeast Toyota, a subsidiary of JM Family Enterprises Inc. in Deerfield, Fla., that operates a network of franchised automotive dealerships in five states, has begun moving from IBM's VSAM prerelational database to its DB2 software. The company is also expanding the size of the data fields on its Cobol-based applications so they can accommodate extra digits needed because of its business growth.

Jeff Hall, vice president of the IT project management office at Southeast Toyota, said the homegrown applications were developed in the 1980s. Over the years, he said, the company has added functions, "and the next thing you know, you have spaghetti code."

Southeast Toyota recently hired BluePhoenix Solutions Ltd., a Herzliya, Israel-based software services firm, to move the mainframe systems onto DB2 and do the coding needed to expand its data fields. Hall said the work is scheduled to be completed next year but wouldn't disclose the cost of the project.

The adoption of a relational database will enable Southeast Toyota to add Java- and .Net-based applications as well as new functionality, such as improved business analytics capabilities, Hall said.

The company had considered starting from scratch and buying packaged applications, but the cost of building extensions and customizing the software was deemed to be too expensive, according to Hall.

William Ulrich, a consultant at Tactical Strategy Group Inc. in Soquel, Calif., said expanding data fields can be cumbersome and costly because it often involves numerous interconnected applications and files. Many programmers try to build work-arounds, he said. But Ulrich believes that problems with data fields are one reason why large IT projects can sometimes fail or have cost overruns. Often, he said, "the field is too short, too long or not properly defined to meet business requirements."

Hall sees the ongoing effort at Southeast Toyota as the under¿pinning of a multiyear strategy for incremental application upgrades. That strategy is partly motivated by the gradually shrinking pool of Cobol programmers, he said.

For now, Hall's staffers have enough Cobol skills to handle mainframe application development. But, he said, "Cobol is not what's being taught in college anymore." There will be a point "where those skills are fewer and fewer," he added, predicting that 10 years from now, "we're probably in trouble."

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