Profound Logic Goes Native, Sheds Dependence on 5250 Data Stream

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The company's release of its new DDS Conversion Module into general availability heralds a new day in the chronicles of IBM i modernization.


For developers who want to preserve the integrity of the IBM i platform while performing a transformative modernization on their applications, Profound Logic last week released one of the most intriguing solutions to date using IBM's Rational Open Access for RPG.


Defying the naysayers who said it couldn't be done because of the stateful limitations built into IBM i, Profound Logic has achieved a truly profound accomplishment. It has painstakingly developed a tool that will automatically convert an application's screen display files so there no longer is a dependence on the 5250 data stream. The application now displays screens in a browser but provides the developer a native means of maintaining the app and adding functionality without reengineering the source code.


The modernization process now advances to a new level by allowing the developer to reconfigure screen content with new dynamic formats but also access any and all available RPG data at will.  While keeping the native RPG code intact, the tool—Profound UI DDS Conversion Module—converts green-screen display files to Profound Logic's unique Rich Display File format.


Among the daunting challenges for Profound Logic's CEO Alex Roytman and his team of five developers was to overcome the differences between various types of applications. While there are still a few rare architectures that aren't kind to conversion of the display files, the vast majority will handle it quite nicely due to the company's effort to figure out how to process different data types, reference files, and some 100 different display file keywords. (See the list of supported keywords on the Profound Logic Web site.) Of course, one has to have the source code in order to perform the DDS conversion. This eliminates for the business user some third-party applications unless your ISV provides the source code or is working with Profound Logic, which a number of them already are, according to Roytman.


The DDS Conversion Module is just one of a number of modules that make up Profound UI, the foundation of the company's native graphical user interface platform, unique in its ability to create Rich Display Files. The Profound Logic Rich Display File takes advantage of IBM i's native object-based architecture but can store GUI metadata using JavaScript Object Notation (JSON), a data interchange format used to build dynamic HTML browser applications. The Rich Display Files, like traditional display files, however, still allow for organization by distinct record formats to represent different screens and subfile grids.


Since Profound UI was first introduced last spring, the new file type has been recognized as a way to create rich browser applications natively in IBM i. Now, the DDS Conversion Module, in effect, converts green-screen display files to the new Rich Display File format. The result is that any limitations in an existing application associated with the 5250 screen are removed.


Getting the DDS Conversion process to the point where it actually works and doesn't stumble over every other screen was painstaking. The company worked with a number of beta customers for months to perfect the process. The county of Sweetwater in West Virginia has been working with Profound Logic since June 2010. Kathy Cortez, the county's programmer/analyst, notes that many of the county's RPG applications were generated in Synon. She has been able to convert the Synon apps to a true Web interface with what she says was "minimal effort."


Another customer, PFG Customized Distribution of Tennessee, where Steve Neely is CIO, reports "steady improvements over the last few months" in the conversions to the point where he now can say without reservation, "The Profound Logic DDS green-screen-to-GUI tool works great." He also gave Profound Logic high marks for its timely incorporation of his staff's suggestions into successive releases of the tool.


Roytman concedes that it is more work to convert the DDS screen files with the conversion module than it is to just reface the application, an alternative for which the company also has a tool—Profound Logic Genie. But the benefits are that you can add dynamic functionality to all or the most important and heavily used interfaces. The company's next announcement in April will be to present its approach to mixing refacing with DDS conversion using RPG Open Access.


The process involved in using the DDS Conversion tool starts with deciding which programs are to be addressed. You then go in and add Profound Logic's handler for RPG Open Access and recompile the application. Now you are ready to convert your DDS files.


"Say you're working with 10 DDS source members," says Roytman. "You would run each of those through the conversion. Along with that, perhaps there are 10 recompiles that you do. Then you are able to launch the programs in the browser. Initially, it will look like the green-screen with a few things that are really nice that you wouldn't get with traditional refacing—things like sortable columns, scrollable subfiles, and expandable rows, for instance. The next step might be to go in and add functionality."


While creating dynamic Web pages might have in the past required knowledge of HTML, JavaScript, and AJAX, Profound Logic's Visual Designer tool offers the RPG programmer a visual palette that retains an RPG perspective (the screens are divided into record format) and uses a deep library of widgets to help make the job easier.


Roytman notes the tradeoff between refacing, which, with relatively little effort, achieves a nicer-looking user interface, and DDS Conversion, which requires conversions and recompiling, but he says the benefits of conversion go deeper and can positively impact maintenance and development down the road. Once the DDS is converted, dependence on the 5250 data stream is eliminated, which opens up many possibilities. Roytman believes the breakthrough could breathe new life into the IBM i platform.


No longer do companies have to incur the risk and expense of moving off the platform to achieve the functionality that users have come to expect from their application interfaces. While companies have a significant investment in their IBM i applications, they also have years of investment in their maintenance, which adds to the total equity. Reengineering their applications or moving to a new platform can represent a huge investment that many companies today don't relish making. Being able to add functionality without reengineering offers great appeal.


This of course is the claim of all modernization solutions, but Roytman says what makes Profound Logic's approach different from others is that it is native to IBM i and doesn't change the IBM i paradigm. "We are the leader in keeping everything native," says Roytman. "We don't believe in putting a .NET front-end in front of things. With many solutions offered today, the entire solution is not native; there is a Microsoft piece to it."


While there are several Profound UI modules users can take advantage of depending on their needs, to get started with the DDS Conversion, they will need to be on V5R3 or later of the OS, have the IBM Rational Open Access for RPG product (or Profound's RPG Preprocessor if you are not on V6.1 or above), and have the basic Profound Logic handler, the DDS Conversion Module, and the Visual Designer.


Although Profound Logic has released the DDS Conversion Module into general availability, the creative minds behind it are still at work, and Roytman says the team plans many enhancements in the future, including new widgets for Visual Designer and tighter integration between refacing and DDS conversion.


Developers who are dedicated to the IBM i platform can regard the native modernization solution currently available from Profound Logic as a source of pride to themselves and the entire industry. Any proposal to move off the platform now can be accompanied by one that shows management the many benefits of staying on it.

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