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Attack of the Killer Apps

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What the iSeries world needs now is not love, sweet love. No, dear reader, the iSeries needs something a little tougher, a little racier, and a lot flashier. It needs a jolt of adrenaline, 380 joules of energy zapped directly into the heart of the system.

IBM's marketing isn't going to do it. While I admit that I enjoy seeing the IBM logo up on the screen these days, that's about the eServer and Linux, not the iSeries. As far as those guys are concerned, the iSeries should be a Linux machine, and the sooner they get rid of that old OS/400 dog, the better.

This is silly, of course; fads come and go. New architectures leap upon the world stage, promising to be the next great universal cure for all of IT's ills, but when the dust settles, IT isn't all that impressed. The new technology is subsumed, the good points added to the great tool chest that is information technology and the bad points shucked off to the circular file.

At least until lately. Lately, I've been watching as the entire shift of development has gone to what I consider "fad programming." Architectures have been given prominence over solutions. We argue about things like J2EE and extreme programming and .NET, instead of real business issues like total cost of ownership (TCO) and flexibility. A standard answer, given with a totally straight face, has been to rewrite all your business logic in Java. Given the kinder, gentler me that has been writing these columns of late, I cannot actually express my true feelings about that statement; suffice it to say I find such recommendations to be less than optimal.

I think the entire focus is wrong. History has shown us that the proper way to move forward in IT is incrementally, and I'd like to address that in this article. I'd also like to take a guess at why IBM and so many other technology providers are missing the boat so completely on this. And finally, I'd like to paint you a realistic picture of how we can move forward.

The Evolution of the Midrange

The IBM midrange has a long and storied history. I got involved in the late '70s with the IBM System/3, a venerable machine that was wonderfully suited for the burgeoning industry of the "service bureau." With a service bureau, you sent in your data to the service provider. The provider keyed that data into the computer, ran batch updates, and then printed reports of various kinds. The reports came off of incredibly noisy 1403 printers that printed at prodigious rates: hundreds of lines a minute! Since this was an impact printer, the machine was actually hitting thousands of little hammers a second. Once printed, these reports were then given to the night shift to be bursted (in the case of multi-copy forms), boxed, and sent to the client.

The next evolutionary step for the IBM midrange was the introduction of the Communications Control Program, or CCP. This was a rather sophisticated (for its time) online transaction processing (OLTP) system. You could in fact create pretty powerful OLTP applications, although the programming was often quite involved. Typically, these systems ran over leased lines from the service provider to the client, thus bypassing the need for sending paper documents to be keyed in at the service bureau. Also, online inquiries allowed faster access to information than the nightly batch reports.

An Evolutionary Step

It became clear that this concept of OLTP was a good one. However, CCP wasn't an easy way to design programs. Imagine writing an order entry application using the RPG cycle, and you'll get an idea of the kind of design that was required.

The next evolutionary step was the entire S/3x line. These machines supported both an online interface and a batch interface as a native part of the operating system. They were designed for online data processing, and the idea was to use them locally rather than connect to a service bureau. This concept proved to be highly successful. These architectures were closed, with dedicated databases and limited communications ability. But through them, the idea of a small, self-contained IT department came into being.

Parallel Evolution

While all this was going on, a few other things were evolving. IBM was an innovator in many of these areas. Among the areas where IBM blazed the trail included hard disk technology, reduced instruction set computing (RISC), communications, networking, and personal computing.

The industry also continued apace, with the introduction of languages such as C and Pascal and the explosion of personal computing, including a multitude of hardware and software options, from microprocessors to operating systems, not to mention a little concept called the Internet.

Then Came the AS/400

What is the point of all this? Well, the point is that the history of computing keeps telling us the same thing over and over: IT is about evolution and the survival of the fittest. But history also shows that the battle is not won in standards committees or advisory councils or technology review boards. The competition is waged in the marketplace, and the winner is determined by the end users.

The AS/400 is a treasure trove of examples of this philosophy. When introduced, the AS/400 was an amalgam of IBM-specific solutions. From its operating system to its languages to its hardware, everything said "made by IBM." The machine spoke Bisync and used SNA and Token-Ring. It had a proprietary database and a unique operating system. Even the CPU was custom, with its own unique and complex instruction set.

However, over a span of perhaps 10 years, all of that changed. Ethernet and TCP/IP became the primary mode of communication. The database was opened up to standard SQL processing. C and C++ made their way onto the box, and even the CPU changed to the RISC design that was so successful in IBM's powerful workstations. But each of these were evolutionary changes, changes that either coexisted with previous technologies or included them.

Even in things as fundamental as the standard communications protocol, the AS/400 supported side-by-side development, allowing users to wean themselves gradually from one technology to another, without having to race headlong into buying new hardware and software every time a new technological fad presented itself. Instead, users were able to pick and choose, and as the marketplace dictated the survivors, the platform followed suit. For example, you don't see a lot of SAA-complaint applications written in C++, do you?

And yet, some technologies remain in place. Subfiles are still here, because they're one of the most powerful data entry techniques ever devised. And the introduction of the IFS was done in such a way that the traditional flat QSYS file system was integrated directly with the hierarchical file systems required to enable other technologies.

It is this integration that makes the IBM midrange platform so unique. It is not the new technologies by themselves that make the platform so powerful; it is the fact that existing users can take their current applications and add new technologies to them, while still running their businesses. The AS/400 was the pinnacle of component-level integration, and this allowed users to move from green-screen applications running on a Token-Ring working on an EBCDIC relational database to Web-enabled TCP/IP-based systems communicating with the outside world using ASCII stream files processed by C programs.

Systems Integration: The Next Step

The iSeries represents the next step in this evolutionary process. With its ability to utilize a plethora of technologies and to run multiple operating systems on a single box, the iSeries brings the idea of integration to a new level. I call this "systems integration," where multiple disparate operating environments work together. Traditionally, this required multiple boxes, and we called it "distributed computing." But with the iSeries, all these environments converge on a single machine.

The first step was probably the integrated Windows Netfinity machines, but there are other examples today: the PASE environment, QShell and its UNIX-like capabilities, the entire Java integration, and the ability to run Linux partitions side by side with OS/400. The iSeries is truly a multi-purpose machine now, with the ability to run multiple environments.

The iSeries managed to do something that no other platform has been able to do: truly integrate all of the required technologies in today's environment. You may argue that the iSeries isn't exactly a big player in the Microsoft arena, but that's a different issue. Microsoft to me is the exact antithesis of this integration step. Rather than work with open standards, Microsoft creates its own version of each new technology and then ensures that its versions work and play only with one another, not the outside world. In fact, as time marches on, Microsoft and IBM seem to be switching roles: IBM is becoming the great bastion of open standards, while Microsoft is entrenching itself as a highly proprietary, insular environment.

In any event, it's clear that the various technologies available today all provide different capabilities. And were we to follow the lessons of history, the next step would be pretty clear: Design applications that take advantage of the new technologies in conjunction with the existing systems.

Application Integration: Where We Need to Go

I call this next step "application integration," where different application components are written in different languages running in different operating environments, yet are perceived by the end user as a seamless work environment. Such an architecture takes advantage of the strengths of existing technologies such as RPG on OS/400 for business rules processing, uses the browser for flexible user interfaces, and integrates with desktop applications. We need to begin that movement now, while the architecture still remains.

And yet, I still hear the constant refrain that we need to rewrite all of our business logic to something, although what exactly that something is tends to change as the next group of CS majors graduates. For a while it was J2EE, using strict UML OO design techniques. Then there was "program by wire," in which all coding was done in a visual development environment, represented by wires connecting widgets. The latest phenomenon is that of extreme programming. Regardless of your opinions about any of these programming techniques, the scary thing to me is that they seem to be either/or decisions. None of the techniques works very well with the others, and the advocates of each are incredibly zealous.

So Why Is IBM Missing the Boat?

It could be that they've been slipping something in the water in Armonk, but I think the truth is actually a little more mundane than that, although you might think I've been getting something in the water when you hear me.

I think the problem is that IBM no longer maintains MAPICS.

Over the years, it has been my observation that the most innovative development occurs when new technologies are applied to existing applications. I've also seen many cases of pure technology blinding developers, who then created elegant technical solutions to nonexistent problems. In many cases, the new architectural direction generated a lot of work but no tangible benefit.

Take, for example, a company that decides to rewrite its entire application suite to move from native RPG to Java and SQL. While there may be some perceived benefit of platform-independence, you need to balance the real benefits against the real costs. Among the costs: rewriting every program, retesting every program, and fine-tuning performance. This is simply to get the application back to its original state prior to the conversion. Then, to have real platform-independence, you need to port the solution to a new platform and resolve any issues there. Finally, you need to staff the alternate development environment and put controls in place to manage the multiple development and testing environments. Such a move makes sense only if the benefits of the Java version of the product offset all of the indicated costs, including the delay to adding any new features.

For a small shop, the costs may be offset by savings from moving to less expensive hardware, but given the low TCO of the iSeries as opposed to UNIX and Windows servers, moving off the machine is rarely going to save much money. So unless the rewrite is relatively trivial, there's no good business reason.

Another possible situation is a software development shop, in which increased software sales to other platforms cover the cost of the rewrite. And while this is a simple calculation, our industry has a bad habit of over-estimating sales. The truth is that enterprise applications often don't run well on commodity hardware, and even when they do, the customers who buy commodity hardware want to pay commodity prices for their software as well.

So Why Do They Keep Pushing These Architectures?

The $64,000 question is, "Why keep pushing architectural decisions that don't make business sense?" To my way of thinking, it's because there's no application team telling the architecture team that the emperor has no clothes. I can think of a half a dozen places where decisions have been made that wouldn't have been made if an application like MAPICS had been part of the decision. I believe that a team of application designers with real deadlines to meet would have stopped the ivory tower architecture decisions dead in their tracks.

Is this a bad thing? To the new generation of developers, it is. I think that's because these developers have grown up in the world of open source, where APIs change at the whim of the developer and backward compatibility is a foreign concept. As far as I can tell, few of the architects in this generation of developers have any respect for the concept of legacy systems, and in fact, most would rather see everything rewritten from scratch (and rewritten over and over, according to the extreme programming mantra).

Is There an Answer?

There is an answer to this problem, and it's a killer app. Note the term "app," as in application. In order for this to work, it can't just be another technology preview without any real substance. In the best of all worlds, it would be a working application that IBM would use on a daily basis and make available to their customers via the Web.

And the Winning Architecture Is...

I would implement this via portal technology. While I'm not thrilled with the current pricing model for iSeries Portal Express, I remain convinced that portal technology, specifically portlets combined with Web-enabling, is the answer. The killer application would allow a combination of simple green-screen development and the related Web-enablement, pure Web-application design, and client/server architecture, and it would show how the three worlds can work together. The first part of the application would be a traditional green-screen application, Web-enabled to run in a portlet. The second part would be a pure J2EE application (JDBC and servlet technology) that interacts with the "legacy" application. Finally, a thick-client piece.

If IBM developers were to do this, they might use the iPTF process as a candidate application. The core application would perform standard green-screen maintenance of and inquiry into the PTF database. The "order entry" portion, which handles the creation of iPTF orders, would run here. Second would be a high-powered search engine, written from the ground up as a Java servlet using JDBC. This would allow all manner of scanning for various problem reports. The last piece would be a customized thick-client application, running on either a workstation or the iSeries, that would coordinate download and application of the fixes.

I admit that it's not as robust as MAPICS, but I find it difficult to imagine IBM getting back into the application game anytime soon. This iPTF concept, or an application of similar complexity, might be just enough to push the envelope of the portal development tools, thus making sure they stay on track, while at the same time presenting an interface that outside users can actually touch and feel and showing off the capabilities of the machine and its tools.

What if They Don't Do It?

The problem is that I doubt IBM has the time or desire to do it. And if they don't, we have to do it. Unless there's money to be made, it's going to be hard to get people to spend a lot of time on this project. I'll see what I can do about creating another open-source project, but unfortunately the price of Portal Express is still prohibitive for a non-commercial endeavor. Maybe we have to start with a non-commercial portal software solution.

Please, get into the discussion for this article, and let me know if you think this can be done. Let me know if you think IBM should do this or we should and if you would be willing to participate. I'm concerned that if we don't start now, it will indeed be too late, and soon everything will be running on Windows or Linux, and that great wealth of RPG business logic that currently exists will be lost forever, as will the jobs of those who maintain and enhance those systems.

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. He has been working in the field since the late 1970s and has made a career of extending the IBM midrange, starting back in the days of the IBM System/3. Joe has used WebSphere extensively, especially as the base for PSC/400, the only product that can move your legacy systems to the Web using simple green-screen commands. Joe is also the author of E-Deployment: The Fastest Path to the Web and Eclipse: Step by Step. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Joe Pluta

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. He has been extending the IBM midrange since the days of the IBM System/3. Joe uses WebSphere extensively, especially as the base for PSC/400, the only product that can move your legacy systems to the Web using simple green-screen commands. He has written several books, including Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i, E-Deployment: The Fastest Path to the Web, Eclipse: Step by Step, and WDSC: Step by Step. Joe performs onsite mentoring and speaks at user groups around the country. You can reach him at joepluta@plutabrothers.com.


MC Press books written by Joe Pluta available now on the MC Press Bookstore.

Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i Developing Web 2.0 Applications with EGL for IBM i
Joe Pluta introduces you to EGL Rich UI and IBM’s Rational Developer for the IBM i platform.
List Price $39.95

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WDSC: Step by Step WDSC: Step by Step
Discover incredibly powerful WDSC with this easy-to-understand yet thorough introduction.
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Eclipse: Step by Step Eclipse: Step by Step
Quickly get up to speed and productivity using Eclipse.
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    • The RPG language is outdated and impractical for modernizing applications
    • Modernizing with RPG OA is the equivalent to "screen scraping"

     

  • Time to Remove the Paper from Your Desk and Become More Efficient

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericToo much paper is wasted. Attempts to locate documents in endless filing cabinets.And distributing documents is expensive and takes up far too much time.
    These are just three common reasons why it might be time for your company to implement a paperless document management system.
    Watch the webinar to learn more and discover how easy it can be to:

    • Capture
    • Manage
    • And distribute documents digitally

     

  • IBM i: It’s Not Just AS/400

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic

    IBM’s Steve Will talks AS/400, POWER9, cognitive systems, and everything in between

    Are there still companies that use AS400? Of course!

    IBM i was built on the same foundation.
    Watch this recorded webinar with IBM i Chief Architect Steve Will and IBM Power Champion Tom Huntington to gain a unique perspective on the direction of this platform, including:

    • IBM i development strategies in progress at IBM
    • Ways that Watson will shake hands with IBM i
    • Key takeaways from the AS/400 days

     

  • Ask the RDi Experts

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericWatch this recording where Jim Buck, Susan Gantner, and Charlie Guarino answered your questions, including:

    • What are the “hidden gems” in RDi that can make me more productive?
    • What makes RDi Debug better than the STRDBG green screen debugger?
    • How can RDi help me find out if I’ve tested all lines of a program?
    • What’s the best way to transition from PDM to RDi?
    • How do I convince my long-term developers to use RDi?

    This is a unique, online opportunity to hear how you can get more out of RDi.

     

  • Node.js on IBM i Webinar Series Pt. 2: Setting Up Your Development Tools

    Profound Logic Software, Inc.Have you been wondering about Node.js? Our free Node.js Webinar Series takes you from total beginner to creating a fully-functional IBM i Node.js business application. In Part 2, Brian May teaches you the different tooling options available for writing code, debugging, and using Git for version control. Attend this webinar to learn:

    • Different tools to develop Node.js applications on IBM i
    • Debugging Node.js
    • The basics of Git and tools to help those new to it
    • Using NodeRun.com as a pre-built development environment

     

     

  • Inside the Integrated File System (IFS)

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericDuring this webinar, you’ll learn basic tips, helpful tools, and integrated file system commands—including WRKLNK—for managing your IFS directories and Access Client Solutions (ACS). We’ll answer your most pressing IFS questions, including:

    • What is stored inside my IFS directories?
    • How do I monitor the IFS?
    • How do I replicate the IFS or back it up?
    • How do I secure the IFS?

    Understanding what the integrated file system is and how to work with it must be a critical part of your systems management plans for IBM i.

     

  • Expert Tips for IBM i Security: Beyond the Basics

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

    Don't miss this chance to take your knowledge of IBM i security beyond the basics.

     

     

  • 5 IBM i Security Quick Wins

    SB PowerTech WC GenericIn today’s threat landscape, upper management is laser-focused on cybersecurity. You need to make progress in securing your systems—and make it fast.
    There’s no shortage of actions you could take, but what tactics will actually deliver the results you need? And how can you find a security strategy that fits your budget and time constraints?
    Join top IBM i security expert Robin Tatam as he outlines the five fastest and most impactful changes you can make to strengthen IBM i security this year.
    Your system didn’t become unsecure overnight and you won’t be able to turn it around overnight either. But quick wins are possible with IBM i security, and Robin Tatam will show you how to achieve them.

  • How to Meet the Newest Encryption Requirements on IBM i

    SB PowerTech WC GenericA growing number of compliance mandates require sensitive data to be encrypted. But what kind of encryption solution will satisfy an auditor and how can you implement encryption on IBM i? Watch this on-demand webinar to find out how to meet today’s most common encryption requirements on IBM i. You’ll also learn:

    • Why disk encryption isn’t enough
    • What sets strong encryption apart from other solutions
    • Important considerations before implementing encryption

     

     

  • Security Bulletin: Malware Infection Discovered on IBM i Server!

    SB PowerTech WC GenericMalicious programs can bring entire businesses to their knees—and IBM i shops are not immune. It’s critical to grasp the true impact malware can have on IBM i and the network that connects to it. Attend this webinar to gain a thorough understanding of the relationships between:

    • Viruses, native objects, and the integrated file system (IFS)
    • Power Systems and Windows-based viruses and malware
    • PC-based anti-virus scanning versus native IBM i scanning

    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

  • Comply in 5! Well, actually UNDER 5 minutes!!

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    Produce bar code labels, electronic forms, ad hoc reports, and RFID tags – without programming! MarkMagic is the only document design and print solution that combines report writing, WYSIWYG label and forms design, and conditional printing in one integrated product.

    Request your trial now!

  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.