Architecting for Change--The Message-Based Server

Application Servers
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If you're connected to the Internet, you're probably thinking about a Web-based application. You can develop a variety of applications, ranging from simple static "brochure-ware" to complex applications integrated with your existing legacy systems. I've written in the past about the various application architectures you can employ to design the more sophisticated applications, but this article will focus on something a little more low-level: the middleware used to communicate between the client application and the host.

This article is a guide to designing Web applications using a message-based architecture. I'll introduce the concepts of clients and servers, as well as the various communications methods, and then go into detail on the merits of message-based processing.

Clients and Servers

If you need distributed applications, then regardless of the type of application, there are two fundamental pieces to the puzzle: the client and the server. Where these two entities reside is really not important; what's far more important is how they communicate with one another.

A client is a program that does one of two things: It requests data, or it requests that an action be performed, usually on the database. While there are many variations on this theme, they all fall into these basic categories. I tend to use the following broad categories:

1. QUERY: Return a set of data based on input parameters
2. CRUD: Create, Read, Update, or Delete records in the database
3. REPORT: Initiate a batch process whose results will be returned as a document

You can write a wide variety of applications using just these basic requests. If the architecture is properly designed, the clients can be green-screen applications called up from a 5250 display, thick clients running on locally attached workstations, or browser-based applications using servlets and/or Java Server Pages (JSPs) running anywhere on the Internet.

Also, the more independent your clients are, the more independent your servers are. Servers can be as specific as an ODBC interface or as flexible as an XML document processor. The ODBC interface is easy to implement and usually performs well, but you'll pay the price of being able to support only ODBC requests. An XML processor, on the other hand, can be almost limitless in the type of requests it supports, but the price is quite a bit of overhead and up-front design. This article describes an approach that strikes a balance between the power of XML and the ease of use of SQL.


Many communication techniques exist today--from screen-scraping the 5250 display, to ODBC, to HTML, to XML. You can call programs or invoke stored procedures. Each technique has advantages and disadvantages.

  • 5250 screen scrapers use a 5250 emulator to read the 5250 display stream and to enter data back as if the user were keying it at the display. This technique is most useful with legacy systems, because it usually requires no change to the existing programs. The drawback is that it requires a 5250 display session and, in most cases, is penalized by the interactive tax of the iSeries.
  • ODBC is the communications technology underlying embedded SQL and JDBC. In essence, the syntax of an SQL statement is compiled into a program (or generated on the fly) and then sent to an ODBC interface, which executes it. The primary benefit of this technique is the standardized nature of the SQL syntax and the fact that most database providers (including IBM) are working hard to increase the performance of their ODBC interfaces. The biggest weakness of the pure ODBC approach is that the syntax is tied directly to the physical database layout, and thus not only are your clients bound to your server's database, but more importantly, your database layout is captive to your clients.
  • HTML was designed solely to communicate with human users. It is focused on rendering, not on content, and so is unsuitable for use as a peer-to-peer communications medium.
  • XML, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up to be used as a content-aware data communication format. There is a hefty learning curve, a large start-up cost in terms of defining your messages, and significant overhead in processing time. Despite that, in a resource-rich environment, XML is probably the most robust and flexible of communications techniques.
  • Program calls and stored procedures are similar in that they are designed to accept a set of parameters and return a result. In practice, they separate the client and the database almost as well as a complete message-based architecture, with less of the up-front overhead. Their only real disadvantage is that they are less flexible than a message-based system when the actual interface changes.

Message-Based Processing

This article focuses on a specific communication method: message-based processing. Message-based processing has been around for a long time, and it has some specific shortcomings that may make you wonder why I recommend it. Part of the reason is that, since it has been around so long, all of the issues have been worked out in one way or another. But more importantly, a specific feature that is exclusive to message-based processing makes it uniquely suited for the fast-paced world of Web-enabled software: It can support older and newer clients simultaneously.

The Impact of Change

When I was designing architectures for System Software Associates, a term that was constantly used whenever enhancements or fixes were required was "impact analysis." An impact analysis determined what programs had to be changed for a given modification. Modifications to files were always high-impact, and central master files were so widespread in their use that enhancements were sometimes designed specifically to avoid changing a master file. Anyone familiar with how we implemented multiple facility processing will know what I mean--rather than change a key field in several files from warehouse to facility, we instead added a cross-reference file that we used for processing everything. It caused a lot of unnecessary code and added processing overhead, but it avoided a change to several master files. These are the kinds of decisions you must make when your systems are insufficiently insulated from change. And remember, this was in an environment where we had total control over all the programs.

In the brave new world of distributed processing, things are even more difficult. The client programs usually run on workstations, making it difficult to keep them up-to-date when the interface changes. If you have a large PC user base, you probably already know how difficult it is to keep the PCs up-to-date, even for something as critical as virus protection. This is doubly the case for applications, because users often figure that if it works, why fix it? They may not know that subtle changes to the database have caused their version to be as dangerous as any virus. If your programs are run on an intranet, you may have some degree of control over them--in fact, by using a mapped drive you can actually centrally locate your applications--but unless you have those procedures in place, you're running the risk of having programs disrupt your database integrity whenever you change your business logic. If you're lucky, the programs will fail when the interface changes (if you're not, they'll run, but they'll give false results or even corrupt your database). If your application is run remotely over the Internet, the problem grows exponentially.

Insulation from Change

Insulation from change is the primary characteristic of a message-based architecture. Any other form of direct access, either through program calls or direct database access, exposes clients to changes in the host software. This is especially true with data-centric techniques such as ODBC. For example, if you change the format of your date fields, every program that accesses those fields will have to change.

This is not the case in a message-based architecture. Instead, each interaction between a client and a server is cataloged as a request and a corresponding response. The layout of the request and response may or may not have anything to do with the actual physical layout of the data. (It should be noted that for ease of setup, the first generation of messages may at least be very similar to the database files, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as I'll show later.)

I'll start introducing my little application now. The objective is to have the ability to retrieve an employee's name, age, and number of years worked. The database is straightforward. I've depicted it in the table below.

Employee ID
Employee Name
Date of Birth
8S0 (CYMD)
Hire Date
8S0 (CYMD)

Time to see how it works in a client/server environment.

How It Works

In this section, I'll take you through the same exercise using SQL and using a message-based approach. First, I'll solve the original problem. Then, I'll respond to some different business requirements. As I continue on, you can compare the ease with which each approach allows you to keep up with changing business demands.

Original SQL

Well, getting the name is simple enough. But as soon as I began work on this example, I found that the syntax for extracting the age from a CYMD field was a little bit complex, as I've shown in Figure 1.

select year(curdate() –
       date(substr(char(empdob),1,4) || '-' ||  
            substr(char(empdob),5,2) || '-' ||      
from empmst                                          

Figure 1: Use this SQL to extract the employee's age.

The SQL literate among you will argue that I should have used DATE fields. That's not an option with legacy systems, but for the sake of argument, I'm going to change my database. EMPMS2 will contain the same data, but the two date fields will be stored as DATE fields. Please note, though, that now my database layout is being dictated by my clients. That is, I have to make database design decisions based on how they affect my client programs, rather than on efficiency, cost, or other business reasons. This is what we're trying to avoid, and it's one of the problems with a rigid interface such as ODBC.

Anyway, I've changed my database, so now my client program can proceed with a simple extract. Using RPG and embedded SQL, the syntax would be something like what is shown in Figure 2.

select empnam, year(curdate()-empdob), year(curdate()-emphir)
from empms2 into :name, :age, :yearsonjob where empid = :id

Figure 2: This SQL extracts the required information from our new database.

A very important point is that the names used in the request are specifically those in the database. SQL requires that the file and field names match the ones in the database. Since this code is in the client (and is in fact in every client), anytime the database changes, all clients must change. While this shouldn't happen often, when it does, it can cause real headaches.

Original Message-Based Process

How does this compare with the work required for a message-based request? Well, to start with, I have to define a request, a response, and a server. My request and response will be quite simple, as shown in the table below.

Employee ID
Employee Name

Employee Age

Years on Job

I create two data structures, one for the request and one for the response. I populate the data structure for the request and pass it to the server. I receive back the data structure containing the response. This would work just fine, but if this was the limit of the design, I would have to have one server program for every request, and I would have to know the name of every server.

Instead, I'm going to introduce the concept of a request dispatcher. This is the central idea of a message-based architecture: The data structures that hold the request and response are actually part of a larger data structure, one that can be used to handle any request. The basics are shown in the following table.

Client ID
Server ID
Request Code
Return Code
Message Data

The client ID is assigned to the client when it starts up. The server ID tells the dispatcher which server to call, while the request code identifies the contents of the message data. For example, a request of '01' might retrieve the employee data I detailed above, while a request of '02' might update the data. The return code identifies at a high level whether the request was successful or not. This is a bidirectional parameter: The message data contains the request when sent to the server, and it contains the response when returned to the client.

How the request gets to the server and the response gets back is irrelevant at this point. To keep the focus on the design, I'm going to use a simple dispatcher program: The client program calls the dispatcher, which calls the appropriate server program. You may notice several problems with this approach, primarily the fact that it limits the size of the data. I'm trying to keep the scope of the topic within a single article--a more complete design supports an arbitrary number of message segments in either direction, each with its own type. This is relatively easy to accomplish using a mechanism such as data queues, but that's too much detail for this article. I'll leave that portion as an exercise for the reader. Something even more interesting is that a request can be routed to another machine--on an entirely different platform, if necessary. But again, that's a different story for a different day.

Instead, it's time to write the server program. I know, I know, the SQL version is already up and working and installed on 20 PCs by now. But bear with me. The program is very simple, as shown in Figure 3.

FEMPMS2    IF   E           K DISK      
D Request         DS           256       
D   EmpID                       10     
D Response        DS           256       
D   EmpName                     50        
D   EmpAge                       3  0     
D   EmpYrsOnJob                  2  0      
D XIRequestID     S              2          
D XIReturnCode    S              2          
D XIMessage       S            256           
D Today           S               D   INZ(*SYS)   
C     *ENTRY        PLIST                         
C                   PARM                    XIRequestID     
C                   PARM                    XIReturnCode   
C                   PARM                    XIMessage      
C                   eval      Request = XIMessage
C     EmpID         CHAIN     EMPMS2
C                   if        not %found(EMPMS2)     
C                   eval      XIReturnCode = '01'
C                   else                              
C                   eval      EmpName = EMPNAM
C     Today         SUBDUR    EMPDOB        EmpAge:*Y    
C     Today         SUBDUR    EMPHIR        EmpYrsOnJob:*Y
C                   eval      XIMessage = Response
C                   eval      XIReturnCode = '00'
C                   endif              
C                   eval      *INLR = *ON       

Figure 3: This is the server program for the employee information request.

I also have to write the dispatcher, but that's a one-time cost, and it's even simpler than the server program. Even as dispatching gets more complex, it's important to remember that the dispatcher is a one-time cost: Write it once, and it works for every request. The servers are where the real work is done, and this is where the benefits of message-based programming begin to become apparent.

Business Scenario 1: A Calculation Changes

This is a simple change. The company uses the years on the job to determine certain benefits, and it's been decided that an employee should get credit for a full year after being on board six months. For example, my hire date is 10/31/2000, so my calculated years on the job should be three, rather than the two that the normal calculation returns. For the SQL, the change is relatively simple (although it took me a little while to find it), and is shown in Figure 4.

select empnam, year(curdate()-empdob),
year((curdate() + 6 months)-emphir)
from empms2 into :name, :age, :yearsonjob where empid = :id

Figure 4: This SQL is required to implement the new calculation.

Now, I have to change the calculation in every client program that calculates the number of years on the job. See Figure 5.

C                   SUBDUR    6:*M          EMPHIR
C     Today         SUBDUR    EMPHIR        EmpYrsOnJob:*Y  

Figure 5: Here's the modification required to implement the same change in a message-based architecture.

What's the corresponding change in the message-based approach? Well, we have to change the server program. I added one line, as shown in Figure 5. Now to the clients. I have to change...nothing! Not a single client changes, because the code is localized in the server! This is probably the most important benefit of a message-based approach, although by no means the only one.

Business Scenario 2: A File Format Changes

The file must now be sorted by last name. Originally, the name field was a single field. Now, however, I need to separate the data out into individual fields for first name, last name, and middle initial. EMPNAM now becomes EMPFNM, EMPLNM, and EMPINI. See Figure 6.

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

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

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    SB_Profound_WC_GenericWhen it comes to IBM Rational Open Access: RPG Edition, there are still many misconceptions - especially where application modernization is concerned!

    In this Webinar, we'll address some of the biggest myths about RPG Open Access, including:

    • Modernizing with RPG OA requires significant changes to the source code
    • 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


    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 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.



  • Node Webinar Series Pt. 1: The World of Node.js on IBM i

    SB Profound WC GenericHave 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.
    Part 1 will teach you what Node.js is, why it's a great option for IBM i shops, and how to take advantage of the ecosystem surrounding Node.
    In addition to background information, our Director of Product Development Scott Klement will demonstrate applications that take advantage of the Node Package Manager (npm).
    Watch Now.

  • The Biggest Mistakes in IBM i Security

    SB Profound WC Generic The Biggest Mistakes in IBM i Security
    Here’s the harsh reality: cybersecurity pros have to get their jobs right every single day, while an attacker only has to succeed once to do incredible damage.
    Whether that’s thousands of exposed records, millions of dollars in fines and legal fees, or diminished share value, it’s easy to judge organizations that fall victim. IBM i enjoys an enviable reputation for security, but no system is impervious to mistakes.
    Join this webinar to learn about the biggest errors made when securing a Power Systems server.
    This knowledge is critical for ensuring integrity of your application data and preventing you from becoming the next Equifax. It’s also essential for complying with all formal regulations, including SOX, PCI, GDPR, and HIPAA
    Watch Now.

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  • 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.