Technology Potpourri

IBM i (OS/400, i5/OS)
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How about that? The iSeries has experienced 25% growth year over year! There are companies that would kill for such growth and products that will never see it, especially "dying legacy" platforms like the iSeries. From the IBM Web site: "Revenue growth from S&TG eServer products was driven by iSeries midrange servers, which increased 25 percent." My guess is that no other midrange server product did as well. Yes indeed, the reports of the iSeries' demise are premature.

A large part of the iSeries' current success is due to the basic strengths of the machine. CFOs are starting to wise up to the server farm racket. The low total cost of operation of the iSeries, which I've been preaching for so many years now, is finally becoming an issue as the initial entry costs for server farms have proven to be just that: entry points. And low entry points at that. Soon after the initial installation, servers suddenly begin sprouting up like mushrooms, along with staff to run them and the associated costs.

But there's more to it than that. Not only is the iSeries a great individual performer, it has a great supporting cast around it, and I'm going to point out a few of those cast members. The four I'm going to discuss in this article include Enterprise Generation Language (EGL) and its co-technology JavaServer Faces (JSF), the Easy Website Builder (formerly known as B.O.S.S.), and something called the "Try and Buy Program." Each of these provides a unique strength to the iSeries platform, and I'll tell you why. And while I won't have much room for each topic in this particular article, I'll address each in more detail in upcoming issues.

EGL and JSF

Anybody who has spent time on the iSeries probably knows Bob Cancilla. Back when he was in the "private sector," Cancilla ran one of the original sites dedicated to the IBM midrange. You know it's an original because the site is called IGNITe/400, which gives it an immediate credibility back to the days when an iSeries was called an AS/400. The site is still there, but it has sort of drifted a bit since Cancilla joined IBM a little while back.

But Cancilla is doing anything but drifting. He does a lot of work with the tool developers at IBM, and one of his current interests is the EGL tooling available in WDSC. I have mentioned in passing that I didn't find EGL to be particularly appealing, but that's with little time spent on it other than reviewing the syntax and a couple of simple tutorials. Since talking with Cancilla, I've become convinced that EGL deserves a second look. According to Cancilla, EGL manages to do two things in particular that are becoming crucial to developers: It hides the complexity of middleware, and it makes creating the user interface easy.

Now remember that this is just an introductory article, so I can't go into great detail about some of these capabilities, but I am intrigued by the possibilities. This tool not only allows you to abstract your programming up a level, but also allows you to quickly put together applications without worrying about the complexities of the various middleware components that are required for today's multi-platform, multi-language architectures.

As Cancilla explained it to me, there are hooks for XML, MQ-Series, and Web services, all pretty much built into the infrastructure of the language. I'm understandably skeptical about the ease of using these hooks, and that will be a major focus of mine when I really take EGL out for a test drive. But one very important point that can't be overlooked is that you have EGL available to you today. If you have even one compiler on your iSeries, you have 5722WDS, the WebSphere Development Studio (WDS). One part of WDS is WDSC, the PC-based client portion, and EGL is a standard component of WDSC. (Some of the more esoteric features, such as creating green-screen displays, are available only in the advanced edition, but that's a subject for a different day.)

So you can start playing with EGL today. The documentation isn't perhaps the most friendly in the world, though what I've looked at seems fine as long as you don't mind the fact that it was written for zSeries users. Given the platform-independent nature of the tool, that really shouldn't be an issue. To get to the documentation, head over to developerWorks. Under the Rational brand, you'll find the EGL resources. Look at the documentation for your version of WDSC (and if you haven't upgraded to WDSC Version 6, please do so as soon as you can; it's really a good idea).

What About JSF, Joe?

Yeah, I did say I would talk about JSF, didn't I? Well, the truth of the matter is that I find JSF all but useless for development. That's primarily because it is so complex that you need a code generator just to write relatively simple code. I hate that idea, especially since other than the compiler teams, nobody can write a code generator that writes code as well as I want it written. Application code generators in particular have to be so generic that they rarely write code efficient enough for anybody. But it looks like there might be enough of an affinity between the code definition aspects of EGL and the code generation aspects that relatively efficient JSF code is created.

Cancilla told me there are already some pretty cool wizards available, including one that makes it easy to knock together an entire DFU application with just a few clicks. I'll be interested to see that. It will be a good test of just how efficient the EGL-generated code is going to be.

B.O.S.S. (aka IBM Easy Website Builder)

As we ended the discussion, I mentioned to Cancilla that I was also planning on talking to Kelly Schmotzer, the driving force behind the IBM Easy Website Builder. As it turns out, Easy Website Builder is also one of Cancilla's babies; I think his relationship with the tool even predates his IBM employment. In any case, he was quite passionate about what this new tool brought to the table in terms of allowing non-technical people to put together dynamic Web sites.

So I got on the phone with Schmotzer, and I got an earful of what this great new product is. Understand that I'm a techie, and I have a natural aversion to non-techies creating lots of tools. For example, take those massively complicated Excel spreadsheets some companies have, with dozens of macros and graphs and whatnot; they become critical, the gal who created them leaves the company, and eventually IT gets stuck with them. So I wasn't exactly in the most receptive frame of mind. Well, let me tell you: I thought Cancilla was passionate, but Schmotzer makes Cancilla look like Keanu Reeves. Schmotzer truly believes in this product as a crucial part of the new generation of IT infrastructures.

Let me tell you a little about it: The tool was the result of brainstorming and polling the iSeries user community a couple of years ago. Over 300 customers were asked what they thought of WebSphere, and the overwhelming response was that they needed more applications to see how to use the thing. And between you and me, that's always been a problem with IBM; the company delivers great technology that nobody knows how to use. Even when IBM does provide great examples and tutorials, it's as if they're bashful about telling anyone. For example, two applications currently ship with WebSphere: the telephone directory application and a survey builder. I knew about the directory, but I didn't even know the survey builder existed. These are great applications that you can play with to learn more about using WebSphere and building your own applications.

But those applications require too much technical skill for the typical non-IT worker to be able to use. So Schmotzer got in front of a large user group for a school district and asked them what kind of tool they wanted. One guy told her he wanted to be able to quickly put together a Web site (Schmotzer writes down "Site"), and he wants the site to show people what they do in their job ("Show") and then let them calculate a simple order, such as how much the lunch program costs for three kids (Schmotzer writes down "Order"). And optionally, he says, he wants to let them pay for it right there with a credit card ("Buy"). So now Schmotzer has her marching orders: S.S.O.B. And since those particular initials are likely to cause more grief than anything, she switches them around, and B.O.S.S. is born.

The goal is a tool that a non-IT person can use to put together a simple Web site and then pull data from a database and put data back into it. The tool must allow enough basic calculations and verification of data to support the entry of a simple order (e.g., pricing and availability) and then eventually allow connection to Web services to perform business functions such as credit card payments.

Current Status

Well, now the tool is in alpha stage at (appropriately enough) Alphaworks. It had to get an "official" IBM name, so it's now known as the IBM Easy Website Builder. It's at Version 1.5, I think, and it's well along the road I outlined above. Today, it only allows you to display static pages and then create forms to push data into a database. As I understand it, other options may become available as the project gets more support. As Schmotzer explained it to me, the ability to get data out of a database is not currently part of the tool, so I have some question as to its real-world usefulness, but I may also have misunderstood that part of it. In any case, like the EGL product. I hope to give Easy Website Builder a more thorough test drive in coming months so I can update you on it.

In the meantime, you can go to Alphaworks and download it. The file is large, about 164 MB, but that's actually smaller than most major game demos these days! And just as importantly, it's designed to run on a relatively modest PC. So go download it yourself and let me know what you think. More importantly, let IBM and especially Kelly Schmotzer know what you think; your support will likely determine the long-range success or failure of the tool! A simple review page on the Alphaworks site allows you to record your impressions of the product, and a forum enables you to discuss it with the developers and with other users.

The "Try and Buy Program"

This little-known program is not a tool, not a language, not a technology. It's a program designed to help ISVs, primarily tool vendors, market their products. The current program has been around for a little while, and it centers on a set of CDs that are delivered with every new V5R3 purchase or upgrade. Qualified applicants pay to have IBM create a special installation program, and then their tool is distributed on those CDs.

While a good idea in theory, this program suffers from some practical problems. For example, as you cut the disks, you're freezing the code, so no new features will be on the distributed media. It's not inexpensive, and frankly not that many people know about it, so it's up to you to market it. A new program is in the works that will allow a broader base of participation. The "Tool Innovation eCatalog" (you heard it here first!) will be an interactive tool shipped with the iSeries Welcome package--and distributed at user groups, COMMON, you name it. It will be sort of a clickable version of the IBM Developer Roadmap.

The Roadmap, incidentally, has undergone a renovation. While it still has its five pillars of Improve Productivity, Enhance the End User Experience, and so on, each of those pillars now has a number of subcategories (see Figure 1).

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/051020%20-%20Technology%20PotpourriV4--10310400.png

Figure 1: This is the new Developer Roadmap with its subcategories. (Click image to enlarge.)

In this new eCatalog, iSeries customers will be able to click on one of the subcategories to get a list of vendors with the appropriate tools. As the eCatalog evolves, more capabilities will be added, such as the ability to see all the products for a vendor or maybe more-advanced search capabilities. As customers review the various products, links will be available to take the customer to the vendor's Web site, where the vendor can provide information, including the latest and greatest downloadable demonstration version of the software.

You'll have to be a member of the Tools Initiative, which means your software will have to be ServerProven, but that's to be expected. Other than that simple criterion, though, the eCatalog will be available to all tool vendors.

The eCatalog will also contain whitepapers and the like, which are further marketing vehicles for the vendors. This is the sort of program that can make iSeries ISVs more profitable and can perhaps make the platform more attractive to new vendors. Whereas I think IBM spent 2005 rebuilding relationships with the iSeries ISVs, I think 2006 is going to be the year that IBM uses its considerable marketing abilities to get the word out to the public, and the eCatalog is one way of doing that.

Man, I told you the iSeries was the place to be!

A Last Note

I had planned on talking about the Domino products, but unfortunately, some hang-ups forced me to delay my order of the xSeries box required to run it. That box is currently on its way, and you'll be hearing a lot more about not only Domino, but also many products from the Dark Side as I compare the ISV programs of Microsoft and IBM.

The Ongoing Saga of Hardware Procurement

There are people in IBM who are simply wonderful. They manage to get the earth to move. They make calls and things get done. They know who they are, and they need no further words from me. But at the other end are a number of people who actually do the work, and they deserve some mention. To that end, I'd like to send kudos out to David Pirnik, Grady Baggett, and Lynette Huff from the iSeries side, and Bill Tirpkos from the xSeries program. At this writing, the new iSeries is humming along, and the xSeries is on its way. Prepare to hear lots more about those particular boxes in the coming months.

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, Eclipse: Step by Step, and WDSC: Step by Step. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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