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You have to admit it: I've been a pretty good boy lately, haven't I? I don't think I've really said anything to make anyone angry. Well, maybe the fine folks who want to start charging System i developers extra for the tools they need to do their jobs, but I'm not sorry about that; they ought to be ashamed of themselves. However, besides them, I can't think of anyone I've aggravated in quite some time. Well, let's see if I can change that in this article!

This article is about a subject that goes to the very core of programming and one that you don't learn from a visual IDE or by reading a book on Extreme Programming. Speaking of Extreme Programming, how about that for a fad that burned out fast? Of course, what did you expect from a technique that was borne out of one of the more spectacular programming failures of the last millennium? It would be sort of like insisting that your company use the San Francisco project to build your software. Of course, that's the idea behind shrink-wrapped business software, which is actually being pushed by some people (notably the Microsoft crowd). But I'm already digressing....

Shrink-Wrapped vs. Custom Software

Or maybe I'm not digressing. There are so many places where I can start, but this might be the most important since it addresses the very nature of business software.

Since Og and Grunt, my favorite cave programmers, developed the first pterodactyl tracking system, there have been those in the business community who have been trying to get rid of them. Even though it's clearly demonstrable that computer technology aids every business venture, the IT department is still viewed by many as a cost center. Because IT can't point to a specific tangible revenue stream in this age of maximizing short-term profits at the expense of strategic growth, the IT department continues to be a target of the indiscriminate cost-cutting sword. (IT managers really need to show management exactly how much they are saving the company by comparing costs to non-computer methods.)

In that mindless pursuit of reduced expenses, the idea of shrink-wrapped software always rears its ugly head. It's not surprising; the only software ever seen by some of those in charge is often desktop automation software like Office or Outlook. Given that universe of experience, it's not unreasonable to assume that software in general is a one-size-fits-all proposition. However, as was clearly demonstrated in the San Francisco project that I alluded to earlier, finding a piece of shrink-wrapped software that fits your business exactly is nearly impossible. No two companies agree on what a calendar is, much less a customer.

There is another, more insidious problem: If you run your business on software that everyone else is using, you get no unique benefit from that software. You lose the benefit of custom code that can encapsulate and even reinforce those things that make your business special. If you have unique pricing, your business software should be written to take advantage of that fact. And I think it's clear that if you have a unique business practice, it's unlikely that a generic software package is going to support it. The inevitable consequence of plug-and-play software is that eventually everyone will be using a combination of components written by the same developers, developers who have no knowledge of the special characteristics of your business. In effect, you commoditize yourself, and the global economy makes it impossible for industrialized nations to compete in the commodity end of any business. The only way to be competitive is to provide a unique advantage, and packaged software isn't going to do that.

This isn't to say that you need to write everything from scratch. Especially in this day of complicated user interfaces and super-powerful programming, I think it's safe to say that the era of completely in-house developed software is waning. Except for completely unique requirements (Google, for example), it's unlikely that you won't be able to find packaged software that can adequately address part of your business flow. I'm sure I've already alienated some folks, so let me continue down that path by suggesting that there aren't a lot of ways to customize an accounting system. In fact, given the strict legal rules that accounting must play by, creative accounting could be considered a real liability. For many companies, payroll is an even more stringent area, although I have found that some companies actually rely on their own particular compensation practices to help incent their employees.

Neither extreme is the answer. Instead, the best solution is an amalgam of custom and packaged software, a mix I call semi-custom (not particularly original, but it gets the point across). You can do this in a number of ways. You can, for example, purchase shrink-wrap solutions and write your own custom extensions. This presupposes that the software you buy can be modified or extended, but except for utility software such as word processing, I think you should always try to find software that has some way of being extended. Heck, even game developers are smart enough to allow user customizations ("mods"). If you purchase a package that can't be extended, you're taking quite a gamble. Another option is to buy a solution that the vendor will customize for you, but it's becoming very rare to find a vendor willing to support custom modifications in the field.

This second alternative becomes even more attractive when combined with an interesting development that I spoke about in a recent article: Software as a Service (SaaS). SaaS is making the rounds again as a viable IT strategy. And while it's not often addressed, there are really two kinds of SaaS: shrink wrap and semi-custom. Some SaaS offerings (probably most of them today) basically allow you to run whatever software a company is willing to make available online. You may be able to set some runtime preferences, but in general you will run the exact same software every other user runs. This ranges from the various Google offerings to Microsoft's online Office offerings to business applications such as Smart Online. This is definitely the playground of the Windows or Linux server farm, with lots and lots of servers shipping out the same stuff to jillions of users.

This model will definitely be an ongoing component of businesses; it fits the same need that TurboTax fits for consumers. But it's the other side of the coin, the semi-custom SaaS offering, that really piques my interest. If you look at it carefully, you'll realize that this is really a rebirth of the old Service Bureau concept of the '70s and '80s except with the browser as the delivery mechanism. This model is eminently well-suited for the System i, requiring as it does both reliable and scalable delivery as well as highly productive business rules development. The ability to easily create and deploy specific modifications for individual clients is going to make the System i a particularly attractive platform for application service providers, as long as IBM is willing to make the appropriate tools available for developers (which of course is yet another, different topic, which I recently wrote about). Since custom business rules will always provide a competitive advantage; custom software of some form is going to be necessary.

Platform Independence vs. Platform Optimization

It was probably the coming of age of Java that spurred the idea that all software should be platform-independent. There is a certain appeal to the idea that your software will run on anything, especially for those using a platform that is seen as somewhat of a niche player. And while the IBM midrange has a solid reputation among those who understand the strategic requirements of business computing (reliability, scalability, simplicity, total cost of ownership), that message isn't widespread outside of the business-programming community.

Instead, we have the new crowd of nontechnical C-level executives who didn't come up through the ranks and who are getting advice from college-trained technicians who never saw a midrange. Since this new generation has never seen anything besides Windows and/or Linux, it's nearly a foregone conclusion that they'll be pushing platform-independence. The argument is that by writing code that will run on any platform, you'll be insulating the company from the chance that the IBM midrange platform will disappear and that this is a benefit for the company.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The only people who really benefit from platform-independence are consultants and software vendors, because they can sell their product to a wider audience. The truth is that, as with any business, a product that is optimized for its environment will outperform one that is not. This isn't some sort of magic; it's pure common sense. That's why native Windows applications outperform Java and why even within Java applications Eclipse's Standard Widget Toolkit (SWT), which uses platform-dependent code, outperforms the corresponding functions of the completely platform-independent Swing.

Not only that, but it's almost impossible to write a platform-independent application anyway. The only language you can really use is Java, and then you're stuck with using the Java Database Connectivity (JDBC) interface for your database I/O. This in turn ties you to SQL, which is anything but platform-independent. One of the topics I discuss when I'm on the road is SQL Hits and Myths, in which I talk about both the benefits and the downsides of SQL. One point I make is that SQL is anything but a platform-independent language. In fact, some of the basic features we require in a business environment (such as getting the first 10 records of a list) require a completely different syntax for every major SQL vendor.

This isn't to say that platform independence is a bad thing! There are certainly applications that would benefit from a completely platform-independent approach. But remember, that includes even the database, such as I show in Figure 1.

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/070406AD%20-%20Application%20ArchitectureV3--04110700.png
Figure 1: This is a true platform-independent approach. (Click images to enlarge.)

In the figure, UI is user interface, AC is application controller, BL is business logic, and DB is database. The truth is that most people talking about platform-independence mean what I show in Figure 2.

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/070406AD%20-%20Application%20ArchitectureV3--04110701.png
Figure 2: Here, everything is platform-independent, but the database is on an SQL server.

The problem with Figure 2 is that you've traded platform vendor dependence for database vendor dependence. I'm not sure that's a great trade, especially if you consider the loss of performance involved.

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/070406AD%20-%20Application%20ArchitectureV3--04110702.png
Figure 3: Give me platform-independence at the UI level, but let me write my business logic on the System i.

I much prefer the architecture I've shown in Figure 3. I use the platform-independence of Java to allow me to move my user interface wherever I need to. It could be on the System i, or it could be on another box in the DMZ, or it could conceivably be in some other location entirely, such as a handheld device. At the same time, my business logic is written in RPG and maintained by RPG developers who can quickly react to changing business requirements.

(I get a kick out of the whole notion of "agile development" and its implication that somehow previous generations of programmers can't keep up with business. Try dropping a new pricing scheme on a bunch of OO programmers and see what happens. My guess is that by the time they redesign their class hierarchy, the RPG programmers will have already put their new version into production. But, hey, that's a personal bias.)

Stateless Transactions

This is one of the perfect examples of how over-application of even the best idea can be a bad thing. A stateless architecture can certainly make sense when you're talking about thousands of users accessing one application at the same time. It makes even more sense in an anonymous browser environment when little session-specific data needs to be passed from one page to another and the overall state of the application is really quite small.

Notice, though, that for all but the most trivial of business applications, there really is a state. The term "stateless" is actually a bit of a misnomer; business applications are almost always stateful in that they do indeed keep track of state information; it's just not kept in memory. Instead, the state information is stored on disk and is retrieved and/or updated when necessary. For example, even an anonymous a shopping cart application will probably keep your order in a database file somewhere. Note that this doesn't have to be the case, but if it didn't and you were to accidentally lose your connection, your order would be lost as well. The state could be stored in a simple comma-delimited cookie on your desktop, or it could be in a keyed file on the server (with the key being stored in the cookie on your desktop). In either case, it's important to note that state is stored; it's just not kept in memory.

No, what the stateless advocates are really talking about is not statefulness per se but instead persistent connections, in which each user session has a unique job on the server. This session job holds data not only on disk but more importantly in memory for its associated user session. The in-memory information gives persistent applications their great response time, information that would otherwise have to be read in from disk every time. It is the difference between modern interactive applications and the old multiple requesting terminal (MRT) jobs of the '70s. The problem is once again the "one size fits all" mentality. In this case, the one size is the persistence model, and the fact is that causal browsers are a completely different fit than online business users.

The issue that's raised immediately is that persistent connections don't scale to millions of users, but the counterpoint is that most internal business applications or even business-to-business (B2B) applications have millions of users. Any IP address can support tens of thousands of persistent browser connections, and only the largest business-to-consumer (B2C) sites such as Google will ever run into any sort of limitations. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that if you have more than 10,000 users on your machine at any one time, chances are you can probably afford a second IP address.

To Summarize

Have I left any of the major new programming techniques off my list today? I've hit extreme programming, component-based software, platform-independence, and stateless architectures. And while I've been honest enough to admit that each of these has its place in certain situations (with the possible exception of extreme programming), I think it's clear that, in my opinion, in the domain of business applications for which the IBM midrange has historically served, these newer techniques really don't apply.

Of course, you may not agree with me....

Joe Pluta is the founder and chief architect of Pluta Brothers Design, Inc. and 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 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 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

Now On Sale

WDSC: Step by Step WDSC: Step by Step
Discover incredibly powerful WDSC with this easy-to-understand yet thorough introduction.
List Price $74.95

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Eclipse: Step by Step Eclipse: Step by Step
Quickly get up to speed and productivity using Eclipse.
List Price $59.00

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  • 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.

     

     

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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.