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Best Practices: Cross-Platform Documentation

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A recent article, "Legacy Maintenance: Evaluating and Documenting Business Rules in Legacy Code," addressed the idea of documenting business rules. It gave a specific example of documenting business rules for a free-form RPG program. While that was a helpful exercise, it was for a single platform, which is fairly easy to manage. In this article, I want to show why documentation is even more important in architectures spanning multiple platforms.

This article will cover data definitions in particular, because I'm a little bit old-fashioned and I believe that the data defines the system. Everything in an application flows from and is influenced by not only how the data is stored in the database, but also how data is communicated between components of the application.

But before I delve into that documentation, I want to review a little bit about what documentation is used for in a traditional development shop. In these days of "code first and document later" programming, documentation—and particularly application design documentation—is afforded less significance than in times past, if indeed it's considered at all.

Which Came First, the Design or the Documentation?

I must stress that I am a firm believer in designing before programming. The whole idea of programming by refactoring just doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I lean more toward the Big Upfront Design (BUD) school of programming, where the majority of your design is done before you actually write any code. I'm not immune to the allure of some of the "agile" programming strategies that allow you to sit down and code immediately, but I still have a lot of old-school in me, so I tend toward the classic development strategies. I'm not a complete Luddite; as the new RPG Developer publication evolves, I will be looking for some of the next-generation programmers to explain how and when the newer, extreme techniques can be applied to RPG development.

But for this article, I will examine the product development life cycle techniques that were prevalent during my formative years (and are still in use today). A quick bit of history (as if you didn't see that coming): Before the advent of agile programming, we used software development techniques with a number of names, including one called the waterfall method. In the waterfall method, there were various phases of the development process, each of which led to the next phase. A typical project plan looked like this at the highest level:

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/070805AD%20-%20Best%20Practices%20Cross%20Platform%20DocumentationV3--08080700.png

Figure 1: The standard waterfall development cycle is made up of discrete steps. (Click images to enlarge.)

Each step (or "phase") had its own pieces. The requirements phase involved talking to users and identifying the new features or modifications needed to make them more productive. Functional design was typically done by business analysts who sort of bridged the gap between users and coders; they understood much of the technical nature of the system but usually came from a business background. They identified the programs and files that needed modification and the business rules that needed to be implemented. A programmer then created the technical design, including the specific fields to be added or the modifications that would be made to a program. In a large shop, these designs were detailed enough that they could be written by a senior programmer and then handed off to a junior programmer. The coding phase was just that: Write the code and debug it. Usually this involved a unit test plan. The integration phase then made sure that the new code interacted properly with the other parts of the system.

The idealized waterfall model had specific, discrete steps, each of which began just as its predecessor ended. This is one of the criticisms of the method, because in a system of anything more than trivial complexity, you are almost guaranteed to have design changes, due to either unforeseen issues or changing business requirements. Such is the nature of business programming; it is not static. And so the real project plan for most projects looked more like this:

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/070805AD%20-%20Best%20Practices%20Cross%20Platform%20DocumentationV3--08080701.png

Figure 2: The "waterfall with feedback" model included overlapping phases.

Figure 2 shows an adaptation of the waterfall method with overlapping phases. Each phase then provides feedback to previous phases. The amount of overlap is not accidental, either: In the best design, feedback should go back one phase. For example, it's actually quite likely that the functional design phase will uncover issues that need to be taken back to the users, which will in turn affect the requirements phase. However, it should be rare that technical design issues should do so and pretty much impossible for coding issues to do so. That's because each phase acts as a buffer between the phases before and after it.

And that is where documentation comes in.

Documentation: The Glue Between the Phases

Let me talk now about some specifics. I'm going to go into the way-back machine and use my experiences at a rather large software vendor that shall remain nameless. We didn't actually call the documents that moved between phases "documents." This wasn't just obfuscation; we had a better name: deliverables. Deliverables were the components that were "delivered" from one phase to another. They clearly highlighted the delineation between phases. And while different shops had different names for both the phases and the deliverables, they usually did pretty much the same thing. Here is an example list.

Phases and Associated Deliverables
From Phase
To Phase
Deliverable
Requirements
Functional Design
Specifications. These documents identified at the highest level the features and functions that the proposed programming task would accomplish. These were typically couched in the most business-oriented terms, such as "provide lot-level tracking for inventory." It would identify business issues such as FIFO allocations, as well as areas that weren't affected (for example, costs might not be tracked by lot).
Functional Design
Technical Design
Application Design. This was the bridge from user to computer requirements. A given task often affected many objects. Something like the lot-level tracking would affect everything from maintenance programs to allocations to order entry. It was the job of the business analyst to identify all those areas and explain how each program was affected by the requirement.
Technical Design
Coding
Detailed Design. This outlined the exact files and fields to be updated, as well as the routines within the affected program and the logic that was to be added. Calculations and results would be described here, although the final code was left to the discretion of the programmer. One of the primary components of the detailed design deliverable was the unit test plan, which the programmers used to determine the accuracy of their coding.
Coding
Integration
Object List. This was the list of affected objects. Once all tasks for a given part of the system were completed, integration and system testing could begin. This was often the tricky part; coordinating all the changes for order entry was always an interesting task.


So the specifications were the definition of the enhancement in business terms. The enhancement then filtered down through the phases, with each deliverable moving closer to the actual code required. The application design identified at a high level the objects that needed to be updated and the modifications required, while the detailed design mapped out the individual changes to the affected objects—for example, database files, report layouts, or programs.

http://www.mcpressonline.com/articles/images/2002/070805AD%20-%20Best%20Practices%20Cross%20Platform%20DocumentationV3--08080702.png

Figure 3: The business requirement is refined via each phase of the development cycle.

Figure 3 shows the process in some detail and brings up one of the crucial points. Note that PGM B in the diagram actually has two detailed design documents, one from TASK 1 and one from TASK 2. One of the most difficult tasks in a large development project is managing multiple changes to a single object. Consistent documentation is crucial.

Consistency Is the Hallmark of Good Design

Although Emerson remarked that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, he never really defined the difference between foolish and intelligent consistency. And no matter what the poet meant, I can assure you that consistency is an absolute requirement in system design.

Picture this: During the design of the lot tracking enhancement, somebody creates a field called EXPIRES to capture the expiration date for the lot. However, names can often be misleading in the design process. One analyst might see the expiration date as the last date that the lot is good, while another designer might see it as the first day the lot is expired. Obviously, these are very different meanings, and a mistake could have disastrous effects.

The best way to avoid this is to establish a dictionary of common terms and to be sure that your field naming conventions follow that dictionary. This is one of the few places where DDS file definition actually has an advantage over DDL (the SQL data definition language). DDS fully supports the concept of a reference file, and that can help when defining fields. You can, for example, come up with a standard field name for a concept like expiration date and then define that concept in your field reference file. Any fields in your database that are meant to be expiration dates can then be based on that field. Standard i5/OS tools will then show you the referenced field.

You can still do something along those lines with DDL, although it's not quite as smooth. At the very least, I suggest using a naming convention that includes the reference field name as part of the actual column name in the table. But that technique goes for DDS as well: Your actual physical file field names should include the reference field name. I'll leave for another day the debate as to whether fields in two files should have the same name or should have a prefix identifying the table.

And Now We Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Article

This brings us back to the issue of documentation. Even if you do have consistent naming for each of your fields, those definitions should be further codified in a binder that identifies these field names and their functions. Let's take a look at a field definition:

Field Name
EXPIRES
Field Type
DATE (platform-specific)
Definition
This lot expiration date identifies the last date that a lot is available. After this date, the lot is considered "expired" and can no longer be allocated.


Again, the name is probably less important than the fact that you have a name and use it consistently. If you stick with DDS naming, you're limited to a total of 10 characters; if you use a two-character prefix, that leaves you only eight, so your naming will need to be a little bit creative (I know that those of you who remember six-character field name limitations are chuckling to yourselves; consider yourself lucky these days).

You might notice that in field type, I have "DATE (platform-specific)." Ah, finally we talk about platforms! And indeed, the ability to properly manage multi-platform design hinges on consistent documentation of data elements. If two parts of your system treat the same element differently, you will introduce the most difficult bugs of all: ones that are identifiable only through the analysis of inter-platform transactions. Ugh. It's hard enough to set up a test environment on one machine; imagine trying to set one up when it involves two (or more!) different platforms. Not only do you have to set up the test environments on each platform, but you have to have a way to configure your inter-platform communications easily and in a foolproof manner, because changes in those communications parameters could themselves introduce bugs! And yes, you can assume that I speak from painful experience on these matters.

I just got done helping a client replace a SQL Server application communicating via XML over HTTP with a servlet running on the System i. The only test bed we had was the existing SQL Server machine, and the test tools on that box were limited at best. Because there was no formal documentation of the system, we had to do a lot of the testing by trial and error, and believe me, I'd rather have been...well, just about anywhere.

So How Does Documentation Help Multi-Platform Programming?

Most importantly, documentation helps because it makes sure that the data elements throughout the application remain the same. For example, a thick client can interface with a host application in two ways: It can store data locally, or it can get data from the host. Both designs have their benefits and drawbacks, but each can benefit from careful documentation.

Let's look at an example. Suppose that your application has a unit price field that currently stores two decimal places and that, due to business requirements, you now have to add a third decimal place. You might go through all of your System i applications and update everything, including master files, maintenance programs, processing programs, you name it. In fact, except for trying to find room on some green-screen displays, if you have a good reference file, this might not even be a difficult change.

But let's then say you have an offline order entry program. This is a thick client that runs on the laptops of the salespeople. It allows them to download current prices when they have an Internet connection and then go to clients and actually quote and take orders. Later, they upload the orders to the system to be processed.

Well, if you forget about that program in your analysis, you don't put in the extra decimal position. And while that may not mean much, on orders with quantities in the thousands or millions, those tenths of a penny add up pretty quickly. Suddenly your host system is printing invoices that don't match the quoted orders. Luckily, the number is too high, because then someone complains. If the number were too low, your customers would probably just keep the discrepancy to themselves, and you'd only find out way down the road when you analyze your books.

So why would documentation help? Well, because if you had a master document that identified the database on both the host and the laptop, and that document properly identified the price field on the laptop as being dependent upon the system-wide price field, then your initial analysis of the requirements would identify that file (and the programs that use it) as requiring modification. You may rely on a tool that provides all sorts of cross-reference capabilities, but I have yet to find one that can recognize that a field from a database is passed as a field in an XML file to a bit of AJAX running in a browser and then tell you to update the JavaScript when you change the field attributes. However, a solid system design document should tell you just that sort of information.

But it only matters if the documentation is consistent and complete across all of your systems. I've introduced the topic here and explained why it's important, but I've only touched on the database aspect. As you might guess, the issue extends to business rules as well. If there's interest, I'd like to write another article identifying some possibilities for documenting both data elements and business rules across multiple platforms, maybe even offering some specific examples of how to document different languages in a manner that allows consistent cross-referencing. Let me know if this is an area that needs further exploration.

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

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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.
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    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.

     

     

  • 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.