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ASNA Wings 5.2 Gives Your RPG Applications the User Interface They Deserve

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Rational Open Access for RPG Edition may be the most important thing IBM has ever done for its midrange platform.

 

 

The green-screen, character-based user interface has been the IBM i's nemesis since the mid-90s. We probably have Windows to thank for this fickle frustration. Once we all got used to the notion of pull-down menus, radio buttons, and snazzy colors, the old-fashioned green-screen user interface became annoying very quickly. Over the years, we've seen many attempts to make the IBM i feel more modern. We've endured IBM's OS/2-based "polymorphic GUI" (remember that?), a litany of screen scrapers (none of which ever fooled anyone), and browser-based emulators that never quite delivered on their promise.

 

With the introduction of i5 V7R1 (and PTFed back to V6R1), IBM delivered Rational Open Access for RPG Edition. Hidden behind the most ostentatious name for an API ever lurks perhaps the most powerful and most important thing that IBM has ever done for its midrange platform. The Open Access (OA) API effectively provides input and output exit points for ILE RPG programs. These exit points let native RPG file input and output streams be intercepted by external processes. Through the OA API, the potential exists that one day you'll be reading and writing to Excel spreadsheets from your ILE RPG programs with venerable RPG operations such as CHAIN, READ, UPDATE, and WRITE. OA is only an API. It is effectively a traffic cop that needs subordinate "handlers" (special-case i5 program objects) through which the file data is processed.

Introducing ASNA Wings

At ASNA, the promise and the power of IBM's OA was immediately recognized as being the missing link in enabling a true, powerful, and extensible solution to the IBM i's green-screen limitations and constraints. In the summer of 2011, ASNA released ASNA Wings 5.0. Wings lets you easily, and without code, create an alternative browser-based user interface for ILE RPG programs. Wings uses IBM's OA API to intercept display file data and pass it on to the Wings Open Access handler. The Wings alternative UI is created, and can be customized, without the constraints imposed by the 5250 data stream.

 

 

The Wings UI layer is implemented as a Microsoft .NET ASP.NET Web site. Except for extending the cosmetics and functionality of the resulting Wings pages, Wings does all of the work for you. This ASP.NET Web site connects seamlessly and transparently to your IBM i. At runtime, the display file data is transmitted from your ILE RPG programs to the Wings UI layer.

Results First

Before we dig into how Wings does what it does, let's fast-forward to the results for just a moment. To establish a baseline for Wings results, Figure 1 shows a typical green-screen display.

 

 

062012PenceFig1 

Figure 1: A Typical Green-Screen Display

 

Wings results are available in the following three stages:

 

Stage 1: Using the ASNA Emulator

The ASNA 5250 Emulator is bundled with ASNA Wings. Without doing any work to improve your RPG program displays, you can use Wings and the ASNA Emulator to display your RPG program's screens. Figure 2a shows the green-screen presented in Figure 1 rendered in the ASNA Emulator. Unlike other browser emulators, the ASNA Emulator provides the user with the full complement of function keys. The program behaves just as it should, with zero modifications, in the ASNA Emulator.

 

 

062012PenceFig2 

Figure 2A: Figure 1 Rendered in the ASNA Emulator

 

Even when pursuing the further stages of Wings RPG enhancements, Wings uses the ASNA Emulator intrinsically to render any displays you haven't yet enhanced with Wings or to render those displays that you can't enhance with Wings (such as i5 commands when used as part of an end-user workflow—WRKSPLF, for example). The header for the emulator display (the area of Figure 2A with the image in it) is fully configurable by you; it is a part of what gives you Wings, and ASNA Emulator displays a consistent look and feel. You can customize the overall look and feel of Wings, and ASNA Emulator displays to any degree necessary. For example, in Figure 2A the colors have been changed from green-on-black to blue-on-white.

 

Stage 2: Creating an Alternative Display with Wings

While the ASNA Emulator does a great job of rendering 5250 displays, its customization capabilities are limited. To be able to do cosmetic and functional enhancements to your RPG program displays, you'd use the Wings Screen Design Aid to import display files into Wings. Through its import facility, Wings automatically translates the green-screen DDS into a browser page that renders the display. Figure 2B shows how the green-screen shown in Figure 1 looks at this stage. In this case, you are in full control of the header and sidebar; the one shown is just one of the many ways the header and sidebar elements could be displayed.

 

 

062012PenceFig3 

Figure 2B: The Green-Screen DDS in Figure 1 Translated into a Browser Page

 

The Wings display in Figure 2B is considered the "raw" imported state of a Wings display because it hasn't yet had any cosmetic or functional enhancements added to it. Achieving this raw Wings display requires a few point-and-clicks and one very minor change to your RPG program (more on this later). It otherwise requires no coding and is very easy to do. The primary content area of this figure (the largest rectangle, with the "Case Information" label at the top) is the part of the display Wings created by reading the display file DDS on the i5. Currently enabled function key buttons (which are clickable) dynamically appear in the left sidebar; however, the function keys are also fully operable. Wings pages can be navigated by either pressing the original function keys or clicking on the buttons. Wings imports at the display file level, so all of the record formats defined in any one display file are transformed at the same time by Wings.

 

It's covered in more detail later in this article, but it should be mentioned here that Wings displays are alternatives to your existing green-screen displays; they aren't rip-and-replace display file substitutes. With Wings, it isn't either/or; you can continue to have one set of users using the original 5250 displays and another set using the new Wings alternative displays.

 

 

Stage 3: Adding Cosmetic and Functional Improvements to Your Wings Displays

Figure 2C shows the final stage of using Wings to improve your RPG applications' user interface.

 

 

062012PenceFig4 

Figure 2C: Using Wings to Improve the User Interface

 

The display from Figure 2B was the starting point for this level of enhancement. The Wings presentation layer is customized by using standard Web designer and Web development techniques. In this case, the following improvements were made:

  • The central area of the screen was segregated into functional sections. This is a common Wings enhancement you'd make to what are usually highly populated 5250 displays. This segregation makes it easier for users to find what they're looking for on the screen. This step also included very minor rearranging of the some of the fields on the display.
  • The "Print" input field was replaced with a print button (upper right corner of the main panel). Users no longer need to put an "X" in a field and press Enter to print the associated output; all they need to do now is click the printer image.
  • The two subfiles had their selection column removed and now react to a mouse double-click to select a row (which, in this case, shows more detail for the row). In this case, there's only one option available, so selecting a default action was pretty obvious. Usually, though, your subfiles will have more than one option available. In that case, you get to select which option is the default option for the double-click. This is a very simple modification with Wings.
  • The function keys' prompt labels have been removed from the bottom of the screen. Despite the omission of the function key labels, the function keys remain operational.

 

These cosmetic and functional changes were very simple to perform, taking less than fifteen minutes for the screen shown. With these changes applied, no one would ever assume that this application was originally born and bred on an AS/400 back when Ronald Reagan was the U.S. President.

 

Wings elevates the IBM i application to a vastly more respectable status amongst its users. The application is more intuitive, it's more attractive, and it's overall easier to user. Beyond that, by hosting the IBM i application in the browser, it now becomes a first-class citizen there along with all of the other browser-based applications your enterprise uses. There, the Wings presentation layer can be even more tightly integrated into your enterprise (perhaps by reaching out to business partner Web services or using other Web APIs), and the Wings application can be used as the hub onto which you snap additional tangential applications—all providing the same look and feel.

How Does Wings Work?

To understand how Wings works, let's start in the pre-OA days. Back then, when an RPG program emitted display file data, it wrote display file data records that were then sent to the workstation controller, where that data was merged with the display file definition, transformed into a 5250 data stream, and passed on to a 5250 device. After accepting user input, the data stream flowed back through the workstation controller, transformed back into display file data records, and was sent back into the RPG program (as shown in Figure 3A).

 

062012PenceFig5 

Figure 3A: How It Was

 

The display file data flow for ASNA Wings is shown in Figure 3B. As you can see, the RPG program still writes to the display file data records, but then, rather than being passed on to the workstation controller, the data records are passed, via IBM's OA, to the Wings OA handler. The Wings OA handler then packages the display file data as a Wings display file dataset and passes it on to the new Wings browser page. Accepting user input, the Wings display file dataset is then sent back through the Wings OA handler and changes made are then given back to the RPG program.

 

062012PenceFig6 

Figure 3B: How It Is Now with Wings

 

To cause the RPG program to invoke the OA exit points, the RPG program's WRKSTN file needs to have a single continuation line added to it to register the Wings OA handler. Except for this very minor, non-invasive change, the RPG program is none the wiser that its display file data stream is being routed through the Wings OA handler. Using ILE RPG's conditional compilation, it's very easy to use the same RPG source member to create one program object with the Wings OA handler registered and one without. Thus, the original program is still available should you need to also provide some users access to the original green-screen displays. It's a simple matter of manipulating the library list to make the correct program object available at runtime.

Wings Isn't a Screen-Scraper

It's easy to look at Wings and assume it's just another in a long line of screen-scrapers. But Wings isn't a screen-scraper; it isn't constrained by the 5250 data stream. With Wings, a semantic buffer of data, the Wings display file dataset, is sent to the UI. This buffer can be read, by field name, by presentation layer code to make enhancements and improvements. This buffer, shown in Figure 4, includes all of the fields written to the display file, as well as data not encapsulated by the 5250 data stream including all indicator values and all hidden and system fields. This important distinction is even more significant when dealing with subfiles, where all subfile fields and records (not only those that "fit" in the screen) are available to the Wings UI layer.

 

062012PenceFig7

Figure 4: It's All About the Buffer

Wings in the Mobile World

There was a time when putting applications in a user's browser was revolutionary. Now it's a necessity. Also rapidly crossing the chasm from revolutionary to necessity are mobile platforms. With ASNA Wings, you can deliver your RPG applications to your users' smartphone and tablet mobile devices.

 

 

Figure 5A shows the ASNA Wings emulator running on an iPad. This is the kind of thing that seems pretty obvious, but once you consider all of the implications, you realize it isn't so obvious. Our R&D team has spent quite a bit of time figuring out how to make function keys available to end users on a tablets and smartphones. Figure 5A shows how the Wings emulator makes the function and special keys available with a single swipe. This custom key pad lets you record favorite keys and naturally lets users get IBM i work done on their tablets. Of course, the Wings modernized displays show on the iPad as well—pretty much the same as they do in a user's desktop browser.

 

 

062012PenceFig8 

Figure 5A: The ASNA Wings Emulator on an iPad

 

The more challenging mobile nut to crack is rendering your RPG applications on a smartphone. There, the 24x80 (or worse, the 27x132) native form factor is darned hard to render in a 320 or so pixel screen. In this case, you can't just point a display at the Wings screen design aid and click "render in a smartphone" because intelligent decisions need to be made about what fields can be logically displayed on the display-constrained device.

 

Our user testing shows that presenting the entire screen on a smartphone using the smartphone display as a small portal (where the user brings a portion of the screen into view by scrolling with a fingertip and "pinching" the screen) isn't what users want. They demand a rational display that rivals the quality of native apps. Figure 5B shows what a Wings display could look like on a smartphone (in this case, an iPhone). What we've done here is pare down the screen to limit the displayed fields to just what the user needs.

 

 

062012PenceFig9 

Figure 5B: A Wings Display on an iPhone

Get More out of Your RPG with ASNA Wings

There's a lot more to Wings than what this article could cover. For example, Wings 5.2 is ready for the enterprise with an exciting new feature called Flight Plans. Flight Plans provides a way to manage the work flow of importing many display files at one time. It provides the ability to inject the handler continuation line automatically for you, and it can, if necessary, invoke CVTRPGSRC to transform your RPG/400 programs into ILE RPG programs.

 

Wings provides a very exciting way for you to improve the user interface for your RPG programs. It requires no special knowledge for transforming your dreary 5250 displays into effective browser-based alternatives. And its UI can be further extended and improved with off-the-shelf Web development techniques.

 

 

Please visit www.asna.com/wings for more information about ASNA Wings.

 

 

Roger Pence

Roger Pence is ASNA's Product Evangelist. Roger has been in the IBM i midrange community for so long that Elvis was alive when he started. He has been with ASNA since 2000. Prior to joining ASNA, Roger was a technical editor for NEWS/400 and the author of the 400/Group's AS/400 and Windows newsletter.

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    • 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.