RPG Isn't Dead, but Where Is it Headed?

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The immense popularity of PHP is exhilarating, but who will maintain the huge investment in RPG programs?


The second Zend Developer Pulse survey on PHP was released this week, and it provided an interesting foil to the recent discussions on the future of RPG.


Whether or not RPG is dead, dying, alive, or thriving, it's eminently clear that PHP is a thriving language today with new adopters coming on board every day. There are some five million PHP programmers now throughout the world, and the number is growing at a rapid rate. Consider that PHP was "invented" only a decade ago. What is it about PHP that makes it attractive to so many people, including current RPG programmers? Zend put the question to its users, 3,035 of whom returned responses to the survey.


Nearly three-fourths of them—some 72 percent—said that one of the main reasons PHP has grown so rapidly is that "PHP is easy to learn." I know the news story we carried says that PHP is "easy to use," but I checked the survey again, and the response was slightly different. To me, easy to learn means that you can start being productive sooner. Easy to use means that little effort is required in order to deploy it.


Nevertheless, the second reason—and 68 percent agreed with this—is that you can "get things done faster in PHP." In other words, you can be more productive, show results faster, impress people earlier, and keep project costs down because things get wrapped up faster than with alternative languages.


The third major reason why people believe PHP has grown so rapidly—and 53 percent agreed with this statement—is because application frameworks for PHP are readily available! This is eminently clear when you look at the number of Web application frameworks available for PHP compared to those available for other languages. There are more than 40 mostly Web application frameworks for PHP, and the only other language that comes even close to that is Java, with 38. Most have five or six.


What this says to me is that neither companies nor individuals have the time today to spend months or possibly years learning a programming language, and when they do develop a level of proficiency, they want to become productive quickly and start building applications.


The other part of the survey that I found significant, and the main thrust as far as Zend is concerned, is the finding that many PHP programmers working on projects today believe that their applications will be deployed on the cloud. Some 63 percent of developers expect at least a portion of their current applications under development will be deployed on the cloud, and no fewer than one in 10 expects that all their applications will be running on the cloud. This tells me that the cloud is becoming a significant platform for deploying applications—and it's not just useful for test and development.


I spoke with Elaine Lennox, Zend's chief marketing officer, about the survey results, and asked her several questions that I will go into in more detail in the upcoming "Power i Forecast: Best Workloads for the Cloud" article to appear July 2 in MC Systems Insight. Lennox says Zend is finding that companies are starting to use the Zend Server cloud for applications in which usage can spike quickly and there's a need to scale, such as in the news and entertainment fields, and for applications being accessed by mobile users, where there might be millions of people accessing the server at once from their smartphones.


I mentioned that all this success could provide an interesting backdrop to recent comments about the future of RPG. One columnist on another midrange publication (for which yours truly used to work) asked whether RPG were dead, then went on to answer that question in the affirmative. This of course set off howls of protest from the other active forum posters, including one repetitive and somewhat harsh call for the columnist to retire.


Personally, I think the whole episode began as a way to stimulate discussion and help draw attention to the publication's recently redesigned Web site and revamped publications, but that, admittedly, is purely speculation. Things got a little out of hand when the banner stating that the article in question was "Opinion," which apparently appeared in the print publication, was inadvertently dropped from the Web format.


So much for the background. It does raise the question, particularly in light of the meteoric rise of PHP, of where RPG is going. To try to answer that, more for myself than for you, our readers (remember that our leading newsletter is MC RPG Developer), I went to where languages are born and die—linguistics. Interestingly, there are some parallels. Spoken languages really do die; computer languages not so much. The Vatican is about the only enclave today where people actually speak Latin. The Hebrew language became extinct before a language revitalization effort in Israel revived it.


I can imagine a small core of aging IBM engineers huddled around a coffee pot in the break room of the Toronto labs circa 2035 discussing the finishing touches they're putting on yet another version of RPG that, for all intents and purposes, is being used by no more than 500 programmers worldwide. The accompanying press release from IBM Public Relations: "RPG Now Offers Object Orientation with Inheritance!"


That's a humorous take on a serious subject, but here's what I truly think. RPG is not dead, not by a long shot. Using the criterion linguists use for languages that are no longer in use—extinct languages—RPG has a long way to go before it's extinct. The definition for "dead computer language" used by the columnist in question was, in my opinion, incorrect. His definition for a dead computer language is: "The language is no longer routinely used to write new programs that solve current problems." That's like saying that Navajo is a dead language because it's no longer routinely used to communicate secret military plans.


What the language is used for, or how often it's used for a given task is not the main criterion for determining its morbidity. Staying with the linguistic parallel, what determines whether or not a language is dead is decided by whether or not there are people who can speak it natively. In other words, as long as there is a community of people who can program in RPG, and do so at an effective, professional level—in a non-academic environment—and the language is being passed on to the next generation, then RPG is alive. It may be under stress and, if the size of the native group is small and shrinking, in a state of attrition—but it's not dead. If only the elders speak it, and the younger generation doesn't, it is said to be "moribund," or stagnant.


When a spoken language dies, often what happens is the younger generation adopts a new language and stops speaking their native one. Or they might mix words and phrases from their traditional language with their newly adopted language. However, when the older generation dies off, there is no new generation of speakers who are proficient in the traditional language. That's when the language actually dies.


If you're beginning to see parallels here, then you're not alone. No, RPG is not dead—not yet. But is there a younger generation of engineers coming up in the ranks who know how to program in it? I don't think so. If there is such a group, it's pretty miniscule based on the turnout of the Young i Professionals (YiPs) I've seen at any show. And what I'm hearing in the marketplace is that senior IBM i professionals are starting to retire—in waves. I was just talking with Rich Waidmann, president and CEO of Connectria Hosting, who told me that a number of requests for IBM i hosting services are coming from U.S. companies that have lost key people formerly in charge of taking care of the firm's IBM i system and applications. Connectria, however, has been investing in IBM i talent for a decade and is prepared to take on the responsibility. Meanwhile, the vibrant sea of programmers who sat next to me at lunch during last fall's Zendcon conference represents the next generation. Most were half my age or younger.


Bob Cozzi has said for some time that he's concerned about the potential loss of programming and RPG skills in the U.S. Frankly, I am too. When you think about the investment in RPG applications, you have to ask yourself, who is going to maintain it all? I commend people like Jon Paris and Susan Gantner. They're doing something about it with their training seminars and RPG & DB2 Summits. But in a larger sense, they need help. Personally, I think someone needs to do a national assessment of skills and match it up against future business needs. Perhaps COMMON could commission such a study, or IBM. (It may be that such a study exists and I just haven't seen it.)


Because of the applications written in it, the RPG language is a critically important national asset. Someone needs to take ownership over its continued adoption and perpetuation in order to assure that it survives the leap to the next generation. Retaining today's knowledge will be far easier than trying to recreate it later as was done with the lost Hebrew language.