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Scripting Languages on i: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

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Contrary to what you might think, scripting languages have a long history on the i, and a wide variety of options exist on the platform. This article compares and contrasts those options.

 

What's a scripting language? Within the context of this discussion, a scripting language is a programming tool that allows the developer to craft dynamic Web pages, especially pages using business data. Even more specifically, we're talking about server-side scripting languages: languages that run on the host to generate Web pages. This is an important distinction, because only server-side languages depend on the host operating system; client-side scripting runs in the browser and therefore is independent of the host. So this article is going to examine the various types of server-side scripting languages available for the IBM i.

How Do Scripting Languages Work?

In its simplest form, a server-side scripting language is a language whose primary goal is to output HTML. Remember that the simplest browser request is one in which a URL is sent to the Web server and the server returns the contents of a static Web page. Simple and effective, this sort of interaction drove the first generation of Web sites.

 

Scripting languages, however, are used for dynamic Web sites. A dynamic Web page is one in which the data displayed to the user is a mixture of static information (such as logos and basic formatting) and dynamic business data retrieved from the host at run time. So scripting languages are tools used to dynamically generate the HTML for a Web page from data on the host. The industry term for calling a scripting program is CGI, or Common Gateway Interface. CGI defines a specific protocol by which the HTTP server invokes the CGI program to generate the Web page. And even this definition has two primary subcategories: macro-based languages and general-purpose languages.

 

Macro-Based Languages

 

Macro languages work by using embedded special instructions within a standard Web page; these embedded instructions use a syntactical shorthand to influence the way the data will be output. Those of us who hearken back to the dawn of the computer age may remember something called a "macro assembler." Assembly language programs are written in a very low-level language; it might take 10 operation codes (opcodes) to execute a simple task, such as comparing two strings. In order to make programming more efficient, the macros assembler allowed a programmer to combine multiple opcodes into a single construct called a macro instruction, or macro, and then invoke that macro with a single line of code.

 

The macro-based scripting languages for Web applications work similarly. The macro language instructions are embedded within a standard HTML page. In practice, the developer designs a standard Web page—often using a static Web design tool such as Dreamweaver or one of the many Eclipse-based tools—and then inserts (or "embeds") the scripting language elements. These scripting elements have a wide variety of capabilities, but two major categories include data acquisition and flow control. The data acquisition portion encompasses the various ways that business data can be retrieved into the Web page. The most common is ODBC access to relational data, although most scripting languages also allow a more flexible interface via direct calls to programs running on the host. Using these features, programmers can gather data from the host into simple variables or more complex variable types, such as arrays and lists. Simple variables are easily output to the HTML page, while the more complex variables usually require some flow control: for example, looping through an array or dictionary.

 

Here's a typical example:

<html>
<head><title>Hello World</title></head>
<body>
<cfset message = "Hello World!">
<cfoutput>#message#</cfoutput>
</body>
</html>

 

The majority of the code above is standard HTML. Only two lines do not contain standard HTML tags: the cfset and cfoutput tags. The cfset tag sets the variable message to the value "Hello World!", and the cfoutput tag displays it.

 

Simple, isn't it? This example happens to use one of the earliest macro languages, ColdFusion, and it shows a standard technique: using custom tags to invoke features specific to the scripting language. Another way to do things is to separate the macro language portion of the page from the HTML by using a special "mode" tag.

 

<html>
<head><title>Hello World</title></head>
<body>
<?php

 $message = "Hello World!";

 echo $message;

?>
</body>
</html>

 

This listing creates the same page, but instead all of the syntactical elements of the scripting language are enclosed within the special mode tag, which has the format. You may have guessed that this example is written in PHP, a very popular scripting language. It's different from ColdFusion in that, between the beginning and end of the special PHP tag, the PHP code is written much like a normal programming language. Statements are ended with semicolons and so on, to the point where you can write complete PHP programs right in your Web page. The echo opcode is used to get variable data from the PHP code into the HTML page. This is syntactically a little different from the use of a special output tag like the cfoutput tag above, but it accomplishes the same purpose.

 

I realize that in both these examples I've hard-coded the "dynamic" part of the page (the "Hello World!" text); in a real-world application, some scripting code would have been invoked to get that data from the host, either from a program call or through database access.

 

General-Purpose Languages

 

General-purpose languages do things a little differently. Instead of embedding directives into an HTML page, they output the entire Web page. The way most of these languages work is that they write directly to a "stream" called STDOUT, which in turn sends the data to the browser. In programming terms, a stream is a file that is treated as a stream of bytes. This works well for things like text files and Web pages, and is the fundamental file access method for UNIX systems. In fact, in most UNIX-based programming languages, such as C and C++, STDOUT is the primary device used to communicate with the user. Most write or print opcodes typically go to that device. (Incidentally, that's why PHP can use the echo command to send data to the browser; echo sends the data to STDOUT, and the data is then redirected to the browser by the Web server.) Some languages, such as RPG and COBOL, require a little more help; they usually have a special helper API that provides access to the STDOUT stream.

 

Here's an example of the RPG code for the same page:

 

wMessage = 'Hello World!';

writeStdout('<html>');
writeStdout('<head><title>Hello World</title></head>');
writeStdout('<body>');
writeStdout(wMessage);

writeStdout('</body>');
writeStdout('</html>');

 

Note that the program is a normal RPG program (in this case, free-format RPG). Setting the variable wMessage is done the same way you would in any other program. I could use a CHAIN to a database file or a call to another program—whatever I wanted to do to get the data. Then I execute a series of calls to the procedure writeStdout, which is a wrapper function for the QtmhWrStout API. Note that most of the calls use a literal; this is the equivalent of the hard-coded HTML in the macro-based languages. The only difference is the line that calls writeStdout but passes in the variable wMessage; this is how I insert dynamic data into the page.

 

With the exception of the code to write the output to STDOUT, general-purpose languages can be used for anything. They could update databases just as easily as spitting out Web pages. And in fact, since UNIX-based applications tend to talk to one another through STDOUT—the output of one program is sent (or piped) to the input of the next program in the job—most UNIX programmers can write CGI programs.

 

So the primary difference between the two CGI subcategories is that with macro-based scripting languages, each Web response starts life as an actual Web page with some script embedded into it, while general-purpose languages have no such Web page template and must explicitly write out the static portion of the Web page as well as the dynamic part.

Options on the IBM i

You might not realize it, but many options exist for both categories of CGI development. In the macro-based category, PHP is the latest craze, but several other languages have been around for a very long time, including one or two commercial options. For example, ColdFusion is available on the i. But perhaps the best-integrated option was something called Net.Data. Not to be confused with Microsoft's various .NET offerings, Net.Data was a very specific application development tool for the IBM i and z families. It was a little different than some of the other macro languages in that the Net.Data "source" document was broken up into well-defined regions; one section was used to define macros, while the other section defined the Web page, including references to the previously defined macros. Net.Data had great integration with SQL (way ahead of its time, especially for the IBM midrange family), and it was used for a lot of nifty first-generation Web applications for the platform. Unfortunately, like many things unique to IBM (can you say OS/2?), Net.Data just didn't have the following that would justify its ongoing development, and eventually the product was dropped.

 

Probably the largest community for macro-based languages on the IBM i is the JavaServer Pages (JSP) community. JSP and especially JSP Model 2, with or without JavaServer Faces (JSF), is the preeminent technology for all of IBM tooling, starting with WebSphere and continuing on through things like WebSphere Portal and EGL. The biggest problem with Java-based solutions is that they need to run in a Web application server such as Tomcat or WebSphere. The other languages require only the HTTP server to run.

 

Commercial options also exist, such as Zend's PHP and ProData's RPG Server Pages.

 

On the general-purpose side of the coin, by definition any language can be used, as long as it can invoke the appropriate APIs to access STDOUT. However, a relatively robust community has grown up around RPG CGI and especially the CGIDEV2 libraries originally written by Mel Rothman and maintained by Dr. Giovanni Perotti. I haven't heard much about COBOL being used as a language. Other languages include C and Perl, although Perl is only available in the PASE environment.

 

And just to be complete, you can use Java but forgo the JSP route and write your own Java CGI programs (called servlets), which do all the work and explicitly write the entire Web page as well. I'm not sure why you would do this, since JSP and especially JSF are such mature tools; in fact, if you're considering this route, you might want to seek professional help, and I'm not talking about programming!

Server-Side vs. Client-Side Scripting

So I think I've covered both the good and the bad of scripting. The good is that there are lots of options, and the bad is that there are lots of options. That is, so many options make it hard to make a decision. But regardless of that choice, it's time to address the ugly part of scripting.

 

Remember, at the very beginning of this article I mentioned that client-side scripting is server-independent. In fact, with a little help, it's also multi-host capable (although you need a proxy to protect against cross-site scripting vulnerabilities). Client-side scripting also allows applications to be much more responsive to the end user because interactions do not require round-trips to the host.

 

The magic tool that provides this functionality is the JavaScript language. JavaScript is a language that runs inside nearly every browser and nowadays is even relatively standardized across browsers. Some discrepancies exist, primarily between the Microsoft and Mozilla browser families, but generally speaking, you can write applications that use JavaScript to create very slick and powerful user experiences. From social networking sites to cloud-based applications to online games, everything now uses JavaScript to some degree.

 

Let's take a standard shopping cart application. In a traditional page-at-a-time Web page (also known as Web 1.0, though the term is somewhat loosely defined), you might see a list of items with thumbnail images. In order to see a full-size image of the item, you would have to hit a Submit button, which would in turn bring up another page. With a Web 2.0 application, you can assign a JavaScript function to a "mouseover" event so that, when the user moves the cursor over the thumbnail, a full-size image displays, hovering over the page until the user moves off the thumbnail.

 

In a more business-oriented case, changing the quantity of an order line on a Web 1.0 application would not be reflected in the totals until the user hits some sort of Submit button, at which point the data would be posted back to the server and the entire page would be updated. With Web 2.0, you could assign a JavaScript function to the "onblur" event of the quantity field; this would trigger a small, self-contained message to the host using Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) technology. This message would return the updated order information, which could be used to update the appropriate fields on the screen without repainting the entire page.

 

Two different problems make this particularly ugly. First, you have to learn JavaScript. So, if you choose something like PHP or Perl, you're going to have to learn that syntax, and then you're also going to have to learn JavaScript syntax. I can tell you that if you wanted to learn a single syntax, Java is probably closer to JavaScript than anything, although some features of PHP (such as typeless variables) are actually more aligned with JavaScript. The point remains: you have to learn two languages.

 

But even that pales in comparison to the real problem, which is that the JavaScript code is embedded in the Web page, and since you're dynamically generating some of the HTML, you may (and probably will) find yourself having to generate the JavaScript code as well. For example, if you want to create a function that reacts to a click on a row in a table, you'll have to figure out how to dynamically attach the function to each row. This can get really interesting when the size of the table changes at run time and even more fun when the columns change. I've spent a good part of my career writing code that generates code, and I can tell you from experience that it's probably one of the toughest jobs a programmer can do.

 

So there's the ugly part. You'll need to learn a couple of languages, and you'll probably have to use one to write code in the other.

 

It's the end of the article, so it's as good a time as any to insert my obligatory plug for EGL: with EGL, you learn a single syntax and the EGL tool generates the appropriate code, be it HTML for the thin-client pages or Java for the server-side code or JavaScript for the client-side. It will help for you to have an understanding of the syntax of the various generated languages, but you won't have to write that code yourself, much less use one language to write another. It's a huge benefit, and you can check it out by downloading the free EGL Community Edition.

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.
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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.

     

     

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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.