Volume 11, Number 5 -- February 8, 2011

Island Pacific Charts Its Own Path to Web 2.0 Independence

Published: February 8, 2011

by Alex Woodie

Island Pacific is putting the finishing touches on a cutting edge user interface (UI) framework that delivers Web 2.0-style ease of use on top of a new Web services interface into its core IBM i-based merchandising software. The Southern California software vendor has already won rave reviews from analysts and early adopters for the new framework, which it dubbed SmartRetail. IBM i professionals may be interested in how Island Pacific developers selected the tools that got them there.

Island Pacific has a long history of developing merchandise management systems on the IBM i platform, and like most other midrange software vendors, is a strong advocate of coding in RPG. It also realizes that, no matter how bullet-proof you make your transaction system, you can't send your salespeople into a deal with a 5250 "green-screen" UI. That is, unless you want them to be laughed out of the room.

To that end, about 18 months ago the company started going down a path to completely overhaul the user interface for the Island Pacific Merchandise Suite (IPMS), says COO Richard Gaetano. The standard 5250 screen didn't come close to cutting it anymore, and while the "screen scraper" tool from Seagull Software delivered a Web interface to IPMS, it wasn't a satisfactory long-term solution.

"We went through a pretty exhaustive process, looking at different products and tools to help us to modernize our system," Gaetano says. "The reality is, the IBM i is the most stable platform we could be running on. And if we really view it as what we want it to be, which is an enterprise application server, then all we really had to do was change that front-end layer, and say, 'How should the end user interact with that system?'"

The short answer is--not surprisingly--through a Web browser. But instead of just slapping a new Web interface together, which isn't that hard with a plethora of tools available from IBM and third-party vendors, the company decided to do the hard thing: completely separate the UI layer from the application layer.

"Every physical file that's sitting within our merchandising system now has a defined API that allows the basics, including adding, changing, and deleting records," Gaetano explains. "We're using a complete Web 2.0 AJAX-based Web browser solution that is leveraging all the Web services into the physical files on the IBM i. We basically redeveloped the front-end to work in an SOA [service oriented architecture] environment."

The work is not done yet. But by this summer, Gaetano expects his programmers to be done Web service-enabling every single IPMS process. DDS doesn't have to go away; customers can still get their 5250 green screen if they really want it. But all new customers (and existing customers upgrading to IPMS version 3.3) will benefit from the freedom that XML and Web Services Description Language (WSDL) were designed to bring. Few IBM i vendors have achieved true separation of business logic and presentation, making Island Pacific's SOA achievement that much sweeter.

The SmartRetail framework, which Island Pacific developed using the open source Smart Client development kit, opens up a new world of functionality and ease-of-use that didn't exist before. For starters, users can easily sort information on the screen. Exporting to Excel is also a snap to accomplish in the new framework.

The new framework also introduces workflow concepts, such as messaging and alerts, to guide the user through his day in the retail sector. "The green screen is not the best place to build workflow," Gaetano says. "Now, we can create alerts that tell the user 'Hey these are your things to do.' The user clicks on a link, and it takes him to where he needs to be to approve the purchase order, for example, because we know you have 14 to approve by the end of the day. It's trying to give you more actionable information."

Island Pacific customers can also customize their interfaces to a much higher degree than they could have before. It also allows them to modify the behavior of their applications to an extent, such as introducing outside formulas into the merchandising system. "They can do things that would have meant programming changes in the RPG world that they don't need to do any more, and that's the real value," Gaetano says.

While JavaScript and XML will be driving Island Pacific's user interface for the foreseeable future, it doesn't take anything away from the fact that Island Pacific is, first and foremost, an RPG development shop. "This was the largest project in the last 10 years on the RPG side," Gaetano says. "We still have a huge commitment to RPG. And now we're moving it forward, because we believe it is, and will be, the most efficient way to write the code to run on the i."

RPG is still core to what Island Pacific does, and that ties the company indelibly to the IBM i platform, and to IBM itself. Big Blue basically owns RPG, for better or worse. While Island Pacific is tied to the hip with IBM, it doesn't eliminate the fact that it's been critical of the development path that IBM pushed upon its partners.

"We talked about at the time, moving toward Webfacing, then HATS, then the combination of WebFacing and HATS, then EGL," Gaetano says. "We pretty much systematically went through, reviewed them, did our due diligence, and shot them down one at a time. If we'd have listened to them on WebFacing and HATS, we'd be in trouble, because it pretty much fizzled away.

"Instead, we came up with something we really like," he continues. "It's aesthetically pleasing, functionality rich and modern, and it gives us the flexibility to insert a lot of cool open source components. It doesn't change or require customers to rip and replace the platform. They can continue to leverage the i fully."

And ironically, Gaetano adds, the new AJAX-based interface is actually more in line with IBM's future technology direction--for the time being, anyway.


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