Jumping Hurdles From Green Screen to Graphical
Published: July 24, 2012
by Dan Burger
It's 2012 and application development that is reliant on tools and techniques from 10 years ago or more no longer fit into the present of future business plans of organizations that consider it important to adapt to a changing IT environment. In the community we refer to by the platform-specific name IBM i, where IT entanglements often are tied to systems known as the iSeries and AS/400, graphical application development has become much more common, primarily because it's become a whole lot easier.
A good example of this is 21st Mortgage Corporation, a midsize company that underwrites, originates, and services its own loans to manufactured housing retailers, mortgage brokers, and consumers nationwide. In January the company upgraded its System i Model 520 server running i5/OS V5R4 to a Power7 Model 720 running IBM i 7.1. But long before that, the IT department started down the road of graphical application development.
Gary Keith, the information systems manager at 21st Mortgage, told IT Jungle his RPG programming team was introduced to graphical application development in 2006, using RPGsp from Profound Logic. Last year the programmers switched to Profound UI, the vendor's latest application development tool, which became available in April 2010 along with the 7.1 version of the IBM i operating system.
Almost all the applications used at 21st Mortgage are developed in-house. Both RPGsp and Profound UI have been used for new application development, and prior to that everything was done with a green-screen presentation. Some green-screen development continues. Keith says the focus for now is on creating new applications and that modernization of old applications will come later.
Programmers are creating applications that are used internally by staff and externally by customers. Keith says most of the programmers are eagerly taking on new projects. They see this as the future of application development and an opportunity to learn important skills. There have been some important steps forward.
"We are less than two months away from deploying a customer self-service website that was done using Profound UI," Keith says. "It's our first step in having customers make payments online."
When that application goes live, it will be a big day for 21st Mortgage, but this is an app that will get continued attention. It won't be everything that everyone wants it to be from the get go. Like most projects I'm familiar with it will be finished in phases and tweaks will be made along the way based on user feedback. Most project managers would agree this is the smart way to take on a project.
"We are taking a good look at the design of the application from the beginning," Keith says. "We've had limitations with 5250 real estate to deal with in the past and now we can look at app development in a different way as we develop for a GUI."
One way that graphical app development is similar to green-screen development is that in both cases apps are being tweaked, changes are being made, and new functions are being added to accommodate changes in business requirements. That's a constant. And if you consider that to be application maintenance, there will be a similar amount of that type of work as long as the business is moving forward.
The changes that occur when progressing from green-screen to graphical development are not minor, but the move from developing with RPGsp to Profound UI also has been dramatic, Keith says. Much of that has to do with the incorporation of RPG Open Access and a much diminished learning curve for new skills.
The eight-person RPG programming team at 21st Mortgage is an experienced and talented bunch. Most of them are programming in ILE and using SQL. This past year Keith and one of the programmers attended the COMMON Annual Meeting and Exposition, where they made additional SQL training and security sessions a priority. The knowledge gained is shared with the rest of the staff.
Because the staff was unfamiliar with any type of Web development when Profound RPGsp was brought in five years ago, Profound's professional services staff did a lot of the work during the first year. The combination of a short deployment deadline and a staff that already faced a demanding schedule handling the day-to-day requirements were factors in making that decision.
"With Profound UI, their people have not been onsite to train or develop applications," Keith says. "My perception is that our staff doesn't need much help, but that when they do Profound is very good on their support line. The concept is not difficult to pick up. There is a learning curve, but it's no more than any other design tool. It focuses on the client side-screen side."
Keith says the early experience of changing the development process from green-screen development to GUI development using Profound Logic's RPG sp was a valuable learning experience that opened his eyes and the eyes of the development staff as they encountered problems and dealt with new experiences and found their way through the discovery process that comes with change.
One of the examples he recalled was the new way of dealing with persistence. In the 5250 world, all data between screen interactions is preserved and jobs remain active, but in the CGI environment--RPGsp is a CGI-based tool--jobs end with each screen interaction, and that causes a lot of data to be put in hidden fields, not a required step in the 5250 environment. Programmers had to take a little extra time to deal with that and Keith was happy when he found out Profound UI eliminated that CGI-required work and allowed programming that was more familiar to his RPG folks.
"We get a much cleaner screen design using Profound UI than when we used RPGsp because we are no longer limited to plain Jane HTML," Keith says. "We have more control and a tighter app field. The widgets and buttons provided in Profound UI are predefined and consistent. To get the same result that UI gives would be much more difficult to do with RPGsp."
The incremental plan to move from green screen development to a graphical presentation was supported by management throughout the process beginning with RPGsp and on thorough the use of Profound UI. Keith says the company clearly understood the business benefits associated with having modern-looking applications when people outside the organization are using them and making judgments about the company based on their impressions.
But an even bigger reason, Keith noted, was that new employees--particularly people just graduating college--are more comfortable with the GUI than the green screen. The average employee age at 21st Mortgage tends to be young and training young people to use green screen apps was making the learning curve steeper than it needed to be to raise productivity quickly.
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