ISVs React (Or Not) to PHP on the System i
Published: April 24, 2006
by Mary Lou Roberts
The news that PHP will be available on the System i--and for free!--seems to have captured the imagination and interest of many. After all, it's a Java alternative, and we all know how unenthusiastic many iSeries users have been about going down the Java road. The potential is there, many say, for PHP to have a big--even huge--impact on the System i5 line. But there are some issues that need to be dealt with first.
For one thing, there are lots and lots of young and enthusiastic PHP programmers who are devoted to this easy-to-learn and easy-to-use Web scripting language. If you've been hesitating to Web-enable your legacy applications because you can't find or afford the necessary Java or WebSphere resources (both of which tend to send the minds and hearts of many an OS/400 professional sinking), it's not hard to find (and hire) those with PHP experience. And, if you're inclined to grow your own, PHP is far more likely to be accepted by your staff than, say, Java.
The partnership announcement between IBM and Zend Technologies for the System i platform a few weeks ago is leading to a lot of speculation (and some high hopes) about what it all really means to the System i community. Andi Gutman, one of the founders of Zend, posted a note on his weblog on April 14: "I believe this initiative will have a huge impact on the i5/OS community, which has primarily been offered Java as a way to Web and Web Service enable their platform, but as most of us PHPers know, Java is just too damn hard and takes too much time . . . :" He notes also that Zend will be providing ways to i5/OS users to "access their existing code-base by creating language bridges, native drivers for accessing DB2/400, and various other bridges to operating system services."
There is no data yet on how many OS/400 shops have taken advantage of the free software download, and no one really knows how many of those who have downloaded PHP are just playing with it or will seriously move forward with it as an integral part of their modernization program. But it's a safe bet that many will take a long look at this technology that is now available to the System i. In the long run, it may or may not gain a serious following.
Looking at the long-range impact of PHP on the System i5, however, causes one to wonder about both the short- and long-range impact it will have not just on the end user shops but on independent software vendors (ISVs)--especially tool vendors--whose investments in their current software and strategies may just have been thrown a PHP curve ball. What are they thinking and doing about PHP? Is PHP friend or foe?
Typically, ISVs love to contribute their thoughts to articles such as this. So it's probably significant that for this article, the silence was deafening from some quarters. Several simply declined to respond. Some are still evaluating the significance. Duncan Kenzie, chief technology officer for BCD Software, for example, simply replied: "BCD finds the PHP announcement interesting, and is researching carefully what this means for the System i5 marketplace."
But a few brave souls did venture out with their assessment of what PHP will mean to the System i community in general and to their companies specifically.
Alex Roytman, president of Profound Logic Software has heard it all before. "The hype surrounding PHP on the iSeries sounds very similar to the benefits that Java was supposed to bring. iSeries shops were supposed to flock to Java in droves," Roytman explained. "Thousands of open source libraries and a huge pool of young, talented developers would drive down the cost of developing business applications. Sound familiar?"
All those predictions about Java didn't come true, and neither will those about PHP, according to Roytman, who points out that most OS/400 shops are invested in native technology and are looking for ways to leverage their existing skills. "There's also the 'comfort factor.' An iSeries developer would much rather 'Chain' to a database record that 'SQL' it," he says. "Our products allow iSeries customers to move to the Web and create modern applications with the use of their existing skills and code base."
Roytman does acknowledge that bringing more technologies to the OS/400 platform will attract more developers and business--and that's good for the platform. But he doesn't anticipate that OS/400 shops will adopt PHP on a large scale any time in the foreseeable future. "PHP is not a threat to our business. But whether or not it's a friend remains to be seen," he says.
The view of PHP over at looksoftware does not view the PHP announcement as having much effect on its business one way or the other, according to Pete Isaksson, business development manager. But he does believe it's a solid strategic move for IBM.
"IBM is likely offering PHP for free because it gives the Linux platform a boost in the war with Microsoft technologies, particularly against Windows servers. IBM is making every effort to reposition the i5 as a multi-platform machine, so it seems natural to me that it is pumping up Linux development capabilities to draw developers in the Linux direction as opposed to .NET. Any shop with a bias against Microsoft and an interest in Linux should be pleased at this offering."
The move to put PHP on the System i is both logical and significant, according to Daniel Magid, president of Aldon, from the standpoint that it will make it easier for users to build and deploy Web applications. "System i5 users have always been focused on development productivity, and PHP is an option that supports the rapid build and deployment of Web application functions," he says.
Further, Magid believes that the availability of PHP on the System i, like other recent IBM announcements of new technology for the platform, increases the development options available to System i5 users. "Having those options reinforces and enhances the System i value proposition as an enterprise application server, and ensures that it will remain a vibrant platform," he says. "Since Aldon is a leader in providing comprehensive solutions that manage both legacy System i development as well as development using the latest technologies, we see this as a very positive announcement. If PHP gets System i5 users to adopt new technology more quickly and more widely, we will be very pleased."
But will PHP hasten the move of System i die-hards to new technology? Sal Stangarone, vice president of business development for michaels, ross & cole, is skeptical. While he believes that bringing PHP to the System i is a natural move, given IBM's apparent strategy to make the System i the integration box that can do anything, he has one major concern: that PHP will add to the confusion in the System i space as to which technology a company should chose to move forward strategically.
"Microsoft has one choice for its clients: .NET," Stangarone points out. "But IBM has Java, Net.Data, CGI/RPG, and now PHP. This demonstrates a great flexibility. But for the tens of thousands in this market who haven't done any serious web development yet, it means that there's yet another technology they need to evaluate before they start modernizing. This may, in fact, delay their movement to the Web. The longer the delays, the more likely management will outsource or turn to another department for Web solutions, and that's a real concern in this marketplace."
Steve Gapp, president of SoftLanding Systems [http://www.softlanding.com] agrees that anything that brings new technology and more applications to the platform is good news for the System i5 community. "We view each new technology running on the i5 as additional proof of the adaptability and viability of the platform, demonstrating just one more way that companies will benefit from using tools like SoftLanding's TurnOver Change Management to help organize and streamline their development."
Gapp believes that "a degree of caution needs to be taken with regard to this port of PHP, which runs in the AIX PASE [Portable Application Solutions Environment]" runtime environment and he suggests that PHP's impact on the platform should be considered from two angles: its use for off-the-shelf applications, and its use for modernizing or Web-enabling applications.
First, for off-the-shelf applications, Gapp notes that, "Most off-the-shelf PHP apps are build specifically for MySQL and Linux, which means that they often assume the availability of Linux utilities that do not exist on the iSeries. If the database logic cannot easily be converted to DB2, then how will that work for the iSeries community? I doubt that many will want to deploy applications that are using some database living in PASE, assuming they can even get one."
Second, for application modernization, Gapp also has concerns. "Again, this version requires that PHP runs in PASE. Since there is no facility for calling or reusing ILE programs, you must wrap them as a stored procedure. IBM considers this port to be native from the perspective that it does not require a specific Linux partition. However, I do not think this meets the 'native' criteria when considered in terms of what the community needs to create adoption of the technology."
Gapp anticipates that if these technical issues can be resolved, PHP will be good for the System i platform, especially considering the number of developers who have PHP skills. "If we can truly make PHP 'native,' it will be a great alternative to WebSphere and Java, with the ability to attract young talent to the platform. But at the moment, I think there are too many hurdles to create any significant adoption of this technology."
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