Eclipse for iSeries Shops: Does Anyone Care?
by Mary Lou Roberts
IBM's Web site on Eclipse asserts that the "idea of the Eclipse Project is to create an Apache for developer tools--an open source framework that provides many of the underlying services software developers need. This would be a toolkit for designing toolkits. Not just a set of APIs, the framework will consist of real code designed to do real work."
And it's all open source. That's the only way, the organization maintains, to deliver a truly open platform for tool integration.
IBM itself originally developed Eclipse, perhaps as a strategic initiative in countering the Microsoft onslaught. In the words of David Slater, application development marketing manager for the iSeries line: "At one point in time, IBM decided that there were a lot of neat things about Java. But Java, by its nature, tends to be pervasive. Java only makes sense if you have an integrated development environment. We wanted to make it pervasive so everybody could play--so everyone could use it."
Leveragable and extensible. That's the value proposition that Slater sees from an IDE like Eclipse. But he points out that in order for that value proposition to work, everyone would have to engage, and that wasn't likely to happen as long as Eclipse was under IBM ownership. "If Microsoft had developed it, IBM wouldn't engage," he admits. "Would we trust them to do the right thing for the community? No. And others would view IBM in the same way. What would make them trust us? So, how important is having a pervasive IDE? It's critical. That's why we had to take it to market in another way."
This "other way," says Slater, was for IBM to donate its $20 million Eclipse development effort to the industry. In November of 2001, Eclipse.org became an independent organization. To be sure, IBM still plays a major role as one of the founders and with its place on the board of stewards. But in February 2004, Eclipse was reorganized into a not-for-profit organization whose 50+ member companies include the likes of Borland, Red Hat, Novell, Oracle, SAP, Sybase, and of course IBM (specifically, the former Rational as well as IBM itself).
According to the Eclipse Web site, the group is now "an independent body that will drive the platform's evolution to benefit the providers of software development offerings and end-users. All technology and source code provided to this fast-growing ecosystem will remain openly available and royalty-free."
Slater maintains that acceptance of Eclipse has been good, and that it has especially become the development platform of choice for Linux users.
But what about the iSeries space? Slater points out that WebSphere Development Studio (WSDS) is now built on Eclipse and that IBM has shipped in excess of 130,000 copies of WSDS to iSeries users. This means, he says, that Eclipse is now available to about 300,000 iSeries users (with approximately 2.3 users per copy per IBM's estimates). But how many of those iSeries users are actually using WSDS/Eclipse? Slater admits he doesn't know. "All we know is that we are making Eclipse easier to use. It's just one click away."
It doesn't seem that too many iSeries shops are making that click. "Eclipse is a great open source concept that just isn't happening in this market," says Eric Figura, sales and marketing manager for Business Computer Design. Why not? There's a reluctance to use Java, he says. "It's much too hard. Maybe it's OK in large shops, but not in a small- or medium-sized business. It's not that SMBs aren't progressive. They just aren't radical. People are still focusing on RPG."
One way that Figura tracks what's happening in the iSeries space is to watch what books are the top sellers from the technical publishers. For the most part, they are, he claims, still RPG development-related. "People are comfortable with the iSeries because of its lack of complexity--the kind of complexity you see in Java and WebSphere. There are fewer people running iSeries shops these days than there used to be. The technology should be getting easier as time goes on, but it's not. To use Java, you have to throw a lot of time, money, and bodies at it."
Chris Wilson, director of programming tools at Advanced Systems Concepts contends that most iSeries shops are not even very aware of Eclipse. "The real question should be: How important is WebSphere Development Studio Client to iSeries users?" he says. "And the answer is, it's still very low on the adoption scale. iSeries RPG shops are very slow to adopt newer technologies."
But Eclipse does have its iSeries boosters, who are enthusiastic for good reasons. Steve Gapp, president of Softlanding Systems, thinks Eclipse is an important tool for iSeries shops. "Eclipse is having a significant impact on both the iSeries and the market in general," he says. "For iSeries customers, the adoption of this technology is growing under the branding of various WebSphere/Rational products. This is enabling customers to modernize and improve the quality of their applications at a far greater pace. For us at SoftLanding, it is having a very positive impact, enabling us to modernize and improve function and user interface in our solutions. The framework Eclipse has provided us has saved us a great deal of development effort and enabled us to deliver a function-rich, graphical, high-quality product."
David Morris, software architect for Plum Creek Timber and one of our Four Hundred Gurus, is another Eclipse fan. "As far as a tool to develop Java applications, Eclipse is very advanced compared with other tools," he says. "But not everyone in the iSeries world embraces it. It does take a substantial workstation and investment--at least a gigabyte of memory and a 2 GHz processor. But for an iSeries shop developing in Java, it's the best bet. It gives you very integrated testing and deployment tools with good debugging support--much more efficient and faster than RPG development."
In full agreement is Brian Crowley, director of development for mrc, a creator of development tools for the iSeries and other platforms such as Windows and Linux. "We find Eclipse to be very useful," he says. "We use it every day. It integrates your application server (in our case, Tomcat), and it gives you all the windows you want on one screen. It also has very good debugging capabilities."
However, Crowley acknowledges that only their "heads-down Java programmers" use it. "For RPG development, we're still using old green screen, or WDSC sometimes. Eclipse is really only for heads down programmers doing very low-level coding. It's not for the business analysts, and I don't know that there are a lot of heads-down iSeries programmers."
Slater contends that Eclipse delivers value to iSeries shops, even when they haven't bought into WebSphere and Java. "It gives you an on ramp for modernization of your applications. Once getting into Eclipse, you are part of the family. If you have two plug-ins that integrate into Eclipse, they are automatically aware of each other. As you get more and more plug-ins, the value of the product is significantly enhanced."
According to Slater, IBM has changed its tune. "IBM used to say, 1) e-business is the future, and this is still true; 2) Java is the language of e-business, and certainly Java dwarfs all other languages; and 3) everyone should learn Java, but we don't believe that any more. Must everyone learn Java? No. We've enhanced the IDE so everyone can play. Do you have to have Java to play in e-business? No. There probably aren't more than 5 percent of iSeries e-business applications written in Java, and that's not going to change in the near future. The Eclipse expanded mission statement includes everyone."
Slater admits that if he were writing a new business application today for the iSeries, it would still be written in RPG. "It's tighter and faster. More concise. More maintainable. I would only write it in Java if it were going to be cross-platform. And even if it were going to be cross-platform, I might write it in COBOL. But Java is still the most portable language."
What are the benefits, then, to using Eclipse, regardless of your choice of languages? Small iSeries shops, Slater says, will get richer tools, the capability to modernize applications, and the ability to leverage capabilities. Large shops working in a heterogeneous environment can be developing applications that will run in all environments.
It remains true, however, that iSeries shops just aren't getting this message. Perhaps they tie Eclipse too tightly with Java (and heaven knows they aren't rushing in that direction). Or perhaps instead of telling the iSeries users about Java and Eclipse, IBM should tell the Java and Eclipse people about the iSeries. It's interesting that, while a search of the Eclipse.org web site nets 682 documents that reference iSeries (while netting only 74 for zSeries, 10 for xSeries, and 3 for pSeries), there is virtually nothing in all of the introductory material that would be welcoming and familiar for iSeries developers. Likewise, the agenda and sessions at the EclipseCon conference offer little that is inviting for iSeries users.
As Morris notes, "We are now down to those who are more die-hard RPG developers, and they are resistant to change. The expertise that knows the RPG applications is locked up in the older RPG people. There are very few good Java people on the iSeries, and the Java community just doesn't see the iSeries as a good platform." iSeries shops aren't going to abandon RPG for Java any time in the near future. But when that aging RPG programmer retires, he/she will most likely be replaced by a Java programmer. Where, then, will the application go?
Crowley is "not hopeful at all about training RPG people to use Java. People who've been doing RPG for a long time won't make that transition." What does this mean for the future of the iSeries? "All of the independent software companies are busy writing in Java. More and more in-house staff are not writing code--they are buying it and managing it. The key in the future will be third-party software."
If that's true, the future of Eclipse in end user iSeries shops who do home-grown code does not look bright, even if it does turn out to be a very useful tool for third-party software developers.
Mary Lou Roberts, a 35-year veteran of the information systems industry, is a new contributor to IT Jungle. In addition to her work as a reporter in the iSeries space, she has spent her career as a marketing and communications professional working exclusively with information technology publications and companies. She can be reached at WriterNewf@aol.com.