CMS Bites the Bullet and Overhauls ERP Suite
January 13, 2004 Alex Woodie
Screenscrapers didn’t do it. WebFacing couldn’t take them there. If there was an easy way to give its RPG-based ERP suite a fully functional GUI that competed head-to-head with Windows-based ERP vendors, CMS Manufacturing Systems would have found it. Absent a quick-fix converter, the Markham, Ontario, software vendor bit the bullet and this week announced its intention to rewrite more than 10 million lines of RPG IV code to separate core business logic from presentation logic.
The iSeries is well-known as a bullet-proof platform on which to base mission-critical applications, but its native 5250 interface has given it an undeserved reputation as an out-of-date system. Sure, 5250 screens can be much faster in many instances, but when image is a factor, an iSeries software vendor could argue about the costs and benefits of green screen versus GUI until he turned blue in the face and still lose out to a Windows application in the end. And maybe rightly so, because a GUI is a requirement at most companies today.
IBM is well aware of the iSeries’ legacy reputation and its impact on sales, and that’s one of the reasons why it announced its iSeries Developer’s Roadmap at the COMMON conference in Orlando, Florida, last summer. Basically, the Roadmap calls for a shift from traditional RPG programming constructs toward Java, with a strong emphasis on GUIs.
One of the independent software vendors taking the roadmap to heart is CMS Manufacturing Systems, an ERP software vendor that has built a solid reputation in developing an integrated OS/400-based ERP package for midmarket manufacturers, especially in the automotive supply chain. Over the course of the years, CMS has used a variety of Java and Windows technologies to give its customers a GUI client. However, these “screen-scraped” offerings were basically interim solutions and lacked the functionality, stability, and attractiveness of a native graphical interface, according to Brian Angle, vice president of marketing and sales for CMS.
“A lot of vendors say they have a Java GUI. But it’s screen-scraping; it’s a play on words,” Angle says. “Unfortunately, because it sounds so good, it’s what nearly every independent software vendor has done, because it’s much better than a green screen. You don’t have to rewrite the application, and you can give 20-year-old software a somewhat graphical interface. Versus the right answer, [which is to] separate the business logic and the presentation logic so you can display the same data in multiple ways.”
After years of enhancements limited by screen-scraper technology, CMS decided that the capabilities offered by a native GUI was the best way to improve its product.. One of the ways that CMS could get a native Java GUI would be to rewrite, or to convert, the entire CMS/400 application to Java. However, CMS found that the performance of such a Java application running on the iSeries would be “very poor” compared with using RPG on the back-end, Angle says.
Instead, CMS decided to separate the logic and presentation layers by keeping the RPG for business logic but replacing the RPG used for writing green screens with a combination of XML and Java that could deliver a truly graphical and extendable interface. Such an undertaking would require a lot of manual labor, Angle says. “There are no IBM tools to break ILE into multiple layers” for logic and presentation, he says. “This is biting the bullet and ripping the code apart.”
So CMS bit the bullet and hired more than a dozen new Java programmers, who are currently working with CMS’s RPG experts to go through 10 million lines of code, separating the business logic from the presentation logic and replacing the RPG presentation logic with a combination of XML and Java.
CMS is planning a staggered release of the Java GUI for all of the core modules that make up its CMS/400 ERP suite throughout 2004. More than half of the application’s 3,500 menu screens should have a Java equivalent by the end of March, Angle says.
The migration to an N-tier architecture represents nearly a $2 million investment for CMS, Angle says. For a company with about 400 customers, that’s a significant investment, although the fact that about 99 percent of CMS customers are on maintenance helps. “It’s a very manual labor intensive process, but it makes a statement that we’re not leaving the iSeries,” Angle says. “We’re doing exactly what IBM’s roadmap says, except for the point where you abandon the AS/400 and rewrite something that runs on multiple architectures. We think it’s a better value to stay on the iSeries.”
The new Java GUI marks the culmination of a process that began when CMS rewrote its ERP suite in RPG IV in 1998. Moving to the latest version of RPG was instrumental for the three-phase development strategy that CMS kicked off in 2002, when it introduced its first e-business software package. The second phase, which was completed in 2003, involved the creation of a five-piece production analysis toolset. The final phase, due over the course of 2004, is the separation of business and presentation logic and the delivery of the Java GUI.
One of the CMS customers that is enthusiastic about the new Java GUI is Orchid International, which provides metal stamping and assembly for customers in the automotive supply chain. About two years ago, Orchid upgraded from a Windows-based ERP package to CMS/400, which only offered a screen-scraped GUI at the time. Having a GUI was one of Orchid’s main requirements, says Tim Bryan, the company’s vice president of engineering and operations. Bryan didn’t even care what operating system the server program ran on, so long as it worked and delivered a GUI for his people to use.
Orchid deployed one of CMS’s first attempts at a GUI, a Windows program written in Visual Basic. However, that first CMS/400 GUI didn’t work out as planned. There was a bug in the GUI, and the $145-million manufacturer had to roll back to the 5250 interface, which was upsetting to Bryan. “Twenty years ago, we could get away with a green screen and people wouldn’t complain, but with my shop-floor people, it definitely is a problem,” he says. “I never wanted to introduce the green screen, but we had to go back to it.”
CMS never stopped working on the GUI problem. The vendor eventually moved to Java technology and delivered another Java-based screen scraper, called JGO. (JGO is the precursor to the full Java GUI that CMS is now rolling out, Angle says.)
Bryan considered moving to JGO but was leery of getting stung again. “It caused enough employee dissatisfaction [the first time], I could not afford to lose more credibility by installing it again,” Bryan says. He got an indication that JGO might be up to snuff when the Internet connection died during a CMS demonstration. Despite the fact that the demo was forced to proceed on a pre-Cambrian-era 26 baud modem, the JGO client kept on cranking. “I became very excited about that,” Bryan says.
Today, Orchid has installed JGO at four of its seven manufacturing sites around the United States and Canada and expects to complete the rollout this year. There are currently about 50 Orchid employees using the new Java client, and they’re happy with the GUI, Bryan says.
Orchid will be among the first CMS customers to upgrade to the Java GUI as CMS completes the transformation of CMS/400 to an N-tier architecture. CMS will make the upgrade to the new release of CMS/400 free to all customers on maintenance.