ASNA Preps AVR for Visual Studio 2008
June 12, 2007 Alex Woodie
Things have been busy over at ASNA these days. In addition to setting up a new technical services operation and establishing new partnerships with offshore development organizations, ASNA has been preparing a new release of its flagship development product, ASNA Visual RPG (AVR), that will work with the new version of Visual Studio that Microsoft is creating. It’s also working on a new version of Monarch, its code analysis and conversion tool for moving RPG assets to Windows and .NET, and getting ready for ASNApalooza 2007.
ASNA is a unique company with a unique place in the midrange. With a collection of products designed to make it easier for programmers skilled in RPG to make their way to Microsoft’s development environment and, if they like, its database and operating system, ASNA has carved out its own niche, and, at the same time, provided a real alternative to IBM‘s Java-oriented development strategy for AS/400, iSeries, and System i users and ISVs.
ASNA’s premier product for the last decade has been AVR, a programming language that was created to be similar to RPG (a two-week introductory course gets RPG programmers started), but which compiles to Microsoft Intermediate Language (MSIL) that runs on Windows operating systems, and accesses Microsoft’s SQL Server database. Another popular ASNA offering is DataGate, which allows users to keep their data on DB2/400, while running application logic and user interfaces on Windows. More recently, the company has gained traction with Monarch, a suite of code analysis and conversion tools for moving System i assets to the .NET and Windows platform. ASNA claims Monarch can automatically convert up to 98 percent of RPG code into MSIL.
Because ASNA’s products are built around Microsoft tools and platforms, its development cycle is determined by Microsoft. So when Microsoft delays the release of Visual Studio 2008 (which, until two weeks ago, went by its codename “Orcas”) from this year to next year, the release of ASNA’s new products are likewise pushed back.
Microsoft’s current plans call for releasing a second beta release of Visual Studio 2008 later this summer. ASNA plans to release a beta version of AVR 9.0, which plugs into Visual Studio 2008 and also adds support for Windows Vista, in the weeks or months following Microsoft’s beta.
ASNA would have been ready to release AVR 9.0 earlier, but the delay of the new IDE set back its product release plans, says Anne Ferguson, president of ASNA. “We were prepared to release in the fall, based on what we had, because we thought they were going to release earlier,” she says. “We won’t release our product until [Visual Studio 2008] becomes generally available.”
It’s a delicate balance ASNA keeps with Microsoft, Ferguson explains. “It’s very, very important for us to stay up with Microsoft,” she says. “Most of our customers are businesses, and they never move to anything new in a year. [But] Microsoft wants us to be there. They want partners to keep up.” To that end, ASNA’s developers have spent many days testing software at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and Microsoft has been very welcoming and reciprocated ASNA’s effort, Ferguson says.
AVR 9.0 isn’t the only new product in development at ASNA these days. The San Antonio, Texas, company is also working on a new release of Monarch, the code analysis and conversion suite that it first launched in October 2004. Since then, ASNA has sold Monarch to about 200 customers, split fairly equally between ISVs and end-user organizations. Many of these customers are using Monarch to move their RPG application logic and user interfaces to Windows, but are choosing to keep their data on the System i and DB2/400.
Another big project at ASNA is the creation of a new technical services division that will provide AVR development and migration-related consulting and training services to System i customers and software vendors. That group is headed by Rick Farina, whom ASNA recently hired. Farina’s consulting firm has been a provider of ASNA-related training and consulting services for years.
The new consulting gig has really taken off, Ferguson says. “We’ve got a core group right now that’s really quite busy,” she says. The company has a handful of developers working in the new division right now, and it’s looking to hire another half-dozen or so AVR experts in the coming months. It has been difficult to find AVR programmers, Ferguson says. “They’re all busy.”
The company has also established a partnership with a company that provides outsourced programming services. “Our partner, with resources both domestically and offshore in India, is here to supplement ASNA Services as needed and brings a wealth of knowledge about iSeries and .NET application development,” says Michael Killian, ASNA’s vice president of operations.
A new crop of AVR experts will likely emerge from ASNApalooza 2007, ASNA’s developer and user conference, which is scheduled to be held this October at the Hyatt on the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio. ASNA has traditionally held its ‘palooza during the spring, but this year the company decided to hold the event every 18 months. It’s better that way, Ferguson says. “We have more people registered for this coming October than we had for the conference last year,” she says.
As a member of Microsoft’s Midrange Alliance Program (MAP), ASNA has to be expected to take some heat from the System i faithful, and it does. But despite the capability that ASNA’s tools can provide to customers that migrate their RPG applications whole-hog to Windows, ASNA maintains a degree of loyalty and respect for the established business platform.
“Sales of the iSeries are steadily declining [but] I don’t think anybody can say the iSeries isn’t a rock-solid machine,” Ferguson says. “But it’s green screen. People don’t’ want to buy green-screen applications because the functionality is limited. People want to have applications that can interface to the outside world, interface easily to e-mail, Word, and Excel, to graphs and barcode scanners. You can do all that stuff on the iSeries, but it’s not easy and it’s not cheap.”
With 25 years of midrange experience, ASNA has seen what the platform can do, but it’s allegiance lies with what’s best for the customer, Killian says. “One of the strengths that ASNA has brought to the table is we offer flexibility. We’re not going to mandate anything,” he says. “If it makes sense to integrate both Windows and System i, we can do that. We let companies run the business the way they need to run the business. I think Windows and System i are both here, both strong, both here to stay. We bridge both worlds.”