Database Tool Maker Joins the System i Market
December 10, 2007 Timothy Prickett Morgan
They say you learn something new every day. But when you have been in the AS/400, iSeries, and System i market for 6,732 days, as I have been, you don’t necessarily learn big new things every day. But when a vendor called Resolution Software, which makes database design and maintenance tools for other platforms, said last week that it was coming to the System i space, the company’s tools made me aware of database issues I had not really known existed before.
The brilliance of the design of the System/38 and its progeny–the AS/400, the iSeries, and now the System i–is that the architecture made a relational database management system the key aspect of the system–in fact, the DBMS was the only file system on the box for many years. The DB2/400 DBMS (although it never had a name back in the 1980s) was the very heart of the OS/400 operating system, so application developers did not have to worry about controlling the means of accessing the databases behind applications. Accessing databases was not only native, it was for all intents and purposes utterly transparent. Those databases were built for RPG and COBOL applications using Data Description Specifications (DDS), which are what tells applications how to access the information stored in physical and logical files on the system that are, in turn, separated from the applications themselves.
In the opinion of many programmers who are perfectly happy writing RPG and COBOL programs, there is nothing wrong with the DDS approach to creating databases. The problem is, nothing else in the IT universe speaks DDS. Everyone else uses Structured Query Language (SQL) to control access to databases. And turning a database created with DDS into an SQL-generated database–with its inherent openness, speed, built-in data integrity, and so on–requires a long, tedious conversion. No one has wanted to tackle the SQL conversion problem. But Resolution Software, with its Xcase database products, does.
“For the past two years, we have been working very hard on a product for the System i market because we see a big hole in the market,” explains Elie Muyal, chief executive officer at Resolution Software, which is based in Jerusalem, Israel. “When most people talk about modernization of legacy applications, they are usually referring to the user interface or the underlying business logic. But for some reason, people don’t talk about modernizing the database itself, which we believe is the raison d’etre, the foundation, of the application.”
The reason why companies have been hesitant to move from DDS to SQL formats for their databases is simple: All of their applications are used for accessing the databases through DDS, and reformatting the databases also means tweaking the applications so they also speak SQL. But with the Xcase products, Resolution Software is providing something that can give customers the best of both worlds: They can convert to SQL formats automatically, not through a complex manual process, to make databases accessible to other applications and to extend their database tables (adding fields and such) without disturbing the DDS access to the converted databases.
Resolution Software has been in business for 19 years, and started out selling database design and maintenance tools that graphically model a database design, generate the code to produce the database, validate physical data, and automate the process of making changes to the database. The company’s Xcase product line outside of the System i space it is now entering includes Xcase Professional, the flagship product that creates and maintains databases in SQL Server, Oracle, Sybase, SQL Anywhere, Informix, DB2, Interbase, Firebird, FoxPro, VFP, MySQL, MaxDB, and Jet formats. The company also sells a version of the Xcase tool that is restricted to a specific set of databases, including one for FoxPro and VFP, another for Interbase and Firebird, and yet another for MySQL.
Without getting too deep into the database technologies involved, the Xcase for System i products take the physical files (the actual data tables) and the logical files (which are akin to a view of the table and an index for the table rolled into one) as well as the access paths for the database tables (which is spread across the physical and logical files in a DB2/400 database) and converts it to something that SQL understands–a table, a view, and indexes. After this is done, Xcase then builds a surrogate logical file that allows DDS-encoded applications to access the new files without having to recode the programs. And if you want to add new fields to the database for a new set of applications, legacy applications don’t know or care that they are there and happily keep doing their work.
The Xcase for System i Modernization module is what converts a database to accept SQL calls while preserving the native DDS access. The tool does this automatically and follows the manual processes that are outlined in IBM’s own Redbook, called Modernizing IBM eServer iSeries Application Data Access, and Resolution Software says that you need not have any special knowledge of SQL to use the Xcase Modernization Module tool. While IBM’s own Operation Navigator (OpsNav) tool will generate the code to turn DDS to SQL, it does not preserve compatibility with existing applications and it does not address any of the management tasks involved with the conversion, such as applying authorities, ownerships, triggers, constraints, and so forth.
A second part of the product, called the Evolution module, reverse engineers your database structures, diagrammatically showing both SQL and DDS objects in the DB2/400 database management system; it is used to track triggers, stored procedures, impacted views, and other database functions; and helps database administrators and application developers–usually the same person in an i5/OS and OS/400 shop–figure out how changing something in one SQL table might affect others and the applications that rely on them. It also generates the code needed to implement the change. The Evolution Edition is used after the SQL conversion process is accomplished, or can be used by shops that have already gone through a manual conversion of their DB2/400 databases from DDS to SQL or to create new SQL databases from the get-go.
In addition to these two products, Resolution Software is also going to launch a modernization service, aimed at customers who do not want to cope with the conversion process at all. To use the service, you install an agent on your i5/OS or OS/400 server and it looks at the metadata–not the data, but only the metadata–related to your databases that describes the structure of the databases and the applications that access it. Then, the agent uploads this metadata information to the company’s techies, who use the Xcase tools to create an empty SQL database that adheres to this metadata. This empty SQL database is beamed back to your machine, you restore it on the server, and then populate the empty database with the data contained in the existing DDS-created database. Et voila, c’est fini!
The Xcase for System i Evolution module is the basic product and it runs on a Windows workstation; it will cost $2,000 per named license user on a workstation, server, or partition when it ships in January 2008. (The way the licensing works, it would cost $2,000 for a single programmer to use the tool on a single partition; it would cost $6,000 for a single programmer to mess around with databases on three machines or partitions, or $6,000 for three programmers to manipulate databases on a single machine or partition.) The Xcase for System i Modernization module is the tool that does the DDS-to-SQL database conversions, and it includes the Evolution module; it costs $7,000 per named licensed user and will also be available in January. Pricing on the modernization service will depend on the volume of DDS objects that are involved, but Muyal says the entry price should be around $5,000 for the service. The service will be available before December is finished.
Muyal is very keen on expanding into a new market, and the 200,000-plus strong i5/OS and OS/400 installed base, which is on a legacy application modernization tear, is probably looking for a little help with its database issues, too. “The System i has one of the most powerful databases on the market,” says Muyal, “but it is often under-used even though companies have already paid for it. We think that the System i is an extremely powerful database engine, and that it should be used more by businesses as well as by more businesses.”
I could not have said that better myself.