The X Factor: Head in the Clouds
January 26, 2009 Timothy Prickett Morgan
For a while now, people have been talking about utility-style computing, and as was the case a decade ago with application service providing, or ASPs, we are now being barraged with vendors coming out of the woodwork peddling cloud computing or somehow tying what they do to the idea of cloud computing. But the interesting development this time around is that cloud computing is a lot more affordable than ASP was, thanks to cheap iron, open source software, and inexpensive broadband Internet.
These are all necessary conditions, of course, for cloudy, utility computing to take off, but they are far from sufficient. What companies need are clouds that have databases and Web servers and that support applications coded in their favorite programming languages. Yeah, we are back to that again. Programming languages actually still matter, because people are awfully stubborn and they like to code applications for their companies in languages that they have a certain amount of expertise in. Imagine that. Computers don’t just have legacy application issues; people do.
Despite this, programmers are starting to toy with the idea of deploying applications on internal or external cloud-style infrastructure. Because it is a shared resource and people are freaked out about security and service levels, cloud infrastructure has a slightly different (and more restricted) set of software than the wide variety of n-tier, distributed architectures that populate data centers large and small these days. For instance, Google‘s App Engine cloud only lets you code applications in Python and only lets you store data in the company’s proprietary BigTable storage environment (which must be a clustered file system with a lot of smarts in it, but Google keeps its tech close to its vest even if it lets you run code on it).
Microsoft‘s Azure cloud, which is in beta now, is for running ASP.NET applications and has to be tweaked to run on Azure services instead of a Windows file system. Amazon‘s Web Services cloud, which includes the EC2 compute cloud, the S3 storage cloud, and a the SimpleDB data store, provides Linux and Windows slices embedded in a Xen virtual machine and companies can use a variety of programming languages to create and run applications. Just last week, a hosting company called Engine Yard that specializes in hosting applications written in the Ruby programming language and its Rails framework said that they had ported their in-house Ruby on Rails environment so it can be run and managed on the Amazon cloud.
I was amused to see that COBOL compiler and legacy application modernization tool maker Micro Focus has ported its COBOL tools to the Amazon cloud, allowing mainframe shops to deploy their apps there and process datasets formerly stored in VSAM files. (The VSAM files are stored as BLOBs in the database and accessed by the COBOL apps running in the cloud, just like they are on Linux, Unix, and Windows platforms.) Micro Focus does not support ILE COBOL apps that run on the i platform, and unfortunately it does not have an RPG compiler, either.
So, RPG community. Once again it comes down to you. There are only two vendors that sell RPG compilers that might be tweaked to run in the cloud. One is IBM, and the other is Infinite Software, which ate its former rival Unibol a few years back. (Unfortunately, OpenRPG is a distributed gaming environment to support multiplayer games and simulations for users playing through the Internet.) Migration Specialties, which had an RPG II compiler for DEC VAX and Alpha machines back when DEC was the queen of the midrange and IBM was the king, does not seem inclined to create an open source RPG compiler, or even a closed source one that is updated to RPG/400 or ILE RPG that could then allow RPG applications to be deployed on clouds.
Basically, unless someone starts an open source RPG compiler effort, all of you in the i community are stuck with whatever IBM or Infinite Software deploys their runtimes to.
There is a third option, of course. ASNA tools could convert RPG applications to native .NET languages and then deploy them to Azure or Amazon clouds; or better still, maybe ASNA will get its Visual RPG deployed to run on the Amazon cloud, much as Micro Focus has done with COBOL.
There seems to be interest in deploying applications to the cloud, at least among developers who create open source applications, if the latest open source and Linux survey from Evans Data is any guide.
According to a survey of over 360 developers, 40 percent said they were working on open source applications that they intended to deploy to one cloud or another; 28 percent said they would deploy to Google App Engine and 15 percent said they would use Amazon EC2 and S3. Other clouds built by Microsoft, IBM, and Salesforce.com were also cited. Now, given the Python restriction, Google App Engine is perfectly useless to RPG shops. But Amazon can, as Micro Focus has shown, be tweaked to support legacy applications. Both Infinite Software and ASNA have the skills and the code to make it happen, as does IBM for that matter.
If I had $1 million with no other purpose, I would foster a black box RPG compiler and take it open source, just to see what would happen. What would happen is that it would probably take $10 million to finish the job–or an awful lot of help from people way smarter than myself.
All that said, I smell an opportunity here. Let me know what you think.