Technology Mashup Yields an iPhone App for BPCS Data
February 16, 2010 Alex Woodie
When application development specialist Alan Batchelor learned that management at his company, glass machine manufacturer Emhart Glass, would be adopting the iPhone for the sales force, he jumped into action. But instead of creating an iPhone app from scratch, Batchelor–who is not a Web programmer, but a fiddler of sorts–combined various bits pulled off the Web within mrc‘s mPower development framework, and in the end demonstrated the power of modern day mashups for mobile computing.
Emhart Glass is a leading manufacturer of the machines that create glass bottles (what’s called the “hot end” of the business), as well as the laser-based machines that test bottles for quality (the “cold end”). Customers include many of the world’s biggest bottle makers, such as Gallo Glass Company. That cold bottle of Budweiser you consumed last night? Chances are good the bottle was created with one of Emhart Glass’ machines.
The ISO 9001:2000 certified manufacturer relies on a heavily modified installation of Infor‘s BPCS ERP system, running on a System i server from IBM, to manage its business. The company previously relied upon a network of a half-dozen AS/400 servers to manage data among is 50 worldwide locations. But rounds of server consolidation have whittled that number down to one i/OS server, which resides at Emhart Glass’s headquarters in Cham, Switzerland.
Batchelor, who works in the company’s Connecticut office, was hired several years ago to help Emhart Glass with the maintenance of BPCS and its System i environment. An RPG programmer by training, Batchelor excelled at helping the company’s employees get more out of their 5250 green-screen interfaces, such as by combining essential functions onto a single screen. Emhart Glass had a license for mrc’s old Productivity Series power tool, which Batchelor used for this purpose.
At one point, Emhart Glass adopted WebSphere Portal as a way to boost communications with suppliers and customers, and Batchelor got involved with that, too. The implementation of WebSphere Portal was a success for Emhart Glass, which found the software resulted in a heightened level of collaboration, better customer satisfaction, and a tighter supply chain.
As Emhart Glass’ IT portfolio evolved, so did Batchelor’s job description. Eventually, he found himself in the enviable position of basically being paid to play with technology, with the goal of finding new ways to exploit the power of IT. “My boss thinks of me as Frankenstein,” Batchelor says in an interview with IT Jungle. “He says I go up in my laboratory and come down with these crazy ideas. That’s sort of what I do.”
One of Batchelor’s favorite tools is mPower, the Web application development software that evolved out of mrc’s Productivity Series software. One day, Batchelor was playing around with the software, when he discovered he could flip a switch and generate HTML. He contacted mrc to inquire how to do that, and was told he needed to configure Tomcat, the open source Web application server from Apache. He hadn’t done that before, but after reading about how to do that on the Web, he had Tomcat running quickly and easily.
Today, a good portion of the portlets in the company’s WebSphere Portal implementation are developed in m-Power, and actually deployed as applets inside WebSphere portlets, Batchelor says. “It’s probably not best way to use WebSphere Portal,” he says. “But I’m not a developer. I don’t do Java. I use mrc to create the applications, then assign it to a page inside WebSphere Portal, and for all intents and purposes it looks like part of the portal.”
About nine months ago, one of the company’s directors mentioned to Batchelor that the company would probably be adopting the iPhone. Batchelor thought to himself, “I better have an app ready when they do get there,” and he went to work.
Batchelor used as a starting point the mobile clients he created for Emhart Glass back in 2006, which is covered in a case study on the mrc Web site. “I knew roughly what they wanted,” he says. “They wanted to see sales figures and addresses. They wanted to search for items, inventory levels–things like that. I already had an idea what they wanted. I just had to make it work with iPhone.”
There was no iPhone template available from mrc. But because the iPhone application would basically just be a Web application, he could utilize the generic HTML and stylesheet templates, as well as the templates for pulling data and reports from the i/OS server and building maintenance applications. “These are the core of the applications,” Batchelor says. “You use a default style sheet that defines the colors, etc. Then it’s up to you to create the data dictionary and customize it to the corporate identity.”
Batchelor scoured the Web for freeware iPhone menu “skeletons” that would allow his application to function like a regular iPhone Web app. He took what he learned and applied it to his existing reporting and retrieval templates from mrc, and voila–he had an iPhone app, deployed through the Web browser, accessing BPCS data on the System i server (which, technically, makes it not a true “iPhone app,” not that Batchelor cares).
It’s basically the same development paradigm used with WebSphere Portal, Batchelor says. “I use WebSphere as a way to collect all the data together and put it one spot, but I’m grabbing it from an mrc application. It’s the same with the iPhone. You have an iPhone skeleton that’s really just the menu system, and then it’s pointing to mrc when it needs to do something off the server.”
And because it’s just a Web application pulling data off the System i server, strong security is maintained. As soon as the session is ended, no data resides on the iPhone.
Reactions and Conclusions
Batchelor’s iPhone app hasn’t been widely deployed yet, but it’s gotten positive reviews from several company employees who have used it, including the company’s new president and several others. “I think the salesmen would like this information when they get off the plane, so they know what plant they’re visiting, and they can quickly look up information for that client,” Batchelor says. “They can use the built-in Google Maps to drive their car to the facility. I’m getting good feedback on it at the moment.”
If Emhart Glass employees use the iPhone app, that’s great, says Batchelor, who has already moved onto something else. And if they don’t use it? No big deal.
“For me, it’s gone and dusted,” he says. “I spent time developing it, to see if I can do it. The exciting bit for me is ‘Can I do it? Can I show you the information from an ERP system on an iPhone?’ Once I’ve done that, created it, I don’t know if it’s up to me to tell people you have to use what I just developed. I just tell them it’s there.”
Batchelor also has a bit of wisdom to share for all those old-school RPG programmers who may feel a tad overwhelmed at all the new Web technologies out there, and the speed at which they’re evolving: fear not.
“It’s not rocket science,” he says. “I don’t do Java. I let mrc do all the Java side. They built the skeletons, and they run wherever, against whatever kind of database. I don’t really care [how they do it], and I don’t want to know it. If I learned every single piece of software that I program, I’d never be programming, I’d always be trying to learn C or C++ or Pascal or COBOL. It’s too much to keep learning. Let other people to do that and use the Web to find out how to do other things.
“I’m in one of these positions where it’s a luxury that I can play around with technology,” he says. “It’s what I love to do, and this is why I love my job here. I’m not a programmer as such, but I’m a person who just pulls the bits together. I can make things work. Is it the best way? Probably not. But it works quite happily.”