The Possibilities for Open Access for RPG
April 12, 2010 Timothy Prickett Morgan
As I sit here on Thursday afternoon, IBM has not yet confirmed that there are product announcements coming out this week relating to the Power Systems platform, much less mentioned the new i 7.1 operating system, perhaps a new Power Systems 720 or 795 if we are lucky (because I like to chew on iron), or the Open Access for RPG tool that we caught some hints about at the end of last year and once again in early March.
IBM hasn’t briefed anyone on i 7.1 yet, but the word I hear is that the announcement will be on Tuesday, April 13, not April 14 as I had heard back in March to coincide with the last day of the Northeast IBM i User Groups Conference in Boston. Looks like it will be on day two. By the time you read this, I will be under embargo so we can get briefed and cover whatever the announcements are.
Since early March, I have been poking around trying to learn a little bit more about this Open Access for RPG feature, which if I understand it correctly brings some of the things many of us have been asking for in terms of a native Web interface (and now interfaces to other Webby devices) to the OS/400 and i platform. What many have asked for–and what The Four Hundred contributor Brian Kelly outlined more than five years ago looks to be coming to pass, but not quite in the way some of us imagined it. But if you know a bit about how IBM does things and how it thinks, then the Open Access for RPG feature, as I understand it, makes perfect sense from the Big Blue point of view.
I am not so sure customers, software developers, or the companies who make a living selling application development and modernization tools–many of whom who pay the bills around here at IT Jungle–will agree with what IBM seems to have cooking based on the rumors I am hearing.
As best I can figure, Open Access for RPG does what many other application development tools have been doing since IBM invented the Interactive Software Tax and charged outrageous prices to make use of the 5250 green screen protocol more than a decade ago when the AS/400 revenue stream started to decline–in large part due to logical partitioning as well as companies shifting more workloads to Windows platforms.
Companies that wanted to modernize their apps–meaning make them at first look all client/server like Windows apps and then all Web browser like Internet apps–obviously did not want to change their application code to get pretty new screens. So modernization tools cut into the 5250 data stream pumped out by their RPG and COBOL applications, which is used to talk to devices like green-screen terminals and their emulated PC equivalents, and took the data encapsulated in the stream and paint different screens with that data. Clever tools could take data from many different screens and rearrange it to look like a completely new app. IBM itself has a number of different modernization tools that worked like this, most notably Host Access Transformation Services, or HATS.
With Open Access for RPG, it looks like IBM is going to slice right into the RPG compiler and the RPG runtime environment, exposing it to developers much as HATS exposed the 5250 data stream. With the RPG compiler and runtime opened up, tool developers will create intermediary programs that will take the native data access embedded in the RPG programs and create what amounts to a new data stream, a custom one that could be used to drive an iPhone or a Web browser, for example. I do not have any idea how this intermediate code will be written, where it will run, or how it will be standardized, but this is the idea. The name Open Access might better be called Code Your Own Data Stream.
A couple of observations on this. First, this is similar, and yet different, from the high availability plumbing that IBM embedded into OS/400 V4R1 back in 1997, which came from Vision Solutions. By pushing the high availability clustering features down below the machine interface that props up OS/400, Vision Solutions could guarantee better and consistent performance for its HA software; however, that meant its competitors also had access to the same integrated HA plumbing, so the market shifted to more clever uses and management of HA. Everyone benefited and the market expanded to be sure, but a market was clearly changed.
As far as I know, Open Access for RPG is not based on any particular third-party software tool that is being grafted onto the RPG compiler, but I wouldn’t be surprised it if was. What I can see is that tool vendors who have built very ornate means of using or getting around the 5250 green-screen protocol are going to have to have a very close look at the performance of Open Access for RPG and decide if they want to use IBM’s plumbing or keep building their own. I have no idea how IBM is licensing Open Access for RPG, but if this is an open (meaning free, not source) set of tools, this could really shake up the application development and modernization tool space here in i-Land. It could also spur a whole new crop of tool vendors, who specialize in creating these intermediary transformation programs that can link RPG applications compiled in the updated tools so they can feed screens running on various kinds of devices.
Change is always difficult, but it is rarely boring.