Still Wanted: A Cheap–or Free—IBM i Development Workstation
May 23, 2011 Timothy Prickett Morgan
I attended the Long Island System User Group‘s May Education Day last week along with my compatriot and editor of Four Hundred Guru, Ted Holt. While everybody was chewing on their dinner, I was asked to sing for my supper and talk about the IBM i platform along with Pete Massiello, president of both COMMON and iTech Solutions Group, and Al Grega, who was in charge of IBM’s worldwide Rational tools sales for the past three years and has now taken over WebSphere sales for Big Blue’s server platforms.
The topics ranged far and wide, but this being a user group meeting, it wasn’t long before questions came up about the future of RPG, how to get more developers involved on the IBM i platform, and what will happen to the platform as the employee base of developers and program managers get on in years. Everyone seemed to agree at the LISUG meeting that the platform needs new–and younger–blood.
There was consensus among the crowd, judging from the number of heads I saw nodding in assent, when I suggested that one of the problems was not just that kids coming out of college learn Java, PHP, Python, and PERL programming on Linux and Windows machines, which they can get on the cheap. It was that programmers started out much earlier than that–back in middle school, like I did–and they don’t want to pay anything for a set of programming tools, and they want to be able to run it on any old laptop or desktop PC that someone hands them.
The runtime environment can cost whatever it needs to, just as it does for commercial-grade Java or PHP servers–or cloudy slices running out on Amazon‘s EC2 or IBM‘s SmartCloud compute clouds. But if you want to reach people and get them developing on the IBM i platform, there needs to be a free way to do it. If it can’t be free, then it can’t cost more than a couple of hundred bucks.
There are a lot of different ways that IBM can get a cheap OS/400 development tool set and runtime out there. As I have suggested many times, IBM bought Transitive, the maker of the QuickTransit emulation environment that allows Apple to run applications compiled for PowerPC machines to execute on Intel-based Macs without any recompilation. This environment, which is called Rosetta by Apple, works–and it works well. So well that I have never even heard of an Apple application failing to port. IBM uses QuickTransit to run 32-bit Linux-on-X86 applications on Power-based servers inside of logical partitions, but has otherwise sat on this QuickTransit technology. Big Blue bought it to keep it out of the hands of the enemies circling its proprietary and Unix platforms, and has otherwise sat on it.
QuickTransit should be used to make a baby version of OS/400 or IBM i that can allow that emulated operating system to run on an X64-based machine. And not just some machine that IBM tries to sell you for $5,000, but any old machine you happen to have lying around. This isn’t about making money, but supporting an existing pool of RPG and COBOL programmers and expanding it.
IBM knows that its systems are expensive relative to free Linux or pirated Windows software stacks and development tools, and on the mainframe front, it has done something about it, according to Grega. Big Blue has worked with Information Technology Company to cook up a little something called the System z Personal Development Tool, or zPDT. It comes in a laptop version and two desktop versions, ranging in price from $16,457 to $36,308, offering from one to three virtual mainframe engines for z/OS, z/VM, or z/VSE operating systems. The machines are configured with either SUSE Linux and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The zPDT product is an IBM-developed emulator, and it does not appear to be running Hercules, FLEX-ES, or Platform Solutions emulators. There is apparently a version that runs z operating systems on Power iron, by the way. To make the system work, you need to have a USB key, what IBM calls a token. No token, no z execution.
For IBM i shops, this might be the right approach, but that is a ridiculous price. Mainframes cost millions of dollars and in many cases, the programs they write are worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. So to shell out 10 grand or more for a development system is proportional to the rewards and the size of the machines the software runs on. The typical Power 720 shop is probably spending around $25,000 to $40,000 on hardware and systems software, so a development machine to attract newbies should be a few hundred bucks. Tops. Or, as I said, absolutely free.
IBM would, of course, need to control distribution of an emulated, free IBM i environment and application development toolset. Otherwise, people would be using them to run production workloads and they would never buy Power Systems machinery. Big Blue and its resellers can’t let that happen, obviously.
You might be thinking that another solution might be to give away free slices on an IBM i cloud. But that would cost real money since those servers are not free–far from it. Power Systems machines, whether they are in a cloud or not, cost big bucks compared to a cheap laptop with a free software stack, like Linux newbies have and which they use to train themselves, by and large.
We don’t need to train RPG developers so much as give them the tools to train themselves.