Lean Mean Green Screens
August 8, 2011 Timothy Prickett Morgan
How many green screens are still out there in the world? Too many is the obvious smart-aleck answer to that question, and more than you would expect is probably closer to the real answer. I cut my teeth on Z80-based machines and then an Apple IIe and a handful of different machines with character-based interfaces long before I ever saw a Macintosh or a Unix workstation in college. After all these years, an IBM 3270 or 5250 green screen, or even a DEC VT terminal, are not shocking to me. They remind me of my youth and while I wouldn’t call them normal, green screens just don’t cause my jaw to drop like people of younger generations.
The reason, of course, is that if you are working fast, rifling and tabbing through an application, it is still pretty fast. And as I get older, I can see the virtue of an 80-column, 25-line format with a simple font. The elegant engineering of green screens, and the leanness of the protocols behind them, impress me. Green screens were well done, even if they are no longer modern.
As a knowledge worker that doesn’t have access to an AS/400, mainframe, or Unix box any more–the Internet is my computer, I suppose–I don’t think about green screens much. But a reader got me thinking about them with this question:
I read that 140,000 IBM i-based ecosystem estimate or actual number in one of your articles recently. Could you venture a guess how many companies still operating IBM i as their main ERP and/or custom in-house system still use mainly 5250 based interfaces (i.e., terminal emulation, etc)? Thanks!
That is a hard question to answer.
Like many of you, whenever I go to the bank, shop in a brick-and-mortar store, check into a hotel, or what have you, I look at who supplied the point of sale unit and try to gauge what the platform is behind the counter driving the transaction. A lot of times, there is a descendant of the System/36 or AS/400 back there, and every so often, you can get a peek at the actual green screen or an emulated or screen-scraped application that obviously still has a 5250 green-screen protocol driving it.
During the heat wave in New York last month, when it hit 104 degrees outside and about 1 million in my living room, our refrigerator gave up the ghost. We have a very peculiar galley kitchen with a non-standard space for a fridge–well, at least based on the rest of America. It looks like a normal fridge to me in a New York City apartment. You only have 28 inches of width to work with, 30 inches of depth and 64 inches of height; a double-door behemoth is out of the question (although greatly desirable), and to complicate matters, I need a left-handed door and many of the models, inexplicably, do not have interchangeable handles and hinges. (Yes, this is idiotic.)
A week after having no milk for my coffee, we’d had enough and went to a few big-chain electronics retailers, and lo and behold, only one vendor (a specialist in such things located in the New York area) had what we needed. And as it turns out, Frigidaire was the only vendor that made the machine that would fit this space. A salesman walked over to a PC and proved this to us by showing us the online catalog with all the pretty Web pages and feeds and speeds. But when this salesman went to check the inventory back in warehouse, he bounced to a green screen and was immediately annoyed.
Not just because there were three machines in stock and three back orders, but because the green screen was perplexing to him. “I hate this computer,” he muttered as I read AS400S10 in the upper left corner, identifying what seems to be a ridiculously old AS/400 Model S10 from the third quarter of 1997, using a 50 MHz “Cobra4” PowerPC processor. (The machine could have just been named S10 , and not have been that model, I admit.) The sales rep, who I learned was only a few weeks on the job, kept bouncing from the Web pages to the green-screen system, typing in product numbers to check if they were really in inventory, and best I could figure, he kept making typos.
“Don’t hate the computer,” I said with a laugh, defending the AS/400. “Hate your product model numbers, which all look the same.” If you are going to have L and R in a product to designate left-handed and right-handed doors, it is probably not a good idea to have a lot of Ls and Rs in a 10-digit product name, as this retailer had done.
Once we found a machine that fit and had a left-handed door, the clerk ran a query to find out if the fridge we were about to order was actually in stock, and we stood around waiting for the query to run. “This computer is so slow,” he muttered in apology as we waited for 20 minutes or so. I looked at what the applications was actually doing and once again defended the AS/400. “I don’t think that is a database query,” I said. “I think you’re waiting for someone to walk through the warehouse and actually confirm that the machine is there.”
It is easy to blame the computer, and in this modern Webby world, the green screen gets blamed for all kinds of things. That doesn’t make it right.
Anyway, we got a fridge, and I made a few phone calls to try to figure out how many green screens there are out there on Earth being tickled by the 5250 protocol.
I contacted a bunch of the 5250 emulation vendors, and many didn’t even return my call (possibly because it is such a weird question, possibly because they are on holiday), and the few that did call back or email didn’t want to be put on the spot.
Alison Butterill, who is Power Systems application development offerings manager at the IBM Toronto labs, is a sporting type and took my call. (Ian Jarman, the long-time AS/400 and i product manager, was on vacation–lucky for him.)
“We really don’t have any way of measuring it,” Butterill conceded. “There are so many tools doing emulation or Webulation, as I like to call it. And there are some applications where it is very hard to remove the green screen, like heads-down order entry. There’s real value in doing it that way because of the speed. Most sites have some kind of emulation–no question–and there are lots of emulation products to bring it to the PC. But we don’t have many dead-head terminals out there.”
In many manufacturing and distribution operations, RFID tagging, and remote capture and scanning is in some cases replacing order entry at the screen, and a number of companies are starting to use tablets and back-end applications (which may or may not link into an IBM i box through a 5250 protocol) to replace the green-screen terminals out there on the shop floor and in the warehouse.
Russ Todaro, president at thin client and terminal vendor Twin Data, was willing to venture a guess. “I think there are millions of physical devices out there around the world,” Todaro told me from his cell phone as he was heading out to the beach in New Jersey on Friday. “Companies put in a new PC with a fancy emulator, and that is overkill for those who just need access to host applications. It actually reduces productivity and increases costs to do this.”
Steve Gapp, president at application modernization tool maker LANSA, was game on the question, and offered an interesting perspective.
“In many ways, I would expect that emulated 5250 screens are growing exponentially,” Gapp said. Inside the corporate firewall, he ventured what he admittedly called a wild guess that somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of end users coming into the system were using emulated 5250 screens (whether they knew it or not) to access line-of-business applications. But the moment these applications are exposed to the outside world, they get modernized to hide the screens. (This has certainly been my experience in watching banks, hotels, and retailers.)
And importantly for companies like LANSA, there is an increasing desire to modernize all applications regardless of if they are internally or externally facing. “As you bring new employees into the company, those 5250 screens are absolutely alien to them.” As my experience buying a fridge showed all too well.
They may be alien and green, but part of me still likes ’em.