looksoftware Completes RPG OA Roadmap
February 20, 2012 Dan Burger
The RPG Open Access product roadmap at looksoftware continues to unfold. When last we heard from this application tool vendor, it had two products enhanced using RPG OA technology–one generally available and the other in beta testing. That was May 2011. Two other products were in the pipeline. Last week, I learned the final pieces in the IBM i tool maker’s RPG OA efforts are buttoned up and testing has been completed.
If you’re like a lot of people in IBM midrange shops who are thinking about the future of their application development programs, the latest news from looksoftware should be of interest.
The inclusion of RPG Open Access was seen by looksoftware as a strategic investment in the future of RPG, a path forward for new and existing RPG applications by enabling native RPG code to connect with modern devices, platforms, and applications without the ball and chain restrictions of the 5250 interface or the functional handcuffs of simply re-facing aged applications. Brendan Kay, CEO at looksoftware, points to two key benefits that RPG OA technology offers. The first is what he refers to as “multi-channel” support, which is a single development process for multiple platforms, multiple languages, and multiple devices such as Web browsers, smartphones, and tablets. The second key benefit is allowing RPG developers to continue developing in their native language without learning an additional language to leverage the back-end logic.
“We see open access as being valuable because it allows RPG developers and RPG as a development language to be a first-class player for all the different environments in which you may wish your application to run,” Kay says. “RPG developers don’t have to change the way they develop and companies can continue to use the IBM i platform and make use of its reliability, security, and scalability.”
Kay describes the RPG language as “efficient, effective, and productive,” but constrained by its design for running on 5250 devices. Modernizing green-screen applications can be done by screen scraping, the process of quickly and simply putting a graphical user interface on 5250 applications without touching back-end logic, but that does nothing to improve how an application functions. To do that means getting into the back end, adding functionality that does not exist in the green-screen version, creating integrated or composite applications with new RPG code or code from other languages, and adding support for multiple devices such as browsers, smartphones, and tablets.
Some people have erroneously equated RPG OA technology with screen scraping solutions, which are entirely front-end remedies. That’s a misconception. RPG OA emphasizes adding functionality, improving integration, and creating better application architecture.
From the perspective of an RPG developer, Kay says using RPG OA follows the same development process as writing for 5250 devices. “The same input and output attributes are assigned to the RPG application,” he explains. “The looksoftware handler written for Open Access has taken care of the rest of it. The handler gives developers several style sheets to choose from, which allows them to get pretty creative without going to a custom application, and also allows them to create custom applications if they choose to do that. It allows RPG to control all the properties without another development on top of it.”
The term RPG OA “handler” is used in the context of application modernization to describe the automated process of separating business logic from presentation logic in existing 5250 applications, a tedious and time-consuming task when done manually.
At looksoftware, the development of products incorporating RPG OA began in the spring of 2009, a year in advance of when the technology would be made available as a licensed product sequestered within the Rational Software catalog.
In the early going, looksoftware wrangled with the possibilities of writing multiple handlers, how to handle programs that were written in COBOL and those that call system APIs, and in general how to integrate OA programs with non-OA programs. After sorting it out, it was understood that one handler could take care of all the issues. That handler would receive updates just as any software would, but there would be no need for additional handlers.
By early 2011, looksoftware had RPG OA-enabled its most popular and longest produced product, smartclient. Adding RPG OA to this Windows-only, rich user interface with desktop integration allows developers to create more sophisticated, more modern applications that incorporate handy features such as scrolling the subfiles, adding more fields on the screen, and controlling the interface from RPG. Looksoftware customers use smartclient for all but the most intensive, heads-down, data processing requirements. In the first year of RPG OA availability, the early adopters of that technology have demonstrated the potential of modernized applications in production environments, which looksoftware plans to showcase at its user conference in April. The number of early adopters continues to increase; however, overall they make up a small percentage of smartclient users.
In mid-2011, beta testing began on an RPG OA version of lookserver, the company’s integration layer–or middleware–for connecting the components that make up composite applications. The company made this a standalone version, which it called lookserver for OA. Its purpose is to enable native RPG code to deliver modern user experiences across multiple platforms, user interfaces, and devices like browsers, rich Internet applications, plus Apple iOS and Google Android smartphones and tablets.
That leaves the non-OA version of lookserver, version 9, with the job of generating thin client interfaces that support browser-based and mobile devices for customers uninterested in RPG OA.
lookserver for OA passed through beta testing and became generally available in September.
Now added to that list are the final looksoftware products to get the RPG OA treatment: thinclient and mobileclient. Both are available at this time and both rely on lookserver for OA to become functional. This fulfills the company’s multi-channel support goal, by providing the path for RPG OA applications to reach multiple platforms, multiple languages, and multiple devices.
(If you are ready to try RPG OA, it’s available from IBM under the product name of Rational Open Access: RPG Edition. It’s a free PTF, and you can find out how to get in this article from the February 6 issue of The Four Hundred.)
On the mobileclient side, the support for RPG OA applications is added to the existing product’s capability to create new user interfaces for thin clients and mobile devices composed from sources such as 5250 applications, host programs (RPG, COBOL, and Java), databases such as DB2, SQL Server, Oracle, Sybase, and Access, as well as various Web services
“When we talked in May, support for OA at looksoftware was in its ‘first installment,’ which was the automatic generation of inherent user interfaces that were based on Microsoft technology,” Kay recalls. “We have more functionality now and the significant piece was gaining object model support. That allowed us to use open access–through our smartclient, thinclient, mobileclient, and lookserver–to allow RPG developers to leverage any part of the user interface that is being presented.”
Object model support is looksoftware’s methodology for writing the handler. It incorporates the company’s newlook multi-channel technology and the graphical user interface into RPG.
An example of the capabilities this brings to the looksoftware portfolio could be an employee using an iPad with an HTML display and a drop down list of orders for a customer. The user is viewing a customer record and wants to select a particular order. In this case, it’s RPG that directly populates the orders that are visible. Before Open Access, the RPG developer needed to write code at the user interface level that would find the customer orders. Unfortunately, that information was outside of the control of the RPG application. To reach that information required an external process, perhaps using PHP to do a database look-up that was separate from the RPG application. With RPG OA, that code can be written in RPG rather than PHP or some other language. And if the RPG business logic includes user preferences that limit accessibility to certain information, RPG OA preserves that because all the business rules that are assigned to the application are applied.
This is what Brendan Kay means when he says looksoftware is “focused on returning control to the RPG developer.”
I think we can all agree that the goal of RPG programmers is to create applications that work better, not just look better.
To make use of RPG OA, the system must be running IBM i 6.1 or 7.1 and the RPG in the applications must be built with RPG III or RPG IV (also referred to as ILE RPG). The modular style of modern RPG is necessary for any type of modernization project that involves changes to the backend logic and has a view toward building applications with a shelf life of more than just a few years.