ABL Takes a Fresh Approach to Modernization with RolePlay
March 12, 2013 Alex Woodie
ADVANCED BusinessLink (ABL) is close to shipping a potentially disruptive new modernization tool called RolePlay. The new software, which is in restricted availability, helps eliminate the menu-based system common to IBM i-based ERP systems, and present information to users according to the role they play within the organization. It’s a novel approach to the modernization dilemma, and it could help IBM i ISVs compete more effectively with the role-based ERP systems from SAP and Oracle, and Microsoft.
There are many aspects of an IBM i business system that set it apart from the so-called “mainstream” X86 systems that are popular today. For starters, the combination of Power Systems hardware and IBM i operating system provide a platform with superb reliability and manageability, in exchange for requiring a specific skill set to manage.
The menu-based navigation system of your typical 30-year-old IBM i ERP application is another differentiator, but this vestige of procedural programming methods doesn’t bring many benefits. In fact, it’s something that tier-one ERP vendors use to their advantage in poaching IBM i customers.
In a menu-based application, users navigate the system by selecting options from a menu, typically using the keyboard. It is part and parcel of the green-screen approach to presenting user interfaces (UIs). And while there are Web-enablement tools that can convert those green screens into graphical user interfaces (GUIs), that GUI is typically still stuck in the menu-based world.
ABL’s Barry Hayes recently briefed IT Jungle on the differences between menu-based and role-based systems, and the company’s new approach to application modernization with RolePlay.
“JD Edwards, for example is a menu-based procedural application. You go menu to menu to get to where you want to go and accomplish tasks. And you do that in a typical green-screen fashion, by keying in information and tabbing and utilizing field exits and things like that,” Hayes says.
“But SAP goes about this by a roles-based perspective,” he continues. “So if I’m an accounts payable clerk, all I see on my desktop are the tasks that are for me. I don’t need to see payroll. I don’t need to see inventory control. I just see those 10 tasks that I do every day. And so it’s a roles-based solution.
“Now in the end, I probably end up basically doing the same thing. If I’m an AP person, I’m entering invoices and running checks. Both the JD Edwards and SAP applications, in the end, do the same thing. One of them just happens to do it from a role-based perspective, the other from a menu-based, procedural perspective.”
The Role of RolePlay
ABL’s founder and CEO Chris Lategan came up with a fundamentally new approach to modernization that focuses on replacing the menu-based systems in IBM i apps with role-based systems. RolePlay allows an IBM i customer–or, more likely, an ISV–to change how the ERP system presents information to users by transitioning it to a role-based approach, just as SAP Business Suite, Oracle E-Business Suite, and Microsoft Dynamics ERP systems do.
Hayes says: “Our new product RolePlay goes about and says, ‘I’m going to take the application and I’m going to blow up menus. I’m going to assign roles to people, and now I’m going to have the same concept [as SAP]. I’m going to have tasks that are appropriate to my role, as the only thing that I see, as opposed to menus.’ So we’ve built an entire infrastructure to support that process.”
RolePlay is a Java-based program that runs as a middleware layer as a subsystem on the IBM i OS. It includes an administrative program where customers set up the different roles and assign tasks to those roles. It also includes an emulation and Web-enablement layer. (ABL has extensive experience with Web enablement of IBM i applications.)
RolePlay will allow users to accomplish tasks in a straight-forward manner by clicking icons on a Web page, as opposed to entering cryptic key strings. No longer will users get to a specific task by entering, say, 24, 80, 17, and 3 in a command line. They’ll just select their tasks from a Web UI that corresponds to their roles.
“If you’re a power user, you know how to do that” cryptic key-string navigation, Hayes says. “But if you bring somebody from outside and train them, they’ll train by entering menu items and hit enter. We’re saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to click a task?'”
ABL expects ISVs to adopt the software first, and to modify their ERP products to utilize roles. This will neutralize the advantage that SAP holds in utilizing roles. No modification to existing applications code is required, Hayes says. “We don’t touch the underlying application except to undo the menu structure, by making calls directly to the application,” he says.
RolePlay has been in restricted availability for some time. Hayes says ABL has about a dozen customers currently using RolePlay. While the product is in production, the company has not yet announced general availability. It had initially planned to announce GA by the end of 2012. Now it may wait for the COMMON conference, April 7 through 10, in Austin, Texas.
ABL has applied for seven patents for the technology underlying RolePlay, according to ABL’s website. The company is excited about the possibilities with RolePlay. “We don’t know where the competition for this is going to come from,” Hayes says. “If we get traction with this, people are going to be hard pressed to catch up.”