Braum’s Takes the RPG Path to Mobile Apps with LANSA LongRange
April 2, 2013 Alex Woodie
RPG is probably not the first language that pops into most IT people’s minds when they think about mobile application development. But for IBM i shops like Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy Stores, the capability to code mobile apps in the language they know best–good old Report Program Generator–is a major advantage. In fact, it was the main reason Braum’s chose LANSA‘s LongRange to build a series of mobile apps for its employees.
Braum’s Ice Cream and Dairy Stores is something of a local institution for people who live in the south central portion of the United States. In each of the 280 stores that Braum’s operates across Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Arkansas, visitors will find a unique shopping and eating experience that blends elements of a hamburger stand, ice cream parlor, and a store with fresh dairy, meats, vegetables, and baked goods.
The privately held company takes vertical integration in the fast food and grocery store business to a new level by running its own private herd of cows on the 10,000-acre Braum Family Farm in Tuttle, Oklahoma. In addition to the private source of milk and cream (which the company takes much pride in), Braum’s runs a processing plant, a bakery, a water treatment plant, a fleet of trucks, and warehouses to store everything.
Supporting this midsize business of 12,000 employees and $450 million-plus in annual revenue is a mix of homegrown and packaged applications running on the company’s replicated pair of Power Systems Model 720s. The company runs a lean and mean IT shop, with half a dozen or so employees managing the core IBM i-based applications–payroll, human resources, fixed assets, inventory, warehouse management, and shipping–and another half dozen or so dedicated to the network and maintaining the Windows-based point of sale (POS) system.
Prior to the development of mobile applications, the 40 district managers in charge of the 280 Braum’s store managers–and the 10 area managers in charge of those district managers–accessed company data, like HR, sales, and inventory information, through PCs located in each store. The Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, company does not provide its managers with laptops, in part to ensure they have face-to-face contact with their charges.
While laptops are not in the managers’ repertoires, they do drive company cars and, more recently, were given company-issued iPhones, which gave them mobile access to the company’s Lotus Notes email system. As the company prepared to update the iPhones, it dawned on Braum’s CIO Paul Clark that it would be an excellent platform on which to build certain applications. Not to the point where managers could work entirely from home, but to streamline certain processes, with the goal of making the business run more smoothly.
Braum’s customer comment process, in particular, was in need of an overhaul. Whenever a customer provides feedback, either via email or written notes dropped in a box, a manager is required to follow up on the comment, which could be anything from “Please build a store in my city!” to “Why don’t you have pistachio-peppermint-rutabaga ice cream?”
The process of following up on customer comments was inefficient and difficult to track, Clark says. “It was all paper based,” he tells IT Jungle. “We were looking for a way to let managers do that online, if you will, to let them do that with the iPhones.”
Clark set out in search of a mobile application development tool. A big priority was to keep the new customer comment app native on the IBM i server. “We wanted something based on RPG,” says Clark, who also wanted to avoid Java at all costs. “All the stuff we had third parties build for us was Java, and we didn’t want to go through the learning curve. We saw LongRange out there and thought that would be the quickest way to develop mobile applications, and to support it with RPG.”
In the second half of 2012, the company downloaded a 30-day trial of LongRange, which LANSA had launched only months earlier, and began to play around with it. In a matter of weeks, Braum’s RPG programmer Ezra Daniels had created an RPG-powered native iPhone app that not only allowed managers to access and respond to customer feedback, but allowed their managers to track the progress and ensure the customer’s concerns have been addressed.
Clark was sold. He quickly bought a LongRange license and told Daniels to go to work. The capability to keep the business logic powering iPhone apps in RPG made for quick returns, according to Daniels. “It’s very easy to program,” he says. “There is a little bit of a learning curve, but once I got started, I was able to pick up the ball and run.”
Most of the time Daniels spent learning the ropes in LongRange was figuring out how to navigate the LongRange Studio, which is used to design user interfaces for apps. Daniels, who had no Web development training prior to using LongRange and was accustomed to coding free format RPG in IBM’s Rational Studio IDE, quickly learned the new techniques required to be productive in LongRange.
“One thing that I like is how easy it is to place things on the screen where I need it,” he says. “The functionality behind different screen elements, like buttons and tables–LANSA gives you everything you need, and provides an easy way to place it on the screen. It flows very well. It really is not any harder than writing RPG.”
In fact, generating mobile apps might be quicker than coding 5250 screens, Daniels says. “Designing the screens, the subfile, in regular RPG sometimes can be fairly lengthy, whereas this seems even to quicker to write in the mobile apps than it does for regular green-screen based products,” he says.
Apps Keep a Flowin’
Clark would have been satisfied with the return on investment (ROI) generated by the customer comment app by itself. But that was just the first of five mobile apps the company had written by last week, in addition to an authentication utility Braum’s developed.
The other apps provide managers with data regarding sales, inventory, staffing, and contacts on their iPhones, as well as Android phones. Some Braum’s managers have elected to use their own Android phones; LongRange develops native iOS and Android apps.
Some of the apps were brand new, such as the performance recap app, which tells the manager if stores are staffed with enough workers to meet pre-determined service levels. Other apps, such as sales reports that provide daily comparisons, are based on existing reports, and include some new functionality.
All in all, the new apps have been very welcomed by Braum’s 50 managers and have helped deliver the information they need to do a better job. “I’ve gotten thank you notes from the managers,” Daniels says. “Ezra has been a hero,” says Clark, who is OK with his programmer getting all the credit. “All I did is tell Ezra to learn how to use it.”