Mincron Goes GUI and Mobile with LANSA
May 6, 2014 Dan Burger
Mincron is an old school IBM ISV with its roots reaching back to the days of the System/38 and green screen applications with RPG lineage. It’s a niche ERP software vendor serving the durable goods wholesale industry. In the beginning, the suite of applications were all green screen all the time. Then came the day when Mincron executives realized the world was moving beyond text-based data presentation.
“We started in the late ’90s to modernizing apps,” says Greg Neal, the IT director at Mincron. “This is not quite one of those stories about how it took a thousand tries to invent the light bulb, but in terms of modernizing our applications, we did take a couple of directions that didn’t work out so well until we got the LANSA RAMP tool.”
ERP systems are expensive, time consuming, and stressful to implement. Companies that invest in ERP software like to know what the software vendors’ product roadmap looks like before they buy.
Mincron embraced modernization as a means for survival. “We saw the green screen was not going to be competitive in the future,” Neal says. “Our sales people came to us and said there are people out there who love the AS/400 and others who hate it. Sales people heard the gripes about the AS/400 being a closed system and wanted to widen the arena.”
Before Mincron found LANSA, it made a serious effort to give its applications a graphical user interface (GUI) and gain platform independence using Java. Thus the idea of developing an RPG-to-Java conversion tool took shape. The company developed its own migration tool, called Jenasys. Today, Mincron is having success selling its product even though it still runs on the IBM midrange operating system, now called the IBM i.
Suffice to say, this venture did not turn out for the best. By 2007, the company was looking for another way to modernize. That’s when Mincron turned to LANSA. In terms of multiplatform opportunities a business goal, LANSA’s tool provided Mincron with a migration path.
“We could start tomorrow to gradually convert our programs to be in RDML–LANSA’s language,” Neal says. “We could do this while continuing to run the converted programs on IBM i. We could do this at a comfortable pace until one day we run on IBM i and other systems.”
One of the reasons Mincron wanted multi-platform options was the built-in cost hurdle IBM i on Power Systems faces. “We are still usually the most expensive solution,” Neal says. “We have to have a sharp pencil to prove ROI.”
The company investigated a lot of modernization options before landing on LANSA, says Mincron team lead Greg Johnson. “There were a lot of reasons. The two biggest reasons were RAMP gave us the opportunity to run our entire ERP system within a Windows framework immediately without having to change any of our underlying code. No retesting. All the functionality and everything that worked for the past 25 years was going to work ‘as is’ inside a Windows framework.”
The RAMP conversion tool doesn’t care if the RPG is modern or not, which is good, because Mincron still has programs running in RPG III. They fit the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” definition. But the company also uses modern ILE code and concepts because it recognizes what is broke and needs fixing.
The second reason Mincron chose RAMP was due to the development path it presented. “We could continue to have RPG developers enhance the system, and the enhancements would apply to the new RAMP product,” Johnson says. “We also had the option to build new Windows programs from scratch that would tie into the framework. We weren’t limited to what RPG could do or what RPG had access to.”
He describes the development environment as a mix of RPG on the backend with enhancements in RPG. But there are also programs being created as native Windows components that Johnson says “do things you couldn’t begin to do with RPG code.”
The guys who originally coded in RPG are still doing that. And what about the people writing the RAMP code? They were all RPG developers that learned LANSA.
There were two major milestones in this project, Johnson says. The first was getting the system in the Windows framework. That effort included 750 menu options in the ERP package. The team built a Windows menu tree in the framework that included applications, functions, and folders. Johnson says it was about a three months to do that.
“Our screens still had a green-screen look to them,” he says. “Not green text on a black background, but different colors and buttons instead of function keys but still it was similar to a green screen and acted like a GUI screen.
“People liked the functionality because it no longer required all the page views to navigate, Johnson noted. “We then spent time with LANSA to map out some things we wanted to do. We had access to a couple of their really sharp guys and did 98 percent of the work on a 10-month project to go through 2,500 screens in our system. We customized every screen to look like a native Windows screen.
Next came the mobile experience. Keep in mind, Mincron didn’t have any mobile developers.
Mincron’s first mobile app was for tablet access to the ERP database. It included customer look-ups and customer info transaction history, product searches, inventory status, along with features on the mobile app like geo-mapping and touch telephone calling. It took five days to get that app up and running. It was 100 percent written in RPG and it performed like any Apple app.
The RPG development team has also written two other mobile apps that didn’t exist as part of the ERP. All were accomplished using LANSA LongRange and without DDS. Real time access to the ERP database was part of the deal.
“We are excited about a lot of things,” Neal says about the IT department. “One, we are proud of the product we have now. This company has been full of AS/400 bigots for a long time. With all the things that the machine will do now and the fact that the price has come down, our sales people are excited about where we sit.”
Eight of Mincron’s ERP software companies have switched or are in the process of switching, but Johnson says Mincron is not forcing existing customers to convert from green screen. In fact, Mincron continues to enhance and support the green-screen version of its ERP suite.
“They are beginning to see what can be done with the Windows version,” Johnson says. “Those that have switched have good stories to tell–not a nightmare. The majority have decided they want to do it, now they are just trying to figure out when.”