SunGard Gives IBM i App New Life with LANSA
September 9, 2014 Alex Woodie
There was a concern among the executives at SunGard Public Sector that the IBM i-based NaviLine product line was getting a bit long in the tooth. Customers were complaining about tired UIs, the company had just rolled out a new Windows app that does pretty much the same thing, and there was some hesitation to invest in it. But now that the first round of a major rewrite using Visual LANSA is complete, it’s apparent that the sturdy old app has some life left in it after all.
Development on the NaviLine public sector application goes back decades at SunGard PS and its original developer, HTE Inc. of Lake Mary, Florida. Much of the original code was written in Synon 2E, a 4GL that generated the RPG source code that executed on the AS/400, iSeries, System i, and IBM i servers.
Today, about 500 local governments and utilities around the country rely on NaviLine to manage day-to-day processes. Millions of lines of RPG code handle every aspect of running a small government or utility–from issuing building permits and conducting code enforcement to collecting taxes and managing requisitions. (The company no longer develops IBM i-based public safety and justice software; that niche is now filled by its Windows-based ONESolution suite, which SunGard PS started shipping back in 2010.)
NaviLine customers are mostly happy with the product. The functionality, in particular, is second to none in its class (even ONESolution). “Legacy” may be a bad word in some circles, but it’s a badge of honor here, where a 25-year run has allowed SunGard PS to encounter and respond to real-world conditions in ways that fresh new apps just can’t.
Green screens are still in widespread use among NaviLine customers, who have their share of 5250 zealots. But most customers have opted for a GUI that SunGard PS first started offering in 2000. The GUI, which was developed with Jacada’s screen-scraping tools, now looks rather crude, and was causing trouble. “Customers were making comments that the UI was getting stale,” said Kevin Mooney, senior director of NaviLine operations. “It’s 14 years old, but looks 20.”
That displeasure wasn’t enough to force these organizations to move to ONESolution, which includes functionality for governments and utilities as well as public safety organizations. SunGard PS was clear at the time of ONESolution’s launch that it was not going to force NaviLine customers to migrate to the Windows app, although it did provide a path for customers to do so. By staying on the IBM i app, you could say that NaviLine customers had already cast their votes. But couldn’t something be done about that dreadful looking GUI?
About a year ago, SunGard PS finally got serious about improving NaviLine’s image. It evaluated several products, including the Visual LANSA development environment from LANSA. Incidentally, SunGard PS had just completed a project with LANSA for adding smartphone and tablet functionality with its LongRange solution, which provides a framework for building native iOS apps that are served from IBM i servers. That engagement went well and gave LANSA the edge for SunGard PS’s new modernization project.
A Fresh Approach
SunGard PS’s Visual LANSA work started at the beginning of 2014, and is still in its earliest phase of a project that’s expected to take about six years to complete. Five of SunGard PS’s IBM i programmers were trained to build new user interfaces in the Visual LANSA development environment. The plan is: Build fat-client Windows interfaces that look and feel a lot like Microsoft Outlook 2010.
It’s not just about building prettier GUIs, but re-imagining the workflow around the GUIs to make employees more efficient. “We’re not simply making it look better. We’re adding a lot of functionality and making it more productive,” Mooney tells IT Jungle. “We’re taking the opportunity to re-engineer what we call the home screen. You used to have to access five screens [to complete a given task]. We put it on one screen now.”
The new GUIs are designed to go up on big 23-inch screens, where customer service reps can see a lot of data and access a lot of different functions all at one time, Mooney says. The company is intrigued by an upcoming option in Visual LANSA that will generate HTML5 screens that behave just like the DLL-powered Windows apps that it’s building, but currently there are no plans to offer a Web option.
The company is starting with the NaviLine Utilities module, and later will move onto other components, such as the GL and Code Enforcement. “We’re doing one application at a time,” Mooney says. “We’re concentrating on the major home screen where our clients’ end users spend most of their time, then we’ll go back and finish all the screens, all the function points.”
The entire NaviLine product currently has about 35,000 screens. When the Visual LANSA rewrite is done, the screen-count will be whittled down to perhaps 20,000 screens, Mooney says.
NaviLine’s RPG-based business logic will largely remain untouched throughout the whole process. “Half of our lines of code are back-end processing for reports and building updates and things like that,” Mooney says. “We’ll never have to convert those. They’ll still run on the iSeries in the background. While they can be initiated from a new screen in LANSA, we won’t have to touch them. That’s one of the major reasons we chose LANSA.”
It’s still early in the project, but reactions have been encouraging. SunGard PS demonstrated the new GUI at its national user conference about a month ago. “They loved it,” Mooney says. “It’s been very positive. Just the jump from when we last touched the UI in 2000, the difference is startling.”
Performance is also improved. Relatively simple operations that took about 10 seconds in the Jacada GUI now take about one second to run, Mooney says. “With Jacada we needed to have a separate server that Jacada used to process the screens and then send the data to the iSeries,” he says. “LANSA does not require that. There’s one DLL (dynamic link library) and it connects to the iSeries. It’s all proprietary what they do, but the connection is unbelievably fast, really impressive.”
And the positive early returns from customers have also given the IBM i a slightly warmer place in the hearts of SunGard PS’s executives, a roster that includes former IBM iSeries general manager Mike Borman, who’s the CEO of the company.
The perceived age of the IBM i and its inability to keep up with modern technology and user expectation was a concern of the company’s, Mooney says. “It’s not necessarily our opinion. It’s what our clients’ perception of the iSeries was,” he says. “Overall [the executives] might have been pleasantly surprised that it’s being received as well as it is. They’re encouraged with this project.”