For OpenLegacy, Modernization Is All About the APIs
June 1, 2015 Alex Woodie
Modernization means different things to different people. For some in the IBM i space, being modern means adopting a model-view-controller architecture or having a Web user interface, while for others it may mean having a “mobile first” development strategy or using SQL in the database. For the folks at OpenLegacy, modernization means exposing existing business processes using the emerging lingua franca of network-powered computing: The API.
While OpenLegacy is, ostensibly, a provider of open source legacy modernization tools for IBM i and z/OS shops (it’s right there in the name), the path to modernization that it prescribes is by facilitating easy integration at the data and application levels. The API–and more specifically the RESTful APIs that have taken the computing world by storm, as opposed to older and slower SOAP-based APIs–is the integration path of least resistance today.
“It’s not screen modernization because we’re dealing with programs and data. It’s legacy integration,” OpenLegacy COO Hans Otharsson told IT Jungle at the recent COMMON conference in beautiful Anaheim, California. “We want to deal with specific business processes that customers want to be able to expose outside that application. That’s what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter if it’s on-premise or off-premise or cloud or hybrid–I’m just looking to extend those backend systems.”
This approach to modernization is both lightweight and non-invasive. Instead of re-writing thousands of lines of RPG or COBOL code in Java, PHP, or C++–which invariably opens the door to modernization’s big brother, the dreaded migration–OpenLegacy allows the “legacy” code to continue to run as is. Instead of ditching the old stuff, it builds a new layer (via application analysis/modeling tool and wizard-based code generators) on top that paves the way to Web GUIs, mobile apps, and the all-important REST-based API.
While Web UI generation is a feature of the company’s offering, that’s not really the focus, Otharsson says. “If somebody came to me and said ‘I have a 500 screen application and I want to modernize that,’ my first question to them is, ‘Do you really want to modernize all 500 screens, or are there specific things that end users are going to need, that people are going to access, and are they going to access them in different ways, versus just give me the mirror of what I’m already doing?'”
Getting rid of 5250 screens can certainly boost the aesthetic of an application, and lower the training curve for new employees. But at the end of the day, a company may be better off by exposing certain RPG-based business processes as a REST API, which make it easy to expose and consume services over the Internet. A Java, PHP, or Node.js developer can’t do much with a 5250 display, but give him a REST API, and he can change the world.
There’s an API for That
In case you missed it, we’re becoming API-obsessed in the computer world. Everything seems to be going the way of the API. Instead of writing new code to accomplish a given task–such as checking an applicant’s credit history, calculating a delivery route, or validating an order–you can just use an API to call that pre-existing code as it sits somewhere else. Just as “There’s an app for that” describes the mobile computing revolution, “There an API for that” succinctly describes the path we’re on in business computing.
OpenLegacy has been pitching its API-centric message for just a short time now, but people are getting it, Otharsson says.
“A lot of people I talked to at this conference, they appreciate the fact that it’s a refreshing look at how we can help them solve their problems,” he says. “It’s not a ‘boil the entire ocean’ view of the world. It’s not saying you have to get off the AS/400 or mainframe or you should take everything you have in COBOL and redo it in Java. I’ve done enough of those projects in my life [and know that] selling and delivering those projects and making them successful for everyone is a very arduous process.”
Otharsson had enough of the “big bang” legacy modernization projects while working at Software AG. “It’s part of the reason I’m in this business now,” he says. “The people who developed the tools, we all sat there in those projects, lived through the pain and suffering, and every time we would hit our head against the wall and say, ‘There has to be a better way.’
“Yeah, some things need to be converted or migrated,” he continues. “But sometimes it’s just an integration problem. Vendors have a wonderful ability, because they have one tool in their toolkit–let’s say it’s a hammer–to make every problem look like a nail. ‘Your entire world would be so much better if you took everything off of RPG and made it Java or a .NET framework and everything will be great and the sky will open and unicorns and rainbows will fly forth.’ But the reality is that isn’t true because there are so many other aspects to any of these other projects.”
OpenLegacy seems to recognizes that organizations are happy with the IBM i platform as a whole, but need and desire a way to have it play nicely with the modern world. Asking IBM i shops to solve their problems by moving off the IBM Power platform is a nonstarter, and OpenLegacy knows it. “You cannot have that discussion with an IBM i customer,” Otharsson says. “The sense of loyalty and appreciation for this technology, I don’t see in any other hardware class.”
REST-based APIs appear to be a nearly ideal vehicle to solving many IBM i shops’ modernization challenges, the company says, because they’re universally recognized and usable, because they don’t require deep changes to the source system, and because they don’t require massive replication of data. For midmarket shops that have RPG and Java talent on staff, the REST-based API is a place where both can feel at home–and the data can stay at home, right in DB2 for i.
“I want to solve problems for midmarket customers,” Otharsson says. “If I can solve that problem through an automated fashion and I can expose that as an API and your Java integration programmers can take that and they don’t have to understand what’s sitting on that backend system–if it’s in a language or a kernel that they can deal with, and make them do that faster–then all the better. We all know there’s a communication gap between the Java integration developers and the RPG programmers.”
OpenLegacy has had about 700 downloads of its open source software in the past quarter, which signals an uptick in awareness for the Israel-based company. The company doesn’t sell an enterprise version of its product. Instead, it makes money by charging for technical support. Then open source software is restricted to running a single API, so enterprise shops that want to expose more APIs will need to buy a license. For more info, see the company’s website at www.openlegacy.com.