IBM i Development Team Considering Native .NET
November 9, 2015 Dan Burger
Zero tolerance for AIX. It’s an exaggeration, but not that much of an exaggeration within the IBM midrange community. There is a small amount of tolerance. And where there is tolerance, the seeds of open source have an opportunity to sprout and grow. PHP has shown that open source can be accepted as a viable application development environment. Ruby, Python, and Node.js are relatively new to the platform and are trying to gain a foothold. Now get ready for open source .NET.
Don’t expect IBM to drop .NET on your doorstep next week, next month, or next year. But it’s my hunch that .NET is on the roadmap. There’s a future for .NET in the IBM community. It hasn’t already happened for a variety of reasons, including an icy relationship between IBM and Microsoft. Now that .NET is open source, the political interference is removed. But because .NET has been open sourced, uncertainty about how well open source .NET will be received has resulted in IBM taking a wait and see position. There’s no shortage of uncertainty whether the IBM i community is ready for this as well. Is it zero tolerance? Not hardly. But it’s not going to be a Welcome Wagon party either.
.NET has been hanging out in our IT environments for many years. IT Jungle has written about it on numerous occasions (see Related Stories at the end of this article). Technically there have been barriers, but nothing that shuts down the discussions about making it happen.
“The biggest thing is the screen layout and windows management,” according to Tim Rowe, who is characteristically tight-lipped about anything that’s in the works within IBM i development. Rowe is the IBM i business architect for application development and systems management. (Note that he did not say Windows management. He said windows management.) “There’s all the normal open source challenges that relate to quickly, efficiently, and safely interacting with ILE data from that other world.”
The IBM i development team has already built toolkits to interact with ILE objects related to Node.js, Python, Ruby, and PHP. That includes DB2 drivers. Building drivers to interact from a .NET world in a manner that is consistent with interactions inside the .NET world is another of the technical challenges Rowe identifies.
“It’s not a hurdle we’ve never solved before,” he says, “but we’ve never solved it for .NET. The toolkit allows users to interact with data in a manner that is somewhat easy and familiar to the language the users are using.”
Building the first open source toolkit was the hardest, but it paved the way for other toolkits to follow. The first toolkit enabled the IBM i development team to discover how to make the connections through IBM i to get the needed data and do the transactions back and forth. Rowe says important lessons were learned when creating the XML service infrastructure.
According to Rowe, the plumbing, with updates and enhancements, has been used for all the open source toolkits and would likely be the backbone of the plumbing for .NET, if and when that project gets a green light.
“We are actively looking at it,” Rowe says while stopping short even hinting at timelines for decision making or product development. “We’ve never taken on a project as big as .NET before. In .NET, we would be trying to emulate an operating system. It will take some time.”
Would IBM be actively looking at bringing the .NET operating system to IBM i on Power if there was little or no interest demonstrated by the i community? Let’s just say if they did that it wouldn’t be the first time and leave it at that.
IBM has a deep desire to move X86 workloads to Power, and the potential exists for .NET on Power to help accomplish that. There more than a few IBM i shops that have chosen to build .NET front ends for their existing business logic that runs on i. That combination, IBM will point out, is an example of how companies get invested in dual platforms requiring dual administration and dual maintenance. In theory, the IBM consolidation story goes, that could be simplified by consolidating on Power.
“My guess is that IBM i shops using .NET alongside their i already have a networking infrastructure in place and there is little perceivable value in moving that .NET stuff to Linux,” says Roger Pence, product evangelist at ASNA, an IBM i ISV that has helped i shops develop .NET front ends on RPG business logic.
Referencing the HelpSystems‘ IBM i Marketplace Survey, Pence noted only 6.4 percent admitted to running Linux on IBM i servers, leading him to the conclusion native Linux on Power boxes next to IBM i is pretty rare. From that 6.4 percent, he surmises the shops clamoring for .NET on Linux represents only “a bare sliver of potential.”
He describes the business model for IBM to put .NET on the i as “non-existent.”
“We’ll never see that in our lifetime,” he predicted.
On the other hand, Rowe sees interest in .NET coming from many sources within the i community, including customers and ISVs.
“.NET is really a potential game changer. We were getting ready to explore this more than a year ago, about the time Microsoft open sourced .NET. But a project that has just hit the open source street is a recipe for disaster because open source doesn’t hold still,” he says. “Before any decisions are made, the dust needs to settle to get a view of how the market reacts.
“That’s why we tackled Node and Python,” Rowe says. “We had the time to do that while the dust settled around open source .NET.”
Regarding the IBM i community’s appetite for open source, Rowe is predictably bullish.
“PHP is the biggest open source fish in the pond for IBM i right now. It’s been in the water for eight years. It’s proved to be successful. Hundreds of customers are doing stuff in production (not just in sandboxes) with PHP today. We have websites that are as modern and interactive as anything anywhere, and they are running on IBM i.
“I have companies rolling out production Ruby and Node,” he says while acknowledging the numbers are not great and the technology is still new to IBM i shops.
“What’s important for businesses today is modern development. Something that enhances what is already in place. Leveraging the technologies on the platform is progress, but change and transition is a process. It’s not going to happen quickly.”