The Secret to Award-Winning IBM i App Development
December 9, 2015 Alex Woodie
The British software house Proximity recently won a second industry award for its IBM i-based application, called STREAM. With demand for its modern logistics software growing, Proximity appears to have hit upon a winning formula that blends PHP, HTML, IBM i, and RPG. But what is the company’s secret to success? Proximity’s managing director Dave Pickburn recently shared the goods.
Proximity first caught the eye of IT Jungle earlier this year when the company won the SHD Logistics Award 2015 for STREAM, the IBM i application that it developed and implemented for Scandinavian House, a small European furniture company.
This success story is fairly straightforward: Web-based software developed with tools from BCD Software and Zend gives clients a way to submit and check orders themselves, while a smartphone-based app helps streamline delivery for route drivers. The greater operational efficiency enabled by the cloud-hosted app helped Scandinavian House to rein in the chaos that had engulfed its operation and grow revenues by 40 percent without incurring additional cost or personnel.
Then in November, the same Scandinavian House implementation of STREAM won the European Supply Chain Excellence ‘Best SME’ Award. If something happens once, as the saying goes, it’s a data point. But if something happens twice, then you’ve got a trend. It’s quite clear that Proximity is trending in certain circles, including those in Long Island, where STREAM is getting its first taste of American roads.
But there’s a larger story here, and one that could help IBM i shops that are struggling to put together a cohesive application modernization strategy.
Exploring What’s Possible
Proximity’s background is not unlike many other small development shops across North America and Europe. They are IBM i professionals who have honed expertise in a particular industry (logistics) and on a particular platform (primarily Infor LX and BPCS). The eight-year-old company has some major clients, like European logistics firms Kune + Nagle and DB Schenker. These bona fides, however, are just starting points for what Proximity has become.
“We have a real depth of knowledge and background in logistics and supply chain,” Pickburn tells IT Jungle in a telephone interview. “We were already working with BCD at that point and we were looking for a way to bring modern software to the IBM i and take that to our existing customer base and say, ‘This is what’s possible. This is what you can do.'”
Scandinavian House lacked the capability to build a new order processing and routing app themselves, so they contracted with Proximity to build it for them, with the understanding that, if was successful, Proximity would hold the rights to market and sell it as a shrink-wrapped solution. With this early success and others under its belt, the software vendor is doing just that.
Keys to Success
Developing something unique is the first secret to success. “There are individual products out there that will do all the things that STREAM will do, but there isn’t any single producdt that will do them,” Pickburn says.
“For instance there are products that will let you capture signatures on your smart phone,” he continues. “There are products out there– Google Maps for starters–that will let you give an address and it will work out the best route. There are products out there that will help you manage the orders you’re receiving from customers. But there’s nothing really tying all the bits together and delivering them as an application on the cloud.”
Most IBM i applications, such as Infor’s BPCS, are developed for internal users and employees. But increasingly, companies want to open up their applications to their customers. Enabling customer self-service via the Web is a great way to reduce costs, but it requires more care and attention to be placed in the development of the interfaces.
“That’s certainly a growing requirement,” Pickburn says. “Ten years ago people didn’t have the expectation they could sign onto somebody else’s system and see their own orders and be able to place their own orders. Now things have moved beyond the four walls of the company to the outside world.”
Following agile development methods is another key differentiator. “We’ve taken an approach of really focusing on the requirement, focusing on the short-term results delivered quickly into production environments, rather than waterfall and long-release cycles,” Pickburn says. Future implementations of the Zend Framework and change management solutions will further empower its developers.
Proximity developed STREAM using a combination of RPG and PHP for the business logic. The PHP was developed in Zend Studio and runs on the Zend Server PHP runtime for IBM i, while the RPG was developed in the traditional manner. The data resides in the DB2 for i database and reporting is handled via BCD’s Clover tool. It all runs on an IBM Power7 box that’s placed in a cloud data center and managed by Proximity.
The fact that Proximity chose RPG to write 25 percent of STREAM’s business logic may be surprising to outside observers, but not to Pickburn. “We know the IBM i inside out,” he says. “We have a lot of processing around triggering emails based on events–when things happen or don’t happen. That’s actually all written in RPG because that’s the best language to write it in.”
The same can be said of the IBM i platform itself, which often appears to the outside world as a washed-up old legacy platform that’s become irrelevant in today’s cloud and mobile age. Proximity knows the value that the IBM i platform provides in the areas of reliability, security, scalability, and total cost of ownership. But the fact that Proximity can leverage that value without burdening its clients with the IBM i’s limitations (either real or perceived) is the real magic.
“The fact that it happens to be on IBM i is irrelevant,” Pickburn says. “It’s a stable platform and it’s a great platform to deliver something like this as a cloud-based solution. From Scandinavian House’s point of view, because it’s delivered in a browser over the Internet and on smart phones–whether it’s an IBM i server behind it or something else–they don’t care too much. What they do care about is the fact that it performs well and it’s reliable.”
IBM i Lessons Learned
Modern software vendors can no longer be successful selling applications that feature green screens, and the writing is on the wall for those organizations that roll their own 5250 screens. But instead of getting distracted with the legacy user experience, winning developers will leverage modern tools and modern methods to create applications that solve a problem in the real world.
The IBM i platform isn’t the source of the problem, but it can definitely be part of the solution, according to Proximity’s marketing manager Rob Jackson. Customers adopting cloud-based solutions expect the service to be reliable, secure, performant, and scalable, which just happen to be the IBM i platform’s top strengths.
“People should understand that what they have in System i is a modern, scalable, very reliable platform,” Jackson says. “Don’t look at it like a legacy green screen. Look at it as being something that really is very future-proof and invest in those technologies that they’ve got. You’ve got what you need there, whether you know it.”