Free Form RPG Scores IBM i Innovation Award
May 16, 2016 Dan Burger
From the time free form RPG was introduced with IBM i 7.1 TR 7, expectations have been high. There’s been much talk about the potential for greatness, but only scattered reports of success. Finally, free form RPG is lighting up the scoreboard. Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC) is showing the way. It’s made free form RPG the cornerstone of future development, and its endeavors led to the 2016 COMMON-IBM Power Systems Innovation Award.
The award was presented Sunday at COMMON‘s Annual Meeting and Exposition, which just got underway in New Orleans, Louisiana.
AECC is based in Little Rock. It provides power for more than 500,000 homes, farms, and businesses in Arkansas and surrounding states. In the middle of AECC’s free form RPG project is Kody Robinson, a 23-year-old RPG programmer. Two years ago, Robinson had never seen or heard of RPG. Shortly after being hired, he was in the midst of a project that would re-invent code development at AECC.
Like many IBM midrange shops, RPG development at AECC was locked into fixed format RPG III, green-screen development tools, and green-screen interfaces. But Barbara Harris, director of business and financials (a title that includes IT director duties) had an idea about modernizing that needed to be put into action. Her first move was to hire Robinson, the recent graduate from the University of Arkansas at Monticello with a degree in computer information systems.
Together they set out on a course to re-route code development with a roadmap that would lead to future success. That plan included free form RPG, Rational Developer for i, and PHP.
“If I had come into an RPG development environment that was already using modularized and free form, I believe I could have made a pretty significant development impact very quickly,” Robinson says. “Even without prior RPG experience, I could have had pretty solid RPG program knowledge in a week.”
But because of the fixed format RPG III code, a strange duck to anyone beginning a career in enterprise computing these days, Robinson says his contribution to the development team was diminished for at least a couple of months. That’s a new employee inefficiency the company wants to avoid in the future.
Robinson joined a team of three experienced RPG developers and took the lead in learning free form RPG and Rational Developer for i.
AECC has thousands of RPG programs. Converting all of them would be a huge undertaking. To make the conversion to free form a more manageable task, the decision was made that only new programs and fixes to old code would be written in free form RPG. This was begun nine months ago. All of the developers now use free format RPG.
Robinson says the process was mitigated with the use of ARCAD Software‘s Transformer tool, which converts nearly 100 percent of column-based (fixed format) RPG to the free format style. ARCAD Transformer, by the way, features integrated plug-ins for the Eclipse-based RDi development environment. (This tool is also available from IBM Rational, where it is referred to as ARCAD Converter.)
Robinson says the value of the Transformer tool goes beyond code conversion. He uses it to understand syntax differences and how functions relate to one another. By making those types of comparisons, he says he is better at manually coding new programs.
In case you were wondering, there are green screen programs that remain untouched. The end users prefer it that way. Not only is it familiar, it is easier and more efficient for uses in the warehouse and for some accounting purposes.
“We convert some of the financial programs to GUI because they are used by the executives and we use PHP to deliver Web interfaces on back end applications,” Robinson says. “We have monthly code review meetings to share information that will help developers build new skills in free form, PHP, SQL and others.”
PHP also plays an important role in AECC’s modernization road map. It’s an open source success story for IBM i that’s proved to be capable of leveraging the IBM i operating system, DB2 for i, and RPG code to front end systems of engagement. Beyond that, it’s compatible with almost every operating system and hardware platform, which provides the cross-platform capabilities that are important to organizations with roadmaps that plot strategy five and ten years down the road.
Two out of the four developers have PHP skills. Robinson is one of those.
The new application development roadmap brings business value to AECC by increasing productivity, but what really stands out is the preparedness for a transformation of the workforce, including a shorter learning curve, Robinson says.
“We needed a solution that jumped from column-based code to free format code in a way that everyone could understand and hit the ground running with. Not only that, but a major reason for implementation is attracting newer programmers to the IBM i platform. The goal was to modernize, modularize, and optimize applications with ease while continuing to have stable programs.”
More IBM i Innovation
Runner up in the 2016 Innovation Award competition was Litmis Spaces, which created pre-configured open source development environments on an IBM i in the cloud. Its business goal is to reduce the time it takes to develop and deploy software on IBM i. The application stack is comprised of IBM i, DB2 for i, PASE, Ruby On Rails, and Node.js.