Is It RDi Time Yet?
September 19, 2016 Dan Burger
It would be great fun to begin this article with news that IBM i enthusiasts were virtually lined up like box cars on freight trains to download Rational Developer for i (RDi), the modern graphical design tool for application development. It’s not that dramatic. Sheer numbers don’t tell the entire story, however. There’s a bit of detectable momentum. What are the chances IBM will help that momentum grow? It’s actually better than the pessimistic answer: slim and none.
One reason for optimism stems from the Rational for i team escaping IBM Software Group in 2015 and finding a more welcoming home with the IBM i development team in the Systems Group. Physically, the team remains in Toronto, but it takes no stretch of the imagination to see that i-specific ideas might be better received without the cross-examination of those looking out for the interests of other platforms. At the management level, this looks like a system that leads to better understanding the strategy of what is being done, why it needs to be done, and who the audience is that is asking for specific enhancements.
Edmund Reinhardt, architect for IBM i application development at IBM Canada, says the Request for Enhancements (RFE) program is an indicator that RDi will be more closely in touch with the IBM i shops most likely to put it to use. The RFE program allows users to submit, track and vote on RFEs that, in theory, should lead to an RDi more in alignment with customer desires.
“You can see from the link http://ibm.biz/rdi_rfe that we have already delivered 81 RFEs since we started a few years ago,” Reinhardt says. “And if you click on the Top list, you will see that we have covered by far the majority of the top-voted RFEs, showing the customer feedback directs our investment.”
An RDi Kick Start
As to factors that have sparked the RDi adoption rate, Reinhardt credits free-form RPG with picking up the pace.
“Free-form RPG has broken the barrier to adoption for many younger people from different disciplines who can now relate to the language and pick it up very easily. This solves the RPG skills issue and RDi is key to presenting development on the IBM i as modern and highly productive.”
Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC) is a shining example. It has made free form RPG and RDi the cornerstones of future development, and its endeavors led to the 2016 COMMON-IBM Power Systems Innovation Award. IT Jungle featured the AECC story in an article that can be read at this link.
“Over last two or three years, people used to look for RPG training with RDi training as a second thought and now people call us for RDi training as the primary interest. They mostly want training for the beginner level. We have some repeat customers that are more advanced,” says Susan Gantner who along with Jon Paris are among the leading experts in IBM i application development. Their training business and their RPG & DB2 Summit conferences keep them in contact with IBM i developers who are modernizing their development techniques. Both are contributing to an upcoming RPG Redbook produced by IBM. (Their next conference, by the way, is October 4-6 in Chicago.)
Gantner says 70 percent of their training business is oriented toward RDi, an indicator that IBM i shops are investing in RPG and the skills that are required to keep it vital in the modern IT environments.
Charles Guarino has also seen RDi become a hot topic in terms of increased demand for training. Guarino has a corporate training business and frequently speaks at technical conferences and local user group meetings, where he says RDi session attendance is increasing. In September and October, he is scheduled for four RDi workshops plus educational sessions at the Fall COMMON Conference (October 24-26 in Columbus, Ohio).
In December 2015, Guarino predicted RDi would be adopted by an additional 20 percent of IBM i shops during 2016. That strikes me as coming on a bit too strong, but I don’t doubt that interest in RDi is on the rise.
The Productivity Perception
SEU, the green-screen editor, remains solidly entrenched in the vast majority of IBM i shops, despite not being enhanced in any significant way for more than 15 years and the general misconception that IBM no longer supports it. For the record, IBM continues to support SEU. And, yes, it’s frequently noted that if IBM discontinued support there might well be an increase in RDi adoptions.
What seems to slow the migration from the green-screen development tools to RDi is the perception that little is gained in terms of developer productivity.
“Programmers are literal people,” Gantner says based on her own programmer mindset as well as the many programmers she has encountered in her career. “It’s hard to imagine [what RDi can do] if you haven’t experienced it for yourself or seen a good demo. It’s not just a couple of bells and whistles added to a green-screen editor. It can make a huge difference to productivity.
“The problem with productivity is: How do you measure it? And how is the tool being used? Just because the tool is capable of more things doesn’t mean some developers won’t use it the same as they would use a green-screen editor. If you don’t change the way you do development to take advantage of the tool, it doesn’t help in terms of productivity.”
Reinhardt says IBM has been investing in RDi to deliver deeper language understanding on a keystroke basis and increasing the ease with which content assist, cross-reference information, and the capability to hyperlink and hover through code is accessible. He also indicated enhancements would be coming in the areas of code coverage and optimizing test efforts. He says these features will grab the attention of larger shops with more mature development environments.