Investment In IBM i Leads To Innovation Award
May 22, 2017 Dan Burger
Running the company website on the IBM i is one of those ideas that demonstrates how people get in their own way by creating phantom obstacles. Without thinking much about it, the default website decision often is “put it on the Windows or Linux server.” Regrettably, the default setting doesn’t always yield the best results.
Evidence to that effect is the work done by the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors. Migrating their website from a Windows server to their IBM i, on close examination, was a smart choice for several good reasons. Lower cost of operation, a content management system with closer integration to the back-end business system, and fewer and smaller obstacles than imagined made a lot of people happy.
It also impressed a lot of people at IBM and COMMON. Those two organizations made the work done at the realtor association their pick for the annual Innovation Award, which is presented at the COMMON Annual Meeting and Exposition each spring.
Realtors depend on websites to sell homes. Homebuyers depend on websites to search for homes. If either of these customers of IT services is unhappy, business suffers. If business suffers, the IT department will feel the pain.
Grand Rapids Association of Realtors has depended on an IBM midrange computer since the days of the System/38. The website went online in 1999 using IBM’s Net.Data, software for converting client/server applications into Web applications, running on the company’s AS/400. Several years later, management decided the website needed a new look and feel and it was turned over to an outside vendor. The website was moved to a Windows box, with a proprietary content management system that made website updates difficult and costly. It became a sore point with the association’s CEO.
IT director Rick Bowman and application support specialist Larry Amond suggested the website be brought back in house to run on the IBM i using WordPress.
The association’s business partner, Arbor Solutions, helped create the proof of concept and assisted with the development.
Arbor Solutions and the Grand Rapids Association of Realtors have been business partners for 20 years, but a recent college graduate, Chris Schaefer, worked closely with Amond, a seasoned RPG developer, and together they accomplished about 95 percent of the site development work.
“We were pleasantly surprised how we were able to get WordPress up and running very simply. That was a big selling point,” Bowman added.
A combination of SQL in PHP and SQL embedded in RPG and DB2 stored procedures were used to create accounts, retrieve information, and save, update or remove searches.
Users are able search the database using multiple property features as well as drawing a search area on a map. The search selections query the database using dynamically created SQL embedded in an RPG program and calls Google’s Mapping APIs. The coordinates are sent to a stored procedure, which performs all the calculations to find properties in the selected area. The search results are returned to a PHP program in a session table which is parsed out by a PHP script within a WordPress page. The results can also be pinned on a map.
“We wanted to take advantage of the existing business logic that was stable with our DB2 on i environment and best utilize the skill sets of our staff and the staff of our business partner,” Amond said.
The RPG programs are a story of evolution that begins with code generated from the Synon case tool. Over the years, it been maintained, massaged, modularlized and modernized using ILE and free-format syntax.
“Our back office business logic has grown up since the Synon days,” Amond said. “We’ve brought very old code and technology to modern, even bleeding edge, code.”
As for the website, Amond and Bowman acknowledged some skills were acquired from the days when they ran the Net.Data website on the Apache server in the late 1990s. Net.Data was not as polished in those days and there wasn’t a content management system in the equation. All changes had to go through the IT department. The new WordPress website saves time and money by allowing non-technical staff–marketing, sales, and management–to make modifications when needed.
In the current situation, the two-person IT staff runs four WordPress sites: a development site, a beta (test) site, a members-only site, and the public-facing site. Each has a separate IP address and runs within Zend Server and the Apache Server.
It all runs on Power7+ technology. The website, along with other business critical applications, are on a four-core (P05 tier) 8202-E4D Power System with eight internal 283 GB drives. On average, the site receives more than 400,000 unique property searches per month. These searches generate more than 91,500,000 monthly property matches and nearly 12,000,000 are viewed in detail by prospective home buyers.
“When you compare the size of this small IBM Power System to the actual output of work it is doing from a Web traffic and search-results-returned perspective, it is extremely impressive,” Amond noted while adding, ‘”the project was scary, but we haven’t let that hold us back from learning new technologies and moving forward and trying to build something better.”