Navigator For IBM i On A Zigzag Journey
October 28, 2017 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Navigator for IBM i provides system administrators with tools that prevent them from losing their marbles, or at least delaying that outcome until the boss mentions that grounds maintenance and window washing have been added to the list of sys admin responsibilities.
Navigator continues to receive updates and enhancements, mostly based on filling in holes in the features and functionality that the product it replaced already possessed. IBM also takes requests from current users, which also find their way into future enhancement. But for the unskilled user trying to climb the learning curve, Navigator can be a frustrating stumble from quandary to quagmire.
Navigator for i is almost 10 years old. That’s a long time to be polishing a product that has yet to truly shine.
The browser-based IBM Navigator for i predecessor, IBM System Director Navigator (yes, the name changes are confusing), was introduced with IBM i 6.1 in early 2008. In its haste to modernize the System i Navigator, which was tied to the green-screen display and a Windows client-based architecture, IBM released a tool that was an achievement because of its Web browser interface, but it was flawed from the start. System Director Navigator for i was the red-headed step child of an existing product designed to manage an organization’s collection of PCs, Linux/AIX/Unix systems, and others. It was given an IBM i interface and sent out into the world as a component of the IBM i operating system. The ideas of a single tool that could manage multiple – and incompatible – systems was a good one, but the market still preferred platform-centric tools and the go to market execution left something to be desired.
The Java-based code was slow and it was buggy. And if you don’t believe bad first impressions are a big deal, this was a good example of why they are. Bad first impressions for software set the tone and put the brakes on adoption rates. IBM has been trying to make up for this bad first impression ever since. Swift action, sometimes an antidote for a bad impression was not a priority. Slow and steady is a better (and somewhat generous) description of what resulted. The green-screen version of System i Navigator remained the popular choice.
You could make a case that adoption rate was slow because development rate was slow, or flip that over and justify that the development rate is what it is because the expected adoption rate was going to be slow. It’s another of the classic “Which came first, the chicken or egg?” discussions.
The old Windows client-based Navigator, the product with features the new Navigator still lacks, hasn’t been updated since the mid-2014 release of i 7.2. (It is still supported, however.) This has allowed the full Navigator development effort to go toward the browser-based Navigator for the past four years. By 2016, when the old IBM System Director Navigator was withdrawn from the market, the development team had reworked the Navigator for i Java code. Performance was significantly improved and the look and feel was comparable to other modern tools. That’s the good news. The bad news is that some useful functions that were built into System i Navigator remain unavailable in Navigator for i.
Bill Hansen has had a close look at Navigator for i. It’s research that’s required for him to do his job, which is to train people on IBM i topics. He’s recently written study courses that help IBM i professionals understand Navigator and use the tool for the greatest benefit. His most recent course “Work Management Using Navigator for i” is the third in a series that includes “Using Navigator for i” and “Basic Operations Using Navigator for i.” Hansen is the owner of Manta Technologies, a training and education company that’s specialized in IBM i topics for more than 20 years. He wrote his first AS/400 course in 1991.
Hansen depends on product documentation to guide him through his learning process prior to writing the course material that will help others. To say the Navigator for i documentation disappointed him is an understatement. He was appalled to find only two pages of Navigator documentation available. Part of the reason it is so brief is the Navigator manual only covers the product’s latest features. There’s no full product description.
And to make matters worse, his opinion of the product’s built-in help facilities is that they are dated and inadequate. New users beware.
“You can follow a link to an actual online reference manual. But what you get is the original 2008 IBM System Director Navigator for i Reference Manual, which is not worth the pixels it its displayed with,” he says.
Hansen’s a guy who appreciates quality workmanship. So when his research also uncovered some holes in the functionality, he rankles. Users who missed the green-screen era will stumble while learning the text-based interface needed for certain system administration functions. In other words, the browser-based Navigator is not totally browser based. IBM is working on that. It’s been working on that and it will continue to work on that. Meanwhile, users without green-screen experience can become quickly productive with the Windows-like functionality, as far as that takes them.
“While the overall architecture has radio buttons for ‘general help’ and ‘context-sensitive help,’ adding the actual help text seems to be a project left for the future,” Hansen notes. “More than once, I’ve had to sign onto the green-screen interface, drill down to a particular function or display, and press F1 to learn the meaning of a column or the purpose of a parameter. For example, it took me an hour to track down the fact that a column that is incorrectly labeled ‘Page Faults’ was actually showing the average number of page faults per second. Another, labeled ‘Memory’ never gives the units. Is it KB, MB, GB, or something else?”
He’s also found design inconsistencies in that some screens refresh automatically after an operation is performed, while others require users to click a refresh button. In addition to the dysfunctional help buttons, there are other buttons that similarly have no action associated with them.
It’s stuff like this that fuels Hansen’s lament that the quality of programming is not what it used to be and that it’s recognized and has become acceptable.
“IBM’s budget cuts have left them with newly hired, overseas programmers who grew up in the Microsoft age, without the benefit of the ‘IBM quality’ mindset,” he says while conceding his expectations are too high because they are colored by the years when IBM was at its best. Those were the days when “code would not see the light of day until it had been thoroughly tested.”
There are a lot of people in the IBM i community who remember when IBM was the industry standard. Products were over-engineered and built to last. But don’t simplify this line of thought to merely a comparison of the good old days with a new era that accepts planned obsolescence. More importantly, it’s shinning a light on shoddy programming and poor quality control.
“IBM has given in to the Microsoft model, at least for most products that run on a PC,” Hansen says. “Software releases at a level I’d call ‘poor betas,’ drive me insane,” Hansen says. “Buggy new features are thrown at the customers for speculation. If people buy, sufficient money is allocated to finish development. Otherwise, the product dies a quiet death.”
Some would say Navigator is more versatile and powerful than ever. That’s a true statement, but it suggests it has everything the old Navigator had and more. That’s not quite true. We are told by IBM there are still missing pieces that will be added eventually.
For details on Navigator for i, see: https://www-03.ibm.com/systems/power/software/i/navigator/
Another Navigator for i resource can be found on the IBM developerWorks website.