Rocket Maps IBM i Apps for Modernization Ventures
September 29, 2021 Alex Woodie
Many IBM i shops want to start modernizing their applications, but they don’t know where to start. One possible beginning is a new software offering called Rocket Process Insights that that documents how IBM i applications work, and provides a heatmap and statistics that show which screens are the most commonly used.
The new offering, which Rocket Software unveiled last week, has been a long time in coming, according to Chris Wey, the president of the company’s Power Systems Business Unit. “It’s a brand-new solution from the company and we’re really excited about it,” he told IT Jungle. “It’s something that we’ve been working on for some time and that’s been in the lab.”
Rocket Software has been in the IBM i modernization business for decades, at least if you count the experiences of former Seagull Software employees like Jeroen van Dun, the Netherlands-based Rocket product manager who has been helping AS/400, iSeries, System i, and IBM i customers modernize their screens with products like JWalk since the 1990s.
“We’ve been in this this business for 20-plus years and the reason we built this tool [Rocket Process Insights] is because our customers asked us to solve that problem,” van Dun says. “As you might know, we have this collector technology, so we have already offered some sort of insight in our portfolio. We’re able to collect all the screens of an application, so that we could at least tell customers, well if you want this code to work, if you want to modernize, you’re looking at 20,000 screens.”
Knowing that an enterprise IBM i application has 20,000 or 30,000 5250 screens is helpful, but it’s not enough. For instance, it doesn’t answer the all-important question “Where do I start?” or the second-most important question, “What screen do I modernize next?”
While a company could resolve to create a Web, Windows, or mobile graphical user interface (GUI) for every single green screen in their custom-written ERP system, that’s not how these projects typically go. For starters, the resources required to modernize that many screens would be substantial, perhaps even exceeding the cost of a full replacement. It also neglects to account for the fact that some 5250 green screens are perfectly fine as they are, and can be left as is. Also, it’s a common practice to combine the functions from multiple 5250 screens into a single GUI as part of a refactoring exercise. Without knowing exactly how the screens of an application are used, a company can’t really make a decision on how to improve them.
What was missing from the modernization equation was an automated way to collect data about exactly how workers are using the applications. In the past, one common method companies would use to collect the data was by plopping a worker behind another worker to shadow them throughout their workday.
“Let me sit behind the accounts paying rep,” Wey says. “I’m going to sit there for three hours with my notepad and I’m going to watch what you do, and then take notes and check off, okay, this screen got hit once and that screen got hit six times and this other screen got hit 12 times. That’s that tried-and-true method.”
The problem is, it’s not particularly fast, and it doesn’t scale well. Rocket Process Insights replaces that by automatically documenting how users interact with the systems. There are two main components of the took including Rocket Process Insights Recorder and Rocket MX& Automation hub.
According to van Dun, the software works by routing emulator traffic through a proxy, which then interrogates that traffic. “You would route that Telnet traffic through our proxy and what our proxy will do is try to discover the business process and its major variations and also when a user is doing something,” van Dun says. “It’s also monitoring what’s happening on the i, on the business-logic level, and the database level. It collects all that information and then it presents that in this visual tool.”
According to van Dun, there are pattern recognition algorithms built into the software that helps to suss out exactly what is going on with data stream, including detection of loops and exceptions. It’s not completely automated, but there is a way for humans to provide feedback to the system to help it detect system activity that’s driven by other people.
The software enables analysts to follow the paths of individual users and hide certain processes, thereby enabling them to narrow down the scope of the usage they are trying to track. It also lets analysts go beyond the “pageview counting” approach and bring time statistics to bear, which is important because some users may breeze through many screens in a span of minutes, while spending the next several hours on a single screen.
Once the usage data is collected by the Rocket Process Insights Recorder, then it’s presented for exploration to an analyst in the Rocket MX& Automation hub. One of the core visualizations served by this product is a heat map that shows which screens and processes are the most heavily used. The analyst can then drill down on individual items in the heat map to see what function keys they pressed.
The analyst can even drill down into the call stack to see what business logic was executed and what database tables were touched. “All that good stuff,” van Dun says. “It’s very accessible, and you can generate reports and hand it off to the people that will actually do the modernization for you. It slices and dices the information. It’s amazing.”
Armed with this actual usage information, business managers will know which screens are the most heavily used and which screens the application modernization project should focus on if it wants to have the greatest return on investment, van Dun says.
“You can generate that report that really is the starting point of your modernization project or your process integration project,” he says. “Because it has the definitions, it has the processes. You can hand it off to somebody who doesn’t know the application and say ‘Look, these are the steps that you need to automate. This is the business logic, the RPG function, the procedures, you should call.’”
This is a big upgrade compared to the manual approach of watching how the users interact with the applications, Wey says.
“Now you can insert essentially a process recorder to go in there and see exactly what’s happening, know which department with which users at which time, and you know exactly what logic was touched, and you’ve got the actual facts,” he says. “That’s the upgrade and the benefit that you get from installing this type of application.”
Interface modernization comes in two major flavors, of course. There are user interfaces, such as GUIs and green screens, and then there are application programming interfaces, or APIs. Rocket Process Insight doesn’t discriminate in terms of the new type of interface users want to adopt. They can create a new Web or mobile GUI using the Rocket Modern Experience, or they can create screen-less APIs using the Rocket Process Automation.
“That’s really a customer choice,” Wey says. “If you have a high-throughput, repetitive transaction that is going on and on, at all times of the day and night, and it can be predicted, [and it] could live with that interconnection to another system, then an API might make sense. And you publish that Web service and it’s available for calling anytime. Whereas if you want to manage the ability of newer workers that are unfamiliar with the green screen environment to be able to be use a Web interface to an existing application, then Modern Experience would be the right product for our customer.”
According to a recent industry report, 76 percent of IBM i shops run homegrown IBM i applications. Considering the lack of documentation that is normally associated with these applications and their age, there would seem to be a decent market for this type of tool.
Rocket Process Insights is a Java-based application that’s designed to run on Windows Server and a Postgres database, according to Rocket. It works best with IBM i 7.4, but can work with older versions of the operating system. For more information, see www.rocketsoftware.com.