The Mod Squad Comes Together to Modernize Old RPG
October 6, 2021 Alex Woodie
In the early 70s, a group of fictional social misfits joined up to solve crimes on the hit television series The Mod Squad. Now a group of real-life IBM i professionals of the same name are uniting to solve an equally pressing problem: modernizing old RPG code, including some that dates back to the 1970s.
“You’ve heard of IBM‘s upward compatibility,” says Rich Ollari, an IBM i veteran who is one of the ringleaders of the new Mod Squad. “Code that ran back in the 80s, even the 70s, is still running today, and that’s what we’re fighting with. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. It saved the client a lot of money over the years. But unfortunately, that equates to debt, which you have to pay off eventually.”
The goal of the modern Mod Squad is to make paying that technical debt less painful for IBM i clients than it might otherwise be. The group’s mantra is to help customer maintain, modernize, or migrate. The method mostly involves doing the hard work of moving code, often written in System/36-era RPG II, to newer and more manageable code, usually RPG ILE or free-form RPG, which juniors programmers can learn. The target: Small and midsize IBM i shops who have been overlooked by the big consulting firms, and who have so far resisted the siren call of modernization.
“We just believe it’s a somewhat abandoned market,” Ollari tells IT Jungle. “There’s a lot of these smaller midsize clients out there, and while there are great tools that exist in the marketplace and a lot of focus with larger clients, the smaller clients seem to fly under the radar.”
The Mod Squad is not a company, but rather, it’s a loose affiliation of IBM i developers led by Ollari and his business partner Danny Duncan. Ollari’s day job is being the general manager of Tree Line Solutions, a Vermont-based consultancy that provides a range of IBM i development services. Duncan is the found of Respect Technology Inc. (RTI), a Greenville, South Carolina, company that provides a range of support and development services, primarily for an IBM i customer base. The two have partnered off and on for the past 10 years, and now they’re joining forces in the unofficial group known as the Mod Squad.
There are 12 members of the Mod Squad, according to Ollari, including two from Tree Line and two from RTI, and eight who will be moonlighting from their other day jobs. In total, these IBM i pros have 450 person-years of experience, which means the average Mod Squad-er has 37.5 years of experience under his (or her) belt. That’s a lot of stick time by any measure, but it’s necessary to tackle the types of problems that the Mod Squad is likely to encounter.
“Each modernization opportunity is different,” Ollari says. “Some of them are quite pleased with the green screen RPG. It’s running the business, it’s doing the job, and there are a lot of clients in that position.”
But many IBM i shops are not happy with where they are and are looking for a change. Mod Squad offers three options. They can clean up the RPG code to make it more maintainable, they can migrate it to a newer version, or the Mod Squad can assist with migrating to a packaged solution. (There will be no migrating to non-IBM i packages. “We just hate to see the attrition from the IBM platform, Ollari says. “We grew up in it. We love it. We believe in it.”)
One potential Mod Squad client is a midsize distributor that constantly requires the help of the IT department to generate critical reports from an RPG II-based application. This particular application uses flat files that are embedded into the RPG code, which makes it difficult to work with. The Mod Squad solution is to modify that solution with SQL tables and report generation automated by Db2 Web Query, which will allow the business to drive the reporting.
Another Mod Squad prospect is a midsize manufacturer that relies on an ERP system written in RPG II. The company wanted to add new plants, but the hard-coded nature of the system made that quite difficult. Unfortunately, when Duncan spoke with the decision-maker at the company, he made it clear that making the low-level code modifications was something that his four-person IT staff was not comfortable with.
“When I first talked to him, I mentioned the Mod Squad and its mission, and he just lit up,” Duncan says. “He said, ‘You’re what we need. We have some System/36 RPG II code that really this group doesn’t want to touch. We have some customization planned that we would like for a group like the Mod Squad to help us out.'”
The group is named after Aaron Spelling’s old TV show, but its real muse may Mike Rowe’s workingman’s thriller, “Dirty Jobs.”
“It’s heavy lifting,” Ollari says. “It’s dirty work. That’s what we call it. Modern programmers don’t want to do this stuff, and so that even makes the customers’ plight more difficult. Like the example Danny brought up, that particular client has developers on staff, but they don’t want to touch this stuff. They want a group to come in that knows how to do it efficiently, that has experienced to do it, and to help them get there, so now they can work with code that’s maintainable.”
Ollari envisions the typical Mod Squad engagement going like this:
First, the group receives the case file detailing the help that an IBM i shop needs. Currently the biggest need involves System/36-era RPG II code, but that’s not to say it couldn’t work with other languages.
Next, the Mod Squad convenes a meeting via Zoom. The Mod Squad-ers are located all around the country, so digital communication technology makes this easy.
“We’ll bring the profile to the Mod Squad, and we’ll hack it up,” Ollari says. “We’ll pull it apart and put it back together and determine what are the best approaches to this? Then we’ll likely go back to the client and say ‘Here’s how we could approach it, these particular approaches.’
“Once the client chooses [which approach they want], then we go back to the Mod Squad, and based on availability of our resources, we’ll pull our Mod Squad team together to satisfy the client needs.” Billing is handled through Tree Line Solutions and RTI.
Ollari envisions engagements lasting weeks to months, but he could see some engagements lasting upwards of a year. It all depends on the particulars of the specific client and their needs, which can vary dramatically from case to case.
“[Modernization] frequently expands to the hardware, to the operating system, and to any third-party interfaces or third-party applications,” Ollari says. “It can expand to that. It typically does.”
While Ollari envisions the occasional straightforward RPG-II-to-RPGLE-and-free form conversions, he clearly expects his team to be challenged a little bit more.
“These are typically full-blown ERPs, depending on the industry you’re talking about, and they can encompass a lot of different functionality,” he says. “There’s always stuff around it. And again, that’s where the experience of the team comes into play, because typically we’ve seen it before.”
Most of the ERP systems that Mod Squad is likely to get calls about are homegrown applications, which is the case with most of the old software running on IBM i and its pre-Power Systems predecessors: System i, iSeries, AS/400, System/38, and System/36.
While the code is frequently written large chunks of monolithic code that is difficult to understand and maintain, it still encompasses the customizations that the business felt were necessary to give it a competitive edge, which is the true source of its value.
Extracting and preserving that hand-written value, while making the RPG code more understandable and maintainable going forward, is the ultimate goal of the Mod Squad.