Marketplace Study Shows How IBM i Language Use Evolves
February 9, 2022 Alex Woodie
It’s no secret that RPG dominates development on the IBM i platform. SQL and Control Language (CL) are also heavily used in the day-to-day operations of tens of thousands of IBM i shops. But what about other established languages, like Java and C++? What about newer open source languages, like PHP and Node.js? The recent HelpSystems Marketplace Study provides us a clue into language use.
HelpSystems published its first IBM i Marketplace Study back in January 2016, reflecting data collected in late 2015 from 834 IBM i professionals around the world. One of the questions it has consistently asked is about the programming languages in use at organizations. RPG was the dominant language, with 89 percent of organizations reporting they use it, according to the 2016 IBM i Marketplace Report.
RPG has continued to dominate the ranks of IBM i languages ever since. The lowest usage of RPG was 84 percent, reported in the 2019 report. The 2022 edition of the IBM i Marketplace Study, shows 94 percent IBM i professionals reporting the usage of RPG in their organization, the highest ever recorded.
“RPG is definitely not anywhere near a dead language,” IBM’s IBM i product manager Dan Sundt said in the recent HelpSystems webcast presenting the results of the 2022 report. “It’s very, very robust. A lot of our customers like it.”
That doesn’t necessarily match perception outside of the cloistered IBM i world, however. “People outside of IBM i doing development, when they hear RPG, they think RPGII, lifecycle stuff,” said Tom Huntington, the vice president of technical services for HelpSystems. “And it’s far from that today.”
While today’s free-format RPG is a modern language, it’s not the only language in use on the platform. Data from seven years’ worth of IBM i Marketplace Studies show a consistent use of other languages. Aside from CLP and SQL, the most popular language has been Java, which has never scored lower than 40 percent in terms of usage. That likely reflects the long-term emphasis on Java from IBM, which has also adopted Java for many of its internal tools and products (as the recent Log4j vulnerability shows).
Outside of Java, however, the usage of alternative languages drops off considerably. .NET and C#, which HelpSystems has grouped together since 2021 (before that, it asked about.NET usage only), reached a peak of 30 percent usage in the 2018 report before dropping off to just 8 percent in the 2022 report. Similarly, C++, which IBM offers IBM i compilers for, has declined from a high of 16 percent in 2016 to 8 percent in the 2022 report.
RPG’s legacy partner in crime, COBOL, has remained relatively steady for years in the usage department, fluctuating between 14 percent and 16 percent. Then COBOL use shot up to 19 percent for the 2021 report, before falling back down to 17 percent this year. That small uptick may or may not be part of a trend of a revitalization of COBOL development on the platform (see the recent article “Is COBOL on IBM i Experiencing a Renaissance?” for more on that.)
That brings us to the so-called “open source” languages, which have been a relatively recent phenomenon on the platform. “When we started the survey, we weren’t talking open source, but now we are today,” Huntington says.
“Yeah, and our strategy’s really changed,” Sundt replies. “We now have a more standardized way with RPMs to go to ACS and say ‘What’s on my system?’ and ‘I want to get it,’ and go update it. To try to make that as very similar a look and feel to somebody who’s, let’s say running on Linux and trying to get that same open source package.”
PHP, which was the first of the more open languages to gain support on IBM i, continues to have the biggest share among its group, with 20 percent of survey respondents saying they used this language in the 2022 report. However, that is down from 21 percent in 2020.
HelpSystems tracked Python and Node.js usage separately from the other languages for four years, and during that time, the data suggests that usage of both languages grew quickly. Python use grew from 6 percent in 2017 to 24 percent in 2020, while Node.js use grew from 8 percent in 2017 to 26 percent in 2020.
However, in the 2021 report, things changed. Both Python and Node.js usage dropped off considerably, with Python dropping 9 percent, and Node.js usage dropping 13 percent. That year also coincided with HelpSystems including Python and Node.js in the standard question about language use, as opposed to grouping them in with a question about general usage of open source products, including Git and the HTTP Server (the one powered by Apache). More usage of the two languages were in the 2022 report.
HelpSystems is beginning to track other languages, too, including Perl and Ruby. However, those languages have seen only a smattering of usage, according to the report, with 2 percent usage in the 2021 report and 1 percent in the latest report.
Other potential languages that could be tracked in the future include things like Go, Rust, and R. What other languages would you add to the list? IT Jungle welcomes feedback using the reply function at the bottom of this screen, or by dropping us a line at the handy dandy contact page.