More IBM i Merlin Details Emerge at POWERUp
June 1, 2022 Alex Woodie
We are getting a more complete picture of IBM i Merlin, the DevOps offering that IBM introduced last month with the launch of IBM i 7.5. Among the most interesting revelations at COMMON’s annual POWERUp conference last week is that Merlin will be a vehicle for delivering a range of functionality to the platform in the future, not necessarily limited to app dev.
IBM i Modernization Engine for Lifecycle Integration, or Merlin, is a new offering from IBM. The software, as it exists in its first incarnation, enables users to develop IBM i application in ILE languages through an open-source version of VS Code, a browser-based integrated development environment (IDE).
Specifically, Merlin uses Eclipse Theia, an open source version of Microsoft’s original VS Code, and Eclipse Che, which provides the workplace server that creates, manages, and orchestrates the IDE in a Kubernetes environment.
In addition to those open source components, Merlin incorporates software from ARCAD Software. There are four areas where ARCAD contributed to Merlin, including an RPG conversion tool called Transformer (which IBM renamed Converter); ARCAD’s impact analysis tool, called Observer; ARCAD’s software for integrating the Git code repository with IBM i; and ARCAD’s build management software. IBM developed its own integration code to incorporate support for Jenkins, the open source project for creating and running continuous integration-continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines, which is a big focus with Merlin as it now exists.
One of the big technical requirements for Merlin that may pose problems for IBM i shops is Red Hat OpenShift, the Kubernetes-based container management system that runs atop Linux. IBM i CTO and Chief Architect Steve Will said there was no question that OpenShift was going to cause some problems for IBM i customers.
“Most of our clients don’t have folks who know how to do this,” Will said during his keynote on Merlin last week at the POWERUp 2022 conference in New Orleans. “It’s going to be one of the biggest initial stumbling blocks you’ll have. I’ll just admit that up front.”
IBM has some ideas for how it can bring the Open Shift learning curve down for the IBM i folks, including possibly some training sessions, Will said.
“We have worked with some of our partners who knew this was coming to get them some information on how to do that, so they can help you get answers,” Will said. “This will be like learning how to install a Windows environment way back in the beginning. You’ll figure it out. [You] won’t need to know much other than how to do it. But it will take some [time] to learn.”
IBM is also looking at potentially creating a hosted OpenShift environment where it can deliver Merlin as a service, according to Tim Rowe, IBM’s business architect for application development.
“It’s one of the things that’s on my list . . . how do we make this attainable for our IBM i community in a more easy manner,” Rowe said during his Deep Dive session on Merlin at POWERUp last week. “Day one, this might not be something for everybody. We’re well aware of that.”
One factor that may make OpenShift more attainable to the IBM i masses is the ability to run it in an X86 environment. While IBM execs initially touted the OpenShift requirement as a potential reason for IBM i shops to spin up an OpenShift environment in a Linux partition on their Power servers, Merlin will actually run on OpenShift running on Linux in a X86 server.
Once the OpenShift environment is spun up, however, it gets a lot easier. According to ARCAD DevOps Product Manager Andrew Clark, who co-presented the Deep Dive session with Rowe, it should take only about 30 minutes to install Merlin.
“Half an hour to get it up and running,” Clark said. “OpenShift: Not half an hour.”
Several of ARCAD’s competitors expressed displeasure that they were not asked to participate in the Merlin rollout. While ARCAD has a long history of working with IBM and even has several of its products listed in the IBM catalog, the competitors indicated that they felt ARCAD was given an unfair advantage.
However, IBM indicated that it would be working with many of the change management and DevOps vendors in the future to have their offerings integrated with Merlin. What’s more, IBM will even be expanding Merlin’s reach beyond Web-based application development and operations into other areas.
“When we think about Merlin, bigger picture, we’re creating a suite of tools to do more than just app modernization,” Rowe said during his Deep Dive. “We had to start somewhere. We’re looking at adding a bunch of other things: app catalog, PTF management, security development, security compliance. There’s a lot of other options that are available to help customer manage both their system as well as their application modernization lifestyle stuff.”
The choice of OpenShift for Merlin is part and parcel of IBM’s long-term plan for delivering functionality in the future, according to Will. That will include functionality from IBM as well its business partners, he said.
“Initially everything that comes from us will be built into this framework and come from us,” the IBM i CTO said during his keynote. “At some point in the future, we open this up. We can plug other stuff in. It’s not on the immediate horizon. But we can look at doing that.”
Will has been a big backer of next-gen apps, which are marked by characteristics such as the breaking up of monolithic applications into micro services, the modularization of business logic, and use of REST APIs for communication, etc. Modernizing the development lifecycle tooling is a logical place to start with that process, but it’s just the start.
“We were able to build using the technology behind that [OpenShift], and then create ourselves a big platform that has room to grow but has a set of necessary standards for how things are going to interact with one another and how they’re going to look together,” he said.
The timeline for developing and delivering Merlin was very short by IBM standards: about a year and a half. That has resulted in a somewhat haphazard delivery schedule, which has the Merlin IDE available but no debugger with which to debug code as it heads to production.
IBM has the core debugger functionality working in the lab, according to Rowe. It could be delivered in the next few weeks to months, he said.
“I’m hoping to put it out in a fix pack and I hope it’s not too long,” Rowe said in his Deep Dive session. “I’m not going to ship it until it’s ready. But we are actively heads down getting the debugger put together and working on it. We do have code working. It’s just not complete yet.”
You will likely see several Merlin fix packs over the summer and fall months, one of which will have the debugger, according to Rowe. The company is also working on Merlin version 2 to be delivered later this year. The features have yet to be decided.
IBM worked with a bunch of early adopters on the first version of Merlin, and it’s open to hearing from the community about what features they want to see put into the product, Will said.
“If you start looking at this say, ‘Gosh 75 percent of this is exactly what I want, but until I get this next 25 percent, I don’t think I can adopt it’ – tell us what that 25 percent is,” Will said. “And then we’ll find out if that 25 percent has to come from us or if we need to go to the vendor community. We’ll figure that out.”