On June 29, 2009, many Search400.com readers received an email that got them a little stirred up. I sent out our newsletter and presented an article on EGL and a blog on RPGAAS. This is what I wrote:
So is EGL the new high-definition, flat-screen replacement to that old vacuum-tube television? Is RPG really that outdated? Is there a dearth of RPG programmers available, requiring shops to consider the RPGAAS offering? I ask for reader input partly out of sheer curiosity but also out of a desire to serve the informational and educational interests of readers. If RPG is outdated, what do you need to know about instead? Send me your feedback.
Eleven readers were compelled to write back, and not too surprisingly, none of them sung the praises of the fall of RPG. Instead, most made ardent defenses of RPG as a useful and necessary programming language.
Marc Hall wrote:
I don’t believe RPG is outdated. It has become much more like a scientific language since the introduction of procedures, local variables, and pointers. ILE makes reusability easy, with modules and service programs. RPG seems like a very relevant language and I enjoy it. If there are people suggesting that RPG is outdated, why do they say so?
Bob Mizner wrote:
First, let me say that I reject the argument that there is a dearth of RPG programming talent available. This argument fails to understand the dynamics of supply and demand market forces. There is a dearth of RPG positions available to skilled RPG programmers. Don’t believe it? Post a job opening for an RPG programmer offering a competitive salary with benefits; I promise you, within hours you will have a pile of resumes to choose from. I personally know of several traditional RPG programmers who are currently either looking, or have “settled” for other work.
AS/400 shops stopped hiring after Y2K for a number of reasons, but a scarcity of programming talent was not one of them. Younger people who were educated in the 80’s and 90’s on Wintel platforms – and, in some cases, on Unix and Linux, because, after all, that’s what they learned on in college – moved into decision making positions, and lacked a fundamental understanding of what the IBM midrange platform was doing for the organization. [They] made strategic decisions to move off the platform onto newer, sexier platforms that were graphic and Web-enabled, and which made them feel more comfortable. They walked through the organization and saw all these green text-based screens, and wondered why their internal platform wasn’t capable of colorful graphics and Web-based applications that communicated to their customers and supply chain? And when they questioned their staff as to why those kinds of apps were not available, they got answers ranging from “IBM doesn’t support that” or “it’s expensive and difficult to do” on an AS/400-based server. Which is far from the truth …
I personally know of an AS/400 shop who has Web-enabled all of their internal, home-grown applications. Remote locations were able to ditch expensive frame-relay communication networks in favor of DSL lines into each of their 50+ remote locations, domestic and international. Was it expensive? It was, in fact, a fraction of the cost of moving off the AS/400 platform onto something Windows-based, rewriting legacy apps, and installing and maintaining all new Windows-based hardware and networks.
If there is a dearth of anything, it is in ISV’s offering native ERP solutions to businesses. There are a dwindling number of solutions providers who have stayed with the platform; most have developed comparable, competing apps using .Net or other development tools. RPG programmers have had to learn Java, .Net, or now PHP in order to remain employed. Rational tools? EGL? It’s all just additional buzzwords to facilitate IBM’s move away from RPG. IBM sees the writing on the wall, all these young decision-makers wanting graphic and Web-enabled interfaces. So instead of placing development emphasis on making RPG-based apps more modern – perhaps by offering a native CGI for RPG – IBM moves businesses away from the platform, away from the strength of all those legacy apps written in RPG that drive business logic, to newer platforms, newer tools, newer apps written in languages that didn’t exist a decade ago. And probably won’t exist a decade from now. Which means, for businesses who invest in them by developing business logic apps, another conversion, another migration, a decade or so down the line …
Furthermore… vLegaci’s … “RPG as a Service” is nothing more than out-sourced contract development with a new name. A pig is still a pig, and calling it something different don’t make it so. I don’t buy into it as even remotely related to “cloud computing” a.k.a. capacity on demand.
Well without getting into a semantic argument about aaS offerings and whether they’re limited to capacity on demand (which is the only part of Bob’s letter I would at all disagree with), I’ll move on to share a letter sent by Doug Streifling, who echoes some of Bob’s concerns and presents his own theories about IBM’s motives:
We checked out EGL as a possible additional tool to bring into our RPG shop. Frankly, it reminds us of IBM’s Smalltalk line. After investigating EGL plus consulting with our long time and very knowledgeable IBM business partner we realized it is not for us. The overhead was too great. The end result would not be significantly better than our native RPG software.
In my humble opinion, the death of RPG is exaggerated. I suspect the problem is that not many programmers are entering the ranks. IBM’s dedication to RPG is regularly demonstrated. However, the best thing they could do to give the language “legs” would be to give us some sort of native GUI interface, even if it is just browser-based. In fact, I’d prefer a browser-based solution over any that might require loading software on the users desktops. I realize there are tools such is iSeries Web Access what render 5250 screens in a browser. I also realize that IBM has embraced PHP, which I think is a very smart move. Perhaps they feel that these tools make it unnecessary for give us some sort of native RPG GUI.
Through all this I hope IBM is aware that there is an ever decreasing group of dedicated iSeries/RPG folks who are doing their best to keep the system alive in the face of growing opposition in the work place.
A more succinct rebuttal came from Kevin Foland:
I have been programming since 1976, started on the IBM System 3 then the System 15 Model D, 34, 36, 400. As I see it RPG will never go away until IBM drops it. But then how do you do that with so many shops (large and small) using RPG? If IBM dropped RPG on their new release 6 how many shops would migrate? I don’t ever see RPG going away. Cut back a bit, but it will still be around.
As far as [RPG]aaS goes that is already here, it is called consulting.
James Mayor had similar sentiments, and shared more evidence that RPG programmers are not hard to come by:
My judgement, based on over 35 years in IT, mostly on IBM midrange systems, is that RPG is not outdated, and is still in my opinion the fastest language to develop any business system with. The only way it will die is if IBM takes the decision to kill the language.
The problem certainly in the UK is that few companies train new programmers and others have been put off RPG by the press around the latest technologies e.g. Java etc. All the other languages have their place but cannot match RPG for business systems. IBM’s move with EGL is ok but is not the only tool on the planet. I… now use Profound Logic’s RPGSP & Genie products which were much lauded at IBM Common.
IBM needs to openly state their product plans and where RPG fits in, both now and in the future. Some years ago the AS/400 was being dropped by some companies as they had been left to believe it had no future due to abysmal marketing by IBM (their opinion as well as mine). This could happen with RPG, but hopefully the RPG community would prevail. As to lack of skilled RPG programmers in the marketplace I would say it is not true, at least not in the UK, I am always being contacted to see if I have any vacancies as the agency’s are trying to place staff they have on their books.
Robert Chambers shared this analogy about the fundamental usefulness of RPG on i:
It’s just a programming language. Any programmer worth their salt should be able to program in RPG with vary a learning curve. Programmers look at things differently than most other groups of people.
Think of it as a Car, and you just bought a new one. You already know the basics and can get into it and take it for a spin, you just need to review where the essentials are – light switch, emergency brake, wiper controls, how to set adjust the seat and such…
Robert’s idea goes nicely with the recent tip by Andrew Borts on using RPG to its best advantage for data retrieval.
Speaking of other programming languages versus RPG, Pat McBride wrote in with some words of warning about the prospect of an automated conversion from RPG to EGL:
The idea of converting from RPG code to EGL is a terrible business idea. The code/benefit equation is terrible!
Each converted program/process must be thoroughly tested before use. You cannot assume that
converted code will work like the original code. The conversion/testing process is costly and time
consuming (many months and possibly years to thoroughly test). After converting the code,
then you have convert/train your staff to EGL. What are the benefits?
A better idea would be to have your staff trained and educated on the latest RPG and screen techniques available (embedded SQL, HTML screens etc). Why not build upon existing skills?
If the availability of trained RPGer’s is a problem, then have the business community push the local
education community to provide classes in the language. I have seen way too many oddball/useless
computer languages offered in colleges over the years.
IBM pushed the same idea years ago: Modernize your code, convert it all to Java! One of
the mentioned benefits was the code could be run on any platform. (Why have an ISeries? One of
the best platforms ever developed!)
EGL, Java and other tools have a place in the iSeries world and should be incorporated when and where appropriate.
While the idea of promoting the IBM i in colleges and universities is not new, it was discussed by YiPs President, Justin Porter, Common’s meeting of members, perhaps business community promotion of RPG programming in colleges could be part of a revamped iSociety effort similar to iManifest in Japan? Should these groups focus more attention on IBM and ask for more from the company regarding RPG support, or ask for more transparency with new programming language initiatives?
I want to thank all the readers who responded. This feedback is valuable in terms of my editorial priorities on Search400, and is interesting to hear. But, I didn’t hear from anyone who disagreed with the above points. Is there anyone out there that disagrees? Anyone?