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Q&A: Mason calls WDSC the tool of choice for Web development beginners

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iSeries shops are placing Web development and Web enablement at the top of their priority lists. But if you're just starting out, where do you begin? There are so many options that choosing the one right may seem like an impossible task.

Jim Mason, president of ebt-now, talked with assistant editor Deb Tart recently at the Northeast IBM User Conference in Framingham, Mass., about tools and techniques for developing for the Web and what his Web tool preferences are.

Is it true that the majority of long-time iSeries users are moving out of the dark ages and getting serious about Web development?
I think many iSeries developers are moving in that direction. Some are trying CGIDEV programming in RPG, but most have realized Java Web development is where companies and careers are focusing. Many of the smaller iSeries customers I work with have had our team at ebt-now build Web applications for them in the past. Now these customers are asking us to train them on Web development for iSeries so they can do it themselves. What are some of the different ways users are developing for the Web?
The most common Web applications I see now in iSeries shops are WebFacing 5250 applications and creating Web data access applications. Less common but growing areas include calling iSeries RPG, COBOL applications from Java Web pages, generating XML from SQL queries, and creating simple Web services. We've trained developers on using WebSphere Development Studio Client (WDSC) to create ALL of these applications in less than a week! The key is leveraging WDSC to generate applications instead of learning low-level Java development. There are so many options available for Web-enabling. What's your tool or tools of choice?
IBM alone offers five options to Web-enable 5250 applications on the iSeries. There are many third-party tools as well. Our company has focused on WebFacing over all the others. While not everyone will find it a perfect fit, it's the best overall solution for iSeries customers and business partners. More customers are using WebFacing than all the other Web-enabling options combined. Key factors for WebFacing:

  • Most iSeries customers don't have to buy the tool.
  • The runtime is free, no expensive software to buy.
  • WebFacing applications run in batch, NOT interactive mode.
  • WebFacing Java code can run on ANY J2EE server (Tomcat, JBOSS), not just WebSphere.
  • WebFacing Java code can run on iSeries Windows or Linux systems -- just choose the one affordable, available capacity.
  • Customers can buy a STANDARD edition i5 if they WebFace their applications, saving $100,000 or more.
  • Projects are simple to do. Our typical project lasts about one week.
  • It's easy to learn how to WebFace. We teach customers in one day.
Can you recommend tools for beginners?
WDSC is the only IBM toolset to use. Some iSeries customers and offshore consultants have made big mistakes using the wrong tools: the standard WebSphere Studio tools like Application Developer. WDSC is far more productive and MUCH easier to learn. We teach a lot of WDSC courses. It's MUCH faster to learn WDSC (days) than it is to go through standard Java or J2EE development courses.

We're also working with a new Sun tool: Java Studio Creator. It's relatively easy to learn and only costs $99. We figured out how to use it to access iSeries data, call programs and so on. We're working on a course for it now. Realistically, how difficult is the learning curve to understand the basics of using these tools? Are there specific skills a person needs to posses ahead of time?
Real success is possible for companies in learning to develop Web applications productively using WDSC if they:

  1. Get custom training on WDSC from an iSeries WDSC expert
  2. Have an iSeries Web engineer define HOW to build their specific applications using the tools
IBM also offers Redbooks and handouts on its Web sites. They are good for self study, but they usually leave out a lot of important options and focus on the "preferred" IBM solutions -- such as WebSphere MQ -- at the expense of options that are easier and faster to implement in many cases. Once users get familiar with these tools, where can they go from there?
They really need an expert engineer to define how to build their application. That's a very advanced skill. A common mistake is to go through some basic tutorials on how WDSC works and then try to design your own application. A real engineer can increase productivity on a Web project 300% or more while reducing technical risks dramatically. I still see many iSeries companies "slowly" experimenting with Java Web development on their own, but they usually take a very long time to get anywhere -– and often they wind up building the wrong solution that costs many times more than it should. Do you have any advice for the "Web-developing newbie" that might save him/her a little time, money or piece of mind?
If you're an individual with no access to a "budget" or company resources, focus on the WDSC toolset and get tutorials from IBM, www.quickwebsupport.com or articles/examples from Search400.com, iSeries 400 Experts and so on. Also, take a look at the Java Studio Creator.

If you're a company looking to make the move, get real help from only iSeries Web experts. Generic Java Web experts can cost a ton because they don't know how to develop productively for iSeries. The "in-house" approach really is expensive and slow. Getting the right help gets you moving within a week or two productively.

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