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Trying to move to Java? Just follow the Big Blue brick road

IBM's new road map gives users a way to migrate off RPG onto Java. But the real news, says one analyst, is that IBM is admitting RPG's days are numbered.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- If you want to move to Java, IBM can show you the way.

Al Zollar, iSeries general manager, announced last week a developer's road map intended to give users a guide for moving from the outdated RPG programming language for the AS/400 to more modern languages, such as Java.

It's easier said than done, say some users. Others refuse to move at all. But to many iSeries programmers, it's a sign that IBM recognizes that programming languages such as RPG and COBOL are slowly fading into oblivion.

"I think they [IBM] are very wise to do this," said Deby Woodfield, an iSeries programmer with Grant Prideco, a Texas-based drill pipe supplier. "I think the future is in Java programming, and if programmers don't take IBM up on this, they're going to lose out."

Through a combination of educational tools, specific product offerings for the iSeries, a red book and messaging on its Web site, Zollar says IBM is helping make the move to more modern apps less painful.

Probably more important to developers, however, is that the effort speaks to the future of the iSeries. Zollar said the road map is IBM's long-term commitment to its customers and independent software vendor partners that the iSeries will continue to handle RPG workloads while moving to the most sophisticated Java workloads.

"We recognize that there are 3 million Java programmers in the world and growing, and about 300,000 RPG programmers and probably not growing," Zollar said. "We want to make sure that people understand that there will be a solid development platform surrounding the iSeries for years to come. It's simultaneously protecting the investment while giving customers access to the absolute latest and greatest in technology."

Businesses have been slow to move off RPG, says Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with the Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc. It's costly and time consuming, and companies are going to hold out for as long as possible.

So, while a step-by-step guide on how to do it is important, Eunice says, the simple existence of a road map is what's significant about this announcement.

"IBM is making a statement that it makes sense to get off of RPG," he said. "The endorsement is as important as any training courses. IBM has been providing Web servers and many of the technological components needed to migrate off RPG for some years now. But now they're saying, 'Uh, yeah, maybe it's a good idea to get off RPG.'"

Eunice says this admission by IBM may be the impetus to drive RPG migration.

The road map is intended to take developers, at their own pace and terms, on itty-bitty steps from RPG development to a more modern Web user interface. The road map hand holds programmers through technologies such as HTML, JavaScript, and tools like the IBM WebFacing Tool and IBM WebSphere Host Access Transformation Server (HATS). It moves on to Java 2 Standard Edition with Java, servlets and JavaServer Pages; to integration technologies like XML and Web Services; to full Java 2 Enterprise Edition with Enterprise JavaBeans; and through WebSphere Development Studio Client Advanced Edition for iSeries.

It isn't easy, but somebody's got to do it

With or without the road map, iSeries shops are moving off RPG, although it isn't a mass exodus, Eunice says. It's not that businesses don't want to move off RPG; it's just that it's hard. Some companies are invested in millions of lines of codes, and to move all that is costly.

"Some shops have thousands and, in some cases, millions of codes written in these orphan languages," he said. "It's hard to put into the budget to do the conversion. They say, 'It's not entirely broken so let's not screw with it.' This is what the CIO lives with every day. They'd love to have the new stuff and flexible infrastructure, but you'd have to spend 80% of your budget shoring up your legacy systems."

But business will have to move, Eunice said, simply because, as Zollar said, there are fewer and fewer RPG programmers entering the work force. Upshot: It's hard to find good help these days.

Robert Ward, IT director for M-C Industries, a custom apparel manufacturer based in Topeka, Kan., says that, while his department is perfectly content with RPG and won't move until forced to do so, he recognizes its limitations.

"Being an RPG shop does insulate us a little bit, but then again, I don't think a high development tool is necessary for a low-end shop. However, I am worried about when the time comes to hire new workers," he said.

Woodfield, who is in her mid-40s and has been programming for nearly 20 years, is one of a growing number of RPG programmers who are learning Java -- out of necessity. She said not only was it time consuming to learn, it was difficult. "But I'm doing what I'm doing because I've got to work another 20 years," she said.

Grass-roots translation

The pressure to move to Java, as well as the high cost, has paved the way for companies such as Mincron Corp., Houston, to thrive in the RPG-to-Java translation business space. Mincron has a product called Jenasys Translation Suite, which translates RPG apps into Java. By translating the code, businesses can avoid having to recode all their legacy apps.

According to Ken Pietsch, the company's chief technology officer, there has been in the past year a significant increase in interest from high-level programmers who are looking for a translation product. "If they've got 6 million lines of code, they can't possibly rewrite it," Pietsch said. "This is a cost-effective, more reasonable solution."

That's not necessary a long-term solution, critics say, but for moving apps while you upgrade your systems, it makes good business sense.

There's no doubt that the migration from RPG to Java will happen, said Illuminata's Eunice. Business will do it incrementally, writing new projects in Java and eventually migrating completely. But businesses who doubt whether it will happen only have to look as far as IBM's strategy and how many midrange systems use Microsoft Tool Set.

"Historically, they would have been using RPG," Eunice said. "That's proof that people are moving away from it. Look no further than the Windows world to see how much they've gone away from that [RPG, COBOL] type of world."

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