Thoroughly Modern: IBM i Web Development Trends To Watch In the Second Half

May 10, 2021

Timothy Prickett Morgan

It is hard to believe, but in terms of budgets and thinking, within six weeks we will be entering the second half of 2021, a turning point year if there ever was one, and perhaps an inflection point for 2021 itself and thus for the next decade or so.

The need to modernize is not lost on most IBM i shops, but it seems like there’s a new web technology to learn each week. It’s no surprise that getting started with Web development is a stumbling block in itself. That’s why vendors like Fresche are working to demystify Web development with tools and educational resources that shorten the learning curve for developers.

I recently had a chat with Fresche’s Greg Patterson to get a sense of where IBM i developers are in terms of Web development in 2021, where they are headed, and which trends and technologies are here to stay.

Timothy Prickett Morgan: Give us the word on the street, to start off. Tell us what you are hearing from IBM i organizations in terms of application modernization and Web development and how you engage with them in light of the coronavirus pandemic making this a bit more complicated.

Greg Patterson: I’m a Modernization Specialist at Fresche and most often, companies come to me for help with UI modernization and Web development. In my role, I listen to what the client needs and where they might be hitting roadblocks, then I help them address those pain points with our software and/or services. I’ll also help the client strategize and interface with our professional services team to help design a project that fulfills their needs.

While it’s been a long time since we have had in-person events, I also enjoy meeting IT folks at conferences, where I often lead technical sessions. These events are a great opportunity to stay up to date on the trends that are emerging in our industry.

TPM: What are the primary things that people are looking for today? This being 2021, one would think most shops will have modernized some aspects of their applications by now.

Greg Patterson: I have seen a distinct shift in the past year, where companies are looking at the longer term and trying to figure out path to making their systems more sustainable for the future. With all of the options that are available now, more companies are asking for advice on what direction to take and best practices to help them get there.

Technologically, we have a lot of conversations about APIs (web services) because they expose IBM i data. APIs are also useful in decoupling the database from the front end of an application, which gives developers the freedom to take advantage of modern technologies like PHP. Going forward, if they need to deploy a new technology, such as Angular, they still have that solid backend.

TPM: I suspect many companies buy a tool to modernize their applications, and then business takes over and they don’t end up finishing the project. A very high percentage of big bang projects don’t work, as you know. So I would think some of the clients you speak to are people who know they need to modernize, but haven’t been able to get the work done and they need some help tackling things in a more piecemeal fashion that has a better degree of success.

Greg Patterson: Absolutely. The challenge on the developer side is that they still have their regular job to do, so it can be difficult to carve out the time to learn new technologies. IBM i developers are used to being able to do it all themselves and I see some eagerness to prove the concepts and illustrate platform viability on their own. Taking some time up front with the experts can help jumpstart your project. They can give you examples and make sure that your environment is set up correctly, all of which can go a long way in overcoming those initial hurdles.

TPM: You mentioned PHP as one of the options. Is PHP still one of the primary languages that people are choosing to develop the front end? What are some of those technologies that people are considering?

Greg Patterson: I think a lot of people are finally warming up to open source in general, which includes PHP and which has been on the platform since 2007. And with the advancements that we have seen over the years, PHP is a top choice for back-end development. I’m not really seeing anything, at least from my perspective, overtaking PHP in that regard. My colleagues discussed the latest in PHP and why it’s a great choice for IBM i shops in a great article that ran on IT Jungle back in December 2020.

We are also seeing more companies looking to decouple the back-end from the front-end. This is a modern development approach that allows for increased flexibility. On the front end, PHP is best used with popular frameworks like Angular or React. Our WebSmart PHP templates use Bootstrap, which is a responsive open-source framework.

I should also mention that a lot of people are looking at refacing. This could be a permanent solution or an intermediate step where they get some quick wins to bridge the gap until they have a chance to develop a full roadmap for modernizing their application.

TPM: Is there anything that customers seem to be interested in deviates from a typical architecture of what you would expect in an IBM i shop today?

Greg Patterson: A lot of people are very concerned with losing the investment they have in RPG, but the good news is that a lot of RPG can be leveraged for the web. It might be used in a different way than it has been traditionally, but I’ve seen customers who have basically rewritten their applications and used APIs that were written in RPG. This worked well for them because RPG was their skillset and they could create the APIs quickly while knowing that the data transfer was secure. It also meant that they weren’t tethered to a single technology for the front end.

I think people are starting to see that a modern, standard Web development model is completely possible on IBM i. There’s obviously a host of benefits to staying on IBM i, especially if that’s where your data lives and existing RPG that can be leveraged. Maybe it’s a little bit of a changing of the guard in the sense that an increasing number of IT managers might have web development experience, but it’s not as much of an “us versus them” situation as it used to be.

TPM: That’s a good thing, then, because people are now looking at Web development and modernization for the value that it brings to the organization.

Greg Patterson: Yes. And there’s less pushback from people who are terrified of exposing the IBM i to the outside world, for instance. It was never done before and I think we’re beginning to clear that hurdle because we’re able to see examples of secure public facing websites that are running on IBM i.

TPM: How much web development experience do your clients typically have when they call you?

Greg Patterson: When I demo our software, I ask the client if they have web development experience. The typical answer is usually, “I took an HTML course twelve years ago. Does that count?” Most often, a vendor has brought something in or they’ve tried a couple of things on their own, but the client is still struggling with that direction.

That’s part of the reason why they come to us. Our web development tool, Websmart, includes templates that generates the starting code, which provides some structure to start. Our professional services are also a great resource because they have spent the last 20 years refining those structures.

TPM: Do you see more Web skills coming in and working with the IBM i team or the IBM i team trying to develop more Web skills?

Greg Patterson: IBM i developers are starting to modernize their skillset, but it’s not always a fast process to get there. Obviously you want to keep your RPG people because of their expertise and application knowledge. If you do need web skills, almost anybody new to the industry is going to have that knowledge coming of school. So I think we see a bit of both. It certainly is easier to find web resources these days than it is to find an RPG developer to maintain an application.

I think there’s always trepidation about change, especially when IBM i has been so backwards compatible over the years. But open source and web development are starting to gain momentum because people realize that the platform is still stable and secure. They can still leverage it while delivering a web application that is just like what we use every day in our daily lives.

This is huge because I hear from customers that one of the reasons they have problems with young people being hired is the green screen. There’s training involved with a green screen and there’s also the perception that interface is old. The application can do everything you need, but the interface turns people off. People are realizing that if they can provide the same kind of interfaces as everything else, the platform is going to be more viable.

TPM: If you are an IBM i developer and you are looking at Web development, are there some technologies or tools that people are adopting that you’d recommend for their toolkit?

Greg Patterson: One of our big goals is to make the transition to web development easier. Gaining an understanding the web world, such as the differences between a stateful and a stateless web application, is often the biggest hurdle at the beginning and an important place to start. It’s also critical to understand the options for presenting information in browsers, such as writing a single application that can serve a desktop, a tablet, or a phone.

I think that having a basic understanding of how you can “expose the IBM i” but not be exposed in a security sense is also important. All of our tools enable you to set your applications up in such a way that security is maintained. We also have experts in our professional services team who are experts in creating secure applications.

TPM: Would you say it’s a good approach to grab a free trial and start hacking away at a project?

Greg Patterson: I think that getting a software demo is crucial because it lets you see what’s possible, for one thing. The demo process also allows you to ask questions that you might not feel comfortable asking otherwise, such as the basics of web development and how it’s structured.

Getting a demo can help get you focused in terms of what’s possible, and where you are on that skillset continuum. If you’re at the beginning of your Web development journey and you see one of our best examples, and that’s where you want to get to, fantastic. But you’re probably going to need more than a four-week trial. On the flip side, the demo process can also give you a sense of how easy it can be.

Even as people are working on their own proofs, we’re always available to offer guidance or show other examples that are similar to what they’re doing to help keep you on the best path.

TPM: Do you work with a lot of clients on a one-on-one basis?

Greg Patterson: Absolutely. I encourage people to reach out to run their ideas by me or walk through what they’re working on. These are valuable sessions because the client can get a sense of what might be the best path and learn how other clients have approached similar challenges.

It’s also important to talk about the technical support side of things. We have a lot of clients who are coming from the RPG world and don’t have much web experience. Our tech support does so much more than help you get the software installed. They also create examples and answer questions, especially at the outset of these projects.

TPM: Summer is coming up and things slow down for a lot of companies and industries. How would you suggest IBM i developers spend this time?

Greg Patterson: Continuous education is so important. We recently hosted an online 9-part series that talks about different areas of application modernization. We had a lot of great feedback from people who said the sessions gave a great overview of what’s possible and what some of the options are. Each part is about 30 minutes long and provides a solid sense of what sort of help is available, whether it’s software or services. You can watch my session below. The entire series is available for on-demand viewing here.

This content is sponsored by Fresche Solutions.

Greg Patterson has been in the IT field for 18 years, the last 11 with Fresche Solutions where he is currently a Modernization Specialist. In addition to business development activities, Greg also coordinates pre-sales technical demonstrations and discussions, performs business analysis and is sometimes involved at the coding level for specific projects.

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