data directions: Letting Java at Your Data

If you are in the IBM world (and Sun I expect too) you see Java on all platforms now. It’s on AS/400, mainframes, AIX, and of course, PCs and NT. Even the mighty Microsoft acknowledges it, even though they do not like it. IBM is pumping lots of money into Java. For those of you who missed it, it will be the native GUI of the AS/400 soon.

So what are you going to do about it? For most, the answer is “nothing.” At least until forced into it. But there is a way I have found (there may be others too) to get into Java and get some great benefit out of it with minimal cost and even less minimal time and effort.

After using RPG in its various flavors on most of IBM’s midrange platforms over the last 20-plus years, it is easy to understand that it will take a lot of effort to learn Java like I know RPG. Many of you are likely in the same boat. So what do you do?

Your users are requiring more activity using GUI, they want Internet apps and they want their current apps to continue to improve. Any language you pick presents many new challenges. Visual Basic is very Microsoft specific. Remember your problems with RPG Being IBM-centric? Java on the other hand seems to have a wider industry acceptance, and a lot is being put behind it. So if you are going to put time and effort into learning a new architecture, maybe Java is one path you can take.

What we found was that Java is a big leap from what we know now. We know RPG so well we don’t have to think about it much. We can just do what we want.

Oh, every once in a while, we may have to try something, or look something up in the wonderful Book Manager (Yes, I am kidding).

The real problem with a new architecture like this is that we need to learn more than just the syntax of the language. It may seem that all you need to do is figure out how to translate a MOVE operation into the Java equivalent.

However, that is the simple part of the learning curve. The real trick is learning a new way of programming and overcoming new programming problems. Graphical programming is different than DDS on a 5250 device. And more than that, you have the three-tier problem - object communicating with objects.

Now I’m not saying that you need to be a super Java programmer, but there are some nice things that you can do. I found a tool called Apptivity from Progress Software (Bedford, Mass.). They produce and market development tools - mostly in the Unix world although they do have an AS/400 product. We have been playing with Java for over a year now, trying to decide what we are going to do with it. The problem is the same that you all have. How much effort are we going to put into it to get what benefit? You know, the old cost vs. benefit test.

Apptivity lets us build an inquiry quickly over our data without knowing or understanding what is happening in Java. This is a huge benefit. We get 100 Percent applications over our database and learn about Java by seeing how it interacts with something we do understand - our own application!

Now Apptivity has other things that we have not yet taken advantage of. If you have tried to build HTML database inquiries for your new Internet app, you know that there is a fair amount to learn there too. With Apptivity, you can tell it to generate an HTML app and it builds all the underlying code for you.

The tool is fully three-tier capable and supports multiple platforms (because it is Java). We have a client who uses Macs and we build an app that runs on the Macs as well as the Windows workstations. It should also work on the [IBM] Network Stations, but we have not yet tried that yet.

The thing I like about it the most is that it is a data centric tool. You build the application by linking your data together and building rules around it. This is something all our programmers understand and can easily adapt to the new tool. It does help if your database is a good relational database with understandable structures. We have found that we can get around those places that are so old that the relation is not so good.

Since IBM has made Java an important part of the AS/400, this tool makes a lot of sense for it. We hooked up the JDBC driver and it worked fine. In fact, in some cases, it was much easier to develop applications in this tool than in RPG because it is a graphical development environment.

Certainly there are other tools out there, but if you want one that is quick to learn and allows you to deliver applications quickly, this may work for you. You can even download a full working demo from their Web site ( - it is a little large at 35 MB though). The best thing to do is to decide that there should be a plan to pick up a new technology, then try it. There are benefits and a tool greatly helps that success rate. You will be delivering applications in a couple of months.

John Bussert is president of Swift Technologies (Marengo, Ill.), a company specializing in AS/400 and Windows NT software.