Building a WebSmart-er AS/400

BCD International, Inc. (Hinsdale, Ill.) is set to release ProGen WebSmart—an application development tool that makes AS/400 data Web available.

BCD International’s new ProGen WebSmart is equipped to add shopping carts, search engines and dynamically generated graphics to AS/400 data.
The product is equipped with functionality for such features as shopping carts, search engines, dynamically generated graphics (i.e. charts and graphs), real-time data access, and wireless deployment. According to Marc Hunter, senior developer for BCD, WebSmart permits AS/400 shops to generate Web applications from the ground up without being limited by an AS/400 green screen.

Recently, Web-enablement has become a hot issue, as users of AS/400 increasingly view Web-ready data as a means to reduce time-to-market through improved project management and streamlined customer service. In response to this growing demand, application development vendors have flooded the industry over the past few months with Web-to-AS/400 tools.

In this race to grab a piece of the Web-enablement pie, it seems two solution strategies have emerged. There is quick and easy, which usually entails rendering AS/400 green screens. Jacada (Atlanta), ResQNet.com (New York), and Seagull (Atlanta) offer solutions in this space. And there is robust and flexible. The robust and flexible solutions are for those firms more concerned about usability than cost or ease and speed of deployment. Lansa's (Oak Brook, Ill.) Lansa for the Web is one such offering, and this is also the category in which WebSmart best fits.

What differentiates WebSmart from some of the competitive products on the market is that it is available for trial, says Eric Figura, marketing manager for BCD. Whereas most solutions within this space require an investment prior to use, BCD allows potential customers to conduct rigorous testing before a decision about a purchase is made. "Just being able to try it out without having to pay a dime for it is a major bonus," says Nathan Quinones, senior systems analyst for Custom Systems Corp. (Newton, New Jersey). Custom Systems Corp. is a reseller of Mapics software, and Quinones is currently using WebSmart to develop applications that will enable clients to track orders on the Web.

Although WebSmart is being marketed as a "built from the ground up" Web development tool, it does provide the user with some framework on which to base applications, explains Figura. Freeware templates with basic programming logic for a variety of features including search engines, shopping carts and wireless deployment are available to all WebSmart users via download. Speaking of the advantages freeware holds over prepackaged code, Figura says, "It ensures you're not taking 12-year-old RPG/400 code and GUI-izing it."

The development burden is also eased by the inclusion of a visual HTML editor and drag-and-drop customization features. "I use FrontPage and put it in WebSmart and it goes really fast," says Pat VanderHulst, systems analyst for Dekker Bookbinding, who is currently using WebSmart to establish a direct connection to AS/400. As a PC-based solution, WebSmart enables relatively inexperienced developers to construct applications. "You could probably create your first sets in under an hour," says Hunter.

However, Hunter admits the time-to-market will depend greatly upon the developers initial knowledge base and the proposed site's complexity. He explains that it would only take a short while to get some bare-bones pages up, but says a more complex project would require a greater investment of time.

WebSmart indexes data rather than static screens, which allows it to offer a developer flexibility in formulating the look and feel of a Web interface. Using a scenario of an AS/400 shop Web-enabling a 100,000-parts record, Hunter explains that a solution that indexes screens would require the creation of 100,000 HTML pages, while a data-indexing solution enables a developer to customize each page. "And it provides real-time updates as opposed to having to refresh thousands of pages over and over," says Hunter.

The WebSmart package includes a development tool for the vendor, and a server application for the clients to run the software. The development tool costs between $5,000 and $7,500 (unlimited developers), depending on the model of AS/400. And the Web application is priced from $3,000 to $9,500 (unlimited seats). For the development group, there is a two-year introductory service and maintenance program available from $2,700, which includes a free application server and development tool.

Sharing thoughts on the product's value, VanderHulst says, "I think that I could have gotten something cheaper if I was able to spend more time on development. But the learning curve is so short, it pays for itself that way."

Related Information:

  • BCD International, Inc. (new window)
  • ProGen WebSmart Overview (new window)