Q&A: Mobilizing System i Data

IBM's System i has long been a trusted computing platform, but it's 24 x 80 column data layout is out of touch with today's Internet and mobile devices. Here's how to bring its data into the 21st century.

The IBM I platform has been a steady, reliable performer for years, but in an age of Internet and mobile data displays, its data displays can look seriously out of date. To learn what IT can do to take a System i's data and make it suitable for today's display demands, we turned to Peter Mullin, managing director of Sentinex (www.sentinex.com), a software developer for Web enablement and a consulting service provider since 1991. Mullin has overall responsibility for the management of operations at the company and is well-versed in the history and potential for System i.

Enterprise Systems: How are enterprises using mobile devices with data from IBM i systems?

So far, the information delivered from IBM i systems to users of mobile devices users is pretty much limited to text-like renderings, principally e-mail, system events, and reports generated from applications. The platform is lagging behind society’s universal migration from the consumption of information in text to graphical formats as it struggles with its transition from green screen to browser.

What are the challenges in delivering data from IBM i?

IBM has done a great job keeping the IBM i platform viable with steady technical advances that still allow customers to run effective business applications written many decades ago. The result is that the IBM i platform today performs with a vitality second to none. IBM i has had HTTP Internet server capability since 1996, with a solid reputation for immunity from viruses and hackers. The platform’s critical deficiency in an Internet world, however, is that all data is still rendered in the same 24 X 80 column format originally designed to stream data to green screen terminals and to printers instead of to the browser. IBM has been working on fixes to open up the data stream for standard Internet services delivery, but current solutions are complex, involve investments in toolsets, and significant hands-on customer intervention.

How has IT tackled the problem?

A big part of the problem in delivering IBM i data and applications to the Internet lies with the IT departments themselves. Many businesses and organizations relying on IBM platforms actually run two separate IT operations, one responsible for the network and for Internet services, the other for running key business processes with legacy IBM i green-screen applications. At many shops, an IT culture has developed that inhibits cooperation among the two functional segments, with the CIO sharply challenged to bring down that brick wall of separation.

To make matters worse, the graying IBM i workforce increasingly contrasts with youthful IT members who’ve never known life without an Internet. While the graysters become frustrated with what they see as the youngsters’ lack of depth and grounding in time-proven IT business infrastructure and best practices, the youngsters perceive the legacy green-screen platform as an irrelevant dinosaur. IBM’s efforts to manage market perceptions of its brand over the years have been fairly dismal. The platform, currently known as IBM i, has had a variety of names during its lifetime.

Is there a solution?

The best solutions look directly to the source of the data rather than to the devices upon which the data is to be delivered. Because the source of the data stream is the native IBM i platform, that would suggest server-side solution approaches instead of deploying intermediary servers or client-side applications that intercept and transform the data stream. Solutions that run in a familiar IBM i environment increase user acceptance among IBM i veterans.

Must legacy applications be rewritten?

Not at all. Effective server-side software solutions build upon the customers’ investments in proven business applications instead of scrapping them. Standard Internet building blocks including HTML, PHP, Javascript, CSS, DOM, SQL, and AJAX are joined with the customary IBM i RPG and CL tools to open up existing data and applications to the Internet.

The form factor of information rendered to a browser is radically different than to a terminal. What best practices can you suggest for the way that data is to be delivered?

Once the IBM i data is freed from its 5250 terminal data stream constraint, the only limitations in the real estate landscape upon which IBM i data can be rendered are in the imaginations of Web page designers. Best practice challenges are shifting away from technology and toward the creativity and design aesthetics of the process. There’s no need to constantly re-invent the technical wheel, as solid resources freely available to render information to the browser are becoming increasingly prolific and easier to use. An example is the ease with which Web-based services, such as Google Charts API’s, can now be effortlessly incorporated to present IBM i data in rich, visually compelling graphical displays on smartphones.

Is it more difficult to deliver IBM i data to mobile devices rather than to the desktop?

No, but serving multiple client types involves some additional work. Server-side procedures are set up to detect a request from a particular browser and direct the request to another URL that serves Internet pages appropriately rendered to the requesting client’s browser and screen size.

What role does Sentinex play in this market?

Sentinex bridges the gap between the disparate and equally relevant IBM i and mobile Internet worlds. Sentinex creates Download-and-Go mobile connectors, called i2i for iPhone to IBM i, preset to point to each customer’s data and applications. Sentinex i2i widgets minimize customer involvement. They set up IBM i for Internet services, combine IBM i data with network graphic files, and provide mobile password security and smartphone data entry even when no WiFi or 3G network signal is available. Our customers’ businesses grow as they open data and applications to mobile access and breath new life into legacy investments.