Looksoftware announced a new product last week that eliminates the requirement to purchase as400 5250 OLTP processing capability to run interactive workloads on an iSeries or System i server, thereby saving users potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. The new product, called lookdirect, unleashes the 5250 capability in a non-invasive manner, the company says, and should be available next month.
The iSeries community has been looking for solutions to the 5250 pricing situation ever since 1996, when IBM introduced the CFINT governor and started charging more for interactive processing capability (what it now calls online transaction processing, or OLTP) than batch, or server-based, processing capability.
If developers had followed the lead of IBM, they would have re-written their 5250 applications in Java and run them in WebSphere, thereby bypassing the 5250 requirement. However, relatively few programmers that use the OS/400's server traditional language have made the switch to Java, which means the vast majority of OS/400 customers have had to live with the controversial pricing scheme.
Marcus Dee, managing director of Australia-based looksoftware, says IBM's interactive pricing policy--which adds close to $1 million to the price tag of the largest OS/400 servers--has been a challenge to the company. "It's been an issue for our partners and customers for many years. We lost some real opportunities because they wanted to cut these costs," he says.
Over the years, looksoftware considered the various options on the table for eliminating the impact of IBM's 5250 pricing policies on looksoftware's business, as well as the business of its partners. First up was the "invasive" approach, where the 5250 and the DDS is eliminated and then basically reconstructed in a different form. Several iSeries ISVs rolled out such solutions, but they've since been withdrawn, Dee says, due to the extensive effort required to adapt the programs. "Architecturally it was never going to fly," he says.
Another invasive technique for goosing 5250 performance that made many headlines over the last few years was a product and a company called Fast400. However, Dee saw serious problems with going down that road. "I think everybody in the marketplace knew what was going on was under the covers," he says. "And it didn't change the fact that it broke customers' machines."
For seven or eight years, looksoftware explored its options, but came up empty. Finally, in the last couple releases of the operating system, IBM has made changes that allowed looksoftware to do what it wanted to do.
It took a long time, but it was worth it, Dee says. "The access from IBM, the system level APIs--it's taken some time . . . but the perseverance paid off," he says. "We've done it the right way. We don't do accessing system state stuff, under-the-cover stuff. We've done it in a way that IBM's comfortable."
The new product, called lookdirect, helps customers by enabling the full batch CPW capability of a given OS/400 server to be utilized for 5250 applications. Dee didn't discuss the intricacies of how lookdirect works, except to say that it uses system-level APIs, which ensures that it will work with future releases of i5/OS, and that it and has the blessing of IBM.
All customers need to know (besides that look says it won't break their systems or hurt other applications) is that lookdirect eliminates the need for 5250 OLTP, thereby enabling customers to use the Standard Edition of i5/OS instead of the Enterprise Edition, which is considerably more expensive.
The one catch is that lookdirect must be used in conjunction with one of looksoftware's "multichannel" interface products, which are largely based on Microsoft's .NET technology. This lineup includes the full-featured smartclient designed for power users, the somewhat thinner liteclient designed for transaction workers, the browser-based thinclient for zero footprint deployments, and the mobileclient, which installs on PDAs and other mobile devices. The full-tilt-boogie 5250-enabling capabilities of lookdirect will require version 8 of the multichannel UI products, which will be released soon.
The idea behind hooking up lookdirect to the company's interface products is to get OS/400 shops to modernize their applications, Dee says. "There is a huge investment in 5250 applications and [IBM] has been pushing modernization through people like us for some time," Dee says. "This is another way to tell the marketplace, 'Here's a good reason to do it now and take your applications forward.'"
While looksoftware and IBM would rather that lookdirect customers take the opportunity to modernize their application with some sort of GUI, lookdirect doesn't prevent users from running 5250 applications in green-screen mode. The company sells its own 5250 emulator, called 5250client, because there always seems to be that one guy who refuses to move to a GUI. It makes no difference to Dee. "Horses for courses," he says.
Looksoftware business partners enthusiastically welcomed lookdirect, which they will embed into their own OS/400 solutions.
"Lookdirect…makes our i5 solution more competitive against other platforms," says Ernie Betancourt, CEO of Innovative Computing, an Oklahoma City, Oklahoma-based developer of OS/400-based trucking software with 500 customers. "Now that we can deploy our 5250 solutions on the i5 Standard Edition, we can drive our customers' IT dollar much further."
Four Soft had all but given up trying to sell its OS/400-based warehousing application. "When talking to prospects about our warehousing applications, the System i5 hardware costs were becoming increasingly prohibitive," says Ritu Rooney, head of sales for the English software developer. "Lookdirect will allow us to be much more competitive in the logistics market from a total solution point of view."
"The release of lookdirect is a pivotal moment in the evolution of the System i5," says Trevor Perry, who used to develop for looksoftware and who now works with Clear Technologies, a Texas CRM software developer. "You can have your GUI at a green-screen price, and move your applications into SOA at the same time."
Doug Fulmer, the longtime iSeries Tools Network director who recently joined Clear Tech as a systems architect, also had good things to say about the new product. "Lookdirect provides them with a double-good alternative--modernizing their existing 5250 assets and eliminating or reducing 5250 workload," he says. "I think looksoftware has a winner with lookdirect."
Dee credits the creation of lookdirect to a revitalized iSeries organization led by System i general manager Mark Shearer. "We've invested a lot of time working with partners and IBM and making sure that this sort of thing would benefit all of us," he says. "A real key thing here is that we understand, and I'm happy to say IBM understands, that some vendors out there can have a great impact on the platform."
Lookdirect is due to ship in early August. The product will require i5/OS V5R4 (Standard Edition will suffice, thank you), as well as one of the newer System i or eServer i5 models--the 520, 550, 570, or 595. The product will be delivered as an option when customers purchase either smartclient, liteclient, thinclient, mobileclient, or 5250client, and will add about 20 to 30 percent to the cost of those products. For more as400 information, visit www.looksoftware.com.