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AS400 Web Development
 Contributed by Anonymous Writer
Tuesday, 07 November 2006
Last Updated Sunday, 06 September 2009




This is one man's explanation of how to get your AS400 serving web
pages quickly, with the least amount of learning curve, and for free.
This is based on months of painful learning experience, so I'm writing
this down in the hope that others don't have to go through the pain
that I did.


{mosgoogle}

What you will find in this article:
-A strategy for going forwards
-Important lessons to learn
-links to reference material
-Links to the best AS400 RPGLE web development tool - which, coincidentally, is free



What you will not find in this article
-Sample code - although we do link to some
-An HTML lesson



Which way forwards for existing applications ?
With the benefit of hindsight, this is easy. For existing applications,
leave them alone, and buy some kind of nasty screen scraping tool.
There are loads out there, take your pick based on budget etc. There's
been free options from IBM from the beginning - eg at V4R5 you had
Workstation Gateway, but this was quite nasty and got dropped once the
world went to V5 where it was replaced by the web facing tool.



Why am I saying this ? Well, two major reasons. First, cost. It takes a
lot of re-engineering to take an RPG program and convert it to Java, or
.Net, or whatever. Even if you get an automation tool to do it. Besides
that, you need to totally re-test everything afterwards to ensure the
business rules have not been broken, which is no mean feat.



The second reason is that web pages follow the CGI methodolgoy, which
is a set of standards across both web servers (ie web sites) and web
clients (ie browers) for how information is exchanged between the two.
OK, so say you don't want to have to learn Java, but you do want to
work from your existing apps. You could stay with RPG and web enable
it, which is perfectly acceptable and removes much of your learning
curve, but then most interactive applications simply are not geared
around the CGI methodology, they expect that when a screen is displayed
the program stays open until it gets the input and then carries on.
With the CGI methodology the client requests information from the
server. The server then sends the information back to the client, but
then frees up the program on the server - job done.



This type of client server approach is stateless, ie the server forgets
all about the client once it's served the data. This is far more akin
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to the mainframe model, where you get a screen of input into a program
which then deals with it.



Which way forwards for new applications ?
Now this is a whole new kettle of fish. Web and HTML is really good for
new applications. Particularly useful for reports, and drill down
reports. For example, you get an initial page of summary financial
data, let's say by cost centre. You could then click on the cost centre
to see by department, then click on department to see individual cost
codes, etc. And, for new interactive systems, you can give people a
much more familiar interface to use, with drop downs and radio buttons
and some nice fluffy images.



So which technology to use ? Again, there are a myriad of ways you can go.



There's the Websphere / Java servlet route, the problems of which are well documented.
There are also a number of "RPG web server" application generators that can build sites for you from templates.
There's NetData, the IBM AS400 scripting language.
Did I mention earlier that you can write web pages in RPG ?



So you've heard about NetData for AS400. Well, this is a real
interpretive scripting language, similar to PHP or ASP, which is part
of the AS400 operating system, even at V5R2M0 and above. This has many
advantages. It's built into the OS, free, resides on your AS400, fast
to develop in since no compile is required, and flexible.


The
disadvantages are only two. Most importantly, it's no longer supported
on anything but an AS400 - so how long till IBM drop support completely
? The second disadvantage is that since it's interpretive it's much
slower than an RPGLE program, for example. For simple examples, and
easy reports etc, this really wont matter, but for complex number
crunching stuff then it will. I have in the past had to rewrite certain
netdata scripts into RPG for performance reasons, and the compiled RPG
version run typically 7-10 times faster.



It's certainly worth considering for simple web pages, especially
simple reports because the speed to delivery and learning curve is
probably the shortest out of all the non-RPG routes. However, you will
need to be able to write SQL statements to extract the data off the
400, but since uou are reading this page I'm sure you wont have a
problem. IBM has some excellent redbooks on this, so go look them up.



Also, if you want to get seriously into this, then there is a piece of
code editing software called UltraEdit. Put simply, it is the best bit
of software for editing I have ever found, it'd really really cheap,
and it works across HTML, javascript, and even NetData by means of a
softcoded reference file which tells the editor what the syntax for
each language is. So go to download ultredit, then visit my website to
download the NetData extension (free). When downloaded, save it in the
UltraEdit program folder, overwriting the current version

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Lastly, a company called ATS have produced a hands-on Net.Data course
for AS400, and are the only people to have done so we believe



So how do you write an RPG Web page?
Hold your horses ! Before we jump headlong in to this, some very brief
web explanation is required. I'll keep this short, since if you're
reading this page you probably know a bit about this kind of stuff
anyway.



A web page consists of a big pile of text, delimted by "tags". HTML
stands for "hypertext markup language", as you all know, but have you
considered what the word "markup" actually means to you ? Well, I'll
tell you. It means that the HTML does nothing but layout the page. All
you have effectively done is move the presentation layer from being a
DSPF showing on a dumb terminal to an HTML page showing in a browser.



So, to be clear on this, you don't actually need a program until you
start doing something dynamic, and in your case as an AS400 programmer
this means retrieving or storing data from the database. Your
traditional "hello world" program in the web world is not actually a
program, it's just a pile of text standing in a flat file that you send
to the browser. It is static information.



When you come to writing your first web program in RPG (or any other
language) you'll soon discover that all you are actually doing is
generating HTML text on the fly to be sent to the client. Also, unlike
interactive programs running on green screen, you'll effectively be
writing one program per screen.



Do I need to buy a good book on this ?
You will notice that there are a number of books on "E-RPG" or "RPG for
Web" that you can go and buy. You will also notice that, in particular,
there is one person whose name you'll see associated with "E-RPG" and
this guy has successfully turned himself into the self proclaimed RPG
Web Guru. Well, fair play to the guy, he's made a fair living off the
back of it. But, in my humble opinion, the only books you will ever
need are a good HTML book and a really good Javascript book.



Scared ? Well, to an extent you shouldn't be. Think about it - you know
databases, you know RPG, you know AS400s, and dynamic web pages on the
AS400 are simply RPGLE programs. And you know how to write those
already. What you don't know is HTML and, far more importantly,
javascript. These are things you really will need to learn.



I am now about to explain why you do NOT need any RPG books. This is
the important bit on this page. If you take nothing else away, take
this.


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The important steps are :



to understand the CGI model - ie one page at a time, and then the
program closes. to keep the application layer separate from the
presentation layer. to realise where your responsibilities lie The last
two steps are easy. The problem you are likely to have is in your
brain. You are an AS400 programmer, writing RPG, you can do anything.
HTML is, after all, just plain text - not even code ! Surely as a
seasoned programmer I can do this ....? Well, yes and no. Yes, you
could write an HTML page. Yes, it will display data in the browser. No,
it'll look like crap. I mean, it'll look like a green screen converted
to a web page, purely because this is what you are used to.



So, realise where your responsibilities lie. Your job is to generate
the dynamic parts of the site, to make the right data appear in the
right place upon request. Your job is not to design the look and feel
of the site. This is simply not your remit, and with good reason -
coders and designers are a different breed. So, keep the design of the
site and the code that puts dynamic data separate. That is, keep the
application layer separate from the presentation layer.



Keeping the code and the base HTML page separate is key to getting a maintainable website under development.



So first off go find a designer. Expectations will be higher. So, grab
your designer and get a mock up page done in HTML. Make a note to your
designer that they will be using absolute not relative paths for images
etc, since that's what an AS400 uses.
Next, for any pages where data is to be sent to the AS400 from the
client, ie an "input screen", go away and find a javascript programmer.
(Your web designer may or may not be able to assist here).


You need a
javascript programmer to perform client side checking before it gets to
the server, for obvious things like mandatory fields, checking that a
number is in fact a number, dates, etc. Yes, you could do this on the
server, but it's less CPU intensive to do it on the client, and you get
an instant response back to the customer which is a whole nicer
experience.



Okay so what about the RPG ?



This bit is easy, and free. Go to Easy400, and download the CGIDEV2
library. Install it on your AS400 and away you go. Want more help ?
There is loads on this site. Tutorials, code samples, whole sites, etc,
etc. It's a real gem, go visit and learn !



This is, simply put, the best and most useful advice I can give. This
set of free libraries from IBM encapsulates all of the functions
required into a service program that you simply bind to your RPGLE
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program. Since your application layer is separated from your
presentation layer, the methodology is simple.



Stick your HTML file from your designer on the AS400. Build a program
that reads in the HTML file, possibly a section at a time, and
substitutes the values the designer has used in the mockup for the real
values from the database. Send the result back to the browser



Sounds scary ? Shouldn't do. Loading a section of a web page is a
single function. Replacing some text with a value is another single
function. Sending the resulting HTML back to the client is a single
function. Getting a value passed to the AS400 from a web page is,
you've guessed it, a single function. So basically with this set of
libraries you will have abstracted out the CGI bit into a service
program, leaving you to concentrate on the business tasks required by
the program.



I realise this sounds totally unglamourous. That's because it is - it's still coding after all !


About Author:


Vince Lewis is an IT professional of 15 years. He has more information on AS400s and Testing at his site,
http://www.crimsonsolutions.co.uk




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