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October 2001

COBOL readies for a leap forward

New compiler suite for 3000 offers graphical interface

Acucorp is ready to release software for the HP 3000 which can deliver graphical interfaces and Web connectivity without relying on outside languages — giving the community’s developers fresh options while staying with a familiar language.

The release of version 5.2 of Extend 5 client-server software with ACUCOBOL-GT, expected this month after a beta test program completes, promises e-business and thin client deployment capabilities for 3000 sites while staying inside the realm of COBOL. Creating Windows-like screens, or linking COBOL applications with the Internet, has required some kind of outside language or interface up to this point, using Microsoft’s Visual Basic or Java.

Acucorp officials showed a demonstration at the HP World expo that required only the latest development suite from the company. The 12-year-old firm’s software has been refined to understand the IMAGE database and HP 3000 intrinsics, after running on dozens of other platforms.

Promises of third-party support for the HP 3000 COBOL community have emerged in the past, only to be thwarted by the unique design of the 3000’s database and operating system. Fujitsu made the latest stab in 1998 wanting to deliver a third-party alternative to COBOL II, the HP-supplied compiler in use at thousands of sites worldwide. A few months after Fujitsu announced it would investigate the project, it reported back that the engineering distinctions of MPE were too great to accommodate.

Acucorp appears to have crossed such a threshold in its plans, putting seven developers on the project in the last year — a number several times greater than HP’s own staffing for its 3000 COBOL compiler.

Extend 5 is supposed to give COBOL developers a faster path to modern interfaces, skipping the learning curve of Windows APIs.

“They don’t have to learn the Windows API in order to get to a graphical interface,” said Steve Hjerpe, a senior systems engineer on the porting team. “They use our COBOL and our standard syntax to describe how they want their screen laid out, and all the properties of the controls that they want to display to the user.”

Learning the properties is the adjustment in using Extend 5, a task that Hjerpe compares to designing screen navigation in COBOL’s working storage. Extend 5 uses the SCREEN section in COBOL to control where a data item appears on the screen. Acucorp enhanced the SCREEN section items to make them controls — a label, entry field or push button — which Extend 5 links to the Windows API. “We take care of the [Windows] dialog for you, but [users] need to learn the properties” of controls, Hjerpe said.

The software is divided between the HP 3000 host and any 32-bit flavor of Windows client for client-server deployment, with communication coming via TCP/IP. COBOL programs run from the 3000. An integrated development environment tool — “much like Visual Studio,” Hjerpe said — lets programmers design screens for their applications with a drag-and-drop interface that generates source code.

Companies moving to a Web interface for applications can use the HTML module in Extend 5. The software employs a CGI wrapper for submitting data from Web forms, where COBOL programs accept information from HTML forms, use the HP 3000 intrinsics and database to retrieve the data, and display it back to the browser in HTML.

COBOL programmers can use FrontPage or Dreamweaver, or have Web developers create those HTML forms. COBOL programs written using Extend 5 use CGI to write data back to the HTML pages.

Understanding the 3000

Advances such as Windows and Web interfaces in a COBOL compiler will do the 3000 community little good without understanding the MPE data structures and intrinsics. Acucorp director of channel marketing Joe Sieley feels the company has learned what it needs to know about IMAGE/SQL and the 3000, after two beta-test cycles.

“The intrinsics will be there, because we know folks want to maintain a VPlus interface and TurboIMAGE access,” Sieley said. “At a minimum, we’ve got to be able to provide the 3000 folks with what they have, but that’s not what we’re interested in. Unless folks are interested in doing something above and beyond what the existing HP compiler provides, there’s no point in us really doing this.”

Web capabilities and distributed processing need to be married with the fundamental data structures of the 3000 for any third-party COBOL offering to get a foothold in the community. SIG-COBOL chair Jeanette Nutsford, who’s taken a look at the Acucorp product, said the company’s on the right track.

“Acucorp is doing some major changes to their ACUCOBOL on the 3000, and it’s getting all of the HP extensions,” Nutsford said. “The interesting thing that’s caught my attention is that it’s been ported over into the Posix namespace, but they are as determined as I am that it will be run from the MPE namespace. The worst thing for the MPE programmer is to have to deal with the Posix commands. Acucorp seem pretty determined to avoid that.”

Nutsford took a training course in ACUCOBOL over the summer, and found it “very impressive.” In mid-summer she found the offering, which included support for COBOL macros, “still had a way to go, because they are talking about a workbench you run on the PC, and a debugger actually debugging the MPE source, and that will be a huge achievement if they accomplish that. Acucorp look as if they want to make their workbench work for us. They’re doing some amazing things with the Web as well.”

The SIG-COBOL chair didn’t want to slight the other alternative to HP’s COBOL compiler, PERCobol from LegacyJ, which bridges COBOL and Java technology. “PERCobol has a place as well,” Nutsford said of the LegacyJ product; it compiles to J2EE standard Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs) that can be integrated with other EJBs from Java.

Standards support is one of the areas where third parties can deliver more to 3000 customers than HP in the next few years. While HP’s compiler team has the new IA-64 architecture in its sights for the next COBOL, additions from the new COBOL standard may be slow in coming to the current, PA-RISC version of the compiler.

Development resources for the 3000 are an issue for HP’s language labs, which have their hands full making sure COBOL is supported on the next generation of hardware. Acucorp is careful about making promises for the new standard, but it is taking input on what needs to be in its product — whose next version is likely to appear before an IA-64 HP e3000.

“The new standard, and the new things we’ll be able to do with COBOL, will be able to take us forward. As soon as you start looking at any of the other languages, most COBOL programmers want to come back to COBOL,” Nutsford said.

Economics have changed since HP first introduced its compiler more than 20 years ago to the 3000 community without runtime charges. Third parties thrive on such fees today, and Acucorp intends to charge a runtime fee for applications using its compilers.

“We charge for deployment in some aspects,” Sieley said. “We’re not talking about orders of magnitude change in price in getting started with the development environment. To the extent that all somebody wants to do is maintain their current functionality on the 3000, obviously there’s not going to be a whole lot of desire to pay for a runtime fee. To the extent the additional capabilities are of value to the end-user, we believe in most cases we charge for the ability we bring to the table.”

Deployables are concurrent-user based, “so they only pay for the users that are actually executing the application at a given time,” Sieley said. Independent software vendors are charged on an annual basis, which provides for development tools, unlimited support, and upgrades and discounts for deployment.

Bringing COBOL up to date is important to keeping the community’s applications mission-critical, SIG chair Nutsford says. Third-party alternatives have a role to play in that mission.

“Modern COBOL offerings play a vital role in enabling HP e3000 developers to deliver options that address management’s demands for applications to incorporate new technologies,” she said. “COBOL-based solutions, such as those offered by Acucorp, can provide the type of features that companies need to move forward with the HP e3000.”


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