Sunday, November 28, 2010

Boulder BI Brain Trust on WebFOCUS

Earlier this year, Information Builders met with the Boulder BI Brain Trust to brief the group on the upcoming release of WebFOCUS 8.  In case you are not familiar with BBBT, they describe themselves as "a gathering of leading, local, BI consultants and experts who attend 1/2 day presentations from interesting and innovative BI vendors."

Following the IBI meeting, two BBBT members--Richard Hackathorn and Ronald Damhof--each summarized his own thoughts on the organization's blog.

An industry veteranHackathorn remembers Information Builders' start in the mainframe reporting market and sees their current software products as an ongoing evolution from the initial 4GL offering: 
"IBI is a long-term, established vendor in the BI market. The FOCUS lineage is impressive, having solid global customer communities. The product continues to evolve, expanding its features into a full BI suite...a long way from simple reporting on tape files. IBI tends to be omitted from discussions of BI suites. You would be smart of include them on the list."

Damhof, who admits his mother gave birth to him not long before Gerry Cohen founded IBI, was either not familiar with the software vendor or confused by their marketing message. 
"I gotta say that I was surprised listening to the BBBT meeting with Information Builders. I tend to think of myself as somebody who is reasonable knowledgeable about tooling in the BI realm. Either I was wrong (nahh ;-)) or there is something going on with the message that is not conveyed properly."

Damhof went on to say: 
"IBI is offering a platform and in my opinion they are trying to sell this platform. Selling platforms makes selecting IBI a very high profile investment within any organization, in that realm the competition is tough as well as internal opposition. Why not break the platform marketing-wise into several functionalities? One example would be the Data Integrity tooling, it can easily be a separate functionality, separately marketed and priced. As I said I am not very familiar with IBI software, but I like the angle of WebFOCUS being some kind of informational development platform where you can develop and distribute data-oriented apps very quickly. It is certainly an angle that would differentiate IBI from its competitors!"
While Damhof seems to caution IBI against offering a full BI stack due to stiff competition from the mega-vendors (SAP, IBM Cognos, Microsoft, and Oracle), IBI should compare that advice to Boris Evelson's polar-opposite comment to the few remaining pure BI vendors: 
"Offer your own full BI stack or position yourself for an acquisition. No other long-term options in my mind."

Feedback from BBBT may indicate that Information Builders is still challenged to articulate a consistent marketing message of who they are and what their products do.  In the late 1990s, IBI had a major chasm to jump as they transitioned from selling a host-based 4GL tool to an enterprise business intelligence platform.  Even today, people may still be confused or ill-informed.

Just this week, Computer Business Review wrote an article suggesting that Information Builders is considering legal action against Micro Focus, a three-decades old software vendor of COBOL tools.  As IBI's software peer grows and reinvents itself as a legacy modernization vendor, somebody within IBI must be concerned about confusion over the "Focus" products. 

I can personally vouch for this misunderstanding-- over the years, I have talked with many industry individuals who when I mentioned FOCUS thought I was talking about Micro Focus COBOL. Of course, I also saw similar confusion by companies over the difference between IBI and IBM, which may have benefitted Information Builders. 

Despite the confusion, like Hackathorn states, Information Builders has a robust BI application development suite and companies should include WebFOCUS on their short-list of potential software purchases.  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Where to Store HTML Forms?

With the -HTMLFORM syntax, WebFOCUS provides web app developers with a way to utilize HTML forms and syntax within the FOCUS 4GL code.  You can include not only web pages for displays and user input but JavaScript processing as well.

You have two options when doing this: either embed the HTML code inside the WebFOCUS code or reference an existing HTML page stored elsewhere.  

Syntax for inline HTML code:

Syntax for referencing separate HTML code:

You can see your Information Builders documentation for more details on the -HTMLFORM command. I have seen both of the above options in use at client sites and only recently encountered an issue that would cause me to suggest one approach over the other.

If you embed the HTML form inside the 4GL code using the BEGIN and END tags, the WebFOCUS pre-processor for Dialogue Manager symbolic variables will read that HTML code. If you have ampersand variables referenced in the HTML form, you run the risk of having substitution happen when you do not want it. Then, you need to take extra steps to make sure your variables are not evaluated and changed to their literal values. For example, if your HTML contains a servlet call with variables, those will get evaluated and changed (not what you want to happen).

If on the other hand your program just references the HTML form stored in an HTML file, WebFOCUS does not do the symbolic variable evaluations. Problem avoided. 

So here is my advice. If you need to dynamically build an HTML form, then putting it inline and using Dialogue Manager is your best approach. However for static HTML forms, you should always put the HTML code elsewhere and reference it by name inside your WebFOCUS code.

Another note: I believe that as of the latest 7.6 release, your HTML form file must be on the WebFOCUS Report Server in the app path and not in the Managed Reporting Environment. When searching for the referenced HTML form file, WebFOCUS is currently only searching the WFRS applications and not looking in MRE (I have asked IBI for an enhancement to the command).

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ventana Research Names IBI a Leader

Ventana Research recently named Information Builders, the software vendor of the WebFOCUS BI product, one of their vendor technology leaders.  For more information, see the IBI press release.

DIY WebFOCUS Functions

If you are an experienced WebFOCUS developer, you are all too familiar with the standard user-written subroutines provided with the BI product.  You are sure to have old-time favorites such as EDIT, SUBSTR, and HEXBYT for which you still need to go back to the documentation to refresh your memory on the parameters.

Historically, many of these came from the old FOCUS Users Group (FUSE).  Customers wrote their own routines and shared them with their friends at user group meetings.  For the really useful routines, Information Builders would provide them to other clients in the FOCUS FUSELIB library.

While it has always been possible to write your own subroutines that could be called from within the 4GL product, it meant using a low-level language--such as C, Fortran, Assembler, or COBOL--and then linking your module into IBI's software.  This was something not for the novice or weak at heart.  You had to remember to do this with each upgrade and/or platform migration (and not to lose the original source code!).

Information Builders has changed that.  It is now quite easy to build your own functions using a fairly new feature called DEFINE FUNCTION.  If you are experienced with DEFINE and COMPUTE calculations, you can code one of these functions.

Below is a simple example of a function that reformats a date string.

It really looks just like a DEFINE FILE block of code; it uses the same syntax except for the first statement.

You give each function a specific name, such as CHGDATE in my example, as well as input parameters.  My example only has one input parameter (a date string), but they can have more.

Inside the function, you can have lots of statements, but there does need to be one calculated column named the same as the function that will contain the answer to be returned to the calling program.  In this simple example, the calling program passes in a ten-digit string, checks for FOC_NONE (in other words, there is no parameter value and this statement is to be ignored by WebFOCUS processing), reformats the date string (okay, I already know it's a silly function, so don't waste your time suggesting code improvements.), and passes back the answer.

You can put your homemade functions inside a particular report program (a FOCEXEC), inside a common module for sharing (a -INCLUDE file), or keep them on the WebFOCUS Report Server (in the server profile, or EDASPROF) where they can be in memory for any program.

These DEFINE functions get invoked just like any other function or subroutine call.  You can call them from a Dialogue Manager statement or from the DEFINE/COMPUTE phrases.

Here is an example of invoking my CHGDATE function using Dialogue Manager:

For more information, see Information Builders' TechSupport site or drop me a note.

By the way, I caused some of you programming experts out there to ponder the difference between functions and subroutines (terms I used willy-nilly in the above blog).  For those interested, a function has a specific connotation in programming.  A function should accept your input parameters (and not modify them) and return an answer.  That is all it should do; take input, process it, and give you back a value.

A subroutine, on the other hand, is not under any type of "legal" restriction.  You call it and it can do all sorts of things; it doesn't have to even pass back an answer to you.  A subroutine performs some type of procedure for you when you call it.  That is the difference between a subroutine and a function.

In the old days of the FOCUS 4GL, users wrote whatever external routines they wanted so calling them subroutines was appropriate.  With the new WebFOCUS DEFINE FUNCTION, you are truly writing functions in the pure sense of the term.

Monday, November 1, 2010

WebFOCUS 5.3 Functionally Stabilized

Information Builders, the Manhattan-based vendor of WebFOCUS and iWay Software, recently announced that they will functionally stabilize the 5.3 release of the products in January 2011.  Currently, all 5.2 and older releases have been stabilized.

Here is IBI's formal notice from their TechSupport website:

WebFOCUS Release Notes
Release 5.3 Functionally Stabilized January 31st, 2011

Applicable to: The Entire Release 5.3 Product Line (iWay, WebFOCUS, DataMigrator and ETL Manager), All Platforms

This advisory provides advanced notification of planned changes in product availability and support.

Effective January 31st, 2011, WebFOCUS and iWay Release 5.3 on all platforms are functionally stabilized. This is applicable to the complete 5.3 line of products including the WebFOCUS Client Release 5.3.x, WebFOCUS Developer Studio Release 5.3.x, WebFOCUS ReportCaster Release 5.3.x and the WebFOCUS, iWay, DataMigrator and ETL Manager Reporting Servers Release 5.3.x on all platforms. Customer support will still be available for this release, however, no patches or fixes for new problems will be provided.

Users on this release level should upgrade to the most current WebFOCUS or iWay Reporting Server release at their earliest opportunity.

DOCID: 1002324

This announcement goes hand-in-glove with IBI's published release schedule which lays out the plan for their major new architectural change (WebFOCUS 8) someday soon:

Information Builders supports the most current and past three releases of their products.  Releases before that are "functionally stabilized," which means that IBI will no longer provide any fixes for products released that far back.

The old WebFOCUS releases are not "dead" -- they are just in a perpetual state of minimal life-support.

You can still call the Customer Support group and talk about issues related to the stabilized software, but IBI's suggested solution will always be to upgrade to a newer WebFOCUS release. 

But that of course means you need to be paying IBI the annual maintenance fee.

If you are running a stabilized release of WebFOCUS (today, that means 5.2 and older) and you stopped paying maintenance fees, then you are out of luck for fixing problems.  If you want to reinstate the maintenance and upgrade, don't be surprised if you have to pay for all missed past annual fees.

The moral of the story is pay IBI those annual suppport fees and keep your WebFOCUS releases up-to-date.

About Me

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I am a project-based software consultant, specializing in automating transitions from legacy reporting applications into modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics using Information Builders' WebFOCUS. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven Best Practice methodologies, software tools, and templates.

I have been blessed to work with innovators from firms such as: Ford, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, where I graduated summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders and for over a dozen years served in regional pre- and post-sales technical leadership roles. Also, for several years I led the US technical services teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the Midwest custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting. My experience with BI products include WebFOCUS (vendor certified expert), R, SAP Business Objects (WebI, Crystal Reports), Tableau, and others.