March 8, 2021
Nick Hampson and Scott Gingerysty
(Sponsored Content) While CA 2E, formerly known as Synon, isn’t discussed as frequently in the IBM i space as RPG or COBOL, customers tell us that it provides tremendous value and competitive differentiation for their organization. In many cases, these applications have been reliably running mission-critical business applications for decades.
However, Synon also comes with risks, such as a shrinking pool of Synon resources. Classically trained Synon programmers are scarce and most programmers who are working with Synon today have picked it up from someone else. Sure, they can build a business application, but when they go outside the basics of the crud and a bit of business logic, they often fall back to RPG.
While a lot of organizations are happy to retain the functionality that’s built into their applications, the UI keeps them up at night. There are fewer end users who are familiar with green screen interfaces and the bar is set high when it comes to the UI. Most people use multiple styles of interfaces on multiple devices, which is starkly different from when IT shops started generating Synon applications. Back then, most users didn’t have a computer in the house and would accept whatever they were provided.
Now, users want mobile-friendly interfaces, mouse-driven navigation and integration with Teams, Skype, Microsoft Office, Google Maps, web applications and other platforms. We also see a lot of clients who have users working with spool files, using STRSQL, or creating their own DB2 SQL queries to get data out. This information should be more easily accessible. Users want an interface, and they want to be able to get their job done. They don’t care that one part is running IBM i on Power, and the other is in the cloud, and the others on the desktop, as long as everything works together. Users really shouldn’t have to jump between multiple systems, copying and pasting, what we call alt-tab integration, in 2021.
There are a lot different approaches you can take when modernizing your Synon UI and hopefully this article will help point you in the right direction. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t have to be that difficult or time consuming!
Start With Your Strategy
You know your business best and how you approach UI modernization depends on your situation and your environment. Chris Koppe wrote a great article about driving Synon applications forward and he emphasized that achieving sustainability with Synon depends on a comprehensive strategy. No matter which approach you take, spend some time on your strategy before you jump in.
Too often, we’ve seen clients adding a GUI for the sake of one user, or beginning development before they have a clear idea of what the users really needed. These situations tend to result in lost time, wasted money and cancelled projects, all because they didn’t start with a strategy.
Depending on your needs, there are a couple of different ways you can approach this:
- IT Strategy / Discovery: This process involves an in-depth look at your IT and business. Once you know what you have and where you’re headed, you’ll work with stakeholders to build a comprehensive roadmap and modernization plan for your IBM i applications.
- Application Discovery: This is a project-focused initiative that works well if you’re looking at replacing a specific application, or if you have a workflow in Synon or RPG that you want to modernize. An application discovery helps you identify your goals and your measures of success. It might also include a wireframe of the proposed application so you can see how it will work before development really starts.
Regardless of how you approach your strategy, it should be business-led and focus on the outcomes before you consider technology. The technology should always support your business goals, not the other way around.
Refacing Can Offer Quick Wins
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on refacing as one solid option for giving your Synon applications a graphical user interface (GUI). Most refacing solutions, such as Fresche’s Presto or Newlook, only require the 5250 data stream to generate a modern UI that users can access from browsers on desktop computers, laptops or mobile devices. This includes transforming function keys to clickable links or buttons for mouse-driven navigation.
Synon offers a distinct advantage when it comes to refacing: Because Synon screens are often standardized, you get consistent results out of the box compared to RPG programs that have heavily modified layouts. As a starting point, refacing gives you great value for your investment and can be accomplished without web development experience.
From there, we like to advise an 80/20 approach. What is the 20 percent of the application that your users spend 80 percent of their time in? Put the effort in there. Look at the key parts of the system where the users work and examine which areas aren’t working well for them. How can you improve the workflow? In some cases, you might want to add drop-down boxes or autocompletes to reduce re-keying errors. Maybe you can de-clutter screens by incorporating tabs. All of this is easily accomplished using visual editors that are available in solutions like Presto or Newlook.
It’s important to keep in mind that when modernizing the UI of your Synon applications, you’re going to experience a bit of a paradigm shift. You’re going from a green screen to a web application and you now have to consider a new set of needs and considerations. Things like browser requirements and web development nuances can seem daunting at first. On the other hand, how refreshing is it, that you can install a product that does a lot of the heavy lifting for you instead of having to think I’m never going to get that done. You’re off to a great start with refacing.
Some IT shops have more advanced requirements, such as the need to integrate with other systems / applications. Maybe you also want a professional look and feel that matches your corporate identity. Fresche has a web development services team that partners with companies of all sizes, across many industries, who don’t have the skills or resources to complete these projects on their own. Services are a great option for companies who need to demonstrate some quick wins.
We once worked with a grain company that had custom plant manufacturing software that was built with Synon. We arrived at their office on a Tuesday morning and took some time to understand their system. We refaced 2,400 screens and provided some customizations on a few screens. For example, in the plant maintenance, we customized the application so an image dynamically appeared on the screen for that piece of plant.
Modernizing their 2,400 screens, adding some integration and deploying to their IBM i took a day and a half. We went in on a Tuesday morning and finished Wednesday afternoon. Now, they went on to do more work on the application, but the point of this story is that Synon’s consistency allows you to get the basics done quickly with positive and predictable results.
The refacing projects that our team works on are often quite focused. For example, a customer might have 50 screens that people use 80 percent of the time, and they want to enhance them. Maybe they want to rebuild them in native PHP. Ultimately, these decisions come back to strategy. What does modernization mean to you? How far to you want – or need – to take it? Developing a strategic roadmap is the best place to start to you know where you’re headed – and why – before you start development.
While your IT team has great application experience, and your users “know” their applications, our team has the modernization experience to leverage those strengths while keeping a keen eye on the higher-level modernization goals of a project. This aids in putting the user in the center of development initiative, resulting in ROI like reduced training times, improved application usability, and ultimately increased productivity. With 25 years of experience and tens of thousands of IBM i applications (both Synon and RPG) under our belt, we’re happy to provide guidance. We know how to deal with these applications because we’ve seen it over and over.
While nothing can compare to a solid strategy, when you start with refacing, the least you can do is turn it on and get some user feedback. Understand who your users are, where they spend their time, and getting them using the web enabled system. A lot of great ideas can come from those users, and you can build on your application from there. The exciting thing about web technologies is that the doors are open. The possibilities are pretty much endless.
Get Advice from the Experts Before You Start
We once worked with a private bank that decided to take on their refacing project without training. Three months later they told us, “We’re having all sorts of problems. Performance is terrible and it’s taken us too long to deploy.”
When we investigated, we discovered that they had manually customized 500 of their 1,500 screens – one at a time – rather than taking advantage of the global customizations that the product offers. They were experiencing performance issues because they had added huge graphics to the menu screen, not realizing that their large file size would affect how quickly the screen would render. During a three-hour session, we not only fixed all 1,500 screens to the same quality as they’d been doing one-by-one, but we took the menu recognition down from five seconds to 300 milliseconds by optimizing the graphic size.
We always recommend getting help before you put in too much. You might be heading in the wrong direction and it can save you valuable time to check with an expert or understand how the tool works.
Educate Yourself About Synon Modernization
Beginning March 18, Fresche is hosting a four-part Synon modernization series that will focus on different areas of opportunity for your applications. We’ll cover UI modernization (of course!), as well as strategy, developer productivity and code transformation. You can register here.
Anyone who attends will be invited to schedule a two-hour workshop with Fresche strategists. We’ll discuss your business and your environment and look at where you’re headed with IT so you can begin mapping out a plan. No matter how short or long the strategy session, a lot of value comes out of these sessions. Companies have so much knowledge about their business, but they don’t always have expertise in modernization and change. If you have a project in mind and would like to learn more about the workshop, you can access that here.
Our goal with the workshop is to bring together a blend of unique skills from your team and ours to ignite fresh ideas, explore new concepts and inspire your team with high-potential opportunities for your business.
This content was sponsored by Fresche Solutions.
Nick Hampson is senior product manager of digital transformation at Fresche Solutions. Scott Gingerysty is senior Web application developer at Fresche Solutions.