Canadian enterprises mull PowerBuilder renovations

Canadian enterprises are starting to wonder if they are putting operations and customer service capabilities at risk by maintaining legacy applications originally built in PowerBuilder.

Like COBOL and a number of other older languages, PowerBuilder continues to make up substantial lines of

code in many large corporations. The proprietary technology comes from Sybase, which managed to attract thousands of developers working mainly on client/server applications. But with the advent of open standards based languages like Sun Microsystems’ Java, some industry experts say PowerBuilder is in decline. In Canada, for example, there is still a Web site for the Edmonton PowerBuilder Users Group, but its members say it’s mostly dormant.

“”There is still some PowerBuilder activity out there, but it’s really died down,”” said David Gunn, the group’s vice president and a consultant with Intellex Systems Group. “”We still have some consultants that do some PowerBuilder work, but it’s so little compared to what it was five, six years ago.””

A handful of firms are offering software technology to automate the process of converting applications to speed migration to other languages. Techné Knowledge Systems, for instance, recently said it had gone live with a legacy software conversion project at SaskTel using its JConvert/PB software and Migration Methodology. SaskTel had about seven small to medium applications within the group that handles its long-distance toll records, including one that set rates and one called Central Toll Investigation that looks at fraud.

Wayne Petrychyn, a business solutions manager within SaskTel’s Toll group, said the company had attempted a pilot conversion on one application using Sun’s Forte, but the manpower-heavy conversion process didn’t justify further efforts. When Techné approached the company about converting, he decided automation would help him free up the one or two remaining staff who were proficient in PowerBuilder.

“”When I convert anything by hand, there’s certainly going to be quite a lengthy period of challenges and growing pains, because you’re not going to find all the nuances and glitches,”” he said. “”In our case, when this converted process went into production, we had virtually no hiccups, virtually no failures.””

Martin Stanley, president of Techné, said the conversion process depends on the project size and ability of the customer to take part in testing, but can range from six to 18 months. SaskTel’s migration took about nine months and went live in April.

“”Customers in general are very aware of technology and do not want to buy applications that are built in PowerBuilder,”” he said. “”People are very worried about being locked into proprietary systems.””

PowerBuilder is by no means dead, however. In a survey of 3,400 respondents in 2002 by Visual Expert, only five per cent said they weren’t going to use the language anymore. Sybase, meanwhile, has recently reactivated some of its interest and has a survey on its Web site looking for input from users. Next month, PowerBuilder 10 will be released at the firm’s annual user conference, TechWave, and spokesman Andrew Whitman said it still has a loyal following of about 100,000 developers.

“”I’d say it’s as important as any new product development,”” he said. “”There’s no lack of commitment to it.””

Some Canadian users are counting on that commitment. Herb Taylor, a team leader in the IT group at the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, said he hasn’t been tempted by automation solutions so far.

“”As far as conversion effort, we’re not even looking at converting,”” he said. “”I think it’s more the amount of it that’s in the shop. We hardly have any applications that aren’t PowerBuilder. There’s years of development that have been poured into it.””

Corporate enterprises can stick with their previous systems until the cost of doing work-arounds or the risk of potentially disappointing a client gets too high, said Mike Hagerman, CEO of Vancouver-based Make Technologies Inc. Hagerman’s firm offers a technology product called Standards Based Automation that deals with legacy conversion projects.

“”PowerBuilder is an example of a proprietary system that was used in some very specific industries with some very specific applications and for a long period of time, as long as it was resting in the bowels of organization doing a job, it was fine,”” he said. “”Now with the real demand in terms of Web services, the systems were never designed in the past to deal with it.””

Though we think of cell phones as relatively modern technology for example, the carrier billing systems are probably built on COBOL using batch processing on an overnight basis, said Hagerman. As the cell phones become commoditized, providers are offering specialized billing packages and online billing monitoring, which are challenging for COBOL to handle.

Petrychyn admitted there was little urgency behind SaskTel’s move, but the migration was part of a long-term strategy to cut back on niche languages.

“”It just wasn’t a technology that had enough momentum or has enough support behind it,”” he said.

Gunn said other organizations feel they can’t afford to change, and will put off decisions until the last minute. “”There are some clients who have their whole framework (on PowerBuilder) . . . that’s really tough to move.””

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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