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Powerbuilder – what tier left?

First it was 2-tier

Client/Server (2-tier) technology was the leading application development methodology in the early 1990s. This was in total contrast to the centralized development methodologies applied to mainframe architecture before. Now, suddenly, you can have localized programs that can be made to cooperate, to get major business functions done. Companies were feverishly working on replacing their old (mainframe) green screens with shiny new Windows programs. People who wrote spaghetti code in COBOL before suddenly found this new thing called IDE where you design GUI and write a few lines of code, bam! a database application was done. I worked on a couple of pilot projects in PowerBuilder where I brought along mainframe programmers and users into the shiny new Windows (Windows 3.1!!) machines!

PowerBuilder started in the early 1990’s and showed a lot of promise. It gave run for the money to other similar tools – Gupta SQL, Oracle CDE, Visual Basic etc. Visual Basic (through 6.0) was a good competitor, but their domains were different. PowerBuilder beat VB as the tool of choice for Business (database) application development. It was all great.

Then came trouble in those 2-tiers

Sybase bought Powersoft in 1994! I heard that Powersoft wanted to sell themselves to Sybase to protect another corporate giant, Oracle, gobbling them. Trouble already started for PowerBuilder, as Sybase, a database company, seemed least interested in developing the cash cow any further than that.

Trouble was also brewing for Client/Server technologies in general. As the client/server programs started growing in size, suddenly we ran into performance issues. Flashy Windows suddenly didn’t matter, if they took 5 minutes to load. People looked at ways to split the program logic into multiple parts and try to improve the performance by running these parts on different machines. I myself worked on a project where I refactored a PowerBuilder client/server application, so users in Hong Kong didn’t have to connect to our databases all the time. I used a store-forward technique for this. Data was transferred across behind the scenes using C programs on Unix (what they call ETL programs now).

Later, I found out that part of the blame was the same companies that tried to move out of mainframes. They kept one foot in the door. The global shipping company where I worked, they kept the network still geared up 60% of the traffic on the SNA network (mainframe) and the rest for all the things you do – email, your PB applications, Oracle database etc. It was bound to fail!

PowerBuilder meets n-tier world

In the later part of the 1990s, since the advent of internet technology as a viable public medium, the dynamic web became a necessity. This was mainly achieved with Perl CGI back then. Several other programming environments added access from/to the web from every programming environment. PowerBuilder was no exception. As of PB 5.0, there was “Distributed PB” which was not unlike CGI – running and accessing PowerBuilder application on a remote node through sockets. PB provided a new Transport object that helped with the connectivity, but data exchanges needed to be handled by the programs.

Then came Java J2EE that changed* the way the server side programming was done. CGI had a lot of overhead in having to invoke a runtime environment (VM) each time the program was invoked. What if there was a server that provided this environment all the time and lets you access those programs running inside this server. A Java J2EE server is much more than that. It bundled several software components including an application server, transaction monitor/processor, security module etc.

EAServer** (or more popularly referred to as Jaguar) was Sybase’s answer to bringing Powerbuilder to middle tier and n-tier architecture. It was actually an application server (and others) built over a J2EE Java server. EAServer is actually many containers in one. It’s a J2EE server, a COM server (to be able to run Windows components) and PowerBuilder Application Server rolled into one. It incorporates a C++ application Server, a Java Container (Actually, it includes full-blown J2EE server; EAS 5.5 supports JDK 1.2 – 1.5), a basic Apache Web Server (so you can run HTML based pweb pages inside EAServer), a Servlet Container (version of Tomcat in versions through 5.5 and Jetty Container in Ver 6.x). It also includes a Transaction Processing (TP) Monitor, a Database interface. Components running in EA Server can be accessed through CORBA IIOP or Microsoft Active-X/COM interfaces. It was all cutting edge, but alas! only briefly!

So, one could actually develop multi-lingual (PB, Java, VB, C/C++ etc) applications talking to each other through EAServer. The only criterion was that they had to be CORBA or “COM” compliant. You can thus run a .Net (C#, VB.Net) components inside EAServer, as long as they are COM-compliant. Imagine that: a server that can connect PB, Java and .Net components.

Sybase EAServer seemed to deliver till ver 5.5. If they left it at that, things would have at least continued status quo. Briefly, before Sybase started leaning towards Microsoft .Net, Sybase was seemingly heading towards the Java world. So, they came up with ver. 6.3 which is essentially a full blown Java EE server. What happened to Server side PowerBuilder? Well, PB was still supported, but now, PB objects were wrapped up and presented as J2EE objects. This caused the PB objects to be suddenly slow (almost twice) and complex.

The idea was good as this technique led to Sybase creating another product called Application Server plugin, which is essentially Java wrapped PB objects that can then be run in any Java containers. Great idea, right? Even before it was adapted, Sybase killed it. Why they didn’t go fully that route, beats me. Sometimes, companies killed products by ignoring it, and sometimes by paying too much attention to it! Either way, we developers pay for it.

Appeon, a company involved with PowerBuilder for over a decade, has been recently asked by SAP to maintain PB code base. They have vowed to revive PowerBuilder, but more as a .Net tool. Appeon being a young company and having a vested interest in PB, may be able to give PB a new life. Hopefully, SAP doesn’t interfere or another company doesn’t buy out PB product to kill it!

Unfortunately, EA server does not share the same fate as PowerBuilder. It has been end of life’d by Sybase (and now SAP) and is no longer supported. With that Powerbuilder is back to the 2-tier product that it used to be. In the times of several open source technologies for the web and mobile, who is going to pay any attention to it? I hope Appeon does something quick!

History repeats (at least for me)

This is the second time I see a good product goes away, for no fault of its own, leaving the customers in a limbo. In the early 2000’s we were trying to migrate out of a great product called Forte into something else? Not everyone could move to Java. Sun made so much money in providing extended support for Forte for the next decade. Now, you can still find information on Forte. History repeats again. Now, in 2016, my client is looking to migrate out of PowerBuilder/EAServer platform to Java or .Net platform.

Forte was such a great n-tier development IDE and was ahead of its time in the 90’s. But its life was short-lived. I remember, when I went for a training class in Forte (in Oakland,CA) the instructor announced “Welcome to Forte. er.. Welcome to Sun”. That was in 1999. Sun bought that to kill the product, as Forte was a precursor to Java J2EE and a direct threat to Java J2EE. Though Java EE was powerful, it wouldn’t stand a chance against Forte in terms of simplicity. I would take Forte any day over Java, .Net or PB.

Sun systematically replaced the information on Forte on the web with their own half-baked product called Forte for Java (I believe this was the precursor to their Netbeans, but don’t quote me on this). It was an insult to any decent programmer. They seemed to have succeeded, but Sun itself was bought over by Oracle who is a database company. History seems to repeat itself. Will Java face the same fate as PB suffered in the hands of another database company, Sybase, is something for us to see!

It’s a shame. It seems corporate America decides not only what toothpaste you use or what it is going to be called, but also what software tool/language is good for you. They ripped up all the railroad tracks in the past, so airplane and automobile industry can thrive. Now, in the 21st century, several cities are scrambling to pull out those tracks to run their light trains and subways! Within 50+ years of inception, the computer software industry is in the same situation. Thank God for open source!!

* Actually Micoroft’s server side scripting, ASP was a precursor to Java’s J2EE technology.
* It’s probably more appropriate to write it as EA Server for Enterprise Application Server.  I write it as a one word to avoid getting hits to EA.com, a gaming site or servers in general.
** For the same reason I write the Sybase GUI based IDE as one word, PowerBuilder. My uppercasing of the words is just a personal preference.

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