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With RPG Nearly Excised, Infor Ponders ERP’s Future

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Would a multi-tenant cloud version of Infor XA fly? That’s one of the questions that Infor’s senior product manager Ross Freeman is pondering as the company gets closer to completing the Java rewrite the ERP system written in RPG by IBM so many years ago.

The clock is ticking on RPG, not just for Infor XA (formerly MAPICS), but for all of the company’s IBM i-based ERP systems. Infor XA is just further along the process of being re-written in Java using the Infor Development Framework (IDF).

“The version [of Infor XA] coming out this year or the middle of next year is version 9.3 and that is still going to have RPG in it,” Freeman, who also holds the title of Strategy Leader for IBMi Solutions, tells IT Jungle. “It will still essentially have a complete Java and complete RPG version. So the customers will have an opportunity to make the final transition. As you can imagine, the UI is very, very different. The biggest problem our customers have is getting old green-screeners to move, as you can imagine.

“So we’ve been very careful to make it as easy as possible [for customers] to make that transition on their own schedule,” he continues. “Then we’ll move to the release 10 version, at which point we’ll drop the RPG code base. There will be minor exceptions, but for practical purposes, RPG will be gone in release 10.”

The Java version is about 95 percent complete at this point, Freeman says. “We just delivered the last big piece, which was the financials in the new version. . . . But we have some things to clean up.  Through the balance of this year, Infor’s funded us to put on a surge to wrap up the Java development, which then would allow us to discontinue the RPG code base for the next release.”

Moving entirely off RPG represents a major architectural shift for Infor, to be sure, but it’s one that’s been in the cards for a long time. Infor telegraphed its intention to rewrite the ERP systems using “open standards” with IDF back in 2007. But parts of Infor XA were written in Java back when the product and the company were both called MAPICS. The database has never run on any server not called an AS/400, iSeries, System i, or IBM i-based Power Systems server. But other parts of the ERP system have run on other operating systems—in fact, MAPICS recommended it before IBM cleaned up the Java runtime in i5/OS so many years ago.

Once the RPG is completely eliminated, it will free Infor to pursue the creation of a multi-tenant version of XA that could be hosted on a public cloud, just like the big software as a service (SaaS) providers like NetSuite and Salesforce.com do, and just like Infor does with Infor LN and Syteline offerings running on AWS.

At that point, the big question for Freeman and the other leaders of the New York City-based ERP giant will cease to be if a multi-tenant, cloud version of XA is possible, but whether such an undertaking would be profitable.

“We know how we can do it. It’s just not on the roadmap yet,” Freeman says. “We’re not really seeing the demand yet, so we don’t think it’s necessarily a priority. But if we need to do it at release 10, we can. . . . It’s not incredibly difficult because of the new architecture. It’s quite easy to go there.”

If Infor decides to go there with XA, it would be primarily to chase the small and midsized business (SMB) side of the market. Bigger companies are still predisposed to run their ERP systems on an in-house server, Freeman says.

Infor’s larger IBM i customers, in general, don’t like multi-tenancy “because it limits the things you can integrate to and how you integrate to them,” Freeman says. “They tend to have a lot of external systems on the same server, so they’re not as inclined to go to multi-tenancy anyways. Also the price we can offer for our large customers is quite attractive, so they don’t really need multi-tenancy. Multi-tenancy has a huge advantage at the lower end.”

For now, Infor is content to chase multi-tenant cloud business with its Syteline and Infor LN solutions. If an IBM i customer wants to go to the cloud, Infor will bring in managed service provider (MSP) partners like HCL, Tata, and Abacus Solutions, which all have single-tenant IBM i environments where they can run XA, LX, System21, M3, or presumably any other IBM i-based system (although good luck getting Infor to do much besides providing the most basic of support for older PRMS, PRISM, KBM, BRAIN, or other IBM i-based ERP system in its large vocabulary).

Java is clearly the future of Infor’s “Big 3” ERP systems for IBM i–XA, LX, and System21 (Intentia completed the rewrite of M3 from RPG to Java before Lawson Software acquired it so many years ago). But once all the RPG from those ERP systems is gone, does that mean Infor will support them on X86 servers or, gasp, the AWS cloud?

Don’t bet on it, according to Freeman. “The database is DB2 and there’s some server-side stuff that does require i. You cannot port off the i, nor do we have any intention of doing that. But most of it can run on other servers, if you so choose. Typically, we recommend everybody to stay strictly on the i, unless they have a good reason for something else. But if they want to run Linux or Windows or whatever, have a nice life, they can do it.”

Even with new Java bones and new user interfaces, XA, LX, and System21 will retain the distinctions that made them so popular for the industry niches they carved out for themselves. And they will remain IBM i products for the foreseeable future.

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