A stumbling block for businesses trying to modernize legacy computer applications is the sheer volume of program files. An IT organization may own thousands of code libraries, each with thousands of programs. Often, the whereabouts of the original developers of old applications are unknown.
I have found this to be especially true for legacy end-user 4GL reporting tools such as FOCUS.
A computer language developed by Information Builders
in the mid-1970s, FOCUS became the industry standard as a multi-platform report writer for business end-user communities. With FOCUS, rather than ask the busy IT organization to develop reports, users could build their own.
But instead of being just a report writer, FOCUS was in reality a full application development environment, originally designed to replace COBOL. Many enterprising users took advantage of robust features such as online screens, database maintenance, and batch processing to build very sophisticated systems.
A decade or two later, many IT shops now struggle to grasp what their FOCUS users developed. Trying to assess the purpose, functionality, usage and complexity of these legacy applications by manually looking at each program is near impossible.
To assist with this type of time-consuming detective work, Partner Intelligence developed text analytics software called the “BI Consolidator.” Written in C/C++ with a web browser graphical user interface, the application has two mainfeatures: 1) automated textual discovery; and 2) automated translation into a new BI product.
For now let us consider only the automated textual discovery feature that called the”scanner.”
Computer programs are not completely unstructured like an e-mail message or the prose found inside a Word document. Instead, almost all computer programs follow a particular formal syntax which forces them to be at least semi-structured text. This simplifies textual analytics since we know what to expect (for the most part, anyway, as there can be user syntax errors and a fair share of junk).
Our textual analytic scanner is smart enough to figure out the code dialect, but we provide it with some starting instructions. For example, we can tell the application to perform a very specific scan such as looking for FOCUS-to-Web FOCUS conversion issues, FOCUS metadata to find data formats, SAS statistical features, JCL batch job features, HTML legacy CGI calls, Crystal Reports features, or to parse SQL commands.
When in a curious mood, we can perform custom ad-hoc textual searches.
While the results pulled from the text can be just displayed on a screen, it is more useful to save these to a database and later analyze the answer set.
Online GUI and Batch Text Scanning
We started with a GUI front-end, but when working with a large number of libraries it quickly becomes tedious to repeatedly point, click and run. As a result, we modified the Scan program to be alternatively run using a batch script from the command line.
Not only is it easier to use, the scanner runs much faster since we eliminate generating HTML for displaying results within the browser. On our current engagement, we scan close over 200 mainframe libraries containing over 80,000 programs within 15 minutes.
For many of the scans, the software performs keyword frequency counts. For example, to evaluate conversion issues related to green-screen application development, the scanner searches the text for a variety of FOCUS keywords whose either presence or absence would be significant:
- -WINDOW, -CRTFORM,-PROMPT, -FULLSCR
- CRTFORM, FIDEL, FI3270 (used within MODIFY)
- PFKEY, SET PF
To help with the accuracy of the scanning, we can apply a variety of criteria on searches suchas:
- Perform case-sensitive search (or uppercase all text first)
- Perform stand-alone search (or allow the token to be embedded within a string)
- Ignore blanks between search tokens (since developers often format code using spaces between words)
With the results ofthe keyword searches, we can group specific ones together help identify a pattern of usage within the application. For example:
- Reporting App = high number of TABLE (report) requests but few MODIFYs (database updates)
- Online Reporting App =Reporting App with high number of -CRTFORMs (menu screens) or -PROMPTs
- Online Maintenance App= MODIFYs, CRTFORMs (transactional screens), and PFKEY usage
- Batch Maintenance App= MODIFYs with FIXFORM/FREEFORM (transactions) instead of screens
- Multi-Step Batch Job =JCL with various FOCUS and non-FOCUS steps (perhaps a difficult platform port)
For some textual analytics, we actually need to parse the semi-structured code and pull out more than just keywords. For example, we often find SQL (structured query language) embedded within reporting applications. Being structured, SQL follows a strict syntax of blocks of code in a specific order of: SELECT; FROM; WHERE; GROUP BY;HAVING; ORDER BY.
This makes it possible to parse the syntax and extract what databases, tables, and columns that are being used in the application. We can also distinguish between the columns showed on the report versus those being used in the selection criteria or for sorting and aggregation.
Standard Content Analysis
With these textual contents extracted and stored inside a database, we can then perform standard reporting as well as custom queries. For example, one well-known client used the scan results to perform a redundancy of their Business Objects environment to evaluate it being replaced with a new web-based solution.
The business sponsor was completely against a one-to-one conversion of these legacy reports. Instead, from the scanned contents of thousands of reports and SQL files, the client was able to identify commonalities and reporting redundancies which enabled them to categorize their BI needs into a dozen buckets. From there, they built a roadmap for replacing their legacy reporting environment with a collection of highly dynamic reporting solutions.
In addition to analytics, we have standard reports that help with the operational aspect of a modernization initiative such as parallel test plans.
Building a Textual Analytics Engine
When companies need to modernize an application, they often view it as a one-time activity. With this mindset, they might not invest the time and money to build this type of textual analytics scanner and translator. Because we work with a variety of clients with this common need, it made sense for Partner Intelligence to create such a textual scanning tool as the BI Consolidator.
If you are interested in learning more, I would be happy to discuss the details of our software with you. Contact me at my DLautzenheiser at PartnerPS dot com address.