Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Slow Demise of 4GLs

On a regular basis, web searchers come to my site looking for advice on how to eliminate legacy 4GL applications.

In the late-1970s, some innovative software vendors came out with "fourth-generation computer languages" with the goal of eliminating COBOL, the standard "3GL" of the day. Needless to say, these companies missed their marks.

Three decades later, COBOL is still alive and kicking. Funny thing is, so are some of the 4GLs.

At the time, it seemed pretty obvious that data processing professionals would love to reduce the complexity of building software applications. The 4GL vendors offered programmers the same capabilities as COBOL but in a more succinct and easy language. But COBOL coders gave the vendors the cold shoulder.

When you have a product nobody wants to buy, you become creative.

"Okay," these 4GL vendors said, "we understand that you want to stick with COBOL. But how about your business users? Users can't handle power tools like you can. Let's give them something safe and easy to use -- just imagine, they could build their own report programs and leave you alone!"

And so, companies all over the world started giving business users 4GL application development tools for DIY reporting purposes. In the 1980s and 1990s, many organizations researched and selected one of the three major 4GLs: RAMIS, FOCUS, and NOMAD.

Today, firms are trying to figure out how to clean up decades of unmanaged end-user 4GL application development. One of my clients estimated that rewriting the hundreds of 4GL libraries used by their business groups might cost over $4 million USD. Another was shocked to discover somebody had used what management considered to be just a reporting tool to develop a mission-critical shop-floor scheduling application.

In my career, I used 4GLs to write many critical applications that were downright difficult to replace. I am willing to bet that 80% of my American readers have seen consumer product goods coupons generated by one of my 4GL applications. Another easy bet is that almost all of the readers have drunk a brand of coffee whose purchasing, quality testing, blending, and inventory processes were managed by 4GL applications.

There are problems with these 4GL applications. First, they were most likely written by somebody who left the company years ago. The code is handed down from one poor soul to another until it becomes unsupportable. If the IT organization turned a blind eye to end-user 4GL development, no standard app dev methodologies were ever followed. To make matters worse, not a single college today teaches 4GL application development to its students.

But the major problem today is that business users still depend upon 4GL output.

If you are in this situation, I can help by providing software that can inventory and scan your 4GL applications, automatically analyze them for functionality, and even convert them to other BI products. A spreadsheet generated by the scanning process will give us the first step in planning a cost-effective 4GL elimination strategy.

If you are interested in learning how I can help you replace your 4GL, contact me at DLau....

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About Me

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I am a project-based software consultant, specializing in automating transitions from legacy reporting applications into modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics using Information Builders' WebFOCUS. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven Best Practice methodologies, software tools, and templates.

I have been blessed to work with innovators from firms such as: Ford, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, where I graduated summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders and for over a dozen years served in regional pre- and post-sales technical leadership roles. Also, for several years I led the US technical services teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the Midwest custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting. My experience with BI products include WebFOCUS (vendor certified expert), R, SAP Business Objects (WebI, Crystal Reports), Tableau, and others.