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Announcing Merlin: The Wizard of All Wizards in the IBM i Ecosystem

Merlin is poised to bring IBM i application development into the modern, cloud-centric world. Get the details on the latest announcement in this TechTalk podcast with Tim Rowe and Charlie Guarino.

Charlie Guarino: Hi everybody. This is Charlie Guarino. Welcome to another edition of TechTalk SMB. I am very happy today to have a very special guest from IBM, Tim Rowe. Tim Rowe is the business architect for application development and systems management for IBM i. He has been a part of IBM i platform for over 30 years working many aspects of the operating system. In addition to the architecture responsibilities, Tim also spends a good deal of his time helping clients understand modernization on IBM i. Tim, first of all, welcome to our little podcast here.
 
Tim Rowe: Charlie, great to be here. Real pleasure. Thanks for having me.
 
Charlie: Oh it’s always great to talk to you, Tim. You know I got to tell you Tim, this title—every time I read it gets a little bit longer and longer, I think. How about we just reduce that to something other?

Tim: Actually I have been reducing it. On a lot of my presentations, I’ll just [use] the business architect and stuff. Because not only do I own application development and system management, there’s a few other things that got tossed at me that nobody else wants to own, so it seems appropriate.
 
Charlie: You know what I like about that title, Tim?  I think it’s so succinct. I think it really clearly defines exactly what you do at IBM, so thanks.
 
Tim: Exactly.
 
Charlie: So Tim, this to me is a very special podcast, a very special time in our world of IBM i, because we’re talking about new product, which we don’t get to do very often when you and I speak—
 
Tim: This is true.
 
Charlie: And this has really piqued my interest and it’s very exciting technology so I’ll go out and say the name. I’ll say the name of the product and then we can talk about it. So how does that sound?

Tim: Works for me.
 
Charlie: Great. So the product I’m talking about—as you finally heard from the announcement—is called Merlin. Let’s start with some basics. Merlin is an acronym but—
 
Tim: It is.
 
Charlie: What does Merlin stand for? What does the acronym actually stand for?

Tim: Well we actually you know, we wanted to get Merlin as the name because this new product is really intended to kind of be, if you will, the wizard of all wizards and provide a set of wizards to help you with your IBM i and the ecosystem. But you know naming place being what they are, we couldn’t quite get away with straight Merlin, so we came up with the Modernization Engine for Lifecycle Integration, and if you pull out just the right letters in just the right locations, ahh. You get Merlin.
 
Charlie: Okay. Well that’s a great name and you know what comes to my mind when I think of Merlin is a wizard. That’s what comes to mind—
 
Tim: Exactly.
 
Charlie: So why are we calling this a wizard?

Tim: So Merlin is intended to be an infrastructure that allows people to step into the modern world, the new—you know with both their application development, their system management, and their security. Now projects being what they are, we maybe couldn’t deliver the entire vision of what we’re thinking at Day 1, but we’re looking to provide for Day 1 a way for customers to work with their applications in a new and modern way from a cloud-centric viewpoint. Doesn’t mean that you have to be totally cloud-centric, but there are certain aspects of the cloud-centric viewpoint that come to mind and we want to be able to make IBM i relatable to that environment.
 
Charlie: So I have to ask, Tim: I know cloud is a very strategic platform, something that’s very important to so many IBM customers, but why now? Why was this moment in time chosen to introduce a product such as Merlin?

Tim: It’s a great question and there’s a number of different reasons that come to mind. So one of the first things, Charlie, when you talk to people in general and you talk about the word cloud, there’s one particular cloud that almost immediately always comes to mind: Containers.
 
Charlie: Containers, of course.
 
Tim: Right? Now IBM i doesn’t run in a container today. Will it someday in the future? Who knows? Let’s worry about the future later on, but today IBM i does not play in a container. But when you start working with the world of cloud, there comes a point where how do you get your IBM i applications to work in a truly hybrid manner? That’s whether it’s on cloud, on-prem, with other applications that are containerized or not. We wanted to be able to have something that made sense where IBM i gets to interact with this cloud-native, containerized ecosystem in a natural way—and I mean hey, IBM just bought Red Hat not that long ago, right? So there’s another aspect of the world of containers and the cloud becomes even you know, more interesting, and so how does IBM i fit well into that ecosystem?
 
Charlie: Right. This will definitely get us into the foray of containers, this whole technology.
 
Tim: Yeah, so let’s just be clear: Merlin is not going to allow IBM i to run in a container. That’s not what Merlin is going to do, but what Merlin is going to do, it’s going to create container-based applications, container-based interfaces and infrastructure that looks to interact with your IBM i. So one of the big things that we’re delivering as part of this version is a whole bunch of application modernization tooling. That's probably the best way to talk about it—or shall I say application development tooling—in a modern way. That’s probably the better way of saying it because we’re not providing application modernization tooling. We’re providing an application development interface that’s modern.
 
Charlie: And to be clear Tim, we’re saying that our IBM i system itself might be running in the cloud, but it might also be locally on-prem.
 
Tim: Truly the epitome of hybrid. That is kind of what we’re targeting here. Now if you’ve already moved all of your IBM i into a cloud environment, one may ask the question, okay, all of my production is in the cloud. If I want to develop my applications, what are the tools that are available today, right? RDi.
 
Charlie: Right.
 
Tim: You know that one. You know that one really well, right Charlie?

Charlie: Oh sure.
 
Tim: It’s one of your favorites, so can you still use RDi? Absolutely but what we’ve done in Merlin is we’ve created a cloud-based IDE for starters that allows you to run an OpenShift container that has your workspace in the cloud. You access this IDE through a browser, so you don’t have to have a PC.
 
Charlie: If I have access to the internet, I can bring up my favorite browser and I’m off to the races.
 
Tim: Correct. You can work with your RPG code, COBOL code. Now you still need to have an IBM i somewhere to compile, but your actual development environment is all going to be out in this code-ready workspace running in an OpenShift container, and this OpenShift container can be either in IBM cloud or you can have it in your own on-prem OpenShift cloud, if you will. So it can be your own hardware.
 
Charlie: So, Tim—
 
Tim: Bottom line. Yeah, go ahead.
 
Charlie: You did say RDi and you know that’s obviously a big editor of choice, a big modern editor of choice, but you don’t necessarily need to use RDi. You can—if your shop is using RDi, and that’s still a very completely powerful, viable tool to be using in this context—but out of the box there is another editor that I can use instead or maybe in tandem with this or maybe—
 
Tim: You can work together with them, absolutely.
 
Charlie: And have my developers mix and match if they like.
 
Tim: Yeah, so there’s a couple of shall we say fundamental or strategic differences between the approaches. With Merlin, we have a significant change in development practice and what do I mean by that? You know for developers that have been developing RDi for a hundred years, they may have been doing things in QSYS and they have been doing things with a specific set of source control vendor that’s very customized to IBM i, and they have may have some very if you will, IBM i-centric stuff that they’ve written to go through the process of code QA development.  It’s worked well for a long time. We know that but the world is changing and if we think about this changing world, we’ve needed to change and rethink how we maybe do things from a fundamental perspective. If we think about development in this new world that we live in today, what is the primary source control management tool of the new world?

Charlie: Git.
 
Tim: Yes Charlie, thank you. Exactly. Git is it, so why not make our IBM i development Git-centric, and so that’s one of the starting points with Merlin. We actually have some tooling that will help you take your QSYS world, move it into IFS and Git. Now we have partnered with ARCAD to help with that, which then also means that you have the ability to convert all of your fix form RPG to free form. We are trying to help target out the development community to do modern development with modern source control and leveraging what I like to call modern RPG.
 
Charlie: Right. So, in my mind Tim, Merlin is not any one component. It’s really an amalgamation of lots of different useful tools.
 
Tim: Absolutely. It’s the wizard of wizards.
 
Charlie: Wizard of wizards. Okay, I like that term. So we talked about Git. You mentioned Git. You also mentioned ARCAD and also within the ARCAD suite, you mentioned that there’s a transformer product and then something else to do the builds, which is going to help us build.  So why was ARCAD chosen to do this with the build?

Tim: So yeah, that’s a fantastic question Charlie, but if you go back in time, IBM has had source control—shall we call them modern source control or modern build platforms? Modernish?  Rationale Team Concert. It’s been around for quite a few years. It is kind of IBM’s version of a couple different open-source tools packaged into something that you can pay IBM money for. There’s a number of companies that have done that to do really fairly modern development techniques, but RTC or even Urban Code—great frameworks but they don’t actually understand IBM i-centric things. So I have an IBM i application. I might have to create a data area. I might have to update a database table. I might have a service program to create and then I might have a couple of other programs that need to be bound together, right? Those are all very IBM i-centric entities. Well ARCAD created some special plug-ins that plug into things like RTC and Urban Code, and they’ve extended it so that they plug into Jenkins, Jira, and some of these other open-source components. So they already had some ready-made plug-ins that fit well into what we were thinking to help tie together these standardized open-source things with very IBM i-centric entities. So there’s a very logical tie-in there. We’ve had this partnership for a lot of years. It just made sense to extend it into this—
 
Charlie: Right.
 
Tim: And they have some tools that are really I think important in the world of doing modern development.
 
Charlie: When you’re deploying a big project build for example, it is these dependencies that are very critical to a successful implementation?
 
Tim: Absolutely. One of the other tools that we’ve included—so Charlie if you’re going to build a house or you’re going to take your existing house and you’re going to put an addition on it, what’s one of the first things that you have to get before you can do anything to create an addition?
 
Charlie: I want to have a plan.
 
Tim: Yes, a blueprint, right?

Charlie: Blueprint, of course.
 
Tim: Well one of the tools, the plug-ins that ARCAD has that I think is so important is their tool called Observer. It’s an impact analysis tool. It helps you identify the blueprint. What parts all fit together? What database tables are used where, what, and when and giving every developer the information they need. So as they’re developing, they can see the blueprint. That’s huge.
 
Charlie: And this is all included? It’s all—
 
Tim: That’s all part of the Merlin product, yes.
 
Charlie: Okay. So as we said, Merlin is a—there are many major components within the tool itself. Beside Git and ARCAD, what else might be included in the out of the box experience?

Tim: Yeah so I mean one of the pieces of Merlin is what we call the IDE. So we’ve got this code-ready workspace allowing you to connect and do RPG development in your IDE in a browser. It’s focused on Git as the source control management tool. It does have what we like to call smart build as part of it. So you as a developer can choose to compile your program, but maybe that program needs to be compiled as part of an application. An application might be more than one program, right?  So you can use the smart build process—and again ARCAD has got their ARCAD Builder that fits into this particular entity where ARCAD will help pull together all the different pieces to do that smart build. We also support an open-source builder called BOB, Better Object Builder, which is largely Maven-driven. You could use that if you choose. Another piece of Merlin tooling—maybe not necessarily the piece for the developer but the piece for the system administrator, because you start talking about applications and deploying them to production. Who actually does that? Probably not the actual developer. This is that CICD process so we’ve created another wizard within Merlin that allows you to tie into a Jenkins-driven CICD process.
 
Charlie: Right out of the box?

Tim: Yup. So, we’re providing Jenkins and will have that set. Now you can choose to use an existing Jenkins interface and we’ll plug in the pieces as well so you have some options there on how to set up and use this.
 
Charlie: Let’s go back to the build process, Tim. You first mentioned the ARCAD plug-in and then you also mentioned the open-source plug-in BOB. Why would I want to use one over the other? Am I confined to one or can I use one for one, build for another build or—?

Tim: No, you can use them both. You can use them both side by each.
 
Charlie: Okay.
 
Tim: So the difference being BOB, again, it’s an open-source framework. It’s built upon Maven but in order to actually do the builds you actually have to go do some of the heavy lifting. You have to go figure out some of the stuff to put into the script to do the build. The ARCAD plug-in, the way that’s built and designed, they can actually pull some of the pieces because it’s got some knowledge about the application that it’s pulling out and it can do some of that building of those plug-ins for you. So it’s really more of an aspect of you know the automation and the help vs. you having to go do more things yourself. That’s really the difference and the ARCAD build, it’s part of the Merlin product so it comes with it. There’s no additional charge for it and if you don’t use it, that’s okay. You still pay for it.
 
Charlie: You know one term that I’ve heard Steve Will talk about or mentioned as part of this whole new product is next generation app.
 
Tim: Absolutely.
 
Charlie: I know that’s a term you know he loves to use and deservedly so, but what does that mean, next generation? I mean we’ve been programming for, you know, for decades. You know what’s unique to this that makes it the next generation app?

Tim: So if you think about applications, you know this is that modernization story that you and I have talked about for years. It’s really about in many respects hybrid, using the best tool for the job, right? RPG still has a very important role in the future of our applications because there are certain things that RPG can do better than anywhere else. There are other pieces—like say maybe the user interface; RPG doesn’t have a user interface. No, green screen doesn’t count Charlie, so don’t even think of it. So there are other tools that can be used for that to provide this hybrid application. The world of REST APIs—being able to have an RPG application that can leverage a REST API that’s out in the inner web. So you have an RPG application and you send a package. Why can’t you connect that RPG package to the tracking number that’s out with the company? Well you can very easily and there’s oh so many other ways that you can go both directions, where I can have applications that might be running in another language connecting and pulling stuff out of IBM i and RPG with a REST connection. And that whole next gen then steps into if you’re going to be creating your applications ten years from now, who are your developers? Not going to be you or I, Charlie. We’re probably going to be retired by then, right?

Charlie: Well, we’ll see about that.
 
Tim: Exactly. Possibly.
 
Charlie: Quite possibly. Exactly.
 
Tim: So we need to be able to start transitioning our shops and our developers to use the tools of today, which are things like Git, which are browser-based IDEs, and some of these other—you know, leveraging to CICD processing so you can do automated deployments and what not. So in some cases it could be a fairly big change, but I think it’s an exciting and I think it’s an important direction that we need to be taking our IBM i application development shops.
 
Charlie: I absolutely agree and you know anytime you get into a deep discussion on modernization, even beyond that we talk about digital transformation. We talk about services, for example. That’s one of the core technologies at least of where applications are going in the future—
 
Tim: Right.
 
Charlie: Particularly like with Merlin, it’s providing me the pathway to get there much more easily.
 
Tim: That is the goal. To try to provide that pathway, to provide the tools and what not for customers to work in this new world whether they’re on-prem or in the cloud.
 
Charlie: So, let’s talk about some things which the people might expect to have—for example, a debugger. How would I be able to debug my code if I’m using Merlin?

Tim: Great question, Charlie. That is one of the things that didn’t make in the initial GA.
 
Charlie: But it’s coming.
 
Tim: It’s coming. It’s coming soon I hope, but in the meantime right we still have RDi. Many shops have RDi. They could use RDi and debug there. There’s actually a debugger in ACS, Access Client Solutions. There’s a debugger in there, Charlie. Graphical debugger. You can debug your RPG code there.
 
Charlie: Wait a minute.
 
Tim: I’m sure you use it all the time, right Charlie?

Charlie: Wait. Stop right there. I need to ask you a question. There’s a debugger in ACS?

Tim: Yeah, there’s a debugger in ACS.
 
Charlie: This is like the best—
 
Tim: Well yeah, it’s definitely a hidden gem and actually it is pretty well-hidden to be quite honest with you. It’s actually buried in Run SQL Scripts. So if you open up your Run SQL Scripts, there’s a link under there we’ve called Run or something like that. Yeah under Run, you can launch your debugger. The system debugger is under the Run Menu option. Yup. Well-hidden.
 
Charlie: You know it’s a secret no more because Tim, this podcast is being broadcast globally to hundred millions of people so—
 
Tim: There you go. Good.
 
Charlie: The secret is blown. All right well then, that’s good to know. We know it’s coming out soon with the number of O’s to be determined but that’s okay. It will be soon, I hope. Where can I go to learn more about Merlin?

Tim: So as part of the announce material, there will be links that will be part of that. If you go to the IBM i technology refresh page, I typically just go into my favorite friend Google and I type in IBM i space TR. Magically there’s a page there that says Technology Refresh and, on that page, we list all the links for each technology refresh, each new OS release that come out. Merlin will have a link there as well, so it’ll link you off to information.
 
Charlie: Right and of course whatever is available from the announcement that you know we can learn more about it in there too.
 
Tim: Yeah, and there’ll be more that will continue to come on a daily and regular basis as we continue to build out this content. I mean this is a brand new product, so it’s going to be an ever evolving and continuing growing conversation when it comes to modernization.
 
Charlie: Is it fair to ask that it’s also incumbent upon the people who start using Merlin to report back right away to make the product better and better quicker and quicker?

Tim: That goes without saying with anything that we do.
 
Charlie: It’s true. I mean I guess that will be done through the normal RFE community.
 
Tim: Yeah, that’s actually—I believe it’s now called ideas or AHA or something like that—
 
Charlie: Right.
 
Tim: So that’s changed, but same concept, yeah. Request for enhancements.
 
Charlie: Good. Well, I have to tell you, Tim, when I read the announcement information, this is really, really piquing my interest and I’m very excited to learn more about this and to start playing with this. I think anybody who really is serious about getting into a modern direction needs to give this a real good look and understand what we have here and how we can really get going on our path to true modernization and a true environment well beyond just modern code. An entire environment.
 
Tim: Yeah. We’re really excited about Merlin has to offer. It’s some radical changes in thought, but I think they’re important thoughts that our IBM i community needs to be thinking. I mean they need to be leveraging today’s talent in order to be able to be relevant in the future. The goal of Merlin was to help steer the conversation in that direction.
 
Charlie: Yeah. I mean bottom line in my view Tim, this is what developers are demanding for development products. This is what our companies are demanding. We’ll get higher productivity and higher secure you know—
 
Tim: Better quality.
 
Charlie: Better quality code. Everything—anything any adjective I can possibly think about this all fits into this conversation. Better deployment—you know, more secure—better testing.
 
Tim: Yeah. I mean if you think about what Merlin is doing, it’s really targeting the concerns of all different aspects of the company. The CIO, he’s got concerns because he wants to be doing, you know, cloud things. You know, the technology officer. He wants to using the latest technology and ensure that their applications are going to be running with the best quality and be able to react to the needs of the business. And we want the developers to have the tools that they’re comfortable with and can be the most productive and provide them with the best chance to be able to respond to the needs of the business.
 
Charlie: I really encourage everybody to read about this. From I’ve seen so far, this is going to be a real big hit. I feel quite confident in saying that, Tim.
 
Tim: Thanks, Charlie.
 
Charlie: Of course. Are there any final thoughts you want to share with the developer community or anybody else out there who—you know, the C-level for example, or maybe anybody. I think the message is clear.
 
Tim: Well, you know Merlin, this modernization engine for lifecycle integration, just rolls right off the tongue. It’s an exciting new product. It’s going to continue to grow. It’s going to continue I think radically help our companies think about what the future development on our platform looks like. So yeah, hopefully it’s a game changer. We’re excited about it.
 
Charlie: Terrific. You know Tim, after speaking to you for this podcast, it’s very obvious to me why you are officially the business architect of stuff. It’s such a great term. So well deserved, I’m sure.
 
Tim: Oh, thank you.
 
Charlie: Of course. Well that’s a wrap. Everybody thank you very much for listening in to our podcast today. Do check out Merlin. It’s really exciting technology, and be sure to look at other offerings and other things that TechChannel is offering on their website. There’s lots of good content out there. And until then, we will speak next month. Take care everybody. Bye now.
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