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David Gibbs on RPG and IBM i Resources

Charlie Guarino talks with David Gibbs, former IBM Champion and software engineer, about the online resource for IBM i professionals, midrange.com

Charlie Guarino: Hi everybody. This is Charlie Guarino. Welcome to another edition of Tech Talk. I am very happy today to have joining me a real staple in the IBM i community, somebody has been working in IBM midrange for more than 35 years doing RPG and Java programming and is also recipient of the Common DSA, which is better known as the distinguished service award. He is also a former IBM Champion and works currently as a senior software engineer for O'Reilly auto part. How I know this gentleman though is as the founder and administrator of, to me, one of the greatest resource that we have in our community and that's midrange.com, one of the foremost resources for nearly any topic for any person who runs IBM i. So, I'd like to welcome David Gibbs to our podcast. David, it's always a pleasure. Good to see you and good to talk with you. How've you been?
 
David Gibbs: I've been quite well. How have you been?
 
Charlie: I'm okay as well. Thanks for asking. Dave, you know one of the things that I want to share with you is how helpful midrange.com has been to me and or valuable or invaluable. It's such a tremendous free resource and I really think that if people are not using that and it's not one of the biggest tools in their toolbox for information, current information. In fact, on any topic related to IBM i and we'll talk about the different topics in a few minutes, but any topic they're really not taking full advantage of what's available to them out there, so you've done an incredible job in maintaining this list and things like that but let's go back to the beginning. I want to talk to you about what is midrange.com for those who are not even familiar with it. What is midrange.com? How did it start? What inspired you to start it and things like that, so let's start with that? First of all, what is midrange.com?
 
David: Well, midrange.com is, as I like to call it, an online resource for IBM i professionals and we provide a number of services. The foremost being our mailing list, and the mailing list are basically discussion forums that you interact with other IBM i users via e-mail. You can post a question and people will respond or you can read messages and if you know the answer to something—to a problem someone is experiencing, you can chime in and give your experience. We also have searchable archives for all the list messages since 1997 and we also host an IBM i oriented Wiki similar to Wikipedia, but it's solely focused on IBM i.
 
Charlie: You know 1997 bring us back nearly 25 years, Dave. That's a ton of information out there and you talk about the archive as well. We'll talk about that in a bit, but 24 years ago when this first started, there were not nearly as many resources as there might even be today, so this was—you were almost a pioneer in this area, so what inspired you to do—to become a pioneer in this space?
 
David: Well, 25 years is a long time, but I were looking at some things just earlier today in preparation for this discussion and I realize that midrange is actually—at least the concept of midrange—is almost 34 years old. Midrange.com started its life as a BBS. When I was a young programmer working for a Chicago consulting firm, the news 2428 magazine came out with an online service called newslink and initially it was free. I thought it was a great idea and I participated in it and was really enjoying it, but eventually the publishers of the magazine and the operators of the online service decided that they had to start charging a fee. Being a young programmer, I didn't think I could afford that. I did however have a computer, a modem, and a second phone line in my apartment, so I downloaded some BBS software and got it installed and set up and published the numbers for others to see and people started dialing in to participate in the forums. Initially there were three local forums, one for the System/34, one for the System/36, and one for the System/38. Eventually, obviously we added for the AS-400. After-after I-and this all happened in 1980-around 1987. In 1989, I decided to expand my BBS's content by joining the store-and-forward BBS network called FidoNet. For those people who might remember from back in those days, I was node 115/439.
 
Charlie: That's really funny. Who in the world might even know you by those numbers even today?
 
David: Oh, I don't know.
 
Charlie: Right.
 
David: I'm sure there are.
 
Charlie: There's probably a couple of people left who might know that.
 
David: Yeah, I imagine.
 
Charlie: Dave, you have a lot of history with this—with this forum and I know a lot of people who have a lot of history interacting with it as well. So, we talk about these mailing lists, which are now email lists as you say, but I am actually—well I'm on the midrange.com site right now as I'm talking to you, and more specifically I'm on the archives.midrange.com. What's on that site is a list of all of different lists, the mailing lists that are currently available as far as I know or maybe were once available since they're on archive, but I do see Midrange-L. I see RPG400, Java400, COBOL, C400, BPCS, MAPICS, WDSC. Let's talk about that. So, I have to believe that some of these lists that you're talking about are more popular than others. What might be the most popular list and what do you think you know that is attributed to it being the most popular?
 
David: Well Midrange-L is clearly the most popular. It's the flagship list and it basically covers any IBM i topic that isn't covered by one of the other lists so RPG400 or RPG development, that would go in the RPG400 list. Java development would in the Java400 list, you know MAPICS, BPCS, they have their own lists. There's also lists for—I can't even remember anymore.
 
Charlie: Well, I'm looking at it so I can help you out there. I see COBOL, I see Web400—
 
David: Yeah, yes.
 
Charlie: WDSC, Linux, Consult, which I found interesting, Consult400.
 
David: Yeah, so basically Midrange-L is the most popular because that's basically where most discussions will start, and you know unless they're clearly focused on a topic that has its own list.
 
Charlie: So, how does somebody—first of all anybody can look at the archive without even being a member.
 
David: Correct.
 
Charlie: And I know I've even—if you just go to Google for example, it will pick up—if I type in something some of the results in the results that might refer back to the archive site, but if I want to—I mean the real value to me is if I have a current problem—I mean the scenario that I go through if I'm working on a current problem, you know the odds are that I'm not the first person to ever have whatever problem I happen to be working on. So, my first instinct is to go to archive.midrange.com and just search and I will—I'm going to say more than 3/4 of the time find somebody else who posted that same question, but let's say that wasn't the case. If I'm a member I can then post a question and then people will start responding to it sometimes almost immediately, but I don't get it immediately. I start getting emails. It's all done via email, which harkens back to the list concept, so walk me through that. Tell me how that works. If I'm a new user and my very issue is not on there, I want to post a question. How does one do that?
 
David: Well, the first thing you need to do is be subscribed to the list because in order to post, you have to be a subscriber and obviously there's no cost at all to subscribing. It's just a term, but you would go to lists.midrange.com, find the list that is most closely aligned to the top—to your question and you follow the instructions on that site to subscribe. Now after you use the website to subscribe, you'll get an email asking you to confirm your subscription because we use what's called “closed loop authentication” to verify that someone who wants to subscribe actually wants to subscribe because we've had—SPAM is a problem. Once you're subscribed, you can then send a message to the list address and like, for instance, for Midrange-L the list address is Midrange-L@lists.midrange.com. You'll send that message, and it will essentially get distributed to all the list subscribers almost immediately. Then people who are reading the list if they have information that they can contribute, they will reply to that message, and it will get sent back a list, which will then get distributed to everyone else in the list including you. One thing I do need to—I want to make sure that people are aware of because spammers are so nefarious, quite often they will try and subscribe to the list, post SPAM and then unsubscribe so I have—I hold everybody's first message for moderator approval and when the moderator has reviewed the message and decided that it belongs in that list, they'll release the message and clear the moderation flag, so that future posts will not be delayed for moderator approval.
 
Charlie: You know one of the real values to me, Dave, as I said earlier, is in fact the archive. There is a such a rich history of questions and answers in there and if I post a question today, I will get all the emails back via email, but the archives are a wonderful aggregator, and it simply will show the one post that somebody put and then all the replies immediately following that. So, I can very quickly read an entire thread without getting bombarded by lots of emails because I have seen when I've posted a question to let's say the more popular one RPG for example, I will start getting a very high amount of email sent to my email list—or my email inbox, I should say, which you know you may or may not want to do. I also know that you have some settings available where you can control how many emails you get back every day. You can summarize then. Talk about that for a minute.
 
David: Sure. Well, there are two ways to subscribe. One is just in regular mode where you get you get an email for every message that's posted to the list. There's also a digest mode and what that does is the list software will accumulate message up to 40K and once it gets 40K or more message content, it will then send all those messages to all the subscribers who have digest mode activated.
 
Charlie: And depending on the question, that can be pretty quick also.
 
David: Well yeah, it could be. It depends on the question, but it does limit the amount of messages that you get in your inbox. I know that there are a number of people who use that, and it works quite well. Some people I know also set up separate email accounts specifically for midrange messages, so that they can keep things nice and organized and they don't have to get stink eye from their mail administrator.
 
Charlie: We were talking about joining before and let's say for someone who listens to this podcast wants to join today, what might they be able to expect as a response from midrange.com to—how soon could they start posting their own questions and what's the process? What the authorization process? How does that work and how quickly once I want to subscribe can I actually join the crowd?
 
David: Well as I said just a little while ago. You go to lists.midrange.com, you find the list you want to subscribe too. You can subscribe. You confirm your subscription and then you can post a message by sending to the list address; once that message is approved, you can expect responses within minutes and depending on—I'm not the only list moderator, but I do moderate most of the lists. Depending on if the moderate—the list moderator is paying attention to their email, you could get your post approved within minutes of it being sent.
 
Charlie: You know there is a real message here that I want people to know because I've seen this myself. Even if you are a developer, if you are the single—the only technical person, that single developer. If you're the only technical person at your company, you're not alone because by joining this community you are now have surrounded yourself by some of the best people in this business. If you go through some of these lists, they literally read like a who's who in the industry, some of the most popular experts that I know in this entire industry, they all participate in this so even if you're—you are never alone and that's really yet another example of how great this entire community is, but they're there online so don't ever feel like you're out on your own. You can join this wonderful community and have access to some of the best minds and more importantly immediate access. That's really the thing, so if you have a burning issue, if you're not on the list, join a list and I promise you you will start getting responses. Dave, how many people do you have? Any idea how many people—I know we spoke about that at one point. How many people? Do you have any idea how many people are subscribed right now as active members?
 
David: I don't know a complete total, but I can give you some of the totals for a couple of the lists. The Midrange-L has 1385. RPG400-L has 1267 and Java400 has 505 list subscribers.
 
Charlie: But there are so many other lists out there, so I'm going to be going back to that site so I can see it. So, one thing that I think people might get discouraged about is when they see the names of these lists. It's RPG400. I see 400 is such a prevalent term across the entire span of lists here and I guess my message or maybe your message is don't be discouraged by that because the content—while the list name itself might be old, surely the content on there is not old. It's very, very relevant. We talked about this once before. It's a bit of a process for you to change the name but talk about that. Tell us why some of these names might be as old as they appear to be.
 
David: Well, you know the main reason is recognition. People know RPG400-L and you know it is a bit of a pain to rename a list. At this point in time, I'm hesitant to do that because you know it would—I think it would just cause confusion that is not necessarily needed.
 
Charlie: I know a perfect example. I see W-D-S-C. That's obviously RDI—
 
David: Right.
 
Charlie: And I can tell you I know some of the most prominent people in the RDI space, tell me that you know this is a resource for them to see what questions are being asked by you know from the community and how people are answering those questions as well. That's true for any list. I know some people at IBM use this as a resource to see what's going out there, but I have to say it again. I mean sure being able to post questions today is really important, but the archive to me is such a treasure trove. I mean, think about 25 years of information out there and maybe some of these mentioned may not be as current or as relevant, but I'll tell you. You know if you're on an old release and there are people who are still on older releases. Having access to that information is still very relevant today.
 
David: Yup, yup. That's why I keep everything around.
 
Charlie: So, just tell us about some of the architecture. Because I know you mentioned earlier that you when you first started this whole thing it was running quite literally in your basement if I remember correctly. It was running in your basement on a couple of servers.
 
David: Yeah. Originally midrange was running on a couple of servers that were in my basement. A couple of years ago though, I had been getting out of the hardware area and was not really up on hardware stuff, so I decided that the risk of hardware failure was becoming too great especially since some of the machines were pretty old. So, I decided to move the mailing list servers to the Cloud. I'm running them on a couple of Amazon Lightsail instances as part of the EC2 or—I'm sorry the Amazon web services offerings, so they're basically running 24/7 on the Amazon infrastructure. I was able to get rid of all the hardware and lower my internet bill and also my electric bill. Now there is one component of midrange.com that is not running on the Amazon Lightsail service and that is the main website. That is running on an AS/400. I think it's an AS/400. Larry Bolhuis could correct me and give the correct model, but it's running one of the Frankie’s and Larry Bolhuis is hosting that for me. So, we do have a component of midrange running on i series.
 
Charlie: And I know Larry has quite a collection also of that running hardware so it—who knows what it's running on, but I know he's got quite a collection as well of different—
 
David: I think it's Frankie 3. I'm not 100% sure.
 
Charlie: Could be. Yeah, it's very possible. So, I see here midrange. I see RPG, Java, Web, things like that, but what is the criteria that might be used to create a brand-new list. You know at what point does the community request it or is that something that you just have a gut feeling for? How does that process work?
 
David: Well, if a topic goes on for an extended period of time and you know it possibly is related to some new technology or new offering from IBM, I will create a new list. So, long as I can find someone who will moderate it or it's something that I would—I'm willing to moderate myself. The last new list I created was the open-source list because open-source is becoming so prevalent in the IBM i community. I felt it needed a dedicated list and I'll keep the lists running. So, long as there's traffic to warrant it—so if traffic on a list is kind of nonexistent for more than a year, then I'll probably discuss with the list moderator you know, whether it's justified to keep it running or not.
 
Charlie: And there are some lists out there that are no more?
 
David: Yes like there's was a system/21 list that was shut down. There was a Security400 list that was shut down just because of lack of traffic. I've only had to completely terminate and eliminate one list because it became too much of a free for all and that was the CPF0000 list, which you will not find on the archives because that was creating­—it was supposed to be a catchall, more of a social list and it became a little bit cantankerous.
 
Charlie: This is really good. I guess my only other thing to point out here, Dave, is that it's a wonderful resource and I just have to say, I know so many people I mean literally dozens. It's hundreds. I mean it's got to be hundreds of people that I meet every year when I'm out traveling. This is—you know this is by and large one of the biggest go-to resources out there as I said earlier, so I really encourage anybody if you're not using this, if you're not even aware of it to take advantage of it because it's such a tremendous resource. So, I want to just thank you for the time. I recognize its a—you know it's a labor of love certainly and I know you probably have your heart-heart and soul into this thing, but it comes through every single day so thank you from—thank you from us. How does that sound? 
 
David: Well, I love running it and you know my greatest joy actually comes from when someone will bring up a question and there will be a good conversation going on. Toward the end of the day, they'll post a message saying problem solved. That just makes it all worthwhile.
 
Charlie: Absolutely. Yeah and, so we're not alone. We're not alone and that's just—you know you're just another shining example of how great this community is, you know, to be in it and to be part of it so thank you—thank you very much, Dave. And also, thank you Dave for joining me as today's podcast. I really appreciate your time. As always good seeing you. I hope to be seeing you in person at some point. Will see.
 
David: Hopefully.
 
Charlie: Sometime either in Chicagoland or somewhere else in the country. We never know do we?
 
David: Nope, we never know, but probably Chicago. You travel more than I do.
 
Charlie: Well, that's probably true, but anyway this is—I want to thank you very much, Dave. As I said midrange.com is where you want to start and also look at archives.midrange.com, two wonderful resources and thank you, Dave. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is Charlie Guarino and thank you for joining us on another edition of SMB Tech Talk on TechChannel and do make sure that you check out the other great content on their site TechChannel. There's so many wonderful resources out there and it's really worth your time and your while to check those out. Until next month everybody, have a great month and I'll see you soon or I'll speak to you soon. Bye now.
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