Rudi Van Helvoirt on COVID-19 and the Future of SQL Programming
By Paul Tuohy / October 4, 2021
Paul Tuohy talks with IBM Champion Rudi Van Helvoirt about the influence of SQL on changing world of the system administrator, tackling SQL performance, IBM i and the benefits of marathons
Rudi Van Helvoirt: I'm fine.
Paul: Did I kill your name? Was I close enough in the pronunciation?
Rudi: I think you did very well because it's very difficult to pronounce. Well, Dutch is difficult for other language speaking people, but name is Van Helvoirt.
Paul: Yeah, you should try Irish. [Laughter] So Rudi, I know nearly anybody in Europe knows who you are, but for those listening outside of Europe, you want to give you the quick introduction as to who you are or who you work for, what you do?
Rudi: Well, my name is Rudi Van Helvoirt. I run my own company, Van Helvoirt Automatisering. I found it in 1993, so it's a while ago. In the beginning, I did some development, so I know how difficult your job is or how easy your job. I don't know on which side you are, but then I had my passion in system management, so I quickly moved to system management, and I've been doing that for the last I think 25 years. Last year, my company was being taken over by a Belgian company, EASI, in Belgium and they are very keen in working with IBM i. They do all things around modernization. They have a very large amount of projects doing modernization. They also run—we are also doing system management, so there was the connection and they tried to spread their wings to the Netherlands and that's the reason why I came into the picture. Well, and for myself. The reason why I did it is mainly because—well, I'm not good in doing commercial stuff. I'm a techy guy. I don't speak in 1's and 0's, but sometimes it's very close to that if you're talking about system management and that's my limitation. I was hoping that, with some more commercial background, we are able to work with customers who have problems with IBM i performance, for example, or managing their systems. That was my idea behind it. Because I think we as a very small company in the Netherlands, we have enough knowledge to help other customers with stuff around IBM i. One of the things we are really, really focusing on is something I've seen that's changed in the market. I think in today's world there is almost no company who doesn't worry, think, and deal with SQL on the IBM i and SQL performance is getting more or less more and more into the picture, I think. So that's what we're really, really focusing on and trying to understand to make SQL performance work for customers because it's—well it's complicated and sometimes—well, I have a son who's also working in IT, and I showed him the things we have in IBM i around performance and stuff and graphs and what's being measured, and he was blown away from his socks.
Rudi: He said “Well, that's part of the operating system.” Okay, so he'd never seen that before so that's my passion. I really—I love what I'm doing.
Paul: Yeah. It's one of the things that everybody forgets. I mean, the big thing that makes database on IBM i so unique is the fact that it is an integrated database. It's part of the OS.
Paul: It's not something that sits on top of it, which is what every other platform has.
Rudi: Yeah, that's what it is and the fact that—well, also the performance data is in the database so you can query around and search for whatever you want to find, if you know where to look for, and then dive deep into what's going on your system. That's makes it—well, like you said, that's unique. Well, as long as we keep saying how unique it is and show it to youngsters like I did with my son, it's like spreading the word because it's so good. I recently spoke to some people when I was in Belgium last week; I spoke to some people and said—they are developers and I said to them “Well, in the end it wouldn't surprise me if IBM i would end up as a database machine because it's so good in managing the database.” What do you think Paul?
Paul: Hmm. Yeah, I would have always said it was always a database machine. To me, that's always what it was. I mean, I may build applications, but I build applications on top of the database. The primary driver to everything is the database.
Rudi: Yes, yes, but also the fact that the software you're developing is no longer running on IBM i itself.
Paul: Yeah. Okay, I'm not going to digress into it. You keep doing this to me Rudi. [Laughter] Getting me to talk. I don't want to talk. I want to hear what you have to say.
Rudi: Let's get back on the wheels again. Okay.
Paul: So actually, I do want to come back on the SQL thing, Rudi, but I'm going to go a little bit of a circular route to this. I do want to come back on this because I think this is a big game changer, but sorry. The first thing, just to lead into this, and it's a thing that anybody who works in your area— sort of this thing of the system administration area and that, especially for a company like yours. The last year and a half, has it been sort of business as usual, but just not as much travel or has it been busier, the same, less?
Rudi: Well, I think in general—the biggest game changer is that going to customers is a no-go area, so there's a lot of Zoom'ing, Team'ing, WebEx'ing and we also have go-to-meeting, which we sometimes use. In general, we are Zoom'ing nearly every day, so that's a game changer, a real changer. On the other hand, we've seen that most customers have seemed to manage keeping their businesses running and the last few—the last six months, I think business is picking up quickly. We, as system managers, well—I always say, if the business goes down, economically goes down and there's not—well, and most customers are not happy, their system still needs to be managed. Yes, as demand goes up, there are more questions about performance, so that's the reason why we have been diving more into SQL performance and we really invested a lot of time into the area and because of COVID, I think we have made real—we were allowed to put more time in SQL performance because customers—well, people were working more remotely and we don't know your applications, Paul. We are systems manager. Yes, we know sometimes what they are running on the system, but if you ask me how they are doing their business, sometimes we have no real idea about what customers are doing, how their system is being connected. I see, in general, that customers are more or less seeing the IBM i database as the spider in their web, so it's the repository where most of the data is and they are trying to get as much value out of the database. They are using more SQL and because of that, I think that COVID has changed that they want to extract more data or more information from out of their data. That has changed, and because of that we get more questions about SQL performance, which allows up to invest more in SQL performance investigation. I think that's what I see as what really changed, so for myself, I learned—well, that's the good thing about the IT business. You learn every day, but I don't see myself as a SQL expert. I learned an awful lot in the last few years due to COVID, but also learning SQL. I don't see myself as a developer, but in SQL, I have developed. [Laughter]
Paul: Okay, now here's the roundabout way. You brought it perfectly to what I wanted to ask you about on this. So obviously over the last few years, one of the big things that IBM has done with SQL on the system, Scott Forstie's team, all of these services that they introduced, which are aimed at that whole OpsAdmin side, so is it a thing that—so has the role of an administrator changed dramatically because of the introduction of all of these SQL tools that you now have available and the way that administrators, the way the system is administered? Is that now different from ten years ago?
Rudi: Oh yes. Oh yes, yes. Well, if I present and show things about DB2 for i services, let me first before I go deeper into that, let me first answer your question. There is not a day that I don't touch SQL. Every day I use SQL.
Rudi: In most cases, I use more SQL than I use 5250 commands as a system admin.
Paul: Okay. That's a change.
Paul: Okay that's—you know, it's a little change, yeah.
Rudi: Yes, a minor change, and yet, I don't have very big SQL skills, but I have a developing background, so I can copy, and I can copy and adjust. That's the way when people—when I give presentations and so I'm coming back to the original one what I wanted to say. When I give a presentation about SQL, I speak to system administrators and they say, “Well, I don't know SQL.” I say, “Hang on a minute. How do you think I learned? You have to make your feet wet. Start with something simple. Extend it. Look at examples.” Well, there's something, which we call the internet. We’ll do research on DB2 for i services, and you're overwhelmed with information, and I think that's what I, nowadays, do when I have to do something at a customer. Well, I had a bunch of CL commands and maybe I did copy and paste. When they were simple, I just typed them in the 5250 emulation. Now, my tool is an SQL script. I have a SQL script. I connect to the system, and I click run all and I'm done. Sometimes that's a HyperPDF we have to load onto the system. I have everything in the script. I don't have to memorize it. I just press the button “Run All” and it's being done for me so that's something—well, that has really changed my life and the good thing about its Paul, I enjoy doing it. Working with 5250 emulation, now when you're doing something which needs to done fast and there's only a few commands, it's fine, but if you—as a system administrator, if you limit yourself to 5250 emulation, well no. That doesn't work in my opinion. I think that those days are gone. It's impossible to do real performance investigation just by using 5250 emulation.
Paul: I do think it's sort of a gap that's been filled. Prior to that, with all these services coming along and, especially Run SQL Scripts, the concept of doing something in a script, as an administrator, your only other choice was to do CL programming—
Rudi: Yes, that's right.
Paul: Write a CL program. I think that's sort of a programming step for a lot of administrators that was maybe a little step too far or too much of a jump to get into it. I do think it's easier to get into— “Oh, I'll have a SQL script that does that.”
Rudi: The thing is, we also have customers who have—well, JD Edwards, SAP, M3 from Infor, they sometimes don't have PDM. Without SAU, a CL program it's a challenge, but with SQL, you can get around it, so that's what we're using and that's what I like about it. Also, Paul, you're talking with a GUI guy. I think that GUIs are also one of the biggest steps forward with IBM i because GUI's make things easy. I've never seen—well, if you have a mobile phone, if it's Android or an Apple, I don't care about—I've never seen someone ask for a manual because it's intuitive and I think that if your GUI is good, it doesn't need a manual because it's intuitive. When I look at a lot of GUIs from IBM, to integrate file system in ACS, Navigate for i, we are getting there. They are improving and improving, and one of the biggest things I use is PDI in Navigator 5. I think that's brilliant to dive into data, look at the graphs, and see where the problems are and I'm also a person who really loves BRMS because it's very good. The funny things about BRMS is that we use the backup to detect changes on the system. We see a lot of customers, they are big, and not always will the customers tell us what they change on the system. I sometimes see customers who introduce a new web server, and they don't tell us, but because we save everything on the system and when something is being locked, it cannot be saved. The way we use BRMS, BRMS will tell us which objects haven't been saved and then we tell the customer, “Well, we see you have a new HTTP server,” and we had occasions when there was a developing team and the people of application management who were not exactly informed. So sometimes we surprise people by telling— “Well use the GUIs,” and sometimes we say, “Oh, I think you have a new application.” Big organizations, you know, that sometimes there are financial packages and sometimes, you know, that things are being done. If you heard a short beep, that's because a MSM message is coming on my MAC. Sorry for that.
Paul: Okay, run your SQL script to fix that Rudi. [Laughter]
Rudi: I will.
Paul: So, tell me, Rudi, this is something I know what your answer is going to be, and I just love your answer to this. So, tell me, Rudi, what is you like best about IBM i?
Rudi: Well, the thing about IBM i, for me, is the people working with IBM i. I really enjoy working with those people. If it's with customers, the people from IBM, the people from the CEAC, I like. You are also part of that. That's what I really like. Well, personally, I like to compare myself with a one instead of a zero, that's me, but I like the people, the people I'm working with I like. That’s part of my job. I also—of course, if you make something and it works and you have to come up with something, which is well and nice and it does what you need to do and solve a problem for a customer, that also gives me great enjoyment, but it's always—when you speak with a customer, and they tell you and you're happy. I think it's always—I think they call it the “Stockholm Syndrome” that, if you're being kidnapped, you want—in a certain amount of time, you love your hijackers.
Rudi: I think that maybe it's an awkward comparison, but [Laughter] IBM i taken me. I love working with—
Paul: That'll be our headline for this: “Rudi kidnapped by IBM i.” [Laughter]
Rudi: When I came up here, I said, “Well should I say this?”. I said it, but that's the way it feels. I also see the same with people working with IBM i, it more or less Stockholm Syndrome. People who work for a while with IBM i, even youngsters who start working with IBM i become the biggest advocates of the system because it's brilliant.
Paul: Yeah, it is. It's the community. I mean, I must say, that for myself, over the last year and a half, that's what I've missed the most.
Paul: Is that thing of actually, you know, meeting people and just the—you know, the conversations, the chat, the comradery, the friendships, everything. That's been the difficult part.
Rudi: Well, last Wednesday, for the first time since COVID, I went to the Belgium head office and had meetings with several departments and several peoples, and that was a very enjoyable day. Well, Belgium is very close. Everything in the Netherlands is close, but the traffic jam is—well, I had the luck that, on the first day of September in Belgium, most measures were removed and were taken away because of COVID. The figures are good in Belgium, so they did away with most of the rules, so it was a lot of traffic on the road, but I really enjoyed my day there. Like you said, face to face with people sitting in the room, chatting with them, making jokes, making the wrong remarks because that's also part of me, but that's what I really enjoyed.
Paul: Yeah, so to finish up, Rudi, as is my want on these, so to get away from work and all that side of it, enjoyable and all as it is, so what do you like to do when you're not mixing with the IBM community and not system administering in SQL?
Rudi: Well, the thing is that I think if you are getting more years and—my daughter is punishing me—and they say to me, “Well, father you are getting old.” Then I say to her, just to make fun out of her, “If I'm getting old in the same stage as you are getting wiser, I am happy with that.” [Laughter] Well, if you are getting older, you're losing flexibility, at least that's what I'm experiencing. So, what I said to myself that, if I have an opportunity to do something, which is out of my comfort zone, I'll accept it and I think it's nearly two years ago that my wife told me she did run a marathon. She did run the marathon of Rotterdam and then she came back and said, “Well, we have the group. We're going away for a weekend. We're going to run a marathon in October in Germany and by the way it's a nature marathon.” Do you know what a nature marathon is, Paul? No.
Rudi: Well, now I know. I can tell you what it is. It's mostly not on the road, so and it's—this one was in the hills of Germany and there were 800 meters in height difference, so I said to her, “Well, okay. I'll join you on the weekends. It's fine with me.” Then she said, “Well, there's a bit of a problem because then you have to either go on a walk for 21 minutes,” and walking is not my favorite—well, if I can do something else than walking, I prefer to do something else because I think I have the same view quite for a while. I like when it's different, especially in Holland, where everything is flat. If you run or if you go walking, you see a lot of the same things so—and then I said to myself, “Well— my wife said, ‘If you don't go for a walk, you have to go running for half an hour.’ I said, ‘Okay, I'll do that,’” and then I came in contact because of a barbeque of the running group, and I was also there. Then I gave a note to the trainer that I said that I want to do the marathon also, so that was, I think, in May and I already started running at that stage. I made the sum that every month 5 kilometers extra. By October, I could do 40 and the marathon is 42, so I think I could manage. Well, as a matter of fact, I pulled it off and since then I've been running. I'm enjoying running because it keeps my ideas about IT business going. I'm running in my free time thinking about work, but that's—well, that seems to be the way it's working for me because, like I mentioned, before IBM i is—well, it's not my hobby. Well, I look at the amount of time I spend with it, it comes pretty close, but I don't mind because it's fun.
Rudi: I see a lot of people who have the same age as I am who don't enjoy their work and they are thinking about their pension and the day they are pensioned that they are happy and they're looking forward to this. For me that's not the case because I really enjoy my work and like we mentioned before, I think, well, you are a developer—you know SQL, but SQL is part of my fun and maybe that's a very sad conclusion [Laughter].
Paul: Well, if that's a sad conclusion, Rudi, it's a good conclusion to finish on.
Rudi: No, I was just joking. I really enjoy my work. That's the bottom line.
Paul: Okay. Rudi, it is a good word to leave on, so thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I look forward to when we can meet in person again. I hope it won't be too long before that and so that's it for this iTalk everyone. Thanks for tuning in. Catch you on the next one. Bye for now.
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About the author
Paul Tuohy has specialized in application development and training on IBM midrange systems for more than 20 years.
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