Powerhouse future spurs 3000 adjustments
Blogging marks history, reports on legacy

Keeping up with Cognos can demand a lunch

Print-ExclusiveWhile IBM's enterprise juggernaut keeps rolling out in front of HP's, the share of business that Powerhouse contributes is miniscule. HP 3000 operations comprised far more of HP's business while the vendor was still selling MPE. Nudging along Powerhouse technology has become a tricky assignment for indie tool providers who need changes. Sometimes an informal lunch works a lot better than any official action on tech agreements between IBM and the long-time 3000 partners who hail from years before IBM bought Cognos.

In the era of this kind of response, 3000 software vendors such as MB Foster have promised Powerhouse-using customers like Dave Vinnedge of Accuride that their software would continue to keep up with Cognos changes. But communications into the 3000 community have become a low priority for the IBM Advanced Development Tools group. (IBM didn't respond to requests for comment on this story.)

Support for Powerhouse at Accuride is $6,500 yearly, a figure that buys the highest level of access for an HP 3000 user: Vintage Support, created in 2009 after the $5 billion merger. It hasn't improved via the association with IBM.

"During disaster recovery testing, about the only time we ever called Cognos for quick support, it took about two hours for them to get us a 'disaster recovery key', " Vinnedge said. "At that time Cognos support needed to contact our Cognos sales rep for an okay. We have not yet tried to contact IBM's support during a DR test." Contact is tough; it took over 15 minutes to find a US support phone number to add to Accuride's DR docs, "and that was from using links in IBM's emails they sent when they merged in the Cognos support."

The changes in IBM's response have had an impact on vendors' ability to track methodology across software changes, according to MB Foster's CEO Birket Foster. An informal lunch is the kind of initial contact that's now needed to stay in touch, all to enable the final 8.49F version of Powerhouse can stay in step with Foster's UDALink. In the interim, a customer like Accuride needs to maintain two separate Powerhouse dictionaries – 8.39 and 8.49 – just to keep using third party tools with Powerhouse. Accuride's got an automatic 8.49 DR license, but the 8.39 version it needed to remain in step with UDALink requires special dispensation from IBM, a company not easy for Vinnedge to contact.

"There's no direct jeopardy here," he said, "but we're tired of having to be sure that Powerhouse changes get compiled into two different dictionaries. We do not want to have to call IBM support during a disaster, or a DR test. We'd also like to be able to drop Vintage Support – or at least negotiate a lower cost."

Accuride has been a Powerhouse user so long that they remember when Cognos was called Quasar. A vendor like MB Foster began Cognos relationships in that era, but these partners must now recalibrate their efforts to stay in touch with the much larger IBM organization, Foster said.

CEO Foster said he figured a lunch between engineers was a faster way to get technology exchanged.  Within a few weeks, MB Foster added support for the 8.49F version. IBM has stated that 8.49F is the last release for the HP 3000. Along with the update of UDALink, "MB Foster support quickly fixed two bugs we found in a new option," Vinnedge said. 

Pinned in the middle of such an exchange is Bob Deskin, a Powerhouse product manager who's been working with the language since 1980. Today he's not able to make any policy statements, even while he posts messages on the Powerhouse newsgroup. "Although Vintage Support does not provide for any development support, it does allow customers with a legal support requirement to continue to use Powerhouse," Deskin stated on a Powerhouse mailing list.

Ken Langendock, a Powerhouse services provider offering new development, integration, conversion and migration, sees indelible value in using a 4GL. But he believes managers have lost the taste for continued investment.

"They seem to think it is a dying language, and resources are getting harder to find," he says, "even though there are still COBOL programs out there churning out data tirelessly. Programmers coming out of school have never heard of a fourth generation language. They would rather work in a 3GL with a Web front end. Give me a common data dictionary any day."

Another Powerhouse developer consultant, Richard Witkopp, says "Few programmers dislike Powerhouse. The hatred comes from upper management. They have to pay for it, and I think that's where Cognos killed its golden goose."

Brian Stephens adds, "I wouldn't hold my breath on IBM doing anything for Powerhouse. They bought Cognos for their Business Intelligence tools. Powerhouse was an established product they could maintain and use to open some new doors."

Without a clear initiative from IBM to revamp the products to support a streamlined platform base – Windows and Linux, Oracle or MySQL or SQL Server, a web look and feel – customers feel like their skills with a proven tool will continue to drop in value.

"The biggest issue is the invisibility of Powerhouse," said Darren Reely, another consultant in the Powerhouse community. "Most IS-type people seem to have never heard of it, and that is reflected in the job market. Besides looking ugly, supporting more platforms, the capability to run on the server, and a need to occasionally trick it, what can a Quick app do that an iPad app can't? The cutting edge companies use the hot new platforms and tools.

"Some things have a slow death. Powerhouse looks to be in that category," he added. "Hey, COBOL is still alive."