IBM's secret heavyweight

RPG/400 is widespread, reliable and popular, so why is IBM so reluctant to talk about it? asks Nick Langley

RPG/400 is widespread, reliable and popular, so why is IBM so reluctant to talk about it? asks Nick Langley

Report Program Generator, the programming language most intimately associated with IBM's best-selling mid-range system the AS/400. But, as with the AS/400, for reasons best known to itself, IBM likes to keep RPG's light under a bushel. Getting IBM to divulge up-to-date information about RPG is as hard as catching a glimpse of Lou Gerstner's collected expenses claims.

Where did it originate?

With the System/3X range (the S/34, S/36 and S/38, among others), which included some of IBM's most successful small business systems.

The System/X range was replaced by the AS (Application System) /400 in June 1988. In 1990 IBM announced that it was opening up AS/400's internal microcode to independent software developers, which the IBM analyst Xephon describes as "a major volte-face from its previous 'black box' policy".

In 1995, IBM moved AS/400 from a 48-bit Cisc to a 64-bit PowerPC Risc processor. As a result, AS/400 has by far the largest selection of serious business applications - well over 30,000 - of any mid-range platform, and has established itself as the most popular main computer for small and medium-sized businesses.

RPG was built for heavyweight business applications, not the desktop. And, from the outset, was designed to co-exist with other programming languages, even those which did not exist at the time, like Java.

What's it for?

Programming the AS/400. By some estimates, 20% of the world's code is RPG.

What makes it special?

The AS/400 is a gift to smaller businesses without an IT department, because it comes as a fully integrated system. Operating system, database, communications, security etc are all fully configured on delivery.

Like AS/400, RPG is manageable, scalable and reliable, and optimised to work with the other AS/400 system components.

How difficult is it?

IBM has released a version of its graphical application development environment Visual Age for RPG. There is also a GUI-based fourth generation language for RPG - Code/400.

Where is it used?

In small- to medium-sized businesses - now recognised as the biggest market for IT. Nine out of the10 leading ERP packages, including SAP, Baan, JD Edwards, PeopleSoft and SSA, run on the AS/400.

Not to be confused with

Rocket propelled grenades, role playing games and, least of all, with people who play role playing games with rocket propelled grenades.

What does it run on?

RPG/400 runs on AS/400. Earlier versions of RPG run on surviving S/3X models which, as with DEC's PDP 11, some people simply refuse to give up.

Few people know that

There are so many contented RPG/400 and AS/400 users - mainly because IBM doesn't tell us about them. Aberdeen Group comments, "It takes some hard work to find a motivated IBM sales representative who is willing to take the time to explain the merits of AS/400e technology and integrated applications." IBM's press office failed to respond to our requests for information about RPG/400.

What's coming up?

Java, inevitably. IBM would like to see users of all its platforms move to Java. But RPG is just too widespread in critical applications, and too damn good. Expect RPG to continue to be used for back-end AS/400 systems, with a growing presence of Java in e-business applications.

Rates of pay

RPG developers are a greying breed. According to IBM mid-range systems user Group Common, employers are making the situation worse by looking for programmers with three to five years' experience, leaving new graduates with no way in. This situation has been developing for 10 years, with the result that of 400,000 US IT job vacancies, 40,000 are for AS/400 staff.

Recent UK job ads indicate that employers here are only interested in those with experience. The rewards are high, though - up to £30,000 for developers with a year or so's RPG behind them, and from £30,000-£38,000 for senior analyst/programmers with three to four years' experience. Many current job ads also offer training in Java.

Programmer £23,257
Senior programmer £32,000
Analyst programmer £27,270
Senior analyst/programmer £34,272
Team leader/analyst programmer £37,638

Source: SSP/Computer Weekly Survey, October 1999


IBM Global Services offers courses, workshops and self-study for RPG/400.

RPG/400 programming is a five-day course costing £1,525 plus VAT. Part two takes three days, and costs £795 plus VAT. The basic RPG/400 programming workshop and the advanced workshop both last two days and cost £590 plus VAT each.

Courses and workshops are available at IBM training sites including Basingstoke, London South Bank and Dublin. Prices for the new self-study programming courses are yet to be announced.

IBM Global Services: 0845-758 1329

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