Editors Note: Since publishing this case study, Mincron Software Systems joined the Kerridge Commercial Systems (KCS) group. Mincron continues to offer its successful ERP solution with a choice of deployment options, ranging from SaaS and cloud to traditional on-premises deployment.
The decision what application modernization technique to choose can be a complex one for any company, but the choice is even harder for independent software vendors. Their very future depends on attracting new customers for their solution, but they also have to consider the upgrade path and associated risks-benefits for their existing customers.
Mincron Software Systems had to make a decision about its modernization strategy for its RPG-based ERP system. Nearly three decades of industry knowledge and three million lines of code underpin Mincron’s time-tested solution and form the foundation for its success. With so much at stake, Mincron thoroughly researched all modernization options and decided for a staged modernization plan with RAMP from LANSA. After delivering its RPG-based system in a Windows framework and adding new functionality on top, all came to fruition with new sales. Using the newest of LANSA’s tools, Mincron then went a few steps further and now believes it is the first ERP vendor to deliver an integrated native mobile application for its customers on the road.
Mincron Software Systems (MSS) is a leading provider of software and business service solutions for wholesale distributors, logistics companies and other businesses requiring integrated enterprise software solutions.
Most of Mincron’s customers are wholesale distributors of hard-goods, such as HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), plumbing, electrical and industrial products. Greg Neal, Mincron’s director of product development, explains “Our customers range from small businesses to large Fortune 500 companies. Our customers’ customers typically are contractors, who’s jobs may range from small residential repair to large commercial projects. Needless to say, our solution needs to be flexible and scalable.”
Over the last 30 years Mincron has tremendously grown the functionality of its flagship MSS/HD solution to include industry specific functionality that goes far beyond the standard ERP sales, purchase, inventory and financial basics. In addition, Mincron developed integrated applications for warehouse management (MSS/WM) and light manufacturing for workshops (MSS/LM). Mincron’s customers all have the source code and many of their customizations have been fed back to Mincron to be incorporated professionally into the master version. Today MSS/HD consists of over 3 million lines of RPG code and 2,500 screens.
While Mincron extended its solution with web commerce, EDI and RFID to keep up with business demand, the user interface had not been updated and was still 5250 style green-screen. The legacy interface was hindering new sales.
Neal explains, “Software companies who market a green-screen solution are unlikely to survive much longer. You cannot go into an opportunity, demo a green-screen solution and expect to make a sale. New prospects don’t want anything to do with it and existing customers are getting worried about hiring and training new staff. So essentially a few years ago our very survival relied on us modernizing our application.”
“We did not have the time or the resources to sit down and start from scratch and just rewrite 3 million lines of code,” continues Neal. “We didn’t want to do something as drastic as that either and throw away decades of work and a time-tested solution. A drastic move like that would also mean a risky upgrade path for our existing customers. So we had to figure out a more evolutionary way to get our solution to where we wanted it to be. And since new sales is the lifeblood of any company, we had to do it quickly.”
Our very survival relied on us modernizing our application.
Greg Johnson, team leader for new technology at Mincron, was put in charge of evaluating modernization techniques. “There are so many application modernization options out there,” he says. “Code conversion, refacing and refactoring tools that break down RPG programs into smaller pieces that you can then front-end with Windows or Java. Tools that help to document and extract existing logic, and so on. I basically compiled a list of two or three top vendors in each specific area and researched them further.”
Early on in its research Mincron looked at a tool that promised to translate RPG code to Java, but didn’t get the results it hoped for, at least not in the timeframe Mincron had in mind. A second evaluation was based on web refacing technology. Johnson says “Web refacing did allow us to fairly quickly present our RPG solution in a browser and we demo-ed it to a few sales opportunities. However, although the individual screens looked better, it didn’t go far enough. The overall navigation and functionality had not improved.”
“We were looking for a technology that would allow us to deliver our solution as a true Windows style of application. Something that would allow us to take advantage of the desktop environment, integrate with Outlook and Excel and build new gadgets into our product.”
Then LANSA’s modernization tool RAMP came on the radar. Initially Johnson wasn’t that interested because he perceived LANSA to be a 4GL code generation tool only and because of a previous bad experience with another code generation tool, wasn’t keen to go down the same path again. However, after some further research, Johnson learned firstly, that LANSA’s 4GL was only part of the RAMP modernization framework and secondly that LANSA’s 4GL was quite different from the tool he previously worked with. His major worry, of having to maintain the generated code instead of the 4GL, was taken away after an in depth demonstration and study of LANSA’s development environment.
“The concept of the RAMP Framework was just perfect for our situation. It allowed us to totally restructure the complex application navigation of over 750 menu options with a far more intuitive tree structure, tabs and search filters in a native Windows framework. RAMP’s embedded refacing component would allow us in a very short time to modernize our 2,500 screens and snap them into the framework. In a second phase we could revisit those screens and enhance them further, or we could replace them gradually and piece-by-piece with true native Windows applications and snap them into the same framework,” says Johnson.
As to whether RAMP falls in the refacing or development category, Johnson feels RAMP’s framework approach gives the best of both worlds. “Through the framework you’re not just improving individual screens, but the overall navigation of the entire application. Another big plus is that RAMP allows you to add new functionality. Some of the tabs contain old functionality and some new, but the navigation, look and feel is consistent.”
RAMP allowed us to totally restructure the complex application navigation of over 750 menu options.
Mincron decided to go ahead with RAMP. As an added bonus for Mincron, it was just at that time RAMP’s embedded third party refacing component was replaced with aXes. The licensing structure and zero deployment nature of aXes made life a lot easier, especially for an ISV like Mincron who needs to consider downstream customer implementations.
Within 3 months after attending a RAMP training course, a small team (Neal, Johnson and 3 developers) delivered stage one of the modernization project to the sales team: A fully functional Windows version of MSS/HD, now called MyHD, containing all menu options in RAMP’s navigation tree structure in a Windows framework, but still with the aXes default GUI layout for the ERP’s 2,500 RPG-based screens. In these 3 months MyHD was also extended with three RAMP-ed components of Mincron’s Sales Order application: the Bid module, the Contract Orders module and an entirely new concept of the Customer Service Workbench (CSW).
The team then turned its attention to the first beta customer site and spent 7 weeks preparing, installing, training and assisting the customer to go live. “In less than 5 months from the day we attended our first training session we had completely designed, developed and tested stage 1 of our new Windows solution, handed it over to sales, installed new hardware and software at our beta customer, trained the users and went live. That was quite a lot in 5 months,” says Neal, who managed the project.
Meanwhile Mincron started working on stage two, enhancing the screens to make them not only look like Windows screens, but also behave like true Windows screens. Plus Mincron was adding new functionality.
The project of enhancing 2,200 screens (300 were left in their default GUI layout) took 10 months, with a core team of 5 full time developers, assisted by 4 to 5 other staff during peak times.
MyHD stage two was released to the sales team and two months later Mincron signed up its first MyHD customer. “It ended up being a fantastic product and we continue to make it better. Our sales guys are very happy. Everything came to fruition when we started to get brand new sales.” says Neal.
Mincron’s existing customers are getting excited as well. According to Neal, existing MSS/HD customers, who are lightning fast using green screens, are harder to please than new customers. “You really have to add value and provide new functionality before existing customers are willing to give up their green screens,” he says.
As an example of added functionality Neal mentions that on virtually every screen where a list of items is displayed (such as order lines, sales history, price list, etcetera), users now have a button to export those items directly to Excel. Another new feature is that throughout the system there are Notes and Documents tabs which let users attach, for example, notes, photos, pdf documents and spreadsheets to a product, a customer and so on. Previously users had to leave the application to do something like that, now it’s just clicking another button or tab. Another productivity booster is be able to deal with several customer transactions at the same time, opening multiple windows and the framework being able to keep all instances up to date. This allows customer facing staff to have multiple conversations simultaneously and not lose track of where they are.
You really have to add value before existing customers are willing to give up their green screens.
During the screen enhancement stage, one of the team members investigated the use of aXes Mobile and created a simple mobile web application over Mincron’s RPG-based ERP solution. It included a customer search, product search, order inquiry and order entry. It was fully functional, but just meant as a prototype, so it was not handed over to quality control.
It did lead to some interesting discussions about mobile apps, internally and with customers, debating whether mobile apps should be web, native or hybrid. Based on research and customer requirements, Mincron formed the opinion that mobile web apps are fine for basic inquiry and update access to its ERP system, but for speed, reliability and integration with device hardware functions, Mincron decided to go on the path of native mobile apps.
“For the sake of our business, we had to do more than make things look pretty,” says Johnson, stressing that Mincron’s success as a software company was depending on the success of its modernization strategy. During their elaborate search for a modernization strategy, Neal and Johnson came up with a list of criteria they were trying to achieve and feel confident they ticked all the boxes with RAMP from LANSA.
In addition to ‘marketability’, which is understandably a top priority for an ISV, the other criteria apply equally well to end user companies. The first criterion, ‘integration’ was to make sure the modernized solution would integrate with MS Office and other Windows programs. The answer, yes. The second criterion ‘performance’, was to guarantee high productivity of users. Again, yes, even seasoned green-screen users are impressed.
The third criterion was ‘incremental development and delivery’. Again, a tick in the box. “RAMP allowed us to change our solution by evolution rather than revolution,” says Neal. “We did not have to put innovation on hold for a few years while working on a ‘big bang’ new release.”
The fourth was about ‘timely delivery’. With a first modernization stage released within three months and a second stage in 10 months, the answer is yes. Last, but not least, the fifth criterion was ROI. Again, the answer is yes. After what was a reasonable investment in dollars and time and with new and existing customers lining up for MyHD, Mincron’s President, Wendy Berger, is happy as well.
“RAMP almost sounds as too good to be true,” concludes Johnson. “It allowed us to easily execute our existing RPG system in a Windows environment and immediately start building native Windows components on top of that and plug them in as we go. LANSA gave us the development path that we want to go forward with.”
Asked about plans for the future Neal explains, “In the near future we are going to continue to enhance MyHD and build more mobile apps for customer staff on-the-road. Longer term, we will continue to change our solutions by evolution rather than revolution and LANSA’s RAMP application modernization toolset is absolutely the right vehicle to allow us to do that.”
We did not have to put innovation on hold for a few years while working on a ‘big bang’ new release.