Completely Free ILEditor and IBM Technology Refresh Recap

Today I’ll look at a powerful open source (and completely free!) IDE for ILE programs (CL, C/C++, Cobol or RPG) named ILEditor that is being actively developed by Liam Allan who is one of the brightest minds in the industry. In fact, last week Allan added a new GUI interface to the editor that makes it feel much more professional, while keeping it easy to use. I’ll also give you a quick overview of the announcement IBM made last week about updates to IBM i 7.2 and 7.3.

The IBM Announcement

On February 13th, just in time for Valentine’s Day (because IBM wants to be my valentine!), IBM announced new Technology Refreshes. These include support for POWER9 processors, which look incredible – but, alas, I’m not a hardware guy. They also include updates to Integrated Web Services (IWS), Access Client Solutions (ACS), RPG and more.
Here are links to the official announcements:

IBM i 7.2 Technology Refresh 8 (TR8)

IBM i 7.3 Technology Refresh 4 (TR4)

You should also check out Steve Will’s blog post.

My Thoughts

The most exciting part of this announcement for me is the introduction of the new DATA-INTO opcode in RPG. Here’s the sample code that IBM provided in the announcement:

DATA-INTO myDs %DATA(‘myfile.json’ : ‘doc=file’) %PARSER(‘MYLIB/MYJSONPARS’);

It appears that this will work similarly to Open Access, where the RPG compiler will examine your data structure and other variables that it has all the details for and work together with a back-end handler that will map it into a structured format. Open Access refers to the back-end program as a “handler”, whereas DATA-INTO seems to call it a “parser”, but the general idea is the same.

As someone who has written multiple open source tools to help RPG developers work with XML and JSON documents, this looks great! One of the biggest challenges I face with these open source projects is that they don’t know the details of the calling program’s variables, so they can’t ever be as easy to use as a tool like XML-INTO. For example, the YAJL tools that I provide to help people read JSON documents require much more code than the XML-INTO opcode, because XML-INTO can read the layout of a data structure and map data into it, whereas with YAJL you must map this data yourself. However, DATA-INTO looks like it will solve this problem, so that once I’ve had time to write a DATA-INTO parser, you’ll be able to use YAJL the same way as XML-INTO.

Unfortunately, as I write this, the PTFs are not yet available, so I haven’t been able to try it. I’m very excited, however, and plan to blog about it as soon as I’ve had a chance to try it out!

What is ILEditor?

ILEditor (pronounced “I-L-Editor”) came from the mind of Liam Allan, who is one of the best and the brightest of the 2018 IBM Champions. I have the privilege of working with Liam at Profound Logic Software, and I can tell you that his enthusiasm for computer technology and IBM i programming know no bounds. In fact, one day last week after work, Liam sent me a text message about his new changes to ILEditor, sounding very excited. When I factored in the time zone difference, I realized it was 1:00 a.m. where he lives!

For many years, one of the most common laments in the IBM i programming community has been about the cost and performance of RDi. Please don’t misunderstand me. I love RDi, and I use it every day. I believe RDi is the best IDE for IBM i development that’s available today. That said, sometimes we need something else for various reasons. Some shops can’t get approval for the cost of RDi. Others might want something that uses fewer resources or something they can install anywhere without needing additional RDi licenses. Whatever the reason, ILEditor is very promising alternative! I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually is able to compete with RDi.

Why Not Orion? Or SEU?

The concept of Orion is a great. It’s web-based, meaning that you don’t have to install it and it’s available wherever you go. Unfortunately, it’s not really a full IDE – at least not yet! I hope IBM is working to improve it. It does not know how to compile native ILE programs or show compile errors. Its interface is designed around the Git version control software, which makes it tricky to use unless you happen to store your code in Git. And quite frankly, it’s also a little bit buggy. I hope to see improvements in these areas, but right now it’s not a real option.

The most popular alternative to RDi today is SEU. In fact, historically this was the primary way that code was written for IBM i. So, you may think it’s still a good choice. However, I don’t think it’s viable today for two reasons:

  1. The green-screen nature makes it cumbersome to use. This is no problem for a veteran programmer, because they’re used to it. But for IT departments to survive, they need to bring in younger talent. Younger talent is almost always put off by SEU. I even know students who gave up the platform entirely because they thought SEU seemed so antiquated, and they wanted no part of it.
  2. SEU hasn’t received any updates since January 2008. That means all features added to RPG in the past 10 years – which includes three major releases of the operating system –will show as syntax errors in SEU.

About ILEditor

ILEditor is open source, runs on Windows and was released as open source under the GNU GPL 3.0 license. That means it is free and can be used for both private and commercial use. If you like, you can even download the source code and make your own changes. It can read source from source members or IFS files. In addition to editing the source, it can compile programs, show you the errors in your programs, work with system objects and display spooled files. It even has an Outline View (like RDi does) that will show you the variables and routines in your program.

The main web site for ILEditor is: worksofbarry.com/ileditor/.

If you want to see the source code, you’ll find the Github project here.

You do not need to install any software on your IBM i to use ILEditor. Instead, the Windows program uses the standard FTP server that is provided with the IBM i operating system to get object and source information and to run compile commands. An FTPES (FTP over SSL) option is provided if a more secure connection is desired.

Connecting for the First Time

When you start ILEditor, it will present you with a box where you can select the host to connect to. Naturally, the first time you run it there will be no hosts defined, so the box will be empty. You can click “New Host” to define one.

Once you have a host defined, it will be visible as an icon, and double-clicking the icon will begin the connection.

When you set up a new system, there are five fields you must supply, as shown in the screenshot below:

Alias name = You can set this to whatever you wish. ILEditor will display this name when asking you the host to connect to, so pick something that is easy to remember.

Host name / IP address = the DNS name or IP address of the IBM i to connect to.

Username = Your IBM i user profile name.

Password = Your IBM i password – you can leave this blank if you want it to ask you every time you connect.

Use FTPES = This stands for FTP over Explicit SSL. Check this box if your IBM i FTP server has been configured to allow SSL and you’d like the additional security of using an encrypted connection.

The Main IDE Display

Once you’ve connected, you’ll be presented with a screen that shows the “Toolbox” on the left and a welcome screen containing getting started information and developer news, as shown in the screenshot below.

Any of the panels in ILEditor, including these two, can dragged to different places on the display or closed by clicking the “X” button in the corner of the panel. There is also an icon of a pin that you can click to toggle whether a panel is always open or whether it is hidden when you’re not using it. If you look carefully on the right edge of the window, you’ll see a bar titled “Outline View”. This is an example of a hidden panel. If you click on the panel title, the panel will open. If you click the pin, it will stay open. You can adjust the size of any panel by dragging its border.

When you open source code, it will be placed in tabs in the center of the display (just as the welcome screen is initially.) These can also be resized or moved with the mouse. This makes the UI very flexible and simple to rearrange to best fit your needs.

The Toolbox

Perhaps the best place to start is with the toolbox.  Here’s what that panel looks like:

Most of the options in this panel are self-explanatory. I will not explain them all but will point out a few interesting things that I discovered when using ILEditor:

  • The “Library List” is primarily used when compiling a program. This is the library list to find file definitions and other dependencies that your program will need.
  • The “Compile Settings” lets you customize your compile commands. Perhaps you have a custom command you use when compiling. Or perhaps you use the regular IBM commands but want to change some of the options used. In either case, you’ll want to look at the Compile Settings.
  • As you might expect, “Connection Settings” has the host name, whether to use FTPES and other settings that are needed to connect to the host. In addition to that, there are some other useful options hidden away in the connection settings:
    • On the IFS tab, you’ll find a place to configure where your IFS source code is stored and which library it should be compiled into.
    • On the Editor tab, there is a setting to enable the “Outline View”. You’ll want to make sure this is checked, otherwise you’ll be missing out on this feature.
    • On the ILEditor tab, there’s a setting called “Use Dark Mode”. This will change the colors when it displays your source code to use a black background (as opposed to the default white background), which many people, myself included, find easier on the eyes.
  • When you change something in the “Connection Settings” (including the options described above), you will need to disconnect from the server and reconnect so that the new settings take effect.

Opening Source Code from a Member List

ILEditor allows you to open source code from either an IFS file or a traditional source member. You can use the Member Browser or IFS Browser options in the toolbox to browse your IBM i to find the source you wish to open and open it.

The Member Browser opens as a blank panel with two text fields at the top. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what these were for as there wasn’t any explanation. I guessed that this was where you specified the library (on the left) and the source physical file (on the right) that you wanted to browse. Iit turned out that I was correct. If you type the library and filename and click the magnifying glass, it will show you all the members in that file.

I have a lot of source members that I keep in my personal library, and I often get impatient waiting for the member list to load in RDi. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the member browser in ILEditor loads considerably faster.

There is also a “hidden” feature where you can press Ctrl-P to search the list of recent members that you listed in the member browser. Just press Ctrl-P and start typing, and it’ll show the members that match the search string. This was a very convenient way to find members.

Once you’ve found the member (in either the regular member browser or the “search recent” dialog), you can double-click on the member name to open it.

Create or Open a Member Without Browsing

In the upper-left of the ILEditor window, there is a File menu that works like the file menus found in most other Windows programs. You can click File/New to create a new member or IFS file or File/Open to open an existing member or IFS file when you know the name and therefore don’t need to browse for it.

The File Menu also offers keyboard shortcuts to save time. You can press Ctrl-O for Open, or Ctrl-N for New to bypass the menu.

One thing that I found a little unusual is that you must specify the source type when you open an existing member. I expected this when creating a new member, since the system doesn’t know what it is. But when opening an existing member, I expected it to default to the source type of the member so that you don’t have to specify it every time. I discovered that if you do not specify the type, it will default to plain text. I spoke to Liam about this, and he assured me that this is something he plans to improve in the future. Thankfully, this is not the case when using the member browser. It only happens when opening the member directly.

Working with IFS Files

The IFS Browser can be used to browse the IFS on your IBM i and find the source code that you’d like to open. It will begin browsing the IFS in the directory that you’ve specified in the IFS tab in your connection settings. Any subdirectories found beneath that starting directory can be expanded as well to see the files inside of it.

Like the member browser, double-clicking on an IFS file will open it in the editor.

The File menu also has options for creating a new IFS file or opening an existing IFS file when you know the exact path name. In that case, you do have to type the entire IFS path. There is no option to browse folders as you’d find in the open dialogs of other Windows software. That didn’t seem like a problem to me. If I wanted to see the folders, I’d use the IFS browser instead.

The Source Editor

I found the editor to be very intuitive, since it works the same as you’d expect from a PC file editor. It provides syntax highlighting and an outline view that make the source code very easy to read. In the screenshot below, I’m using “dark mode”, so you’ll see that my source code has a black background.

 

Syntax highlighting worked very nicely in free format RPG, CL and C/C++ code, including code that used the embedded SQL preprocessor.

Unfortunately, it did not work in fixed format RPG code. Liam tells me that fixed format RPG is especially difficult to implement because he codes ILEditor’s syntax highlighting using regular expressions, and regular expressions are difficult to make work for position-dependent source. However, he assured me that he does plan to support fixed format RPG code and is working on solving this problem.

I noticed that I could still type fixed format code and make changes to it, and aside from the source not being colored correctly, it worked fine.

The Outline View was a pleasant surprise, because I wasn’t really expecting an editor other than RDi to have one. It does not have as many features as the RDi outline view, but it worked very nicely for what I needed it for. I was also pleasantly surprised that the Outline View worked with CL code.

Compiling Programs

The compile option can be run by using the Compile menu at the top of the screen, the compile icon (shown in the picture below) or by pressing Ctrl-Shift-C.

I discovered that the compile option does not ask for any parameters. Instead, it uses the options that you specified in your connection and compile settings options in the toolbar. So if you want to change one of the default compiler options, you need to change them in the compile settings each time.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. The advantage is that it’s very quick and easy to compile a program. When you’re developing software, you often have to compile it many times, and it’s very nice to be able to skip the dialog and just have it compile. The disadvantage is when you want to do something different in a one-off situation. You have to go into the compile settings to change it, so that’s a little bit of extra work. However, I find that I don’t need to do that very often, so this wasn’t a big deal to me.

When an error occurs during the compile, an error listing will open showing you what went wrong, very similar to what you’d find in RDi. Like RDi, you can click on the error and it will position the editor to the exact line of code where the error was found.

One thing that surprised me about the compile and the error message dialog was that it is considerably faster than RDi. That seems strange to me, since both tools are connecting to the IBM i and running the same IBM compiler for RPG. However, I found that depending on the size of the member, the ILEditor compile was 10-20 seconds faster than the RDi one.

RPG Fixed Format to Free Format Converter

One feature of ILEditor that simply did not work well was the RPG converter. Some of the fixed format code in my program would convert, but other things (including things that should’ve converted easily) did not. Code that spanned multiple lines did not convert at all.

In my opinion, the converter needs a lot of work before it will be useful. I pointed this out to Liam, and he told me that he agrees and has a complete rewrite of the converter on his to-do list.

Other Features

I’d like to mention some of the other features of ILEditor that I did not have time to try out before writing this article. Since I didn’t have time, I can’t review them and give my opinion – but, I wanted to mention them. That way, if you’re looking for these features, you can give them a try yourself and see what you think.

  • Source Diff = compares two sources (members or IFS files) and highlights what is different about them.
  • Spooled File Viewer = Lets you view spooled files that are in an output queue
  • SQL Generator = Generates SQL DDL code from an existing database object
  • Offline mode = lets you download source from the IBM i to store on your PC and work on it while you are not connected (for example, when traveling on a plane or train without good internet access), uploading the results later.

My Conclusion

I was extremely impressed by ILEditor. RDi has more features, such as debugging, refactoring and screen/report design, but I was surprised at just how many features ILEditor has, considering it was written by one man in his free time and costing nothing. I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of ILEditor, which was consistently faster than RDi while using far less memory.

Unfortunately, the lack of syntax highlighting for fixed format RPG will be a problem for many RPG developers, and I sincerely hope that does not discourage them from at least trying ILEditor.

If a lot of people try it, and some of them donate money or give their time to help with development, this tool could easily become a serious competitor to RDi.