Posts Tagged ‘accpac’
Unstructured time is becoming a common way to stimulate innovation and creativity in organizations. Basically you give employees a number of hours each week to work on any project they like. They do need to make a proposal and at the end give a demo of working software. The idea is to work on projects that developers feel are important and are passionate about, but perhaps the business in general doesn’t think is worthwhile, too risky or has as a very low priority. Companies like Google and Intuit have been very successful at implementing this and getting quite good results.
Unstructured Time at Sage
The Sage Construction and Real Estate (CRE) development team at Sage has been using unstructured time for a while now. They have had quite a lot of participation and it has led to products like a time and expense iPhone application. Now we are rolling out unstructured time to other Sage R&D centers including ours, here in Richmond, BC.
At this point we are starting out slowly with 4 hours of unstructured time a sprint (every two weeks). Anyone using this needs to submit a project proposal and then do a demo of working code when they judge it’s advanced enough. The proposals can be pretty much anything vaguely related to business applications.
The goal is for people to work on things they are passionate about. To get a chance to play with new bleeding edge technologies before anyone else. To develop that function, program or feature that they’ve always thought would be great, but the business has always ignored. I’m really looking forward to what the team will come up with.
Crazy Projects at Google
Our unstructured time needs to be used for business applications, but I wonder what unstructured time is like at Google where they seem to come up with things that have nothing to do with search or advertising. Is it Google’s unstructured time that leads to self-driving cars, Google Glasses, military robots, human brain simulations or any of their many green projects. Hopefully these get turned into good things and aren’t just Google trying to create SkyNet for real. Maybe we’ll let our unstructured time go crazy as well?
I’m a big fan of Neal Stephenson, and recently read his novel Anathem. Neal’s novels can be a bit off-putting since they are typically 1000 pages long, but I really enjoy them. One of the themes in Anathem are monasteries occupied by mathematicians that are divided up into groups by how often they report their results to the outside world. The lower order reports every year, next is a group that reports every ten years, then a group that reports every 100 years and finally the highest group that only reports every 1000 years. These groups don’t interact with anyone outside their order except for the week when they report and exchange information/literature with the outside world. This is in contrast to how we operate today where we are driven by “internet time” and have to produce results quickly and ignore anything that can’t be done quickly.
So imagine you could go away for a year to work on a project, or go away for ten years to work on something. Perhaps going away for 100 years or 1000 years might pose some other problems that the monks in the novel had to solve. The point being is to imagine what you could accomplish if you had that long? Would you use different research approaches and methods than we use typically today? Certainly an intriguing prospect contrasting where we currently need to produce something every few months.
So why am I talking about Anathem and unstructured time together? Well one problem we have is how do you get started on big projects with lots of risk? Suppose you know we need to do something, but doing it is hard and time consuming? Every journey has to start with the first step, but sometimes making that first step can be quite difficult. I’ve had the luxury of being able to do unstructured time for some time, because I’m a software architect and not embedded in an agile sprint team. So I see technologies that we need to adopt but they are large and won’t be on Product Manager’s road maps.
So I’ve done simple POC’s in the past like producing a mobile app using Argos. But more recently I embarked on producing a 64-Bit version of Sage 300. This worked out quite well and wasn’t too hard to get going. But then I got ambitious and decided to add Unicode into the mix. This is proving more difficult, but is progressing. The difficulty with these projects is that they involve changing a large amount of the existing code base and estimating how much work they are is very difficult. As I get a Unicode G/L going, it becomes easier to estimate, but I couldn’t have taken the first step on the project without using unstructured time.
Part of the problem is that we expect our Agile teams to accurately estimate their work and then rate them on how well they do this (that they are accountable for their estimates). This has the side effect that they are then very resistant to work on things that are open ended or hard to estimate. Generally for innovation to take hold, the performance management system needs a bit of tweaking to encourage innovation and higher risk tasks, rather than only encouraging meeting commitments and making good estimates.
Now unlike Anathem, I’m not going to get 100 years to do this or even 10 years. But 1 year doesn’t seem so bad.
Now that we are adding unstructured time to our arsenal of innovation initiatives, I have high hopes that we will see all sorts of innovative new products, technologies and services emerge out of the end. Of course we are just starting this process, so it will take a little while for things to get built.
We hold a developer’s exchange (DevEx) every couple of weeks where one of our developers volunteers to present to all the other developers in our office. This past week I presented at the DevEx on what all the core DLLs in our Sage 300 runtime folder do. I thought this might be of interest for a wider audience so here are the gory details.
Our marketing supplied architecture diagram is the following which highlights our three tiers and hide a lot of the details of how the object repository, APIs and supporting services are implemented. I’ve blogged previously on our Business Logic Views. In this article I’m going to go into more detail on all the DLLs that provide the framework to support all of this.
Lower Level DLLs
If you are an ISV developing Sage 300 SDK applications or have worked for Sage on the 300 product then you will have had to encounter a number of these DLLs. I’m only looking at a subset of current DLLs, and I’m not looking at all the DLLs that support older technologies that are still present to maintain compatibility with add-ons.
I didn’t add arrows to this diagram since everything pretty well calls everything else below it. But segregated the DLLs a bit by how low or high level they are. So here is a quick synopsis of each one:
A4wcompat.dll: We created this DLL back when we did a native port of the Sage 300 Views for Linux. This DLL isolates operating system differences that need more than some clever #defines. A big part of this is the thread and process synchronization and locking support. Even though we never released the native Linux version, this isolation of operating system dependent parts had made adding multi-threading support, 64 bit support and Unicode support easier.
A4wmem32.dll: In 16 bit Windows, the built in memory management was really slow, so everyone used their own. Now this DLL uses the Windows and C default memory management, but is still important for global memory that needs to be shared across processes. Originally this was done through the data segment of a fixed DLL, but now is done through memory mapped files.
A4wlleng.dll: This is just a language DLL that holds some lower level error messages used by System manager.
A4wsqls.dll: This is the SQL Server database driver (there is also a4worcl.dll for Oracle and a4wbtrv.dll for Pervasive.SQL). This is dynamically loaded based on the type of database you are connecting to. For more on our database support see this article.
Cato3msk.dll, cato3dat.dll: The cato3 DLLs are the old CA common controls. We don’t use these in our UIs anymore, but cato3msk.dll provides our mask processing that is used by the Views. Similarly we don’t use this date control, but do use a routine here to format dates in error messages correctly.
A4wroto.dll: This handles the loading of the various View DLLs as well as the various UIs we’ve used in the past. It loads the roto.dat files and handles loading the right DLLs when View subclassing is going on or stub Views need to be used.
A4wsem.dll: This handles the locking of the semaphor.bin file. It allows processes to lock the company database, an application or the whole site. It also handles application specific cross workstation locking needs.
A4wrv.dll: This is the main DLL API entry point for the Views. It manages all the calling of the Views and handles other tasks like sending the calls for macro recording. For more on our View interfaces see this article.
A4wapi.dll: This is quite a hodge-podge of services for the Views like revision lists, error reporting and such. It also has support routines for the older CA-Realizer UIs. This is quite a big DLL and has most of our C level API in it.
A4wrpt.dll: This is our interface to Crystal Reports, it started as our interface to CA-RET then was converted to Crystal using their CRPE DLL interface, then converted to Crystal’s COM interface and now uses Crystal’s .Net Interface.
A4wprgt.dll: This DLL handles replicating the system database tables into the various company databases when needed.
A4wmtr.dll: This is our meter DLL for long running processes. It can either put up a meter dialog or just report back to the caller, the current status and percent complete. It also provides the API for cancelling long running processes.
Higher Level APIs
The next level are some of the DLLs that make up our Java, COM and .Net interfaces. There is a bit of complexity here due to how our previous web deployed system worked. Here we could communicate back to the server originally using DCOM and then later with .Net Remoting. The .Net Remoting layer provides both the communications layer for this web deployed mode and also acts as our .Net API. Depending on how you create your original session will configure which actual DLLs are used and which are calling conventions are used.
A4wapiShim.dll: This is the C side of our Java JNI layer. It talks to all the lower level DLLs to get its work done.
Sajava.jar: This is the Java side of our Java JNI interface. This allows Java programs to easily call Java classes to interface to our Business Logic Views. For more on this interface see this article.
A4wcomsv.dll: This is the main workhorse for the COM and .Net APIs. It does all the heavy lifting and interfacing to the core DLLs.
Accpac.Advantage.COMSVR.Interop.dll: This just performs the .Net to COM transition which is created by the MS tools.
Accpac.Advantage.Server.dll: Server side of the .Net API, handles the .Net Remoting requests if remotely called or just passes through otherwise.
Accpac.Advantage.Types.dll: Defines all the various types we use in our .Net API.
Accpac.Advantage.dll: This is the main external interface for our .Net API. For more on our .Net API see the series of articles starting with this one.
A4wcomexps.dll: Used when the VB UIs are going to talk .Net Remoting, this DLL is inside a4wcomex.cab.
A4wcomex.dll: The main entry point for the COM API.
Many More DLLs
There are many more DLLs in the Sage 300 runtime, but most of the others are for obsolete APIs like the xapi, the older a4wcom COM API, the cmd API, the icmd API, etc. There are other important ones like to do with Database Setup, but these are the main ones used when you talk to the Business Logic through one of the main popular APIs.
For anyone interested this should give you a good idea of what the main DLLs in the runtime folder do. And give you an idea of how the various services in Sage 300 ERP are layered.
Right now we have our nephew Ian living with us as he takes a Lighthouse Labs developer boot camp program in Ruby on Rails and Web Programming. This is a very intense course that has 8 weeks instruction and then a guaranteed internship of at least 4 weeks with a sponsoring company. A lot of this is an immersion in the current high tech culture that has developed in downtown Vancouver. This corresponds with myself working to expand the Sage 300 ERP development team in Richmond and our hiring efforts over the past several months. This article is then based on a few observations and experiences around these two happenings.
Sage 300 ERP has been around for over thirty years now and this has caused us to have quite a few generations of programmers all working on the product. Certainly over this time the various theories of what a high tech office should look like and what a talented programmer wants in a company has changed quite dramatically. As Sage moves forwards we need to change with the times and adopt a lot of these new ways of doing things and accommodate these new preferred lifestyles.
Generally people go through three phases of their career, starting single, no kids, renting to transitioning to married, home ownership and eventually kids to kids leaving home and considering retiring. Of course these days there can be some major career changes along the way as industries are disrupted and people need to retrain and reeducate themselves. Every office needs a good mix, to build a diverse, energetic and innovative culture, which has experience but is still willing to take risks.
Offices or No Offices
The ambition was to have as much privacy as possible which usually translated to high cube walls, other barriers and the ambition to one day move into an office. At the time Microsoft advertised that on their campus every employee got an office, so they could concentrate and think to be more effective at their work. I visited the Excel team at this time and they had two buildings packed with lots of very small offices which led to long narrow claustrophobic hallways.
A lot has changed since then. Software development has much more adopted the Scrum/Agile model where people work together as a team and social interactions are very important. Further as products move to the cloud, the developers need to team up with DevOps and all sorts of other people that are crucial for their product’s success.
Now most firms adopt more open office approach. There are no permanent offices, everyone works together as a team.
There is a lot of debate about which is better. People used to more privacy of offices and cubes are loathe to lose that. People that have been using the open office approach can’t imagine moving back to cubes. Also with more people working a percentage of their time from home, a permanent spot at the offices doesn’t always make sense.
Downtown versus the Suburbs
When I started with CA the office was located in town near Granville Island. This was a great location, central, many good restaurants, and easily accessible via transit. Then we moved out to Richmond to a sprawling high tech park like many of the similar companies in the 90s. These were all sprawling landscapes of three story office buildings each one with a giant parking lot surrounding it. All very similar whether in Richmond, Irvine, Santa Clara or elsewhere.
Now the trend is reversing and people are moving back to downtown. Most new companies are located in or near downtown and several large companies have setup major development centers in town recently. Now the high tech parks in the suburbs are starting to have quite a few vacancies.
The Younger Generation
A lot of this is being driven by the twenty-something generation. What they look for in a company is quite different today than what I looked for when I started out. There are quite a few demographic changes as well as lifestyle changes that are driving this. A few key driving factors are:
- The number of young people getting drivers licenses and buying cars is shrinking. There are a lot of reasons for this. But people who can’t drive have trouble getting to the suburbs.
- People are having children later in life. Often putting it off until their late thirties or even forties.
- City cores are being re-vitalized. Even Calgary and Edmonton are trying to get urban sprawl under control.
- Real estate in the desirable high tech centers like San Francisco, Seattle or Vancouver is extremely expensive. Loft apartments downtown are often the way to go.
- Much more work is done at home and if coffee shops.
This all makes living and working downtown much more preferable. It is also leading to people requiring less space and looking for more social interactions.
Hiring that Younger Generation
To remain competitive a company like Sage needs to be able to hire younger people just finishing their education. We need the infusion of youth, energy and new ideas. If a company doesn’t get this then it will die. Right now the hiring market is very competitive. There is a lot of venture capital investment creating hot new companies, many existing companies are experiencing good growth and generally the percentage of the economy driven by high tech is growing. Another problem is that industries like construction, mining and oil are booming, often hiring people at very high wages before they even think about post-secondary education.
What we are finding is that many young people don’t have cars, live downtown and are looking to work in a cool open office concept building.
We are in the process of converting our offices to a more modern open office environment. We do allow people to work at home some days. Maybe we will even be able to move back downtown once the current lease expires? Or maybe we will need to create a satellite office downtown.
Generally we have to become more involved with both the educational institutions by hiring co-op students and other interns. We need to participate in more activities of the local developer and educational community like the HTML500. We need to ensure that Sage is known to the students and that they consider it a good career path to embark on. Often hiring co-op students now can lead to regular full time employees later.
Since Sage has been around for a long time and has a large solid customer base, we offer a stable work environment. You know you will receive your next pay check. Many startups run out of funding or otherwise go broke. Often while the job market is hot, young people don’t worry about this too much, but as you get into a mortgage, this can become more important.
The times are changing and not only do our developers need to keep retraining and learning how to do things differently, but so do our facilities departments, IS departments and HR departments. Change is often scary, but it is also exciting and stops life from becoming boring.
Personally, I would much rather work downtown (I already live there). I think I will be sad when I give up my office, but at the same time I don’t want to become the stereotypical old person yelling at the teenagers to get off my lawn. Overall I think I will prefer a more mobile way of working, not so tied to my particular current office.
Now that we’ve released Sage 300 Online as well as the on-premise Sage 300 ERP 2014, we need to change the way we develop features going forwards. We would like to develop features and frequently deploy these to Sage 300 Online so that customers can take advantage of these as soon as possible. Plus we would like to start including more features in our Product Updates.
This means that we have two separate products that would like to release features out of the same source code on their own timelines.
This article describes some of the issues with doing this and describes some aspects of the procedures we are following. In some cases there are additional benefits and in some cases there is additional work.
Generally we are switching from releasing big bang product versions every year or so, to releasing updates on a much frequent basis. I’ve blogged about this before in these articles: SaaSifying Sage and SaaSifying Accpac. This article is really just covering one aspect of this process, namely around how we now use our source control system. This is one aspect of a continuous deployment pipeline. It also involves the DepOps team.
A key ingredient into making this all work is having good “Doneness Criteria”, so that when agile stories are completed they are fully done, including all testing, automation, documentation, etc. So that when a “done” story is included in the release it really works. The closer you can come to this the better. If you aren’t very close then you are going to need a lot of integration/regression testing steps between these minor small feature releases to ensure the quality of the product. An important aspect of this is to have good automated tests to find integration problems and reduce manual regression testing.
Source Code Branching
Source code control systems have the concept of branching, where you can create a branch for a feature and then go through the agile process developing the feature and when you are all done then you merge the branch back into the product. This is a very simple branching strategy which works great if you are developing one feature at a time. However in reality there is a lot of work going on simultaneously including multiple features being developed at once, sustainment work (bug fixing) and infrastructure work (like the 64 Bit version).
Modern source control systems like Subversion and Git provide very powerful features to easily create branches and to incorporate changes from other branches and finally merge branches back together. We’ve used Subversion for some time now and have a lot of source code and history stored here. But for new projects we’ve been creating them in Git, partly due to the more powerful branching features.
To work effectively there are usually quite a few branches, but hopefully not as many as on the fractal tree below.
So what sort of branches do we need? Potentially we could create a lot of branches in the Source Code. The main root of all the branches is called the trunk and we always want the trunk to be in a releasable state. Perhaps we can have a development branch, and a regression branch. Then from the development branch we fork off the individual features as separate branches. Then when we are happy with them we merge them into the regression branch for more testing and when this is competed they are merged into the trunk.
Generally this works well for one product, say a web product where the DevOps team controls what gets merged from the regression branch into the trunk. However when you have multiple products derived from the same source tree this can be quite complicated.
Another danger of too much branching is that the longer a branch lives, the further it can get from the trunk due to work done on other branches and then merging back into a main branch and the trunk gets more difficult. This can be alleviated by merging changes done elsewhere into your branch, so you have smaller merges along the way rather than a bit difficult merge at the end. Another advantage we have in Sage 300, is that it’s a very large product consisting of hundreds of DLLs, OCXs and EXEs. As a result different teams are often operating in quite different areas of the source code. However there will still be points of contention, one that is happening right now is multiple features being added to the reporting engine that is creating contention on that source code module.
So for a branching strategy we need to strike a compromise between keeping everything perfectly isolated and having a lot of gates for features to pass through versus keeping the management of the system down and reducing the difficulty in merging branches.
So our approach is to limit the number of branches. Trunk is the main branch that is released to production (i.e. customers). Nothing is developed directly on the trunk, everything needs to be developed on a feature branch. Before merging back into trunk, a feature must merge the trunk back into the feature first and the team developing the feature must do some testing (including running our full automated testing suite). Then the feature can be merged back into the trunk and the feature is available for either the Online or on-premise products to consume.
Of course this has consequences on other components in the build pipeline. Now rather than just build the trunk with our set of build servers, we have to build all these branches. As part of the build we run a number of unit tests, but we also have a large set of automated tests that run on a separate set of servers, and now we want to run these automated tests on the branches.
Generally this increases the logistics of maintaining all these sets of servers. The build servers need to be configured on what branch to run and then the output of that build needs to be fed into the automated test servers to run all the tests.
Generally this all improves the quality and keeps the trunk in a releasable state since a lot of testing has been done before the feature is merged into the trunk.
For newer components like the Sage 300 Online home page and the Sage 300 ERP provisioning engine, these are built entirely using ASP.Net and then built and deployed using TeamCity. This simplifies the whole process and we can use a more sophisticated branching strategy in conjunction with DevOps where they have a release branch which only they control where they can have complete control on what they merge, build and deploy.
We’ve been putting this infrastructure in place for some time now and have it operating fairly smoothly. Now we will really start putting it into practice by releasing features frequently on two product lines. The main test that we’ve done it right is that it’s seamless to customers because we’ve been able to maintain high quality with all these processes and technologies in place.
Optional Fields were added to Sage 300 ERP as the major feature for version 5.3A. They are a great way to add custom data fields to many master and transaction screens in Sage 300. They also have the benefit that we can flow them with the transactions through the system, for instance from an O/E Order to the corresponding A/R Invoice to the G/L Batch. This opens up a lot of power for tracking extra data in the system and to do sophisticated reporting based on it.
In this article we will look at some of the programming consideration when dealing with Optional Fields at the API level. We’ll use the Sage 300 .Net API to explore how to deal with a few things in that come up with Optional Fields.
Many programmers feel they can ignore Optional Fields and their program works perfectly for sample data, but as soon as they install it at a customer site, it fails. A common cause of this is that the customer has required optional fields that cannot be ignored and the API program needs to be updated. (Another common failure at customer sites is caused by not dealing with locked fiscal periods).
From my previous article on the View Protocols, any optional field view is an ordered detail where its header is whatever it is an optional field for. An ordered header/detail means that you set the value of the key. But you do have to be careful to setup your optional fields correctly in the application’s setup UI since there is validation on these.
In the sample program I’ll give a complete set of steps. In some situations some of the steps can be skipped, for instance you don’t really need to call RecordClear and RecordGenerate for the header optional fields, but I’ll leave them in since sometimes you do, and it’s easier to just use a formula that always works rather than re-thinking everything each time.
Since Optional Fields are often sub-details of details that are stored in revision lists, you sometimes need to be careful that things exist before using them. Revision Lists are our mechanism to store things in memory before they are written to the database in a single database transaction. So until you save the header, nothing is in the database and everything is in memory. The Revision List store the list of details that have been manipulated so far. The Optional Fields are themselves stored in Revision Lists until the big database transaction happens.
In the sample program we insert the detail before adding this optional fields. Until the detail is inserted there is nothing to attach the optional fields to, so we need to do that first. The Insert operation only adds the detail record to a revision list in memory, but once that is done we can add sub-details (ie Optional Fields) to it (which are also stored in memory).
For a sample program, I modified the ASP.Net MVC sample ARInvEntry to save a couple of optional fields for the header and a couple of optional fields for the detail. Below is a subset of the code to insert the detail optional fields:
// 9. Insert detail. arInvoiceDetail.Insert(); // Insert the detail line (only in memory at this point). // 10. Add a couple of detail optional fields. arInvoiceDetailOptFields.RecordClear(); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.RecordGenerate(false); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.Fields.FieldByName("OPTFIELD").SetValue("EXTWARRANTY", false); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.Fields.FieldByName("VALIFBOOL").SetValue(true, false); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.Insert(); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.RecordClear(); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.RecordGenerate(false); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.Fields.FieldByName("OPTFIELD").SetValue("WARRANTYPRD", false); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.Fields.FieldByName("VALIFTEXT").SetValue("180 Days", false); arInvoiceDetailOptFields.Insert(); // 10.5 Register the changes for the detail. arInvoiceDetail.Update(); // 11. Insert header. (This will do a Post of the details.) arInvoiceHeader.Insert();
Different Field Types
If you look in the database you will see that the Optional Field tables don’t hold that many fields, but any Optional Field View has quite a few fields, but many are calculated. Optional Fields can be all sorts of different types, but in the database all the values are stored in a single VALUE field regardless. So there has to be a conversion to/from this text field and the real type. This is the job of all the VALIFtype fields. Basically you use the VALIF field based on the type of the Optional Field and then the View will handle the conversion to and from the type as stored in the VALUE database field. That is why we used the fields VALIFTEXT and VALIFBOOL above.
In the sample program I just inserted the optional fields myself. However there is another way. Views that have optional fields usually have a field called PROCESSCMD (or something similar) where you can set a value with a title like “Insert Optional Fields” which will insert the optional fields that are needed. You can set this field and call Process on the View and it will insert these optional fields for you. Then you can read the optional field, set its value and update it. Some people find this an easier way to do things and you get all the optional fields with their default values as a bonus. (Note that this only applies to Optional Fields that are set to auto insert in the applications Optional Fields setup screen).
Similarly for Views that will transfer in Optional Fields (like from an Order to a Shipment), you will see PROCESSCMD’s like “Default and Transfer Optional Fields”. If you are doing API programming and want to preserve the flow of Optional Fields, you will occasionally have to set one of these and call Process.
When dealing with Optional Fields, it’s worth checking out the PROCESSCMD functions of the main View to see if they will help you do your job and save you a fair bit of coding.
Many optional fields have a list of valid values. If you don’t set it as one of these you will get an error message to this effect. When dealing with optional fields make sure you have an error handler to show the errors after an exception as explained here. If you want to get at these values they are in CSOPTFD CS0012 (a detail of CSOPTFH CS0011). You can read through these views like any other as explained here.
Optional Fields are a powerful feature in Sage 300 ERP. Many customers use these in a fundamental way to support their businesses. This means that developers working in the Sage 300 world have to be cognizant of these and make sure their programs are compatible with their use.