SaskTel switches over to Java

There weren’t many options for SaskTel when it realized that six of its legacy applications, built many years ago on the PowerBuilder integrated development environment (IDE), needed to be converted into a newer and more strategic programming language that was easier to maintain and staff.

Nearly eight years ago the Saskatchewan-based telecom provider had four developers that were familiar with PowerBuilder, a language that has in the past been used for enterprise-level applications that in many cases have been overpowered with the advent of C, Cobol and Java. Over the years SaskTel’s skilled PowerBuilder developers were changing jobs and the company was facing a common problem, supporting integral legacy applications with fewer resources.

The company also decided that PowerBuilder was no longer tactical and that there wouldn’t be any new development projects using the Sybase Inc. IDE, which didn’t help the fact that the six PowerBuilder applications, crucial to the long distance billing and tracking system that also enable SaskTel’s clients to automate toll rate changes, were quickly becoming a bit of a problem for the company. Other company-wide applications were built using Cobol and the PowerBuilder apps were starting to become one island of technology, which still needed to be maintained and serviced.

“The technology was hard to staff, hard to train for and had limited use,” said Wayne Petrychyn, business solutions manager in the Toll division with SaskTel. “At the same time the applications aren’t something we can do without.” Realistic and financially feasible options were few and far between. The company could continue to let the programs run and train new developers to support the PowerBuilder applications, which Petrychyn admits would’ve been costly. The company would also be forced to continue to pay annual maintenance fees. Buying a commercial, off-the-shelf software package also wouldn’t have worked because SaskTel’s toll applications were SaskTel-specific and engrained within the company and its client base.

Out of options, Petrychyn said a couple of years ago his department tried to manually convert one of the applications to Forte, a language built by Sun Microsystems Inc.

“The conversion itself was somewhat successful, but it took a lot of time,” he says. He added that a lot of the conversion time involved a steep learning curve in the conversion process. The application was the smallest of the six PowerBuilder apps, and was about 6,000 lines of code and it took nearly one year to translate. Altogether, SaskTel had about 100,000 lines of code to rewrite in all its applications. As a language, Forte also started to lose momentum in the year that it took to do the conversion, Petrychyn said.

“We decided that it wasn’t going to be the solution. We couldn’t afford the time or the effort that it took to convert PowerBuilder manually.” Feeling a bit of trepidation, the company’s only alternative was to keep the PowerBuilder applications running – at least until they literally got a knock on their door one day from Techn

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