Review of CA-Visual Realia
Shawn M. Gordon
S.M.Gordon & Associates
Visual Realia is a product from Computer Associates (CA) that is designed to extend the life of COBOL code and COBOL programmers. It is a Microsoft Windows based development environment that shares similarities with Visual Basic from Microsoft. It’s main purpose in life is to maintain your investment in personnel and code, and help ease you into a true GUI environment.
I tested the software on my 25Mhz 486 with 12 Meg of memory, and 1 Gig of hard disk.
So what comes in Visual Realia? Take a look at this list of top product features and associated benefits;
Complete Graphical Environment
User Interface Workbench
Life cycle Management
Enterprise-Wide Data Access
CICS Support And Runtime Facility
Integrated Point-And Click Debugger
Installation Disk Builder
Why don’t you start out by looking at Figure 1. The first thing you will notice, and that I certainly noticed, was that there is a lot of ‘stuff’ inside Visual Realia. Take a look at the Form Navigator window to the right side of the figure. This looked kind of weird to me at first, but after a little bit I really came to love it. This is a quick way to get to any portion of your form, as well as showing the hierarchy of the form. I guess maybe I should explain what a ‘form’ is. A form can be thought of as a single VPLUS type screen, it contains fields, and ‘objects’ that will be presented to the user for various reasons.
In a GUI environment such as this, it is very easy to build an application by dropping objects on a form, and then attaching code to them. This brings up all sorts of interesting things about even driven code, like which object has the ‘focus’, what do we do when the left mouse button goes down, when it comes up, if the user double clicks or single clicks. All of these ‘events’ can have code associated with them.
In Visual Realia you can start your form by opening up a COBOL DLL, which will present you with a selection of linkage fields to choose from. Once you have selected them, VR will automatically generate default field and labels, you can see this in Figure 1 on Form1. You can then modify them any way you choose. This is how you would quickly take an existing COBOL application and build a GUI out of it. It does require that you make a few changes to the original COBOL code, but it’s not to bad.
Once you get the COBOL linked to your form, you can add other objects as well, such as OLE controls. But here is where the product get’s a little funky. To put logic under these controls you have to use a language that is very much like Visual Basic. I don’t like the idea of having to deal with two different languages in one environment. But to defend VR, it does generate most of this BASIC code for you.
What I didn’t like about the COBOL Workbench was the lack of a vertical scroll bar. You have to use the arrow keys to scroll up and down, but there is a horizontal scroll bar. Never did figure that one out. What is really cool in the CW is Analyze Selected option under Tools. This will give you a hierarchy chart of the procedures in the code. You can then double click on a procedure and the code in that procedure will pop-up for you. I would love to see this one thing as a separate product. I have been wanting something exactly like this for years.
Ok, back to Figure 1. Notice a little floating menu bar titled ‘CA-Visual Realia Window Navigator’? This is a ‘stay on top’ form that allows you to quickly switch between the various modes of the program. My only complaint with this, and this goes for all of Visual Realia, is that there is no little bubble help that comes up when you leave the mouse pointer on the icon. It is a real drag trying to remember what all the little icons mean, and there really isn’t a quick way to find out. This is a problem that many Windows programs suffer from.
The Integrated Debugger provides a seamless method of debugging between the GUI interface code and the COBOL code. It is a pretty darn nice environment for debugging and managing COBOl code.
The integrated archiving facility supports team development by providing central archiving and access for all project components. The archive keeps a history of all changes made during program development, including reports to view the differences between files. Speaking of reports, there is a pretty robust WYSIWYG report designer included as well.
There is a whole bunch of stuff concerning CICS, but since I don’t know anything about CICS, other than it is some IBM thing, I can’t really comment on it.
There is an incredible number of options for accessing entrprise-wide data, including ODBC and a SQL preprocessor. Like I said, this is a big product.
It is important to note that with the inclusion of an Installation Disk Builder and Help Compiler, you are able to build a fully functional, deployable application that doesn’t require any run time fee’s. This means that Visual Realia can be used to develop PC specific applications, and then be sold, like you would with something like Visual C++. Not to bad.
Usability (also installation)
The installation comes on either diskettes or on CD-ROM, and thank goodness for the CD-ROM. Since I use disk compression software it tends to take a little longer to install software, so if I don’t have to babysit changing diskettes every 10 minutes I am happy. There are a huge number of options for different environments, and data base support. I didn’t see any lack in terms of installation options, or support. Installation uses a standard Windows dialog, and proceeds very smoothly.
The software is easy to use, but has a rather daunting number of options and icons. It could benefit from a recent trend in software which is the pop-up description windows on icons if you let the mouse rest for a second. Once you get through the learning curve (which is rather steep) you shouldn’t have much trouble getting around the software.
Well the Visual Realia environment rather smoothly for me, and the projects that I built all worked, so Visual Realia get’s points for a solid product.
Now I have a fairly loaded up PC, but the Visual Realia environment was rather slow. When you start up different options, it appears to run child programs, and the load time is rather long. The code that I produced was kind of slow executing as well. This is no doubt in part due to my compressed hard disk, but other products I have like Visual Basic, and Delphi perform quit well once they are loaded, they are just slow starting up the first time, but Visual Realia always seemed to be slow.
Supportability (including Doc)
Visual Realia comes with three manuals, one is Getting Started guide, which does a pretty decent job of at least getting you around in the software, and use to how it works. Another manual covers the Visual Realia environment entirely, and the last manual covers the CA-BLE language (which is very close to Visual Basic). The documentation is well written and very professionally laid out. You have table of contents, as well as an Index in each manual, even the Getting Started guide.
My first criticism of Visual Realia is the name, it is not at all indicative of what the product is, but then again, the new Delphi product from Borland doesn’t either. While Visual Realia will be a great tool for some shops, especially those using CICS, I did feel a little deceived as to what it was capable of. Maybe this is because I was so excited to look at it, but this is why. A couple of years ago Microsoft made a quit announcement about a Visual Cobol, what this turned out to be was, you bought Visual Basic, and COBOL from them, created logic in COBOL and compiled it into a DLL, then created the front end with Visual Basic, and then call the COBOL code in the DLL from the Visual Basic front end. This is obviously kind of a kludge, and Microsoft has since given back their COBOL environment to MicroFocus from whence it came. Visual Realia is kind of like that, except it is more robust in terms of it’s support of COBOL, but the bottom line seems to be that you have to use this BLE Basic environment to do code in the environment. I do like their syntax better than Visual Basic though, something simple like a WHILE loop end Visual Basic has to terminate with a WEND, which is stupid, everyone else in the world, including Visual Realia, use END WHILE.
Bottom line for me on this one is tough, the product is robust, and definitely has a use for a large number of shops, but it wasn’t what I was hoping for, which was a Visual Basic for COBOL, and for a PC application, it seems a bit pricey. So maybe my expectations were wrong, but hopefully this review will help you clarify what Visual Realia can and can’t do. It’s not easy reviewing a whole environment like this, so keep in mind that there are going to be other options in the software that I wasn’t able to cover. If Visual Realia looks like something you might be able use, then definitely take a look at it.
Computer Associates Visual Realia version 1.0
Product price is $2500 per seat.
Computer Associates Internation, Inc.
One Computer Associates Plaza
Islandia, NY 11788
Includes three manuals, a Getting Started Guide, Programming with CA-BLE, and a User Guide
Call or write for information.