A glimpse into a rosy future - IBM Connections Pink

By Michael Domke May 29, 2017
A glimpse into a rosy future - IBM Connections Pink

All different, all new, all better, that's what Jason Roy Gary, Director of Software Development for IBM Connections, promised when he announced Connections Pink a few months ago. The old tech stack comprised of proprietary IBM technology (WebSphere, IBM HTTP Server, Cognos etc.) would be replaced with a more modern one: Node.js, Docker, Kubernetes, MongoDB etc. A first developer workshop in Dublin was sold out pretty much as soon as it was announced. A few weeks later German IBM business partners got the chance to come to Böblingen to experience Pink hands-on and direct their most burning questions to IBM.

The most interesting sesson for most of the 30 participants was probably the one with Andre Hagemaier. Two days of workshop had laid the foundations in technical know-how and gave the participants the chance to address the most pressing discussion points. Now the lead developer of Connections Pink made himself available for questions for about an hour. With Pink the Connections infrastructure grows in size at first. A clear goal of Hagemaier and his team is to reduce this overhead again as soon as possible - depending on the deployment such a reduction might be possible before the end of the year. Not only the current infrastructure but current processes as well will soon be a thing of the past: Connections Pink should function on the principle of zero downtime. No data migrations, no iFix installations. Temporary migration containers and automatic updates for application containers will take their place and updated containers will be available within seconds after shutting down the old ones. This also entails a departure from the current release model with major versions, iFixes and dedicated upgrade projects. Features will be shipped when they are ready instead of enforcing deadlines for huge monolithic codestreams.

"Cloud or on-prem" is no longer a binary decision

This development is supposed to proceed in parallel in the cloud and on premises. Once the first iteration of pinkification of Connections is completed the code base will be the same - a migration in one or the other direction should cause a lot less headache than at the moment. The major difference between cloud and on-prem will be data residency which is supposed to function more granularly: customers can keep their profiles data in their own data center and host the rest in the IBM cloud. Cognitive features ought to be shipped in a tiered model: basic functionalities for everyone, advanced features using IBM Watson require the customer to explicitly agree that his data (or parts of it) interact with the IBM cloud.

The new architecture also aims to expand Connections into a development platform. Live Grid, the newest creation of Domino Designer inventor Maureen Leland, ought to give people without programming experience a tool to develop applications on top of Connections and its new tech stack. Connections might also function as a hub for other systems: the new comment feature could be used to create comments in other applications while still showing them in the activity stream within Connections. The API centric approach and the new microservice structure makes such ideas possible. Changes to the central system should not be steered through enhancement requests but worked and voted on by the community via e.g. GitHub.

Eventually all older Connections apps will be replaced by newer versions which provide extension points for customizations. Until then IBM offers Muse as a "tactical" solution. Muse is a proxy server, which allows to modify the payload of requests and responses to and from the server. This allows to e.g. adapt the GUI to corporate design requirements - this also works in the cloud which until now was not customizable in this way. Muse also works as an important requirement for a smooth transition. As long as data and application logic is divided among new and old stack, Muse takes over the distribution of client requests to the appropriate service in the backend. This transition is supposed to take about 2 ½ years. Even after that Muse has a lot of applications - if only as a mighty tool to customize the user interface.

Dare something new, safeguard the old

So many changes of this magnitude are not expected to be introduced without friction and a number of controversial discussions occured during the workshop. More than one present Domino/Notes veteran seemed to view the long list of new technologies (new for IBM, for Connections, maybe for themselves) as poorly conceived. Considering the radical disruption concerning architecture, fundamental technology and even the way developers work (which will impact how operational and support staff will work in the future) IBM surely forsaw this friction. The main thrust of the workshop organizers Andreas Schulte, Hagen Bauer and Matthias Schneider after the two days was pretty clear: no one wants to get rid of the old world (Domino, WebSphere, existing notes applications etc.) just like that without having a viable alternative. But trends in software, software development and deployment clearly point in the direction that Connections is now taking, not in the direction of development of new notes applications. That the creation of this trade-off between old and new business would cause friction didn't seem to surprise anyone.

But a lot of questions showed that most participants embraced the innovations with constructive feedback and tried to find out as much as possible about the concrete realization of the ideas presented in the workshop. Jason Gary has promised a lot - and he has kept his first commitment: the first Pink element (the new Connections homepage "Orient Me") was shipped on the announced date. Not only the participants in Böblingen will be eager to know what will be next. The workshop surely did nothing to diminish the anticipation.

As service provider for IBM Connections we look forward to start the journey into a pink future. Michael Domke (DevOps Engineer in the Connections Team) used the opportunity to pester IBM with his questions on behalf of Beck et al. Services.