Why Not FoxPro?

On the ProFox mailing list on 2/24/06, Dave Bernard wrote: > > For every person on this planet planning or executing a complete rewrite of > a working line of business VFP system (not a developer tool) into > .NET/J2EE/anything, I want to ask a simple question: > > “What were the business reason(s) for doing so?” >

1. Scale. Client wanted to move to gigabytes of data, and their internal programming staff and consultants they brought in could not develop a satisfactory app. Client invested millions in DotNet and SQL Server, and went bankrupt. Remants of the company are back to megabytes and back to VFP.

2. Inability to find good consultants. Having gone through a dozen VFP developers who were dBASE refugees and should not have been developers, company went for the magic pixie dust of Java. After millions of dollars of development (sounding familiar?), company was bought for hundreds of millions of dollars and entire app was scrapped in favor of the purchasing company’s existing system.

(There are a lot of developers out there who write junk for code. I don’t think VFP attracts them, especially, perhaps it’s just had a longer time to accumulate them? I’ve seen some pretty awful stuff out there.)

3. Painted too deeply into the corner: I supported a client for nearly a decade who had a legacy system written by a well-known developer early in the VFP 3.0 days. There were no best practices then, so there were some fairly complex work-arounds. The system was very large and very complex, and the micro-managing, penny-pinching boss would never authorize an hour spent to rewrite something that worked, no matter how arcanely. After a decade of making serious money out of this application, he got caught up with a young guy who could show him spiffy little tricks in *Delphi* of all things (out of the frying pan, into the fire) and, not understanding the differences between superficial GUI tricks and the deep functionality of his application, put his existing development into maintenance mode to go on a wild goose chase with Delphi. He was too cheap and too wily to lose his business to this, but his best developers quit, his customer base moved on, and when he sells out in a few years, he’ll get a lot less than he could have.

4. Slightly off-topic from the VFP re-write question, but an answer to why not FoxPto: Corporate standards: I tried to pitch a WebConnect app to a Very Large Insurance Company. They had standardized on: Macs on the desktop, Novell for their network, Oracle for their database and Netscape Enterprise for their intra-, extra- and inter-nets. I fought this one all the way up to a one-on-one with the CIO, who tried to explain to me that Microsoft was “going the wrong way,” a view I’ve come to agree with, but for different reasons and with a differnt new direction. IT evolution slowed to a crawl in this company, and the CIO has taken an early retirement to “pursue other interests.”

5. Cost savings: Tired of paying experienced senior developers with decades of experience in the business niche and this particular application, PHB thought it would make sense to employ cheap VB developers to rewrite the app in the para-dig-m of the day, VB and SQL Server. Experienced developers moved on, weaker devs stayed on for free training. New apps took forever to deliver, cost gazillions, and lacked the functionality of the original. Customers wouldn’t upgrade for fewer features. Company foundered, bought up by BigCompany for 1/10th of peak worth, for customer base. Old code and new code discarded.

In summary: incompetence, incompetence, incompetence, incompetence, incompetence. Hmm. Guess there is a pattern .

So, Dave, you were looking for GOOD business reasons to switch? I have run into few of them:

Good apps need to be rewritten every once in a while, as cruft builds up, and the model of the business encapsulated in the code doesn’t always evolve as fast as the business does. Software tends towards rigidity and/or fragility. Refactoring and other advanced techniques are designed to extend the longevity of an application, but refactoring a gnarly old app can be more costly than rebuilding.

When rewriting, you have the glory of starting with a clean slate, and re-examining your assumptions. New business models (software rental, software as a service, application service provider) may be available since the original app was conceived (probably back when we used floppies). ACID compliance, disaster recovery, HIPAA and SOX compliance can make new architectures a requirement. New component models, loose coupling, multi-phase commits, heterogenous backends are all designs to consider.

Security is a huge concern with ever-increasing connectedness, portability and liabilities.

So, ultimately, the business decisions come down to:

1. What business(es) do you want to be in? 2. What architectures enable that? 3. What tools enable those architectures? 4. What resources do you have available to execute those designs?

When faced with a clean slate project, new languages and tools are always a siren song. “There are no silver bullets” is a 30-year-old quote.

However, given the specs of a couple of apps lately, I couldn’t find a justification for writing them in FoxPro. While we have a mature language (well-debugged, well-documented and lots of support), some great frameworks and lots of programming talent, there were concerns I could not address: Microsoft has handed out BILLIONs in legal settlements in the last couple of years. Microsoft has made it clear VFP9 is the end-of-the-road for the binaries, with some xBase decorations extending VFP9 into Sedna. 64-bit is out and support for NX bits mean some loss of functionality. Bottom line: a single vendor who is end-of-lifing the product. Competing languages with rich features included Perl, Python, PHP and Ruby had no proprietary vendor lockin, no preferred data source and the flexibility to deploy on many platforms. VFP Web deployment is a chain of SPOFs (Single Point of Failure): W2K3, IIS, COM. In comparison, if a mod_perl app has a problem on Apache/Linux, redeploy on OS X or on Zeus or via CGI. Options. Choice. That’s what it came down to. The VFP solution was climbing out onto a limb with a vendor renowned for orphaning its products.

Orphaning: In the late 80s, I sat in a room back at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston while Microsoft announced the rollout of the NT platform. During the Q&A session, a fellow came up to the microphone and explained that he was a Microsoft “partner,” had subscribed to their products and had spent years with a staff of programmers developing an app not far from release, but targeted at OS/2. What, he asked, was Microsoft going to do for him? His voice was unsteady, and it was apparent that he was facing a disastrous failure. There was an awkward silence when he finished as the crowd fell silent. There was no noise but an occasional clink of crystal against silverware. A Microsoftie finally managed to speak up, trying to deflect the comment into a pitch for their new development tools. The spell ended, but the impression remains to this day.

I can’t lead another client down that path. THAT’s the business reason.

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