Ian Kilpatrick, managing director Wick Hill Group, gives a practical guide on thin client web-to-host technologies which can bring host systems into the Internet age.
The imminent demise of mainframes and minicomputers has been predicted for decades, yet mainframe sales remain strong. According to Meta Group, around 70% of corporate information is still entrusted to them. Global conversion to ebusiness is just as frequently predicted, yet take-up remains patchy.
One of the major reasons given for the delay in implementing ebusiness is the challenge of integrating existing legacy systems (survey of Global 2500 executives). This is not surprising really, given that the two approaches started at different points in most corporations.
Core systems have evolved over years or even decades, growing with the business and being internally focussed on the needs of the organisation. Ebusiness has typically grown out of externally facing initiatives, often created to timescales measured in a matter of months. The staff creating ebusiness systems may be divorced from core systems and have skills and knowledge based around a different technological and security approach.
With companies committed to their core systems and also committed to moving forward with ebusiness, integration, however, is not an option but an absolute requirement. The challenge is how to mix these two approaches to gain the maximum business benefit. And how to maintain the highest levels of security, while still maximising ease of use and access.
This is a tough task and while some companies have chosen and will choose the revolutionary 'Big Bang' approach, most organisations are planning and proceeding in a cautious, evolutionary way, much as they always have done.
The majority are connecting core systems and applications to the newer, continually expanding ebusiness environment using a tactical approach, which links these systems as quickly and easily as possible. But they are also mindful that this tactical approach has to fit into their long term strategic plan.
While it is easy to talk about ebusiness goals and objectives, putting them into practice can seem far more difficult - particularly after years of investment in core systems and applications.
What is ebusiness anyway? Ecommerce refers specifically to transactions conducted over the web, but it's a lot broader than that. One definition of ebusiness is that it is the integration of core business systems with web technology to conduct business over intranets, extranets or the Internet.
Ebusiness provides an unrivalled opportunity to release and exploit vast amounts of data-rich corporate information, which is the fuel that drives most companies. And it does not necessarily involve re-engineering all your business systems.
Ebusiness, particularly in the shape of thin client web-to-host technology, will give you the opportunity to access corporate information more easily and make it available to a much wider group of users. Getting the information you need can be as easy as clicking on a link in a desktop browser. More users get the information and at a lower cost.
Most corporate information is stored on host systems, traditionally accessed only by IT professionals and knowledge workers in departments such as customer service, accounts, purchasing or human resources.
Web-to-host technologies enable you to move your company further towards ebusiness, making information more accessible to three new groups of users. Firstly, occasional corporate users, which includes practically everyone in the organisation from the managing director to a sales executive. The common factor is that they are not regular users of host applications and have a limited understanding of them.
Secondly, business partners or third parties who work closely with your company and regularly access information remotely via a VPN or an extranet. This group includes suppliers, customers and others who provide information or use your information on a regular basis. Their knowledge and use of host applications will vary considerably.
Finally, there are consumers who may want to access corporate information via the Internet for activities such as e-commerce transactions, checking on the status of an order or simply gathering information. While some consumers are becoming increasingly IT literate, in general most will have no experience of host applications.
If core business applications and information access is to be extended to these groups, then there are some major issues to be addressed.
Firstly, while occasional internal users, business partners and consumers can benefit from accessing a company's host information, they require an intuitive point-and-click interface if you are to avoid costly and time-consuming training. This will ideally need to be achieved without re-engineering the application or back-end system.
Deployment cost and business disruption are further issues. Software updating typically accounts for 55 percent of a desktop’s total cost of ownership and as the number of users grows, this cost rises exponentially.
What's required is a way of automatically deploying and upgrading applications over the web to machines that are likely to range from top-of-the range PCs, laptops and network computers to older 486/386 PCs and Macs. This will typically require a thin client approach.
Last, but certainly not least, are the ever present security issues. As external users begin accessing legacy information, the need for access control, authentication and encryption increases. Web-to-host vendors are addressing the issue of security in different ways - either with built-in security options or working with third-party solutions to ensure the safety and integrity of valuable host data.
A number of different web-to-host technologies are already available, each approaching the challenge of ebusiness in a different way for different users.
Many companies are already deploying traditional PC applications over intranets.
By taking advantage of automated web deployment features, IT departments can continue to satisfy experienced core systems users with feature-rich software, while significantly reducing support costs.
Ideal as this solution may sound for knowledge workers and those occasional users already familiar with host applications, it won't work for other groups. This is because Intranet-deployed applications use the traditional ‘green-screen’ computer terminal interface that is often far from intuitive.
Their large size also makes these PC applications prohibitively time-consuming for remote users downloading over the Web and does nothing to solve the PC and network resource issue. However, since there are already security provisions built into the host applications and the intranet, security issues are addressed.
The Java applet approach
One web-to-host option is known as the direct-connect applet. This Java-based, thin-client technology resides on the server and is downloaded to the user's desktop on demand. Once downloaded, the applet establishes a connection directly to the host, without going back through the server.
Most direct-connect applets include some features that make the interface easier for occasional users and key business partners to use. Other advantages include rapid, low-cost deployment, minimal demands on PC resources, platform independence, no requirement for infrastructure changes, unlimited scalability and a reduced risk of failure as the server is used only for deployment. And for security, the connection can be directed through a secure proxy server.
But nothing is perfect and direct-connect applets also have some limitations. For example, they provide mid-level rather than full functionality, so they may not be appropriate for serious knowledge workers who do not want to compromise. Also, despite being programmable and customisable, these solutions still require users to have some familiarity with the host application.
Host publishing is another option that works with a web server to convert streams of host data into standard HTML for display in the user's browser. Similarly, these servers also convert the user's HTML data into a form that is understandable by the host application. Host publishing servers have several advantages. For example, they eliminate deployment costs for clients, can be accessed via any browser, place no demands on the user's PC resources, offer integrated security and include built-in screen rejuvenation tools that convert character based screens into graphical displays for ease of use.
One disadvantage, however, is severely reduced functionality. HTML is not designed to support keyboard mapping, printing and file transfer, for example. This drawback makes host publishing unsuitable for knowledge workers who require high-level functionality to do their jobs properly. Another disadvantage is the possibility of losing the host connection during a session. HTML provides only a connect-when-needed environment, while host applications require a connection at all times. In addition, because host publishing technology is dependent on a web server, it also has a single point of failure.
Host Integration Servers
One drawback of all the technologies described so far is that they are tied to the limitations of the green screen type of display that makes them unsuitable for groups of users who are not reasonably familiar with the applications.
A technology that overcomes this barrier and moves beyond the simple display of host applications is the host integration server. Host integration servers work alongside web servers to provide access to all sources of corporate data including databases, CICS and ERP solutions, and custom host applications.
Since the information in structured databases and core business applications is relatively easy to access, IT departments can add new business logic to web applications to create an intuitive interface for occasional users.
However, host integration servers do not provide a way for web applications to access the unstructured data in custom host applications. Nor do they utilise the established business logic which is embedded in the application interface of core systems.
This means users must continue to access these applications via conventional terminal emulation and a green screen type interface. Furthermore, the very integration capabilities that make this approach an attractive solution also require significant integration work on the part of IT departments, including in some cases complete business process re-engineering.
A benefit of this approach is usability, as it permits web applications to offer an intuitive user interface to core business applications and host databases.
Application mining is actually a development environment that will effectively access and mine both unstructured and structured data from multiple host applications.
This emerging technology provides the advantages of a host integration server and also addresses the needs of the casual user, loosely integrated business partner and consumer. It provides a browser type screen rather than a series of different screens, making training minimal.
An advantage offered by this combination of a host integration server and application mining is that web applications will gain access to all three sources of corporate data -host databases, core business applications and custom host applications. As a result IT departments can re-engineer the user interface to their host systems, creating web applications that can access data from whatever source. This re-engineering does not involve overhauling the back-end business logic.
And finally…terminal servers
A look at thin-client technologies would not be complete without talking about Microsoft’s Terminal Server software and Citrix MetaFrame. While these are not true web-to-host solutions, multi-client NT software products provide access to host applications from a web browser running on a range of desktops from top of the range PCs to 486/386 systems and even Macs. By providing the traditional interface and full-featured access to applications, they easily satisfy the needs of knowledge workers and occasional users with training.
Because the applications reside on servers and only the interface is downloaded to the client via the browser, these solutions also minimise network traffic and ensure reliable performance on any platform and from remote environments. But the main advantages are that companies don’t have to invest in new desktop hardware and on-going costs are reduced through more centralised management and control. There is, however, obviously the investment in Microsoft Terminal Server or Citrix MetaFrame software together with powerful servers to run it. For companies choosing the terminal server route, WRQ supports both Microsoft and Citrix solutions.
Picking the winners
Companies such as WRQ, IBM, Wall Data, Attachmate and OpenConnect have adopted different models to try and solve the web-to-host challenge. WRQ Reflection host access software, for example, combines the rich feature set and power demanded by knowledge workers, while also delivering a comprehensive set of management tools for IT personnel. These products also offer automated web distribution, which cuts large-scale deployment from days to minutes and lets users connect just by clicking a web link.
Java-based WRQ Reflection for the Web extends host access to casual and remote employees as well as business partners. Easily installed on any web server and downloaded to the desktop browser on demand, WRQ Reflection for the Web provides secure web access to IBM mainframe, AS/400, HP, UNIX, and Digital hosts, in one integrated package.
The growth of ebusiness and ecommerce has thrown up the challenge of how to merge a company's core and essential business systems with this rapidly developing, area of technology - mixing mainframe access requirements with 'point and click' web information delivery
Difficult though it may sound, there are solutions which can do this effectively. Contrary to the perception of many in the industry, who still associate web-to-host solutions with terminal emulation (which they perceive as dead and gone), it is the web-to-host answer which is leading the way.
People haven't abandoned their core systems. Instead, there has been a continual evolutionary move towards web-to-host as the best way to access host systems in the web age. It allows companies to do this quickly and easily, while still taking long term strategy into consideration.
The move towards web-to-host is now significantly gathering pace. According to IDC, it will account for the major part of the host access market by 2004, with a potential 12 million users in the UK alone by that date. Web-to-host is clearly having a major impact on IT departments and will continue to do so in the forseeable future.
Ian Kilpatrick is managing director of Wick Hill Group, specialists in infrastructure solutions for ebusiness. For further information, please contact Wick Hill on 01483 466500, email firstname.lastname@example.org., web www.wickhill.com.
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