Agencies use browsers to link legacy systems

In a meeting of new-age and old-line technologies federal agencies are exploring the use of World Wide Web gear to access legacy data and applications housed in mainframes.

The Air Force NASA the Patent and Trademark Office and the intelligence community are among the federal organizations looking to the Web to solve enterprise data-access challenges. The basic concept is to leverage the Web browser and server technology that many agencies already have in place as the gateway to mainframe data and applications. Adherents to this approach say it's easier and less expensive than other data-access methods.

Despite predictions that mainframes would become obsolete many agencies still store huge amounts of data on mainframes. But most need more advanced methods to view and manipulate that data said John Menkhart regional sales manager at Netscape Communications Corp.

"People recognize the value of mainframe-based data and the value of their investments in mainframes " Menkhart said. "They want to be able to revamp the front end to take advantage of this new technology but it doesn't necessitate that they move that data off the mainframe to do that."

Vendors are beginning to address this mainframe scenario. Netscape recently announced partnerships with a number of mainframe and enterprise connectivity concerns to develop a new class of Web-enabled tools for accessing enterprise systems and data [FCW Aug. 4]. Other vendors such as Active Software Inc. IBM Corp.'s Transarc Corp. business unit Information Builders Inc. Sterling Software Inc. Verity Inc. and Wall Data Inc. also are taking on Web-based mainframe access with a variety of wares.

Agencies are in various stages of testing and deploying the technology. The Defense Megacenter at Kelly Air Force Base San Antonio Texas has considered different approaches to mainframe access but is now exploring Web technology. The megacenter has been testing VM: Webserver Gateway on its IBM ES 9000-class mainframe. The product provides access to mainframe applications via Hypertext Markup Language browsers. Sgt. Larry Davis VM operating system technical manager at Kelly Air Force Base expects to acquire the product by the end of September and put it into production to tap logistics applications.

Web technology offers an "inexpensive easy-to-administer" method for drawing upon mainframe resources Davis said. He said other approaches involved the purchase of additional hardware and software and were therefore more expensive. While one vendor's access method would have cost $150 000 to install Sterling's technology costs about $20 000 per server.

Davis said the megacenter's ES 9000 mainframe will run VM: Webserver Gateway affording browser access to applications on that mainframe and eventually spanning other DOD mainframes running logistics applications. The ES 9000 already runs Sterling's VM: Webserver product which Web-enables applications. VM: Webserver Gateway will be an extension to that product and will provide such necessary features as security through Secure Socket Layer technology. Users will be able to access mainframes using Netscape or Microsoft Corp. browsers.

NASA is using the Web technique and Netscape technology to allow outside users to obtain e-mail addresses from the directory of a proprietary e-mail system said Rudi Peksens Netscape product manager at BTG Inc. Before the launch of this application outsiders did not have access to this directory.

Also several U.S. intelligence agencies worldwide are using this method as well as Netscape browsers and servers to convert massive amounts of intelligence data from a proprietary system to a Web-based system Peksens added. Before using the Web technology 20 000 analysts spread among various agencies did not have an easy method to share electronic information. Now analysts at one intelligence agency can post tailored intelligence data on a specific topic - such as Bosnia - to a "classified Internet" or intranet to be shared.

PTO meanwhile hired Litton/PRC Inc. to build a Web-based front end to its legacy environments. The software will allow PTO to search patent texts on a mainframe and look up images on a Unix server.

Hal Wilson a vice president with Litton/PRC said agencies are drawn to Web-based access because they do not have to scrap or modify legacy systems.

"The trend is strong " said Wilson of Web-based mainframe access. Approaches to making the Web-mainframe link vary by vendor. Vendors such as Transarc and Information Builders rely on middleware technology.

Active Software meanwhile employs software technology the company refers to as "adapters" and "brokers" to mitigate between disparate information systems. The company already offers an adapter for Java and ActiveX and has plans for IBM 3270 and DB2 adapters.

Michael Reeder Internet business manager at Government Technology Services Inc. said the rise of products geared toward Web-based mainframe access will further lower the cost of this option. He said his company recently started reselling Wall Data's Arpeggio which provides such access.

However for older mainframe applications on platforms unlikely to attract product developers some custom coding is in order. Litton/PRC's Wilson said programs written in the Common Gateway Interface language solve the problem of linking older systems to browsers.

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