Vendors unveil a variety of mainframe-access solutions

Several vendors are rolling out products to meet what they believe is increasing customer demand for mainframe access via World Wide Web browsers.

A diverse group of companies is promoting a range of technical solutions that aim to tap mainframe resources through the ubiquitous Web browsers. Networking companies mainframe software firms and middleware vendors are among the players vying for customer attention.

The federal government may become a key market for these products as agencies seek low-cost methods for tapping legacy data and applications industry executives contended. A number of federal agencies already are exploring browser-based mainframe access [FCW Aug. 11].

In the networking sector Cisco Systems Inc. Menlo Park Calif. is reselling OpenConnect Systems' WebConnect and OpenVista software products to government agencies and the company has plans to integrate OpenConnect's products with Cisco's routers. WebConnect offers legacy data access through Web browsers while OpenVista lends a graphical interface to mainframe applications. Lisa Lindgren a product-line manager at Cisco said demand for this mainframe-access method is "heating up in the federal government."

Lindgren said the OpenConnect products reside on Unix or Microsoft Corp. Windows NT servers and in the future will be integrated with Cisco's router technology. In this approach customers can avoid having to purchase additional software namely display emulators to run on client machines she said. The OpenConnect technology costs about $49 to $99 per desktop compared with around $200 for a display emulator she said.

"The appeal of browser-based access is that you don't have to install special-purpose software" on the desktop Lindgren said. Cisco formed a strategic alliance with OpenConnect late last year and has purchased a minority stake in the company.

Companies with PC-to-host software backgrounds also are capitalizing on browser technology. Wall Data Inc. Palo Alto Calif. last month debuted Rumba Office 95/NT for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol a suite of 32-bit access applications that allow users to link to IBM Corp. mainframe systems through the TCP/IP.

The product features Rumba Internet Companion which is integrated with Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.02. Rumba Internet Companion allows users to access host sessions and Web sites moving between the two without losing connection.

In the federal market Rumba Office 95/NT for TCP/IP is available through Softmart Inc. Corporate Software Technology Software Spectrum ASAP Software Express Inc. Ingram Micro Inc. Merisel Inc. and Tech Data Corp. a Wall Data spokeswoman said. The product currently is available at $350 per seat.

Another company with a mainframe heritage Computer Associates International Inc. (CA) has developed a product called Opal that makes it possible to create graphical-user-interface (GUI)-driven applications for accessing data from multiple data sources such as mainframe and client/server databases or to create graphical front ends for legacy applications such as mainframe-based 3270 applications.

With Opal CA is pursuing "extranets " virtual private networks based on the Internet. Opal which runs as a plug-in for Netscape Communications Corp.'s Communicator or Microsoft's Internet Explorer allows agencies to "repurpose" an application for an extranet giving it a rich GUI interface and added features but not writing code from scratch said Robert Lincoln product manager for Infresco the CA subsidiary that markets Opal.

Some agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service are looking to develop extranet applications in which they open up a limited set of data to the general public over the Web said Milt Rogers a divisional vice president at CA's federal office. Opal works with an agency's existing database but displays only those data fields the agency wants exposed to the public Lincoln added.

Sterling Software Inc. this month is planning to ship the latest version of its VM: Webserver Gateway which employs the basic technology used in Web search engines to provide mainframe access. The product uses Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripts the same technology that helps users retrieve data when conducting a Web search. In the case of Sterling's product the CGI script is used to mediate between the browser and a given application server. VM: Webserver Gateway allows CGI scripts to communicate with a mainframe application server through the existing application client the company said.

The server-based product generally costs $10 000 to $110 000 Sterling officials said. The product has generated increasing interest in the government market which represents 30 percent of Sterling's total business a Sterling spokeswoman added.

In addition Netscape in July entered a series of partnerships with mainframe and data connectivity vendors to develop Web-enabled tools for tapping enterprise systems and databases.

The companies involved include Active Software Apertus Attachmate BEA Systems Beyond Software Blue Lobster Software Information Builders Inc. Intelligent Environments Kiva Software NCR Corp. OpenConnect Systems Siemens-Nixdorf Simware StarQuest Software TIBCO Software Transarc and Wall Data.

Each company will be working with Netscape to create applications to interface with mainframe databases to access a variety of enterprise data. That data is then distributed in a standard format such as Hypertext Markup Language JavaScript or Java which can be viewed and manipulated within Netscape Communicator's cross-platform interface.


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