A new path for mainframe access

These Web-to-host products, ever-increasing in number, make it possible to provide access without the labor-intensive process of porting mainframe applications to the Web. The new products typically provide a browser-based interface, which users from any platform can use, and server software that sits between the end user and the host to translate client requests into a language the mainframe can understand.

The relative ease of deployment of Web-to-host solutions has drawn attention from a lot of quarters, especially at DOD.

"There's a big move in the U.S. Army to Web-enable everything that can be [enabled]. We're going to be putting Web front ends on nearly all of our host-based applications," said Joshua Testerman, a senior systems programmer contracted by the Army Medical Information Systems and Services Agency at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

The agency spent millions of dollars developing scientific and medical database applications that would be prohibitively expensive to port to Web versions; Web-to-host connectivity will avoid that expense, Testerman said.

Web-enabling host access also will expand the availability of mission-critical database applications at the Army medical agency. Users there need constant access to applications to procure medical supplies and to check crucial health statistics, such as the number of cases of diseases and the correlation among injuries, geography and line of work.

Browser as a Platform

Increasingly, users are looking to overcome software management problems through the centralized administration and ease of deployment offered by Web-to-host connectivity products, analysts said.

Web-to-host connectivity can solve software distribution, upgrade and management problems with heterogeneous networks because "you can just say the standard platform is a browser," said Audrey Apfel, director of Internet and intranet research at Gartner Group, Stamford, Conn.

The Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs division, Arlington, Va., plans to lower its software management support costs by moving applications to a Web environment, said Maj. Darrell Philpot, head of the Information Technology Branch at the division.

While migrating 900 users from a Banyan Systems Inc. VINES environment to a Microsoft Corp. Windows NT environment, the division implemented Attachmate Corp.'s Extra Host View Server, which provides IBM Corp. 3270 terminal emulation within either the Netscape Communications Corp. Netscape or Microsoft Internet Explorer Web browser. The 3270 dumb terminal is the traditional client for accessing mainframe applications.

Philpot chose the Web-based host emulation product because of the time and cost it saves in software upgrades. Instead of having to manage "fat" PCs loaded with software, Web-to-host connectivity allows networked PCs to access software on one centralized server via the same standard browser. "I did not have to install any mainframe software on [the individual] desktops, and I'll just upgrade the Web server software," Philpot said.

Some Limitations

Despite expectations of a large market, Web-to-host products did not get top grades last year, as limitations in functionality stalled implementation throughout most of 1997, and some features still are lacking, observers said.

Many first releases supported IBM mainframe access only, with support for other kinds of hosts, such as Unix and midrange systems, coming too late, said Stephen Drake, an intranet networking architectures analyst at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

Additionally, most tools lack security features and printing support and have limitations on the number of potential users, according to IDC.

Vendors are working to address these problems. For example, FTP Software Inc.'s OnWeb Host Version 2.0 supports terminals for Unix and IBM's AS/400 midrange computer, and FTP will add printing and other functionality in Version 3.0, which is slated for release this August, said Mo Rosen, FTP's vice president of worldwide marketing, North Andover, Mass.

As functionality grows, analysts expect browser-based front ends to stay lean and simple while the back-end server solutions become more intelligent. One example is CST Inc.'s Jacada product, which can be customized easily, said Gartner Group's Apfel.

The U.S Geological Survey's Washington Administrative Service Center, which uses Jacada, is now developing the kind of sophisticated Web-to-host technology that soon may prevail.

At the same time it builds a graphical user interface (GUI) for a mainframe-based financial management system, the center is re-engineering the application to make it easier for users to navigate, said Sue Compton, program manager for systems modernization at the Administrative Service Center's Denver office. "A lot of the navigation of our financial system is a pain. [With Jacada], we cut out five steps just in the log-on and log-off processes alone," Compton said.

One of the strengths of Jacada is its automated screen-generation tool, Compton said. "Once you define the parameters, it lets you take large enterprise applications and create a GUI application for them quickly," she said. Jacada Version 5.1, which Compton is using, can support 10 to 12,000 screens, according to CST.

Jacada and many other tools get much of their functionality from the Java programming language, which is a platform-independent language designed for Web-based applications.

"The portability of Java means we don't need separate versions for PCs, Apple Macintosh and Unix machines. No matter where the user is, as long as they are connected to the network, they are connected to the applications," said David Holmes, CST's vice president of marketing, Atlanta.

FTP plans to extend its use of Java with Java Beans, Rosen said. Java Beans are chunks of reusable Java programming code that can be incorporated into various Java applications. OnWeb Host Version 3.0 will include all host emulators in the product as Java Beans, with a standard interface. Programmers can build new applications on top of the emulators with a $79 Java application builder called Java Studio, Rosen said.

Web-to-host technology has been put to good use on the Internet for the same reasons it is being developed on government intranets or extranets, particularly due to the nature of Java, which makes it possible to develop small, interactive applications that support any number of platforms. To open public service data to the masses without having to re-engineer applications, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children uses Web-to-host connectivity for its Web site, located at www.missingkids.com.

The site has improved the recovery rate of abducted children, said Rick Minicucci, the chief technology officer for the center.

The site comprises a network of Sun Microsystems Inc. Unix servers running a Computer Associates International Inc. Ingres database. It was designed by CA in Java and uses the Hypertext Transfer Protocol to move photos of missing children from the Ingres database to a Java applet hosted on the Web page, Minicucci said.

"Before this, we only had the milk carton poster program or faxes," said Mark Sokol, senior vice president for advanced technology at CA, Islandia, N.Y. "Now anyone with a browser anywhere in the world can see an image of a missing child as soon as it gets put up."

As part of its $1.5 million donation to the center, Sun Microsystems is installing a series of JavaStations for a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day Watch Center, where parents and authorities can call to report missing children.

A Java pull applet receives the information about a missing child, passes it to a Java push applet, which retrieves the appropriate information from the host and then sends it back to the inquirer.

"There is no time wasted downloading or uploading an entire application; the Java applets only go after the information requested," said Chaz Chastain, business development manager at Sun Microsystems Federal.

With all the advantages, users and vendors have high hopes for Web-to-host solutions. Web-to-host connectivity products are expected to become more widely deployed in the next few years, according to IDC. IDC predicted that by 2002, 80 percent of the host access market will be browser-based, Drake said.

Some observers believe the Web-to-host market is part of a push across the information technology market to use the Web browser as an interface.

"What you'll see in the future is that 3270 [mainframe client] is just one application moving toward the universal client: the Web browser. It will be followed by word processors, spreadsheets— you name it— also databases," said Mark Ello, Attachmate's federal channel manager, Bethesda, Md.

-- Gerber is a free-lance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

***

AT A GLANCE

Status: Web-to-host connectivity has emerged as a popular way to provide a large number of users with access to mainframe-based data and applications.

issues: These new solutions provide connectivity without requiring expensive or complicated technology. However, most products still have limitations such as no support for printing or insufficient security.

outlook: Very good. Vendors continue to refine the technology, addressing limitations and adding functionality with every product release.

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