Where Does Host Access Fit?

Since rebranding its technologies and services as e-@ction solutions last fall, Unisys has plunged headlong into e-business-mania. However, with a huge global installed base of mainframe systems, there’s plenty of work to be done.

Perhaps, the most popular approach to e-business-enabling enterprise systems is enterprise portals, which are individualized, browser-based views to corporate data, networks and services – a "MyYahoo.com"-style interface, tailored to corporate networks. Now being aggressively pitched by vendors, estimates for the size of the portal market within the next couple of years range from $740 million to as high as $14 billion. Already, 55 percent of large companies have portal projects in the works, according to research from Delphi Group.

The first generation of portals served as a means to aggregate disparate intranet and extranet content – such as online policies and procedure manuals, or employee directories. New portal solutions on the market expand their reach to include access to ERP, knowledge management, business intelligence and data warehouse applications. Half of the IT executives in the Delphi Group survey say that browser-accessible portals will replace Windows desktop environments.

There is enormous synergy between enterprise portals and Web-to-host solutions as well. An enterprise portal is a Web-based solution that serves as a window to the enterprise, enabling end users to access, via single sign-on through a browser, information from various back-end servers and databases – as does Web to host. Both approaches offer security management and enable companies to control the authentication, authorization and administration of multiple users.

While Web to host is a rapidly deployable solution for near-term needs, IT managers need to also consider the role host access plays in a longer-term portal strategy. It’s logical that a Web-to-host interface can serve as a "portal" for employees and partners accessing your enterprise. Web-to-host solutions already work off a Web server that either directly links users to back-end systems or provides HTML renderings of data. In addition, Web-to-host solutions are capable of offering a layer of links to other online databases and services.

However, the two approaches are not a real easy fit as they exist today, since they have different agendas. Web to host’s most pronounced and accepted role continues to be point-to-point terminal emulation, not as a catchall user interface. The technology is still evolving, and companies aren’t ready to risk gumming up deployments with Internet bells and whistles.

Likewise, portal technology is immature and still evolving. To many, it’s still a glorified search engine, or simply a way of getting to something else. Plus, it is difficult to capture various departmental business processes through a single portal. Portal vendors are still wrestling with building searchable databases at the front end.

"Web to host is about developing multiple screens or windows that allow you to use whatever green-screen you need from a legacy application," says Darcy Fowkes, Analyst with Aberdeen Group. "The portal is a gateway, or channel, to multiple resources." Such resources can be databases on other platforms in the company, or newsfeeds and services from outside Web servers. "The weather isn’t an application that you pull up from a legacy back end," she notes.

That being said, Web to host can be considered an important building block of portal technology. In fact, Web to host already addresses one of the hardest parts of portal deployments – getting to information on multiple back-end systems and databases. Through vendor partnerships or customized solutions, Web-to-host connectivity may eventually be integrated, in some fashion, into portal environments. This will represent an opportunity to bring host access forward, from a tactical point-to-point role to that of a strategic enterprise service. Corporate end user Web portals may include, through a single sign-on, links to launch Java or ActiveX-based host emulation sessions from target systems.

"The portal of the future will not only have what you need in terms of stocks, news and weather, but also include the transaction processing requirements of your job," predicts Fowkes. "MyDesktop" for an accounting clerk may include a Web-to-host link to the mainframe, which the marketing manager next door won’t have. The purchasing manager at a major customer on the other side of the country may have the link as well.

Inevitably, IT managers and end users will seek convergence between host access and portals, rather than maintaining separate security infrastructures and separate interfaces to corporate data on disparate systems. Web-to-host solutions increasingly include portal-like capabilities, while portal solutions are doing a better job of reaching back-end data. Such an infrastructure will enable users to sign on to their desktops once, from any location, and get immediate access to corporate and outside resources, be it from a mainframe, internal Web server or outside service.