Focus Topic - Web-to-host: The Next Generation of Host Connectivity
In today’s growing e-business environment, interest in improved and expanded host connectivity has spawned a new generation of connectivity software products. Web-to-host technology enables direct access to a host system via a company intranet, an extranet or the Internet. Internet users need only a browser to access a host, make and change reservations, register for a college class; extranet partners can dial in to check the status of a shipment, and intranet users have less software on their desktops yet are able to perform daily tasks.
Software companies like Wall Data, Attachmate, Netmanage, WRQ and others are leading the way in delivering reliable software for Web-based connections between desktops and AS/400s, no matter where the desktop is located.
Based primarily on client/server technology and TCP/IP standards, Web-to-host software enables users to directly interface with a host system. This means that calling customer service to check on an order can be eliminated. Customers will be able to access information directly on the host without having to speak anyone.
Host access is not new, but using Web technology to make the connection is. Host connectivity can be divided into three groups based on the desktop software required; fat (thick) clients, thin clients or Web-to-host clients. Fat clients require the desktop to have most if not all of the connectivity software on its hard drive. Thin clients require only a portion of the connectivity software on the desktop and, with Web-to-host, desktops need only a browser.
Web-to-host is based on emulation technology providing host connection via a middle-tier server, not directly to the host from a desktop. The connectivity software resides on a Web server or a separate middle tier server, not on the host. This means that no adjustments need to be made to the host’s code in order to allow users access.
Built in authorization and authentication protocols keep vital information secure, but still allow access. Depending on authorization levels, users can access, change, or add information directly on the host in real time. It allows authorized users to check on orders, credit status, even inventory and production levels.
IS managers get nervous when considering that Web-to-host provides the possibility of unlimited access to the host by everyone. Even with security measures in place, some managers may be reluctant to open access to a legacy host for fear of theft or damage. These fears can be allayed since deployment of Web-to-host can be limited to only those authorized to access host information. By remaining within the confines of the existing intranet, authentication and authorization is much the same as with existing fat or thin connectivity software.
Savings and Flexibility
Having host connectivity software on a middle-tier server saves both time and money. By not having to directly administer each desktop, the IS manager can conserve resources, explains Mike Gentile, VP, information technology services, at Zurich-American Insurance. "Savings come from the deployment per machine, the disk space on the machine, the support issues, and centralized management," says Gentile. "Anything that I keep on the server and don’t deploy to the client is going to be cheaper."
Changes, if required, can be made at the server level and all desktops connected benefit. This also means not having to purchase additional licenses and/or software to add new users.
Zurich-American, which currently uses Wall Data’s thin client Rumba product, chose to upgrade with Wall Data’s Web-to-host Cyberprise software in order to have standard connectivity, to be able to update just the server, and to provide accessibility with minimal software deployment. These features can be found as part of most Web-to-host products and are attractive because they provide IS managers a way to uniformly connect users to the host without having to adjust AS/400 or mainframe code.
Ohio State, which participated in the Attachmate Web-to-host software Beta program, deployed Web-to-host in its registrars department. Students like the freedom of being able to register for classes without having to go through an administrator or use the existing voice response system. Staff productivity has been raised now that the staff no longer has to retrieve information and print it out for the students. John Orwig, the project team leader says, "So far, there have been few complaints and plans are in the works to develop applications for other university departments."
Web-to-host is also flexible. Once comfortable that existing security measures are adequate, it is possible to add extranet partners, such as dealerships, trusted partners and remote employees and to provide them access to pertinent information stored on the host. Eventually limited access to host information can be made available to the general public over the Web.
It is not surprising that a proliferation of Web-to-host options have emerged; after all, the traditional host connectivity market is a crowded multi-billion dollar industry. Vendors look for ways to differentiate themselves in a congested market. Some vendors supply the Web-to-host connectivity as part of a suite, while others sell Web-to-host as a separate item. Some of the products are designed to work with several hosts (mainframe, AS/400, Unix, Digital), while others are host specific. These differing marketing schemes can be complex and may even be counter productive, because the task of selecting the right Web-to-host software gets confusing.
According to Audrey Apfel, VP and research director with the Gartner Group (Stamford, Conn.), people are looking for a way to get rid of fat clients for something cheaper. "The market is really starting as an intranet replacement for traditional terminal emulation and in some extranet environments," says Apfel. Expect that trend to continue until Web-to-host becomes more accepted and mature.
The Web-to-host industry is in its toddler stage, and is experiencing technology growing pains. For instance, vendors are wrestling with updating technology. Wall Data still needs to address a problem that precludes both Rumba and Cyberprise from running on the same desktop. Problems other vendors have include trouble with printing and "cut and paste" applications. Gartner’s Apfel says, "The downside for now is capability, maturity and manageability of the product. It’s an early market, that means the technology still has to grow."
The crowded Web-to-host market has at least a dozen vendors vying for position. As the market and products mature, look for some restructuring and consolidations. "It is also a tough market; there are too many vendors and there is competitive pricing going on," says Apfel. "It is difficult to charge a premium for the technology."
Host connectivity, in general, has grown out of the 3270 market and has then traditionally been adapted to include 5250 systems. This market dynamic has also evolved with Web-to-host products, but on a much faster scale. As a result several vendors include 3270 and 5250 support as part of the Web-to-host target market.
Just because something is new does not necessarily mean you should go out and buy it. Benefits associated with Web-to-host should justify the purchase. How is this going to help your business? Here is a quick list:
- Reduced need to administer desktops. With Web-to-host, no software is required to be on the desktop other than an HTML reader or a browser, and that usually comes pre-installed; so a personal visit from a technician is not required.
- When changes to the Web-to-host software are made, they are made on the server, not the clients -- making administration faster and easier.
- By taking licensed software off the desktop, you reduce licensing costs.
- Flexible; Web-to-host works via intranet, extranet, or Internet connections.
- Little need for training users. Most are familiar and comfortable with using browsers.
- Provides for uniform access to the host.
- No adjustments to host code.
Web-to-host can be used by remote employees to get the latest information and to perform daily tasks. A salesperson can be sitting with a customer, dial in to the host and find out the status of that customer’s order, availability of goods and credit status. He or she can even place an order to be shipped based on the real time information displayed. Trusted partners can check inventory of the items they supply, to see if a rush or delay of the next shipment is appropriate.
Connections need not be made during regular business hours. A west coast salesman can still access information even if the east coast office is closed, or the plant in Singapore can check the inventory level in Mexico. No personal conversations are required. Orders can be checked, placed or altered by authorized users electronically, just by using a desktop computer with a browser.
As companies become more familiar with Web-to-host capabilities and the security issues, Web-to-host will continue to grow. Gartner’s Apfel anticipates Web-to-host will be a $3 billion industry by 2002, "What drives this market is that you have legacy applications on the host that only know how to talk 5250 and you don’t want to touch those." She says, "To a certain extent, this technology is going to be so attractive over the long run; its not really an if you do it, its a when. By 2002 about 80 percent of host access that is done today is going to be done by some form of Web-enabled client."
In reality, few users are aware of anything behind the browser's GUI. Users simply want to be able to access and use the information. Web-to-host flexibility gives users the option to use an HTML page or to continue using the host based green screen. For internal users, Web-to-host will provide an easily managed host connection; for external users, host connectivity will seem like surfing the Web.
Web-to-host promises the capacity to eventually connect anyone to a host, but do not look for much public Web access any time soon. Businesses will want to see a track record from Web-to-host software vendors in terms of support and enhancements, especially in the security realm, before permitting access to legacy information to the general public. While Web-to-host will be a major factor in the re-engineering of intranets and the establishment of extranets, it may be some time before the public will be allowed access to host information.