Fat Clients Get Thinner: Modernize Your Host Access Solution

Organizations look to use the Internet to become more competitive and significantly reduce costs. Web-to-host solutions help modernize the host access method today and provide a framework that allows existing host applications to be a foundation to meet strategic business objectives.

As companies move to modernize their network infrastructure and computing environments to take advantage of the Internet, shouldn’t it also be time to modernize your host access method? Organizations are scrambling to use the Internet to become more competitive and significantly reduce costs. One of the quickest ways to do this actually has the least cost, complexity and risk associated with it. Better yet, many companies have been using these Web-based solutions in production for over two years.

Ever since the PC has been around, users have required access to IBM mainframes and midrange systems. Since 1981, technology for accessing mainframes has progressed from Control Unit Terminal, CUT mode, COAX boards to Microsoft Windows-based terminal emulation products. Along the way, these solutions have grown significantly in cost and complexity. Today these single purpose solutions can cost up to $525 for every user that needs mainframe access, whether it’s all day data entry or once a week queries. These solutions often take up 25-35 megabytes of hard drive space on every PC. The acquisition cost actually pales when compared to the operation costs of installing, maintaining, troubleshooting and administering these single purpose "fat client" solutions.

One of the main reasons for this bloat is that most emulation manufacturers follow the Microsoft upgrade revenue model. They make money by convincing companies to upgrade to the latest and greatest version of the software by adding some new complex features that will theoretically make your life easier. Remember that this is the same software designed to emulate an IBM device that is 22 years old. Some of the original 3274 cluster controllers provided all this functionality with only 64K of memory! The actual 3270 data stream definition has not changed very much since the 1970s. Why all the upgrades? The good news is that with the rise of the Internet and other Web technologies (i.e., Java and ActiveX), you can provide host access from a more modern, much "thinner" computing environment.

Web-to-Host solutions began appearing in the last quarter of 1995. Over the last 2 ½ years the number of solutions available has increased significantly. The one major common denominator all these solutions have is that no software other than a standard Web browser is required at the client device. As the technology has matured over the past couple of years, solutions are now available that rival the feature sets of products that require complex software at every desktop. International Data Corporation recently published a report on the Web-to-host market, Web-to-Host Browser License Review and Forecast, 1997-2002 (April 1998 IDC# 15950). According to this report, at the end of 1997, there were over 271,000 users accessing their mission-critical systems from a browser. This number is growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 145 percent. Over the next four years, 80 percent of all host access will be from a Web browser.

Browser-Based Terminal Emulation Architecture

In order to provide true terminal emulation, over 75 percent of all Web-based products utilize either a Java or ActiveX applet that is downloaded from a Web server. To access a mainframe or a mainframe application, the user logs onto a Web server, is authenticated and presented with a Web page containing a "hot link" like "Click here to Access the S/390" or "Accounts Receivable Application," etc. By clicking on that link a Java or ActiveX applet is loaded either from the browser cache on the local drive or from the Web server. That applet establishes a secure, persistent, SNA style connection back to the mainframe either through a Web gateway or directly to the mainframe via a SNA-to-TCP/IP gateway or a native IP stack on the mainframe. The users see their standard VTAM logon screen and interact with the application as they always have. The only difference is that the "green screen" was launched from a browser. The users still have full keyboard support. Functions like 3287 printing, IND$FILE transfer, etc., are still available. In fact, NetView/390 still thinks the device is an actual "dumb" terminal. You can still gather Response Time Monitor (RTM) statistics, etc.

Solution Requirements

While there will always be the small class of power users in every company that finds a way to justify use of all 105+ features offered in some of the Windows-based terminal emulators, typical host access requirements can be broken down into end user and administrator requirements. End user requirements include:

*Access requirements. Most users require a broad set of SNA functions. These include features, such as IBM Model 2-5 support, multiple session/window support, 3270, 5250, VT220 emulation functionality, etc. The ability to get a true "green screen" interface, as well as a graphical Web-like interface to the existing applications, is also key. The productivity of users trained on the traditional application interface would fall through the floor if they were confronted with a new interface that required use of a mouse.

*Data Movement Requirements. This is the ability to move data from the mainframe to a network environment. This data could be 3287 print reports or binary files exchanged via IND$FILE transfer. This also could be the integration of mainframe data with other applications.

*Productivity enhancements. Users often want certain actions "scripted" for faster access. This could be as simple as scripting the logon process or having a tool bar that takes the user directly to a new mainframe application with the click of a mouse. These requirements could also include features like "hot spots," keyboard re-map, cursor select, etc.

*Ergonomic requirements. These requirements often can be the determining factor of user acceptance. While performance and features are required, if the user can’t see the screen or they can’t stand the colors, they won’t be productive. Ergonomic features directly relate to the ability to configure a workable environment. Everything from screen size to color re-mapping, to the ability to change fonts, is typically required.

While these are the typical requirements for end users, Web-based or server-centric solutions can also address a number of administrator concerns that until now were, for the most part, not addressed by traditional emulation solutions. These include:

Centralized administration. The ability to provide centralized control and configuration. One of the major challenges still facing most MIS departments is software distribution of updates. How often is your help desk plagued with calls related to version control issues? Or how many late nights or weekends did you and your staff spend upgrading your desktop population to the latest version of your host access software? Web-based solutions are installed on a server. Since there is no client software other than a browser, there is nothing to install or maintain on the desktop. The Gartner Group recently reported (Web to Host: Lowering the Cost of Terminal Emulation, March 13, 1998 SPA-03-7324) that companies could save more than 25 percent of their Total Cost of Ownership, TCO, by simply switching from a traditional terminal emulator to a Web-based solution.

Administrators may wish to lock certain user options, like the gateway they access, which LU the user receives, etc., while still giving users the ability to customize their keyboard and colors. Or they may wish to easily set up configurations for a group of users, such as the accounting department. Server-centric solutions allow this to happen on a single or a few servers for an entire enterprise rather than on every desktop.

Data protection. The ability to keep corporate information safe while traveling across a TCP/IP infrastructure is paramount in today’s exposed environment. This is one area where Web-based solutions have completely surpassed traditional emulation. TN3270(E) has exposed a potentially serious security hole in the enterprise. TN3270(E) sends all information in simple clear text. It wouldn’t take long for a user with a shareware network "sniffer" program to collect mainframe user ID’s and passwords.

I used to hear the phrase "It’s our internal network, security is not an issue" quite a lot. Most people don’t realize that research shows 80 percent of all break-ins are by internal users. Who would have more to gain from access your mainframe? - The 13-year-old hacker looking for a cool game or the disgruntled employee that "sniffs" the accounting users ID’s, passwords and account numbers, who is looking for an unauthorized pay raise?

Reduced Support Costs. What department doesn’t want to reduce their support costs? By removing a "fat," complex, proprietary Windows-based terminal emulator and replacing it with a feature equivalent solution that employs nothing but a browser at the desktop, you gain:

  • A less complex application, due to the user software being a browser, means fewer things could go wrong.
  • The ability to limit what the user can configure themselves to "keep them out of trouble."
  • No chance of your user population having multiple versions running.
  • Improved performance.
  • Less training requirements since the application interface is a browser.
  • Less training for new users by replacing the traditional green-on-black interface with a rejuvenated interface.

Beyond Simple Terminal Emulation

Besides meeting your user’s requirements and reducing a number of administration headaches that you’ve been forced to live with over the years, Web-based emulation also provides significant benefits to the organization as a whole.

Companies have placed enormous resources on making their mission-critical application Year 2000-compliant. During this process, little if any time has been spent on the user interface. Web-based solutions can provide an instant graphical interface to the users instead of the traditional character-based version. Not only have you increased your Y2K ROI, but have provided an updated interface for your user community without doing any additional development. The underlying application or the communications methods to the mission-critical application haven’t changed. The only new components are that your information is encrypted all the way to the desktop and the users have no client software other than a browser.

With standard terminal emulation products, companies typically have three options to provide access for remote or traveling users: install expensive protocol converters, maintain large modem banks or provide no access. With a Web-based solution that has built-in SSL encryption, users can access mainframe applications via the Internet using a local Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Before using a Web-based solution, one major hospital system was actually sending staff out to doctors’ homes at night to configure terminal emulation and remote dial-up connections. Now, those same doctors use a local ISP and a browser for access. MIS "house calls" have dropped to zero.

Endless Possibilities – Increased Customer Satisfaction and New Revenue Opportunities

Secure Web-based solutions not only save time, money and headaches for current SNA users, but also allow you to provide new services to new internal users, business partners and customers. A classic example of how and why to leverage your existing applications by providing access to business partners is what a major mid-west-based lawnmower and tractor manufacturer is doing. In an effort to reduce call center costs, they wanted to provide direct access for their top dealers to several mainframe applications. These included ordering, shipping, accounting, and credit applications. The first attempt was to install large modem banks with 800 numbers and physically ship diskettes containing a traditional emulator to 1000 dealers. Needless to say, this did not work well. Help Desk call volume went through the roof, customer satisfaction went down, and they had to send support staff on site to many of these dealers. At the end of the project less than 1/3 of dealers were successfully accessing the mainframe.

Based on those results, they went back to the drawing board. They had wanted to somehow leverage the Web for quite some time. Since standard emulators proved to be too complex for their users, they looked for a Web-based solution. Within 30 days after initial deployment to their top 300 dealers, help desk calls dropped off to almost nothing, customer satisfaction skyrocketed, sales increased and order lead-time decreased significantly. Because the dealers were using the Internet via a local ISP at $20 a month, they are saving around $90,000 per month on their phone bills alone.

Beyond Emulation

While some browser-based solutions are simply terminal emulators re-written in Java or ActiveX, almost 70 percent of Web solutions in use today utilize a distributed computing architecture. The emulation functions are actually split between the Java or ActiveX applet and a server component or Web-gateway. The client applet typically handles processor intensive functions such as display and keyboard handling, while the server component handles the SNA communication conversions. One of the main reasons that 70 percent of companies chose this type of solution is the additional advantages it offers over simple terminal emulation. A distributed computing architecture allows for the use of advanced features, like encryption and compression, between the client and server. These functions are not available in traditional terminal emulation environments such as TN3270.

Additionally, while terminal emulation may be the current application for browser-based access, a distributed architecture allows you to put a framework in place to move beyond simple terminal emulation. With the rise of n-tier computing and Web application servers, more and more organizations will be developing new server-based applications. Since 70 percent of corporate information is still on IBM enterprise platforms, that information will need to be integrated with these new applications. A server-based architecture solves your current emulation needs while providing the flexibility for future migration. Whether this future involves the integration of SNA applications with new development or host access with enterprise directory services, such as LDAP, etc., a distributed computing architecture solves your needs today and provides for growth in the future.

Lay the Foundation Today for Tomorrow’s Enterprise

Web-to-Host solutions solve today’s problems of desktop management and administration by delivering a terminal emulation solution on demand. Solutions that satisfy all of the traditional terminal emulation requirements, while providing an avenue to a broader Web-based future, have been shipping from a number of vendors for over 2 ½ years.

Existing IBM mainframe applications will remain critically important, while users will continue to demand more intuitive, direct access to these applications. Web-to-host solutions resolve both issues now, by allowing you to modernize your host access method today and providing a framework that allows existing host applications to be a foundation to meet strategic business objectives. This provides for your current needs of emulation access and gives you an architecture to leverage and extend these mission-critical applications for new ongoing development efforts.


David Johnson is the Director of Product Marketing for OpenConnect Systems (www.openconnect.com), a provider of solutions that Web-enable host computing. He can be reached via e-mail at djohnson@oc.com.