Preparing for the Inevitable

New applications are challenging the conventional wisdom that mainframeand client/server systems can't work together effectively. Products and protocols havearrived that extend the mainframe's channels for extensive global networking, establishgraphical Web browsers as a front end to mainframe applications, and connect the mainframewith PCs and LANs. Far from dying out by mid-decade as predicted, mainframe enterprisesystems have grown in number, with sales expected to increase steadily into the nextmillennium.

But computing will never again be synonymous with the mainframe. The newest enterprisecomputing models combine the mainframe with the client/server model. This middle groundcombines the scalability, reliability and security of the mainframe with the PC'sflexibility and ease-of-use. As it turns out, many companies are moving some of theirprograms onto an intranet environment for the sake of widespread connectivity, but keepingothers securely on the mainframe.

If a company is going to maintain a mixed computing environment of both mainframe andclient/server systems, it will need a large-scale system that can train employees to workon both. Without such a training system, employees may know how to use theirWindows-enabled PCs to access data on the corporate intranet, but not on the company'scritical enterprise programs. The most interesting of the new cross-platform trainingtools allow legacy systems to co-exist with multimedia elements on mainframes or PCs ­combining a mainframe server with dynamic multimedia interactivity at the desktop.

It's a Mainframe World After All

One company that is migrating many of its applications to client/server is GeneralAmerican Life, one of the largest insurance corporations in the United States. To prepareits staff for the transition, General American is using training courseware that tapsdirectly into a mainframe application from the PC desktop. The company is currentlygearing up to deploy training over its WAN using a central structured query language (SQL)database to administer courses and track student learning.

General American plans to move as much information as it can from its legacy systemonto a more universally accessiblee client/server network. However, to securely andreliably track its $330 billion in life insurance policies and safeguard the SocialSecurity numbers, vital statistics and insured value of about one million employees ofmultinational corporations, General American finds its mainframe indispensable.

General American is also like many large companies whose legacy hardware andapplications represent investments of millions of dollars. Its system runs proprietaryprograms fitted so firmly to its business practices that uprooting more than a few chunksof a single program is all but unthinkable in light of the tremors it would causethroughout the enterprise. In addition, General American's business applications aretightly integrated. Tied in to every one of General American's vital business functions,General American's mainframe probably isn't going anywhere in the near future. Training,however, is.

Because the evolving computing environment is going to be mixed, new hires need to betrained to use both the client/server and mainframe applications. The company's managershave found that the best way to do this is to train associates on client/server PCs. Thisgives administrators the color, three-dimensional graphics, video and sound they need tokeep the attention of students raised on Nintendo-style interactivity. It also givesGeneral American's production mainframe system, once slowed by thousands logging ontotraining programs, additional bandwidth to move data at top speed.

Best for Learning

General American will train hundreds of associates to use its mainframe programs toprocess medical, dental and hospital insurance claims, over a period of six weeks. Itscombined mainframe-client/server courseware teaches General American's associates themainframe applications in a multimedia environment. General American plans to use acentral Microsoft SQL Server database to administer course content to client/server PCsrunning on a Windows NT network. The company's new associates will use PCs to collect datafrom an actual insurance claims form that exists on the mainframe. They will enter thedata into a simulation of a mainframe screen. General American is creating multiplemainframe claims processing courses for use on networked PCs, and multiple courses oncoordination of benefits.

Each course, delivered over a Windows NT network, will display mainframe data on oneside of the PCs' screens and the multimedia training software program on the other. ThePCs will access policy claims forms from one of the company's two large mainframeprograms. Associates in half a dozen states log onto the same centrally administeredcourseware, authored on Pathlore Software's PHOENIX for Windows program, and call upactual mainframe data.

General American's administrators are creating the courses in a standalone format thatallows them to be imported/exported to the network database from the mainframeapplication. This cross-platform central administration paradigm (replacing the mainframewith the database) will facilitate both course tracking and distribution. The system willenable mainframe programs to co-exist with multimedia elements, including a graphicalimage of an insurance claims form, all on a Windows 95 desktop.

Flipping from one window to another, General American's associates will perform thesame claims processing on their PCs that they will on the production mainframe program.The only difference is that the desktop program won't actually cut a check.

Mainframe Interactivity from the Desktop

The company's existing training system allows simulations of the mainframeclaims-processing system that enable students to interact with "hot spots" thatduplicate what the actual program does. This allows them to experiment with the systemwithout causing problems.

The new multimedia system preserves the mainframe application simulations, but, for thefirst time, allows them to co-exist on the learner's desktop with graphical learningaides. They are able to interact with both the mainframe system's screen and the CBTprogram side by side, without toggling, using a mouse.

Data entry continues to take place on the mainframe, but students will access itthrough split-screen multimedia PCs.

The company's hundreds of simulation screens can branch to Web browsers, Worddocuments, Excel sheets and diagrams for enhanced variety and learning. Their trainingsoftware allows them to do all this without integrating separate tools for authoring,delivery or student progress management.

The computer-based training (CBT), which supplements live instruction, includes companyfundamentals, data entry, specialized terminology and claims processing.

Administrators will accomplish reporting and scoring through follow-up questionsdeployed collectively to anyone on the network taking the course. To advance, associatesmust achieve a score of 95 percent or better on the exam. The Phoenix software the companyis using will automatically test, score and report the exam in the Windows 95 environment.This reporting helps General American gauge the return on its investment in the software.

Since the course- ware is administered from a central database, if the company changesany data fields in the mainframe processing screen ­ in securing Year 2000 compliance,for example ­ it won't mean modifying thousands of training screens manually. If thecompany decides to change something on its claims forms, the training department won'thave to change the fields individually on each of its 200-300 claims form screens, each ofwhich has an average of about 175 pages. And since they are working in Windows, they areable to make changes using simple cut and paste.

Preserving the Mainframe Legacy

Though training is heading toward client/server, in the best cases it retains manymainframe attributes. Centralization made the mainframe great for training since tracking,learning and updating course materials took place from a central location. Administratorsonly had to write courseware once. Everyone taking the course from the same program wouldsee the same up-to-date course material. Administrators tracking student performance fromthe central mainframe application, where data simply flowed back and forth constantly,knew exactly who had taken the course how many times, and how well everybody was doing.Reporting to executive management was as simple as running a print request on ascaled-down version of the tracking program.

Many training managers today send CD-ROM courseware into the ether with no way to trackits effectiveness, or try various patchwork solutions to deliver and track training overEthernet and other networks. To them, a system with this kind of manageability looks likea dream come true.

Worlds Apart?

The best courseware allows authors to use learning objects like audio clips, graphicsand hot links to the Web, and still administer the material from a central location.Training managers are finding that software with a centralized and integrated databasearchitecture running on an Internet/intranet environment scales effectively to a mainframeenvironment. They are using it to train new hires in remote locations through networkedPCs that access data from the mainframe. Such a system will likely provide more and morecompanies like General American with the only training system they need in a single tool.

It's possible that instead of wholesale migrations, what we'll continue to see in thenear future will be simply more and more programs that integrate the mainframe withcomplementary platforms. The mainframe is already joining forces with the client/serverworld via Web and network protocol and the "mainframe-compatible" PC. Whateverthe mainframe's final destiny ­ as central, universal powerhouse or as just anotherserver in the enterprise ­ the applications have arrived that will take us there.


About the Author:

John F. Martin is the Vice President of Services at Pathlore Software Corp.(Columbus, Ohio), developers of the PHOENIX distance learning products and the PREFERENCEmainframe reference system. He can be reached via e-mail at jmartin@pathlore.com.