focus on: C/S Middleware: AS/400 Style

We are an instant society; raised on instant coffee, one minute oatmeal, fast food, microwaves, and TV dinners. We crave instant gratification, in both our personal and business lives. We need the answer now -- not tomorrow, not later today, in an hour, or even in 5 minutes. Decisions require up to date, real time information, even if that decision is destined to be changed when new information becomes available. Even so, any delay in obtaining the information is deemed inexcusable.

The IS manager must deal with the sales manager clamoring for up to date inventory and order information, a customer service department that needs access to the latest shipping and order status, and manufacturing that needs to know finished inventory levels, materials on order, and customer order information. All this information is on your AS/400 and needs to be provided to the varied segments of an organization quickly.

In large organizations, providing hundreds or thousands of users access to the AS/400 is a challenge to administer and can potentially reduce performance. A solution can be found in client/server middleware products that act as application servers with the AS/400. Data can be accessed by the application server and made available to individual users, providing fast, secure delivery while not inhibiting processing performance.

Client/server middleware is software residing between the client and the server or host. Many vendors provide applications as part of a middleware solution, including Cognos, Advanced Business Link, NLynx, Wall Data, WRQ, NetManage, and Attachmate, claiming their solution is the best for your needs. No two vendors offer the same solutions, just as no two organizations' computing needs are identical; so first define your needs before shopping for a middleware solution.

A look back

Massive changes have take place in client/server computing over the past ten years. Some will recall the days of "dumb" terminals directly wired to a mainframe. These terminals were simply extensions of the mainframe and had virtually no capabilities themselves, the "dumb" terminals simply provided direct access to the host.

As systems and user numbers expanded, dumb terminals became more difficult to administer, began to pose a negative effect on performance. Each additional user request took processing time away from the server's main data processing role and made it the slave of the users' applications. Request/response times extended, resulting in reduced personnel efficiency and frustration for both the user and anyone relying on information from the user.

In an effort to expedite response times, and as desktops became more powerful, vendors developed "fat client" connectivity software capable of running on a desktop rather than on the server. This reduced the reliance on the server to control connectivity but had its drawbacks. The biggest drawback was administering the software at the desktop level. This often meant having a technician physically load or update software -- a time consuming and costly task.

The next alternative, called "thin client", was to split the software between the server and the client with only a portion of the software residing on the client. This solution provides for easier centralized administration, lower costs and faster implementation. One of the biggest difficulties with this solution is that all clients need to be using the same connectivity software.

Connectivity requirements have changed. Most computing environments have evolved from homogeneous to heterogeneous in nature, and contain several different kinds of clients requiring direct and remote access. The shift to heterogeneous environments has been a factor in the growth of middleware applications. Talarian Founder and Chief Technical Officer, Tom Laffey says, "Before, we saw people using the AS/400 in an IBM world. Now we are rapidly seeing them forcing the AS/400 to work with everything; whether it be Windows NT or a Sun box or a mainframe."

The single greatest change is in the need to include web access as part of the connectivity solution. More organizations are encouraging remote access and telecommuting. More powerful laptops allow sales people and traveling executives to be productive when out of the office, yet still be connected to the AS/400. The Internet and the use of TCP/IP have brought about the latest change in the client/server paradigm. A simple browser may be all that Web to host or web access software requires on the client.

Different ways to approach connectivity

As desktops become more powerful, with greater memory and faster processors they are more capable clients; indeed, most personal productivity applications can be run at the client level. Finding the best deployment balance for connectivity applications, however, continues to be a challenge. Vendors stress several different options for the desktop, each touting the benefits of their own solutions. Do not be misled by vendor marketing claims; stay focused on your organization's client/server plan that includes your current hardware being used and the applications being run.

Middleware software can reside on the AS/400, on a separate server, or on the desktop depending on the application. Dallas County Community Supervision and Corrections Department runs an adult probation application on its AS/400. It uses Advanced Business Link Remote running directly on the AS/400 to enable probation officers to dial in from their desktops at home. MIS analyst Jim Harman says, "Out of 725 users connected with the AS/400, 625 are remote." Harman says, "Training was easy and fast. It was easy for the users; they did not need to relearn things. Advanced Business Link Remote has been reliable and stable, and works well for us."

Bob Evans Farms uses Cognos Powerplay running on an NT server connected to its AS/400 to support several different applications. Bob Evans' Tim Wetzel says, "Our first implementation was to allow users to analyze sales and customer account data. Then we moved on to be able to analyze menu item sales in the restaurants. That was data they never really had before." Since its initial roll out in the restaurant division, Bob Evans Farms has extended the use of Powerplay to its food products division, and to supply month end financials. Wetzel says, "It was pretty hard to sort 450 pieces of paper; now they are doing it on-line and it has helped the users out a lot."

Marion County Schools in Ocala, Florida uses NLynx software residing on PCs. Tim Capps of Marion County Schools says, "We are getting ready to network our whole county system. This is a major project and, as of this point, we have chosen NLynx as our system constant." NLynx will be used to access everything on the AS/400 from accounting to payroll to the student database, as well as to facilitate communications between the district office and the individual schools; some of which may be using DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows 95, or Windows 98.

Application Server Use

Use of an application server expedites the flow of information without degrading the performance of an AS/400. The AS/400 considers the application server a single user, even though several users may be accessing the data. Customer service personnel can thereby access information faster, with lower per call costs, resulting in happier customers, and a less harried staff.

Application servers can be used in many ways. Remote sales and marketing personnel can access warehouse inventory levels, determine sales commissions, get up to the minute sales data, and current shipping status of orders. Internal uses can include high speed messaging, communication (e-mail), and financial records access. Another use could be to eliminate the need to speak to Human Resource staff to find out about benefits and available vacation time. With appropriate identification and authorization, employees could access the AS/400 data from their desktops rather than relying on someone from HR to look it up for them.

External uses revolve around the growing interest in e-commerce and include on-line catalogs and ordering, e-business with vendors and partners, as a transaction server, or hosting the company website.

One of the major on-going concerns providing access to host data is security. Even though the AS/400 has been proven to be a secure, stable computing resource there are fears associated with not knowing who is accessing the data. Lynly Schambers, senior product marketing manager for Attachmate says, "With the increased number of remote and casual users, security measures are huge." An application server can provide an additional layer of security.

Organizations are generally pleased with the speed and reliability of their AS/400, but see the need to provide access to a greater number of casual users as e-commerce grows. Marilyn Kanas, NetManage Vice President - Field Marketing says, "The application server is being used mostly for new systems and re-engineered systems." Kanas also sees a shift in complete client server application to a hybrid. Kanas says, "You are going to have some 'fat client' applications that actually run on a desktop, others that are driven from application servers, and depending on the class of user, that user may have both things running on their system".

Talarian's Laffey says, "All businesses are trying to work to zero the time it takes to react to events. Basically organizing your company so that you will have, essentially, a real-time view and respond to things happening in the company. We are seeing a big move from batch to real time." Companies will need to have this real time view as they become more involved in e-business.

Talarian is developing a version of its SmartSockets for the AS/400 and had the opportunity to load its Java version on an AS/400 at the San Mateo, CA IBM lab. Laffey says, "Installation took less than a day and for the folks who have a Java version of their products, getting up and running on the AS/400 is pretty simple. IBM has made a tremendous investment in building Java Virtual Machines for all their platforms including the mainframe and the AS/400."

Historically, AS/400 uses have been slow to adopt new technology. However, IBM has been encouraging quicker adoption of technologies that can support e-commerce. As the number of users requiring access to database information increases, it will be necessary to remove some of the burden from the AS/400 to maintain performance. Application servers using middleware make it possible to accommodate the increased demand for data while ensuring the integrity of the data.

Expect increased interest in and availability of middleware products as companies move toward a more open approach to host data access. The idea of making a few keystrokes to access needed information is becoming increasingly attractive; middleware vendors are helping to make it reality.

Tim Martin , strategic relations coordinator for Advanced Business Link compares web application serving to Java two years ago, Martin says, "We are going to see the same thing with web application serving; right now people aren't quite sure, it is a brand new thing and they have to figure out what it is. But over the course of the next six to eight months, I really believe the market is going to be educated on what web application is and what it can do for business."