Web-to-Host Connectivity: Out of the Briny Net

If you’re like most IT managers, you probably know many of your end users by name. If someone has trouble logging onto your Series A or 2200 host system from their PC, he or she can probably pick up the phone and give you a call, knowing you can quickly resolve the issue and re-establish a terminal emulation session.

However, it’s conceivable that you may soon be supporting tens of thousands of end users, most of whom are coming from outside your organization. You won’t even have a clue about what kind of computer they are using as a client, and they won’t have a clue as to what kind of host system they are using.

That’s because the host-access environment is undergoing the most monumental sea change since its inception more than a decade ago. One riptide underneath the surface is the movement toward client software that links into ubiquitous TCP/IP environments. Another strong undercurrent is the growing popularity of deploying Microsoft Terminal Server or Citrix WinFrame/MetaFrame on a Windows NT server as a middle-tier host access environment, accessible by "thin-client" Windows-based terminals.

But the tsunami – the most dramatic and far-reaching change – is the expansion of host connectivity to users on the Web, making mainframe host data accessible through browsers. Ultimately, there soon will be more end users of Unisys mainframes than was ever thought imaginable. Users anywhere in the world – remote employees, sales representatives, business partners, vendors and customers – can log on and view a Web presentation of host data as an HTML rendition through their browser, or through a Java applet running as a terminal emulator, downloaded as needed. Richard Villars, Director of Network Architectures for IDC (Framingham, Mass.), believes such configurations will become tightly integrated with broader e-commerce initiatives, and present a means for online customers to access corporate data.

By all accounts, the browser represents the future of host access. A survey commissioned last year by Attachmate Corp. (Bellevue, Wash.) found that one-third of IT managers already used the Web to access host data, and predicted a doubling in Web-to-host connections over the coming year.

The imperative is to get mainframe-based data out beyond the firewalls, to extranets of customers, suppliers and business partners. Within a few years, well over half of the end users accessing mainframe hosts will be external – in "outward-facing networks," Villars predicts. The installed base of traditional internal, PC-based host access users peaked last year, he notes, with Web-based connectivity solutions increasing its movement for a position as the market leader. As a result, you could be supporting a session for an end user in your company’s purchasing department, or for an end user in your best customer’s purchasing department. Extending the reach of your system even further, you may be supporting host sessions for an online consumer you’ve never met before.

While traditional PC-based host access technology is mature – and very robust in terms of management and security – Web-to-host solutions are still in their formative stages. In fact, the Internet adds a new security and management burden. Attachmate’s survey found that security and centralized management are the most pressing concerns in delivering host access over the Web.

Vendors are increasingly concentrating on providing tools that remotely configure and distribute applications to anyone that remotely logs onto the system. Solutions now incorporate client support and system management capabilities, and can configure access on the fly, based on predefined user profiles. Typically, the user does not go directly to the host but, rather, accesses a server that collects the information from the host system. This Web-to-host connectivity environment typically sits in a "DMZ" between firewalls. At the same time, traditional PC-based host access environments and protocols continue to be supported.

Maintaining uptime and accessibility is also a challenge over the Internet. Internal end users tend to be very forgiving if system response time is slow, or if a connection is temporarily lost. However, as IT managers expand their range of users beyond the firewall, they’re going to find outside users have far greater expectations of uptime and foolproof access – if a session is slow or lost, they may go elsewhere on the Web.

File transfers over the Web have also been a challenge. Users will seek the same file transfer capabilities and security in Web-based environments that are now part of traditional client/server environments. Some solutions include ActiveX controls that can be downloaded and support secure file transfers.

Functionality is another issue. Keyboard systems tend to disappear when converted to a browser format. Continuous sessions lasting eight to 10 hours at a time may put a strain on ISP support. Dial-up arrangements, rather than the Web, may still be favored by many corporate remote end users for some time.

Since it’s so new, Web-to-host access still faces a number of hurdles before it’s on a par with traditional PC-to-host connectivity in terms of robustness and functionality. But we’re at the dawn of a new approach that will soon sweep the IT world.

About the Author: Joseph McKendrick is a research consultant and author whose firm, McKendrick & Associates (Doylestown, Pa.), specializes in surveys, research and white papers for the industry. He can be reached at joemck@aol.com.