Web-to-Host Connections: From Bleeding Edge to Reading Edge

Are you living on the "reading edge?" That’s where the CEO or other top executives read the latest article extolling the marvels of e-business. He or she then calls in the CIO or top IT manager and demands that the company be transformed into an online, seamless, 24x7, Web-enabled, paradigm-shifted virtual business.

It seems that just about everybody wants to "Amazon.com" their business, oblivious to the piranhas and crocodiles that lurk just below the surface of the company’s namesake river. E-business is possible, of course – but all good things take time, and plenty of money. Oh, and one more minor detail – you may have to change many of your business processes and your entire corporate culture. That’s why most e-business ventures are still mired in pilot or experimental stages.

IT managers are caught in the middle of the clash between the "dot-commers" who want to virtualize everything that moves, and the "go-slowers" – corporate managers and traditional channel partners nervous about upsetting the status quo. That’s what makes Web-to-host so appealing – it offers a relatively painless, workable compromise between the dot-commers and the go-slowers. PC-to-host users in the organization would barely notice the cutover to a TCP/IP-based network.

Investments in and data on back-end mainframe systems are protected, while the flexibility of the Web is introduced. Adding both internal and external users becomes a snap. At the same time, IT managers are spared the work and frustration of trying to maintain and update clients on hundreds of workstations.

The Management Challenge

However, there’s more to a Web-to-host migration than ironing out technical details – it can be a difficult management challenge. Before host access is extended outside an organization’s walls, the corporation must be able to vigorously support such access. The primary applications being put in Web formats are intranets, electronic storefronts and procurement systems. Such systems are calling for some kind of connectivity to centralized corporate data. However, since such centralized corporate data has typically been held close to the vest, putting it online for outsiders to view is a major cultural step.

Open access through the Web must have the full weight of the organization behind it – and not be overlooked and relegated to discretionary budgets the way PCs were in the last decade. As director of an international management association, I watched the PC invasion take hold in corporations. Nothing was ever planned; it was a bottom-up, renegade movement. Department managers simply went out and bought what they saw advertised or written about in journals (once again, the reading edge in action). As a result, people’s desktops became crammed with separate and incompatible devices – 3270 terminals for accessing centralized corporate data, and PCs for word processing, spreadsheets and small databases. End users were forced to shunt between their company’s internal systems and productivity applications. As PC-to-host access caught on, terminals were folded into PC environments – and people had more space on their desktops.

Addressing the Problem

Today, companies end up spending millions of dollars on new, and often incompatible, systems that require disrupting and contorting business processes to match the ways of the Web. Ask anyone who has installed an ERP system, or has attempted to put up a Web-based catalog ordering system. As a result, many "Web-enabled" companies today have end users shunting between internal corporate systems and Web systems.

Often, Web-to-host tends to get overlooked, even though it can unify organizational Web efforts around well-established systems and processes. Why would anybody reconfigure their organization around the demands of a Web application, when merely converting a 3270 datastream into HTML can accomplish so much more with few or no disruptions? That’s because the potential for Web-to-host connectivity is getting lost between the conflicting demands of IT managers and business managers.

This tension is documented in a recent report from Aberdeen Group Inc. (Boston), which notes that Web-to-host is an approach that is "not well understood or documented." Aberdeen notes that "business and IT managers, often somewhat mistrustful of each other, find themselves in a pitched political battle trying to deliver what they perceive is critical to the company. These battles are often the result of confusing Web-to-host architectures."

It’s up to IT managers to help educate their organizations on how keeping the mainframe at the core of Internet adventures can make life easier for everyone. The various levels of host access must be delineated – whether it’s front-end HTML publishing of host screens, or a Java or ActiveX download of a traditional host screen connection.

Some departments may even be better off remaining on 3270 terminals or PC-based emulations, others may require an HTML presentation to end users, or outright Web-enabled applications.

For an organization that requires extensive cultural and process change to move into the Web world, Web-to-host offers a deliberate and relatively painless migration path. It’s a matter of getting the word out, before your organization gets stuck up the Amazon without a paddle.

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.