Web-to-Host Connectivity: Don’t Get Caught up the Amazon Without a Paddle

IT managers are increasingly 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. The dot-commers, of course, want to "Amazon.com" their businesses, oblivious to the piranhas and crocodiles that lurk just below the surface of the company’s namesake river. Before you get caught up the Amazon without a paddle, you need to consider the wide-reaching management implications of moving to e-business.

There are plenty of well-documented technical and financial obstacles to e-business. What flummoxes established businesses the most, however, is the staggering degree of business processes and corporate culture changes that are required. Many companies just aren’t ready for the creative destruction of their business logic and data. That’s why many e-business ventures are still mired in pilot or experimental stages.

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 with HTML/Java front-ends. 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.

Web-to-host efforts are also riddled with organizational challenges, however. Often, Web-to-host is a point-to-point solution, but rarely part of an organization-wide IT strategy. The solution 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 T27/UTS 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."

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 been typically 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. People’s desktops became crammed with separate and incompatible devices – T27/UTS 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.

These days, 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 – and has had to spend months training end users. As a result, many "Web-enabled" companies today have end users shunting between internal corporate systems and Web systems.

Some departments may even be better off remaining on T27/UTS terminals or PC-based emulations, others may require an HTML presentation to end users, and some may require outright Web-enabled applications. It’s up to IT managers to bring clarity to this confusion, and 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. While this process will take time and lots of user education, the smoother transition into the e-business world will make it worthwhile.

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.