Web-to-Host Connections: "Proactive Destruction": One Bank’s Story

Ever thought of Web-to-host as a tool of destruction? Consider what’s happening in the banking and financial services industry. Here, the growing "open finance" movement (in other words, Internet) is shifting the balance of power away from providers and to online consumers.

The result is a widespread "proactive destruction" of banking and financial channels, products and organizations – no matter how successful they appear at the moment. That’s because consumers will be increasingly clicking their way to competitive interest rates and high-value, low-cost financial services, says Shelley Morrisette, analyst with Forrester Research (Cambridge, Mass.). Institutions not moving fast enough in this direction risk being swept away by this virtual tidal wave.

This makes a compelling business case for implementing Web-to-host access in both financial and non-financial companies. Proactive destruction doesn’t mean destroying well-established systems and business processes, but extending their value to a wider marketplace.

That’s the approach being taken by Montreal-based National Bank of Canada. The bank is launching a Web-to-host system that not only will give its 4,000 branch employees access to its multiple S/390 mainframes, but also extend service to more than 30,000 online corporate and individual customers.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jean Perron, Director of System Architecture for SIBN – the bank’s IT service arm – about the technology behind the implementation. The process began two years ago, when the bank began investigating ways to enable branch officers to retrieve data from 116 applications spread across a number of S/390 mainframes. Customer investment portfolio information, bank deposit information, and credit information – all essential customer relationship-building tools – were on separate systems.

The bank did maintain a distributed client/server system that included PC-to-host access, says Perron. However, at the time the decision to migrate was made, it was difficult to support more than 100 concurrent users. Plus, the process of getting new modifications out to servers and workstations in each branch took about 18 days.

The bank built a Windows NT-based middleware solution that brought all this data together to one user interface – the universal sales platform (PVU). As soon as the Year 2000 date lockdown passes, PVU will be rolled out to employees at 650 locations. In addition, the same host access architecture has been extended to the company’s virtual bank offering to consumers. Through browsers on their PCs, end users view downloaded Java applets that render the 3270 screens in a graphical format, powered by Aviva Web-to-Host and Aviva for Java Servers from Eicon Corp.

The Process

When end users log on, they reach a Windows NT Server running Microsoft’s IIS Web server, which in turn connects to the host through the Microsoft SNA Server. The minimum requirement at the user end is a standard browser running on a Pentium 100 MHz PC, with at least 32 MBs of RAM.

The bank worked hard to keep the client-side footprint to a minimum, says Perron. For example, the branch host interface has minimal graphics. "We have very limited bandwidth in our branches, and performance is important." Outside customers, on the other hand, get a full graphical Web-based interface screen.

While Java sessions initially had a footprint of 6 MBs, SIBN was able to reduce their size to "less than 1 MB," he says. Also, tweaking was required to bring the system up to support at least 400 concurrent users.

The graphical interfaces will help increase sales productivity as well, Perron believes. Ideally, when a Bank of Canada representative is involved with a sales call, and he or she enters a name and address, information about the loan may appear in six different 3270 screens, he explains. In a Web-to-host environment, "an application in front of that can manage the information, store it in a database and send it to a printer."

Initially, response time is longer for Web-to-host users than it is in a traditional 3270 environment, but this is quickly made up in terms of navigability, Perron says. "In 3270 screens, you press enter and you have the next screen," he explains. "With applets, you have a 10-second wait before the applet comes in. However, you navigate on a lot of data more intensively. A 3270 transaction may consist of navigating through 15 3270 screens, versus having a couple of applets presenting more information differently."

Web-to-host technology can move organizations quickly into the Web mainstream. Since mainframe applications did not have to be reengineered, there was a considerable time-savings on bringing host applications out to branches and customers, Perron says. National Bank of Canada has found a means of proactive destruction that doesn’t require dissolution of major investments in back-end systems.

About the Author:Joseph McKendrick is a research consultant and author, specializing in technology surveys, research and white papers. He can be reached at joemck@aol.com.