Web-to-Host Connections: My-oh-my.com: Anyone Ready for Portals?

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk – and even some action – on the concept of so-called enterprise portals. They were born on the Internet and evolved from search engines seeking a higher, and more marketable, purpose in life.

Now, portals are being pitched as entryways to corporate networks and services. Many vendors – from ERP to document management and business intelligence companies – are eyeing this space as well. Witness SAP CEO Hasso Plattner’s recent declaration that SAP – in the form of mysap.com – wants to be the dominant enterprise portal on corporate desktops.

Essentially, an enterprise portal is a Web-based solution that acts as a window to the enterprise, enabling end users to access, via browser, information on various back-end servers and databases. At the same time, the portal technology controls that access. It is, in one industry expert’s words, "a security management solution that allows a given company to control the authentication, authorization and administration of numerous users in real time."

Hmm, sounds suspiciously like Web-to-host. This begs some questions: What will Web-to-host’s role be in this brave new world of corporate portals? Is not a Web-to-host interface a logical "portal" for employees and partners accessing your enterprise, since it already works off a Web server linked to back-end systems? A Web-to-host system could offer not only S/390 access, but add a layer of links to other online databases and services.

Not that anyone hasn’t already tried to mesh the two concepts together. One major host connectivity vendor offered a combined Web-to-host/portal product line, but went down in flames, and its founding CEO was run out of town. It seems Web-to-host as a potential enterprise portal solution is a touchy subject.

"Web-to-host and portals are not a real easy fit," says Darcy Fowkes, analyst with Aberdeen Group. "Web-to-host is about developing multiple screens or windows that allow you to use whatever green-screen you need from a legacy application. The portal is a gateway, or channel, to multiple resources." Such resources can be databases on other platforms in the company, or news feeds and services from outside Web servers. For example, she points out, "the weather isn’t an application that you pull up from a legacy back end. Your 401(k), yes, but that’s not something that you get to every day."

That being said, Web-to-host can be considered an important building block of portal technology. In fact, Web-to-host already addresses one of the hardest parts of portal deployments – getting to information on multiple back-end systems and databases. The enterprise portal vendors are still wrestling with building searchable databases at the front end.

However, Web-to-host’s most pronounced and accepted role continues to be terminal emulation, not as a catch-all user interface. The technology is still evolving, and companies aren’t ready to risk gumming up deployments with Internet bells and whistles.

In addition, nobody is sure yet where portal technology is going. The technology is immature and still evolving. To many, it’s still a search engine, or simply a way of getting to something else. Web-to-host, on the other hand, is more of a final destination.

It’s inevitable that IT managers and end users will seek more of a convergence, rather than maintaining separate security infrastructures and separate interfaces to corporate data. The two approaches will converge when the time is right, when both technologies have matured and when the market is ready.

Through vendor partnerships or customized solutions, Web-to-host connectivity may eventually be integrated, in some fashion, into portal environments. This will represent an opportunity to bring host access forward, from a tactical point-to-point role to that of a strategic enterprise service. Corporate end user Web portals may include, through a single sign-on, links to launch Java or ActiveX-based host emulation sessions from target systems.

"The portal of the future will not only have what you need in terms of stocks, news and weather, but also include the transaction processing requirements of your job," says Fowkes. "MyDesktop" for an accounting clerk may include a Web-to-host link to the mainframe, which the marketing manager next door won’t have. The purchasing manager at a major customer on the other side of the country may have the link as well.

Such an infrastructure will enable you to sign on to your desktop once, from any location, and get immediate access to corporate and outside resources, be it from a mainframe, internal Web server, or outside service. However, for now, Web-to-host and portal technologies will continue their separate ways.

About the Author: Joseph McKendrick is a research consultant and author. He can be reached at joemck@aol.com.