Everything Old Is New Again: Extending Host-Based Information Outward

Once a corporation has committed to migrating their legacy SNA networks to IP, they are in a position to exploit the power, flexibility and benefits of their new network. They are able to leverage the growing value of their mainframes, as well as the data and business logic that resides within. As such, corporations large and small, are looking toward the Web and Web-to-host connectivity as a path toward e-business and e-commerce.

In June, we wrote of the imperative need of migrating systems from traditional SNA to IP networks, all within the auspices of Y2K readiness. Let us assume that this migration is indeed in place, and that corporations have understood the virtues of implemented, consolidated, universal IP-based networks.

The question now is; How can corporations leverage their mainframes and the hoards of information stored therein, once they’ve migrated to IP?

Once a corporation has committed to migrating their legacy SNA networks to IP, they are in a position to exploit the power, flexibility and benefits of their new network. They are able to leverage the growing value of their mainframes, as well as the data and business logic that resides within. As such, corporations large and small, are looking toward the Web and Web-to-host connectivity as a path toward e-business and e-commerce.

Web-to-host solutions provide corporations with the ability to publish data from multiple sources, albeit mainframe or midrange systems or multiple, disparate hosts in one single, browser-based environment. What this translates into for the customer is greater information freedom and fulfillment. Web users are able to conduct their own transactions without having to physically visit a customer service counter at the local bank, travel agency or ticket office.

It is this ability to combine and organize information from heterogeneous sources into one integrated, visual platform that is driving the growing demand for Web-to-host connectivity and host publishing software. It is the key for implementing complete business logic and enabling users’ transactions.

Mining the Mainframe

There is no disputing the fact that the mainframe is not going anywhere. Mainframes are great high-performance platforms that are extremely scalable and reliable. Mission-critical information and data located within these systems is not likely to be messed with. It would be tomfoolery, and somewhat elitist, to suggest that corporations can afford, from a business, financial, technological and operational perspective, to dispose of their mainframes and reinvent their infrastructures from scratch.

Today’s business duty is to best exploit the power of the information resident on these mainframes and use it in a way that supports the growing need for e-business and e-commerce. By consolidating SNA hosts on IP networks, corporations are able to move toward e-business and e-commerce, in an effort to extend host data outward to their growing user base, without having to re-engineer, re-mine or re-invent.

Enterprises are extending their reach, not only externally to their supply chain, business partners and consumers, but internally as well, to their road warriors, remote offices, branch offices and home workers. The need for information is growing exponentially to the speed at which it is required, and the format in which it is displayed. The value of the network lies within its ability to provide the data, without intricate programming knowledge, training time and investment.

It is the age of immediate consumption – of information on demand. As employees, we require it in order to maintain effective productivity levels; as consumers, corporations must deliver it in order to safeguard brand and corporate loyalties. It is up to systems administrators to ensure this information is available in a format that can be manipulated and integrated with other data sources. From an end user perspective, it must be easy to access, easy to manage, and most of all, easy to use. Essentially, we don’t care where the information resides. What we do care about is that it is made available to use, when we need it, in a format that is clear, concise and easily recognizable.

We are talking about sharing, and profiting from, information in the digital age. We are talking about e-business, e-commerce and Web-ifying the corporation. It is from this precept that the demand for Web-to-host connectivity and host publishing software is born.

E-volving Toward ‘E’

Industry forecasts predict e-business transactions to exceed $1 trillion by 2003. Considering that approximately 70 percent of corporate information resides on legacy systems, implementing a Web-to-host solution is a natural and integral step in any major e-commerce undertaking. This means integrating a company’s existing legacy data with its intranet, extranet or the Internet.

By leveraging the power of their legacy data and the Web, companies can realize tremendous benefits, such as decreased training costs and employee overhead, greater efficiency from partner/suppliers, and increased customer satisfaction and revenues, due to 24x7 availability of information. Extending information outward, providing greater access to secured host data while ensuring increased profitability and revenues are the crux of this challenge.

Web-to-host software is essentially a multimedia integrator. It provides a homogenous way of accessing and displaying information resident on heterogeneous sources – directory services, data logic on the mainframe, customer information on an Oracle database – and presenting it as a single, secure (e-business) application, without re-engineering current mainframe applications. This is key. However, as the need grows for extending information outward to larger user groups, so do the issues of security, centralized management and deployment.

Management & Deployment

Installed on the Web server, Web-to-host software is centrally managed, with virtually zero deployment. Users are provided with direct, secure access to the information they require, regardless of where they are geographically located.

There are several technologies available for implementing secure Web-to-host solutions; among them are Java applet emulators and host publishing tools or software.

Web to host via Java applet emulators. Java applet emulators are a reliable, secure way to leverage the many benefits of Web to host, such as Web-based access, central management and configuration, de-creased cost of ownership and ease of deployment. This solution is best suited for e-business scenarios where users are familiar with mainframe applications (such as internal intranet users, or partners and suppliers on an extranet). Essentially, Java-based emulators are ideal for those who require complete, persistent and secure access to a company’s mainframe data, such as a remote work force.

Java-based solutions are platform-independent and transparently downloaded from any standard Web server to the user’s computer. A direct connection from the user’s computer to the host, or to the TN server that is connected to the host, is established. Therefore, Java emulators must feature complete SSL security options, including authentication and encryption. With Java-based emulators, the protocol goes directly to the desktop, while mainframe applications remain behind the firewall, ensuring full-function, seamless and secure access to host-based data across intranets and corporate extranets.

By using standard development tools, such as JavaBeans, companies are able to build custom, Java-based e-business applications and interfaces tailored to their particular needs.

Web to host via host publishing tools. Host publishing tools provide secure, Internet-based host access to an ever-increasing, geographically dispersed customer base using diverse browsers. As such, they are the recommended platform upon which to develop and build secure transaction-based e-commerce applications that are customizable to suit the varied requirements of corporations and browsers.

Unlike applet emulators, host publishing tools are designed for users requiring simple access to select data through a familiar graphical Web page interface. This user group, typically unfamiliar with mainframe applications, greatly benefits from a single interface that consolidates host data from more than one host application or host computer.

A huge benefit is that companies are not required to change existing host applications or even touch the mainframe while enabling a new, complete business logic. In addition, because most host publishing solutions feature a "zero-client" GUI that delivers pure HTML to the browser, they can support the wide variety of Web browsers used by the Internet public. Easy-to-use and easy-to-access interfaces and tools help to customize front ends that reflect the way your internal and external customers work – even those using wireless palm or handheld devices running Windows CE and Pocket Internet Explorer!

Leading-edge host publishing tools ideally provide two levels of rejuvenation for Web-enabling host access. Either option has the commonality of negating the need for corporations to change or modify the original host application, saving corporations substantial money and time.

Option One: "on-the-fly" 3270-to-HTML conversion. Effective host publishing software provides an out of the box "on-the-fly" 3270-to-HTML conversion experience. A simple "default" rejuvenation of the dated "green-on-black" 3270 user interface used by most SNA applications is provided, which is extremely beneficial for many intranet users.

Option Two: complete rejuvenation. The true strength and appeal of 3270-to-HTML conversion lies within its ability to provide corporations with the flexibility to develop their own customized, rejuvenated "green screens" into intuitive and personalized Web page interfaces within a Web environment.

The charm of complete rejuvenation is its transparency to the user. The end result is such a clean and slick representation of the information requested that users are completely oblivious to the fact that the data presented within their browser potentially resides in one or more legacy applications, perhaps written over a decade ago. Such is the allure of complete rejuvenation. Legacy SNA applications are provided with a true facelift, appearing as contemporary Web pages, without changing a single line of code.

E-Commerce and Security

Internet-based transactions require a mechanism whereby host applications can be directly, seamlessly and securely accessed from a standard Web browser and viewed in standard HTML pages. Accepted Web security methods, such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption over HTTPs or Secure ID cards, control access and user authentication to host data. As such, browser-based host access can be achieved in a highly secure manner, with end-to-end encryption, over the Internet.

Host-publishing tools used for e-commerce initiatives allow corporations to customize and design front-ends that selectively retrieve and display only desired mainframe data to the Web browser. As such, it is virtually impossible for users to obtain access to unauthorized host information. The very nature of 3270-to-HTML conversion ensures security, as the technology only extracts certain host data, with no "direct" connection with the host; users cannot access other confidential host data.

Everything Old Is New Again

Corporations can now take advantage of their consolidated networks to provide intranet, extranet and Internet users access to legacy data. In many ways, the adage "everything old is new again" has never been more appropriate. The business challenge is to find new ways to use legacy data and proven logic to satisfy this growing user base. Not doing so will lead to loss of business and revenues.

Because of this demand, traditional host access solutions focusing on fat client are slowly giving way to the burgeoning Web-to-host marketplace. After all, it is the very nature of host publishing software to precisely address the issues above. By simply providing a rejuvenated way of displaying "old" information, users are provided access to files, applications, forms, systems and information to which they formerly would have never been privy.

Web-ifying corporations and making the move from traditional host access to Web-to-host connectivity makes more than good business sense. It is the key to survival. It is the first step toward implementing e-business and e-commerce, and the very foundation upon which businesses will succeed in this millennium.

Web-ification empowers the corporation and its internal and external customers. It goes far beyond simple screen scraping and display of information. The goal is to combine precise, reliable data from multiple sources with easy to use, easy to access interfaces and navigation tools. Customized front ends that parallel or mirror the way business development officers, customer service representatives, agents and road warriors work reduce training time and increase productivity, resulting in a positive experience for all the corporation’s customers.

Businesses must be exceptionally proactive – selecting a suite of products that provide the solution for both client and Web-to-host connectivity now, and will continue to do so as demands upon the infrastructure increase. To satisfy all requirements of all customers, corporations must look at providing power users with full-function, 32-bit desktop emulation while extending Java-based host access to casual users. This, in addition to facilitating browser-based, SNA-to-Web host access that gives new life to host applications, will lay the foundation for future e-business and e-commerce initiatives.

About the Author: Marcie Baron is the Aviva Product Marketing Manager for Eicon Technology's Host Access Business Unit (Montreal). She can be reached via e-mail at marcieb@eicon.com.