Web-to-Host: The True Costs of Telecommuting

Surveys show up to a third of IT managers are now planning some kind of wireless deployment over the coming year. Analysts predict that more than half of all Web access will be from non-PC devices within the next three years.

Leading Web-to-host vendors have already announced support for wireless access protocol (WAP), the set of standards ascribed to by Web phones and palmtop computers. The Wireless Markup Language (WML), used to create WAP pages, is a derivative of XML and similar to HTML and is the language of wireless Internet applications. WML is optimized for compression over low-bandwidth connections, such as wireless Web access.

Most Web-to-host wireless access initiatives will have to be integrated into an organization’s overall wireless infrastructure. "The Web-to-host suppliers are positioning themselves well for wireless. However, the infrastructure’s not in place yet," says Darcey Fowkes, Analyst with Aberdeen Group in Boston. "When it comes to getting host data out to wireless devices, there’s a lot of technologies that have to be included and implemented into IT to make that all seamlessly work." Such technologies include the acceptance of new standards and protocols, new client hardware, new client operating systems and "microbrowsers," uniform signal coverage, security considerations, and new middleware/ EAI solutions.

It’s unlikely that there will ever be direct wireless access to mainframe applications, Fowkes points out. Rather, in Web-to-host wireless access, the action will all take place in the middle, running on UNIX or Windows NT/2000 servers. As a result, there is a historic partnering taking place between object-oriented enterprise application integration suppliers and transaction monitoring tools vendors. Fowkes predicts that wireless Web-to-host transactions will take place within EAI applications that pull together data from various ERP and database sources and format the data for wireless transmissions.

Linking devices to host environments will require new middle-tier services, in the form of wireless ISPs, or WISPs, which include hosting functions as well as content translation services. It is likely that many current ISPs and ASPs will add this functionality.

Hardware. End user hardware is another issue. For example, most WAP phones function as dumb terminals, with no storage or memory capability. Signal-based access is far more unstable than access through a wire. Thus, if a user is out of range of the signal, he or she is immobilized. Obviously, this is not the situaiton a salesperson would want to deal with in a client’s office.

Data Security. Security is another concern that has to be overcome. "There is an ominous feeling about communications without wires that makes some users uncomfortable without obvious and robust security features," says John Stehman, Principal Analyst with Robert Frances Group, Westport, Conn. The mainframe itself provides fairly robust security for Web-to-host sessions, even if delivered via wireless means. However, Stehman points out that data encryption and user authentication pose security holes for other e-business applications.

Bandwidth. Under heavy network workloads, wireless may not be reliable, Stehman observes. "CIOs can’t depend on wireless as a prime-time technology unless providers overengineer their infrastructures and interconnections to other service provider networks, to offset these unknowns." For the near term, wireless should be limited to e-mail. In the long run, however, companies need to be evaluating and testing the potential of this rapidly growing means of client access.

Standards. RFG’s Stehman questions whether WAP will be ubiquitous enough to make wireless computing a reality. "The number of WAP-compatible Web sites is low because of reliance on graphics and HTML for most Internet applications," he says. Eventually, wireless access will rely entirely on XML, with IP as a communication protocol, some analysts predict. However, in the meantime, WAP/WML and XML applications do not interoperate well.

User Acceptance. The people that stand to gain the most from wireless Web access are those that are unable to sit down at a PC or laptop. Many of these workers still have to record their information in writing, and later manually re-enter the information into PCs, which are then loaded into host computers. These types of workers are the best candidates for wireless Web access.