Web-to-Host Connections: The Lines Get Blurrier

A colleague of mine, manager of development for a major telecommunications firm, recently put the first release of a B2B customer site into production, after a long summer of 14-hour workdays. I volunteered as a guinea pig for the project, and, as a test end user, was able to access a personalized portal site, and view billing and payment information drawn from a System 390. Special offers and targeted updates on new services, such as wireless and voice mail, were also displayed.

Am I conducting Web-to-host computing when I call up this information? For this telcom company, it was the first instance of mainframe data being made available to outside customers on a realtime basis. Full-fledged 3270 host sessions weren’t necessary, and I don’t expect the carrier to begin feeding business customers host sessions anytime soon. However, I was getting all the mainframe data I needed.

For many outward-facing deployments, this appears to be the direction host data access is taking. Rather than giving end users access to terminal sessions, companies are relying on EAI-enabled solutions to capture selected mainframe data into a middleware application and merge it with other data.

To a large extent, this is the likely future of Web-to-host computing. Web-to-host vendors recognize the synergy occurring between their solutions and EAI, and are evolving their products to play a role as the two categories merge. Industry experts agree that there is a large gray area where the two approaches overlap. I’ve even seen Web-to-host initiatives labeled as "EAI" projects. However, we need to understand the distinctions -- and cost ramifications -- between EAI and Web to host.

The two disciplines are coming at each other from separate corners of cyberspace. Web to host deals with the presentation layer. It began a couple of years ago as a new way to support host terminal emulation. Just as the first e-commerce offerings simply put paper catalogs online, Web to host simply transferred terminal emulation to the TCP/IP protocol. It began as a niche solution, addressing point-to-point connectivity issues. But, just as companies quickly realized that e-commerce was changing the way companies did business, Web to host is exploding our preconceived notions about how far mainframe data can be extended.

EAI deals with application-to-application communications, getting back-end systems to talk with each other, such as an ERP system talking to a mainframe. Every company has its own flavor of IT that needs to be reckoned with, ranging from legacy mainframe systems to distributed Windows NT networks. Many exist as stovepipe applications that address specific processes, and run independent of other applications. EAI initiatives consist of building composite applications that pull data in from multiple sources and databases.

The Best of Both Worlds

We are only beginning to understand the growing interplay between EAI and Web to host, says Darcy Fowkes, Analyst with Aberdeen Group of Boston who has been tracking this phenomenon for some time. "The Web-to-host suppliers are merging EAI and Web to host," she observes. "They’re starting to consolidate some of their skill sets and products. New products are being packaged to allow the addition of technologies that extend their capabilities back further and further into the organization."

However, more needs to be learned from the user perspective. "We need to find out from companies how they are merging Web to host and EAI," Fowkes points out. "At what level are applications being integrated? Is it via the network? Is it via switches and routers? Is it messaging between applications themselves? Where’s the intelligence being hosted? We don’t know yet!"

Another issue is the need to merge skill sets -- many people working on Web to host tend to come from the mainframe environment, while EAI types tend to come out of the distributed side of the organization.

One thing is absolutely certain, Fowkes notes: Mainframe-based data will be a part of most EAI projects going far into the distant future. "We’ve just gone through Y2K, and it’s clear that a lot of mainframes are staying. And, the data we have in these systems works just fine, thank you very much."

The challenge is being able to leverage mainframe data so that it’s easy and cost-effective to access. For many companies, it’s much more cost-effective in the short term to deploy a downloadable Java applet that provides terminal emulation over browsers. However, in the long run, end users may require more than a host session, including "the ability to play with the application, build in new business logic, or integrate the logic," says Fowkes.

Having a mainframe is "like living in an old house," Fowkes continues. "The home is perfectly beautiful, but needs new windows, wiring and plumbing."

About the Author:

Joseph McKendrick is an independent author and consultant, specializing in surveys, technology research and white papers. He can be reached at joemck@aol.com.