Web-to-Host Connections: There’s No "There" There in E-Business

As Y2K (the full calendar year, that is) draws to a close, it’s interesting to look back on how far we’ve come in just 12 months. A year ago, everyone was bracing for the century rollover. Now, everyone wants to make the e-business rollover.

I had the opportunity to moderate a panel of leading e-commerce luminaries at the recent Electronic Commerce World conference in Orlando, Fla. The discussion centered on the subject of application integration, which everyone is now concerned about. The subject has taken on a whole new meaning in the Internet era – pertaining to both internal integration behind the firewall and integration outside of the firewall. One thing that is striking is the absence of any clear and consistent roadmap to guide us into the world of e-business. There is no single vendor that provides end-to-end leadership. There are numerous strategies and products for bringing host-based data to the Web in one form or another. There will never be such a thing as a completed e-business project. No one can agree on what e-business will look like in the next six months, which makes it impossible to make purchasing decisions or contract commitments. Basically, there is no "there" there.

Ol’ FUD-dy Duddies

Is this a good thing? At least there used to be someone to blame. In the bad old days (pre-1995), IBM was frequently accused of sewing FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) into the market, to keep customers and partners in line, and on a continuous upgrade path. IBM had considerable leverage, since it controlled the entire stack – the processor, the box, the operating system and the client interfaces. In more recent years, Microsoft has proudly borne the title of chief FUD-maker. Oracle and Sun also jumped in with some FUD of their own.

Now, thanks to the insane pace of technology, FUD has spun beyond everyone’s control. FUD has become a distributed phenomenon. IBM seems poised to scrap a couple of operating systems, while merging all its boxes under generic-sounding "eServer Series" moniker, and engaging in a bewildering slew of alliances with ISVs. Microsoft rolled out its murky .NET strategy, and continues to fiddle with its XML-enabling BizTalk Server. Even the most technology-savvy adopters can’t seem to contain FUD. Last year, the dotcoms and e-market makers were in; brick-and-mortars were toast. Now, brick-and-clicks are in; dotcoms and e-markets are toast. Some of the new-age companies are even shedding the ".com" in their formal names, and going back to old-fashioned "Inc." and "Corp." designations.

Even XML, often touted as the universal standard for linking all e-business operations, took its share of blows at the conference. Few B2B vendors are actually delivering true back-end B2B integration, warned Otto Kumbar, Vice President of GE Global Exchange Services and a speaker at the conference. Instead, most vendors are floating press releases that, "promise that you can take a pile of B2B applications, and simply combine then with XML." In reality, companies require lots of help with realigning processes to new e-business realities, as well as bringing data out of and into back-end legacy systems – such as MRP systems.

Businesses still need to service customers, support partners and guide employees, while struggling to expand their online presences. Big questions still hang in the balance: Which applications will need to be extended to business partners? How will you extend legacy applications? What’s the best way to integrate with an e-marketplace? Should a company integrate with an e-marketplace or exchange?

It appears that Web to host, as a solution, has gained some traction as a means to quickly pull the back-end into e-business. Time to solution is the most important criteria in e-business deployments, and offering up a Web-to-host approach is certainly a rapid response. However, the strategy is too often misunderstood outside of the IT department. The latest and glitziest technology has been driving e-business strategies, rather than clear-headed and long-term management thinking that brings together IT and Internet strategies.

GE Global Services says that only four percent of the world’s 120 billion annual transactions are truly automated, while the rest are conducted by phone and fax. IBM, itself, says the Internet is only about three percent built. That leaves plenty of room for innovation and new approaches. So, as you move that mainframe (sorry, eServer) into your e-business world, consider strategies that will most effectively and quickly move data out to remote users, while maintaining high levels of scalability, security and integrity, such as Web to host. This approach may not eliminate all the FUD swirling around out there, but at least it’s a good place to start.