Web-to-Host Connections: Have No Fear

"I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a...fraid." (HAL 9000, "2001: A Space Odyssey") Well, 2001 has arrived, and, fortunately, our interactions with host computers haven't turned out quite as dysfunctional as those between astronaut Dave Bowman and onboard supercomputer HAL. At least our systems don't have stick-to-the-mission-at-any-cost paranoia programmed into them, especially when it comes to thwarting end users' intentions.

Actually, 2001 is shaping up as a year where record numbers of end users will grow more comfortable with interacting with large mainframe and midrange host-based systems. Surveys and anecdotal evidence demonstrate that Web to host - the technology making such interaction possible - is catching on, especially as companies feel the pressure to make host data access available to selected end users as a rapidly as possible.

Here are some observations on what we can expect over the coming year in Web-to-host access:

More Outsiders. Web to host has mainly been serving as a new mode of terminal emulation, replacing or supplementing PC-based access over a LAN. Lately, however, there is a notable movement of Web-to-host deployments into extranet environments, where mainframe and midrange data is being made available to trading and business partners. In the Web-to-host market, extranet deployments are reaching the same levels as intranet deployments, according to Darcy Fowkes, Analyst with Aberdeen Group of Boston.

One of the most compelling value propositions of extranets is their potential for automating the supply chain. In fact, supply chain management may be the first area where we see Web to host being leveraged as part of e-commerce. For example, in some places, auto dealers are able to access data and place orders, via browser, into automakers' centralized inventory systems. "I think that Web to host is the first step in supply-chain roll-outs," says Lucinda Borovick, Analyst with IDC. "Customers will want to leverage what they have built in Web to host as they move to the e-marketplace." Many vertical industry deployments will take advantage of Web to host to open mainframe data to "secure audiences," as well, adds Aberdeen's Fowkes. For example, an insurance company may seek to provide its network of independent agents access to mainframe data.

To a more limited degree, Web to host is extending host data out to the Web-viewing public. Leading the way have been government and educational sites, such as libraries and universities. Outward-facing deployments will be seeing more growth as well, industry experts predict.

More Client Types. This will be the year of the thinner-than-thin client. The number of wireless devices, such as Web-enabled phones and palmtop computers, are expected to eventually surpass traditional PCs among end users. Managers deploying Web-to-host solutions will need to start considering solutions for getting host-based data out in a format that best can be delivered to these small-footprint clients. Plus, we're likely to start seeing the rise of clients that actually are embedded devices that need to rely on host data streams.

More Middleware. Web-to-host products used to be terminal emulators run over a TCP/IP connection. No more. Web-to-host products have evolved into sophisticated middleware servers, which handle everything from scalability requirements to enterprise application integration.

Over the past year, we've seen the rise of the so-called "host access Web server," which acts as the middleware between the host and the end users. Zona Research predicts that leading Web-to-host vendors will continue to improve their capabilities to: provide a gateway between SNA and IP protocols; provide scalability to tens of thousands of users, provide load balancing and failover to support that scalability; and provide fine-grained security at the access, session and application levels.

Web-to-host vendors have been building in more caching capabilities, which enables quicker returns to previous host screens, and products are providing greater administrative capabilities, which ensure multi-level access security. "The consoles are getting more sophisticated, so I get to identify a finer grain of users, and what particular screens and applications those users are likely to need," says Aberdeen's Fowkes.

We're also going to see a richer variety of platforms that can support Web-to-host middleware deployments. Windows 2000, for example, has proven to a be a fairly stable and scalable platform, just as Microsoft promised. The leading UNIX flavors - Sun Solaris, HP-UX, Tru64 and IBM's own AIX - continue to advance in price performance. And, open source solutions, such as the Linux operating system and Apache Web server, have been embraced by IBM for both its zSeries (mainframe) and iSeries (AS/400) systems. This new breed of software holds tremendous promise as an e-business platform, as well as tight integration with host servers.

More Sophisticated, Fewer Green Screens. As some products grow more sophisticated, the Web-to-host market is splitting. The higher end of the market is leveraging Web-to-host technology as an EAI solution, while the lower end simply deploys it as a bare-bones host access method to handle terminal emulation.

Aberdeen's Fowkes observes that there have been a number of mergers and acquisitions among vendors over the past year. She states that because Web to host is relatively simple technology, "the margins have been thin," for many vendors. "It's at the point where that stuff is simple to deploy, and inexpensive stuff to distribute and maintain." This is forcing many vendors to move upstream in the market toward full-fledged EAI solutions.

The good news for users is that this dividing market is increasing the choices in the ways Web to host can be deployed. Where simple terminal emulation is all that's really required - such as a warehouse order entry system - a downloaded Java or ActiveX applet establishing a direct link and terminal emulation with the host will suffice. Even here, new technology coming on the market enables administrators and end users to customize, and even jazz up their screens with a more graphical look and feel. In more public-facing e-business environments, the user-friendliness of an interface may make or break potential business. Here, an EAI-type approach - which brings selected host data into a composite e-business application - will fare better.

Divided Governance. Increasingly, more e-business purchases will be overseen by business users, outside the traditional jurisdiction of the IT department. This may make Web to host a tougher sell to executives and managers being inundated with promos for the latest and glitziest portal technologies and XML-based e-business packages. While IT has understood Web to host for some time, line-of-business managers may be clueless as to its benefits. Expect to see ongoing tension between IT and business units on the access methods.

Questions to Ponder. Web to host may play a more pivotal - but still unclear - role in the hot zones of e-commerce and e-business: such as portals, e-marketplaces, customer relationship management and online collaboration.This is where the real b-to-b action is. Companies are grappling for the best ways to present back-end data to these new venues. In future columns, we'll be exploring the potential role of host access in many of these new initiatives. It's likely that Web to host will emerge as a viable strategy for addressing many companies' e-business requirements.