Web-to-Host Connections: Leaving Your Legacy

When Bill Shatner crooned in those Priceline commercials last year, there was more to the story than a suave, retired starship captain pushing a service that was supposed to take us into a new century. It was self-parody – Shatner was actuallyally busting on his own attempt at a singing career in his post-Star Trek days.

Do IT professionals suffer from "typecasting" in the career market, as well? A few months back, I heard from a reader who said he was pigeonholed in his company as a mainframe COBOL developer. Though he took Java classes and made efforts to add new skills, his employer refused to give him the opportunity to work on e-business projects. It seems self-defeating, and even just plain dumb, for any "legacy" systems developers and managers carry a wealth of skills and systems knowledge that can easily be migrated to newer environments.

Yet, I keep hearing this recurring theme over and over. The whole matter really hit the fan last fall when a GartnerGroup analyst released some calculations claiming that it wasn’t worth the trouble for a company to retrain COBOL programmers to handle Java applications. Too much "productivity" is lost while the retraining takes place, they claim. The analyst that authored this report took plenty of heat, but, unfortunately, his view reflects a lot of the thinking of his corporate clients.

The good news is that back-end systems managers and developers don’t have to look too hard anymore to get some juicy Internet assignments, for the Internet is coming to them. Unlike the free-spending days of yesteryear, companies are now under the gun to prove ROI on spending all that money on new platforms and Web environments. Leveraging resources available in central IT operations isn’t just fashionable, it’s good business. Companies desperately need – or quickly find out they desperately need – skills that are already hardwired into large systems data center operations. The value central IT can bring to the table is more than hardware and platforms – it’s a well-honed system of management. 24x7? Been there, done that. 99.999 percent uptime and high availability? Been there, done that, as well. Scalable online, nearline and archived storage? Nothing new there. Multiple simultaneous user sessions, scaling up into hundreds, perhaps thousands? Yup. Ability to codify business processes? No sweat.

To a large extent, Web to host – in all its forms, from EAI to terminal emulation – has extended the lives of many systems indefinitely into the future. If not for, first, PC to host and, later, Web to host, many so-called "legacy" systems would have been torn up and scrapped a long time ago, no matter how well they ran. Web to host is all about application rejuvenation and more. A Web-to-host deployment involves deploying Java servlets and applets, HTML rendering, Web middleware servers, network security and bandwidth demands. In other words: all the hot spots of e-business.

A survey confirms that the jobs of IT managers and developers in large systems environments now involve, to some degree, e-business support. A recent survey of 400 companies by Evans Data Corp. finds that while maintenance still occupies most of the time of mainframe shops, more than half (50.5 percent) say the bulk of their work will be Web-enabling current mainframe applications. Another 36 percent will be building new Web applications to run on their mainframes. The Evans survey also finds that 31 percent will be developing e-commerce apps for external customers and 28 percent will be running a portal through their mainframe system.

IT managers are adding Web capabilities and accessibility to mainframe applications through Web-to-host and EAI middleware. As a result, record numbers of end users are accessing mainframe applications. A total of 53 percent of respondents to the survey, in fact, report a significant increase in users accessing both applications and legacy data. A rapidly expanding user base is also driving the insatiable need for more MIPS – the Evans survey finds that 46 percent of companies report that their need for additional processor capabilities will surge over the next year or two.

So, if you’re looking to get more involved in e-business development, your skills in mainframe or midrange environments are increasingly proving to be valuable assets. Because that’s where a lot of the real e-business action is taking place these days. The next time your boss talks about hiring e-business expertise, tell him or her to look no further than your company’s IT center.

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