The Next Big Thing

With the Web-to-host market reaching maturity, what's around the bend—and who will the key players be?

Compared to the fits, starts and hype cycles of other technologies, the Web-to-host market has matured downright gracefully. The technology is now several years old, and Web-to-host solutions are fairly robust and sophisticated. Vendors now appear to be evolving their product lines in new directions. If you'll be making a purchase or recommendation in this area, you'll need to know what's shaken out with recent acquisitions—and where some of the major vendors are headed.

Originally, the host access market centered on terminal emulation, either through a LAN or dial-up connection accessed by PC client software. Most of today's solutions offer such access via HTML through a browser, or as a separate Java or ActiveX applet that launches a host session. Pricing typically is based on concurrent users, with most solutions ranging from $200 to $300 per client for up to 10 users. Most vendors also offer volume discounts for additional users. Most products handle both mainframe and iSeries data-streams, and run on a middleware platform such as Windows NT/2000.

The straightforward nature of these products now presents a challenge to vendors however. While PC-based software clients were lucrative for vendors, browser-based interfaces are low-margin products. "Java and ActiveX emulators are pretty inexpensive and easy to distribute and maintain," says Darcy Fowkes, analyst with Aberdeen Group of Boston. "The vendors can't get margins [from] this stuff." Vendors are thus under pressure to migrate to high-end deployments, which include enterprise application integration and intranet portals. This is a big leap for the market, however, since many end user companies are just starting to grasp the Web-to-host concept. Complicating this is the fact that vendors need to educate business users and new-age developers (those working with Microsoft and Java products, for example) on the technology.

New Partners and Players
Recent mergers and acquisitions among vendors also hint at new directions. Companies have been bought or are partnering with EAI solutions, for example. Last year, WRQ Inc. purchased SuperNova Enterprises, which sold EAI tools, and rebranded the solutions as its Verastream technology. IBM Corp., meanwhile, is integrating its Host On-Demand product into its WebSphere enterprise platform development environment.

IBM remains the leading vendor in this space. The company's roots in Web to host extend back to Client Access, a PC-based software environment that produced terminal emulation sessions for mainframes and AS/400s. In recent years, IBM unveiled Host On-Demand. Lately, the company has been altering that system's branding, first offering it as part of its mainframe-centric SecureWay family, then more recently moving it into its WebSphere family. Host On-Demand will run on just about any operating system IBM sells or resells, even OS/2 and NetWare.

Attachmate Corp. is the leading independent vendor in the Web-to-host space, offering its e-Vantage Host Access Server. Attachmate long has been a strong player in the Windows-to-host area, with a wide variety of connectivity products. WRQ, another market leader, also has roots in the PC-to-host terminal emulation market.

Key Mainframe and Midrange Web-to-Host Vendors


Key Areas of Evolution
With that said, I see three areas that stand out as vendors evolve their products.

Enterprise Information Portals. A natural role for Web-to-host middleware is offering an intranet-based window to a range of enterprise platforms and applications beyond the mainframe or iSeries. Vendors such as Hummingbird Ltd. and Inc. offer separate portal solutions, designed to open access to systems across the enterprise. Earlier attempts at portal offerings did not do well however. For instance, Wall Data, now part of NetManage Inc., tried to repackage its offerings as an enterprise information portal in early 1999, but the solution met with disastrous results, contributing to the decision to sell the company later that year. It was too early for the market, though, which was still wrestling with Year 2000 issues, according to Aberdeen's Fowkes. Now however, Fowkes thinks the time is ripe for vendors to reconfigure their offerings.

Enterprise Application Integration. Since Web to host offers a path for moving mainframe data to composite applications, EAI is an upcoming key area for many vendors. Leaders such as Attachmate and WRQ offer enterprise application solutions separately from their primary Web-to-host product. WRQ's Verastream Host Integrator and Verastream EAI suite, for example, are designed for building composite applications that model mainframe application processes.

Old-Fashioned Terminal "Screen-Scraping." This basic function will not go away any time soon, and is still the bread and butter of most Web-to-host vendors. Many companies are still turning to Web-to-host vendors simply to put their dressed-up green screens out to users beyond the firewall. While low in sophistication and flexibility, the terminal emulation market remains important.

The lousy economy aside, Web to host is a healthy and competitive market, with numerous players offering various levels of products. That means you have plenty of good, solid solutions from which to choose. Interestingly, while this market has not been immune to the recent sluggishness in IT spending, some vendors report new business from companies looking to rejuvenate and leverage existing mainframe assets.