The Integration Wave

One of the pioneers of Web-to-legacy integration upgrades its system—and cuts networking costs by 30 percent.

Back in the Wild Web of the mid-1990s, some pioneering companies made their first tentative forays into Web-to-legacy integration. These first-generation implementations were nothing to look at—green screens within a browser frame—and often ran slowly. Because Web access was not as ubiquitous as today, companies often had to contract with ISPs for special dial-up services. But these arrangements took hold and opened mainframe access to both a wider base of end users, and a wider range of possibilities for leveraging host systems.

Many of the seasoned veterans of this first generation are moving on to the next level—not only more tightly integrating their host platforms to the Web, but also linking into newer application environments from across their heterogeneous environments. Such has been the case with Atlas Van Lines, which first put its mainframe applications out on the Web in 1995. The $300 million transportation company services a network of about 550 independent agents who contract for the moving of household goods across North America. Atlas' centralized systems handle each phase of shipping transactions, from order entry and quote generation through driver assignments and revenue distribution among participating agencies.

When first launched, the system presented agents a green-screen interface with all the typical 3270 function and command keys. Some agents were comfortable with the interface, but others had problems, says Dick Arneson, vice president of management information services for Atlas. "We didn't have a lot of usage of our system, because it was difficult to use—and expensive and cumbersome," he says. "The Internet was a real opportunity for us, if we could address it correctly. We needed to give our agents access to 3270 screens, but through the Internet. We also needed to make the interface easier to use, and enhance it."

Atlas knew it needed to move to a GUI point-and-click interface on the carriers' CA-Datacom database running on an IBM mainframe. Atlas also needed to mesh new Web development efforts with its host access environment. "As we contemplated moving to Web-based development, we still had to support all our agents," says Arneson. "We wouldn't have any semblance of order if we had some functions handled through 3270 emulation on a dial-up mechanism, while newer stuff was only available through the Internet."

In fact, a number of Atlas' application sets have already been moved to Microsoft SQL Server and Windows 2000-based servers, Arneson says. But the mainframe is there to stay. "Moving processing off the mainframe isn't our objective. Our objective is to provide the right functions and features for our users."

Recently, Atlas built an integrated Web and host-access environment with OnWeb from NetManage Inc. The integrated server environment, which resides on a Windows 2000 server, enables Atlas' agents and headquarters employees to access both new Windows-based applications and mainframe data through a single browser session. E-mail is also accessible through this single point. Also, the 3270 interfaces now include features such as help screens, FAQs and menus.

As a side benefit, Atlas has cut its communication costs, Arneson adds. "We've been able to remove a frame-relay network and dial-up connections." Arneson estimates that the implementation has reduced networking costs by 30 percent; with help information online, help desk calls have been reduced three-fold.

About the Author

Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in surveys, technology research, and white papers.