Transforming Mainframe Computing

Ask people for their perspectives on dinosaurs and some will immediately offer an opinion that includes the word extinct. Others will offer the suggestion that dinosaurs haven't gone away -- they've just evolved into the birds and reptiles we know today.

Similar opinions can be heard in discussions of mainframe-based computing. Though some people feel it is extinct, I believe the mainframe community is making good progress at evolving the big iron to fit into the world of Internet computing.

Three-quarters of today's business data is housed on mainframes. During the past decade, IT departments have used a variety of methods to make that data accessible. Some of these have included dumb-terminal access, file transfers, and client/server emulation products.

During the past year, reaching mainframe data has undergone yet another transformation -- the move toward browser-based access. A bevy of vendors are stepping up their efforts to bring Web-based host-access products to market. Some of these include WRQ's Reflection Enterview (www.wrq.com), Hummingbird's Jump (www.hummingbird.com), and IBM's Host On-Demand (www.ibm.com). Fellow Senior Analyst Jeff Senna and I evaluated these offerings in the Dec. 14, 1998, issue.

Products in the Web-to-host category typically enable IT sites to implement either 3270 or 5250 host-emulation sessions within a Web browser. And most of these products will work with most major Web servers.

Some Web-to-host products offer direct browser access to host systems, while others require the use of an intermediate gateway or server. I prefer the direct route overall, because the intermediate requirements can often introduce bottlenecks. However, some vendors are addressing the middle-tier requirements (and potential bottlenecks) by spanning multiple servers for greater scalability.

I find it appealing that many of the vendors in this category are also offering application programming interfaces with their products; this lets IT sites create custom Web access to the big iron in lieu of using emulation sessions. For now, browser-based emulation sessions are becoming more commonplace. However, I believe the trend toward customized browser-based host-access applications will increase over time.

The host as Web server

Another interesting trend in melding mainframe data and the Internet is the movement toward using the mainframe itself as a Web server. Host-system hardware vendors have begun to equip the big iron operating systems with TCP/IP, built-in Web server support, and some even include integrated firewall features.

Of course, I'm not implying that mainframe-based Web servers will become predominant over Unix and Windows-based Web servers. However, there are certain instances where mainframe-based Web servers make a lot of sense.

Current mainframe sites that need to implement intranets, business-to-business transactions, or any Web application that requires real-time data manipulation may find their platform's Web server capabilities ideal. IT sites that lack mainframes today might also consider the platform's Web-serving capabilities for large, high-volume electronic-business applications where performance counts.

Using a mainframe as a Web server has some benefits and detriments. Obviously, applications will scale quite well and the platform architecture is geared toward processing large amounts of data with great speed, security, and reliability. You'll enjoy a bonus from the proximity of the data to the application.

Some further hardware and software may be needed at some sites. However, lower administration costs, reduced upgrades, and lower networking fees go a long way toward offsetting the initial investment.

Not only are mainframe hardware vendors infusing their platforms with Web technologies, but third-party vendors are also getting into the act. For example, the start-up Beyond Software (www.beyond-software.com) and a division of Sterling Software (www.vm.sterling.com) both are offering mainframe Web servers.

I believe that mainframes are undergoing a successful transformation to the Internet age. The lure of business-to-business commerce, custom intranet applications, and even leveraging the mainframe processors to improve Internet application performance all hold appeal.

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