E-nabling your host system -- Just plain, hard, dirty work?

Amid continual fanfare from vendors and analysts about users morphing their businesses into e-businesses, a surprisingly small number have actually Web-enabled their legacy applications for that purpose.

But given the competitive advantages presented by the Web and the constantly improving technical methods of enabling host systems, more users are feeling bolder about making the move.

In a survey of 134 companies both large and small from around the world, the Cutter Consortium, a research service for IT professionals, reports that only 15 per cent of respondents say they have enabled their core applications for e-business.

"Integrating Web-based front-office applications with legacy back-office applications with some middleware is a hot topic," says Chris Pickering, a senior consultant with Cutter's Business-IT Alignment Advisory Service. "It often seems like everybody is doing third-generation e-business. But the fact is that most e-businesses are not."

Much of the reason why IT shops, especially larger ones, have not Web-enabled their host systems is that it is just plain hard, dirty work. The process of ripping back the covers of a 20-year-old mainframe and digging through the tangled briar of software and hardware updates to pull out or reshape applications and business logic is work easily put off for another day.

Although approaches vary, early adopters of host-access and integration technologies are finding ways to produce competitive Web applications faster while saving hardware, software, and IT manpower costs.

Choosing an entry strategy

For most, that first step will be toward their mainframes and other high-end host systems. According to various market estimates, IBM S/390-class mainframes hold anywhere from 65 per cent to 80 per cent of the world's business data, with high-end Unix-based boxes holding much of the rest - a treasure trove waiting to be mined. But because these systems are generations-of-IT-managers old, with literally millions of dollars invested in them, most IT shops are reluctant to completely rehost their business logic and data onto more modern and Web-friendly systems.

Instead, the adventurous minority has employed a number of wrappering technologies, legacy code conversion to Java, and a dozen or more variations or combinations of both. These software strategies are carried out on a variety of host and middle-tier systems working in concert. In many cases this approach allows users to leave data and business logic on the mainframe that can be accessed by the middle-tier application server.

"I am seeing many more people moving to application server solutions because it gives them more options," says Sally Cusack, a senior analyst at market research company, IDC. "There, they can make use of wrappering or messaging and separate out the GUI logic from the business logic. No one wants a one-off solution anymore; they want a growth path."

Browser access taps business logic

RLI Insurance over in the US is one shop that looked to Web-enabling its host system not only to be more competitive in the insurance world, but also to cut down the maintenance and development costs associated with its client/server system. In late 1998, the company was running its Personal Umbrella Policy for Home and Auto application on a high-end AS/400 being accessed by 110 administrators from around the country. The administrators were using PC-based systems to dial in to AS/400 to download the data they needed.

The system was expensive to maintain because the client-based systems were running a variety of Microsoft operating systems - including DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95. All PC software was supported by third parties, while RLI supported the AS/400.

"Making any changes to the system meant duplicating on the PC side whatever we did on [the AS/400] side, which meant a lot of work and time spent," says Piyush Singh, assistant vice president of systems development at RLI. "Plus, we could never provide the same level of features on the PC end because of the constraints of the older systems."

Seeking a solution to extend its data to the Web, the first thing the company decided was that its AS/400-based application was robust enough to avoid redeveloping it. So they evaluated three front-end options that gave systems access to the Web without having to touch the back-end legacy system.

After looking at CST's Jakarta and Sterling Software's Flashpoint, RLI decided on Seagull's J Walk.

J Walk, made up of developer's tools, server software, and thin-client deployment technology that can connect 3270 host applications to the Web, allowed RLI to better integrate application access to host functions for integration with Java and HTML, and to re-engineer workflow.

RLI's enhanced application can now be accessed by browser-based clients over the Internet, and the company has eliminated the third-party support costs of its proprietary application. It has also saved $US10,000 a year in overnight shipments of upgrades and patches and eliminated customer service support for its PC-based applications.

Laying the groundwork for growth was equally important to RLI. By April, Seagull is expected to launch the first beta of a follow-up to J Walk, code-named Williamsburg, which will automate the creation of XML and Java interfaces for S/390 and AS/400 applications, allowing users to integrate their core systems with Web sites, portals, and entire e-communities.

"[Williamsburg] will let us retain the business logic, which is tried and true, and also present users with really good-looking entry screens," says Singh, who is planning to be an alpha tester.

Moving into a modern environment

Also seeking to streamline business functions while reducing IT costs, the US Air Force is in the throes of a $US12 million project to Webify its retail supply management system.

It's now housed in a Unisys DMS2200 mainframe running a proprietary database that contains 100 per cent of the retail supply data.

The goal of the first phase of the two-phase project, expected to take 30 months to complete, is three-pronged: to create a Web-based user interface, migrate data from the hierarchical database to a relational database running in an open environment, and move the business logic from its proprietary OS into a new environment.

In the second phase, the Air Force hopes to recreate the proprietary systems' business logic in a series of components designed to carry out several functions specific to its retail supply operation. Those components will be implemented across the military's GCSS Integrated Framework.

The Air Force eventually hopes to integrate multiple supply management systems into a single component-based supply system.

Leland Stanford, chief of migration technology in the Software Factory Division for the Air Force's Standard Systems Group, said: "Once you get [supply management] functions into components, it is easy to identify which components are compatible across the different domains. Then we can start to integrate the different domains."

Instead of bringing in middle-tier hardware servers, the Air Force will partition its existing Unisys mainframe and install in it a SCO Unix Intel-based system. This approach will save the Air Force a significant hardware investment as well as time because it only has to migrate operating systems.

In phase one, the Air Force used Java to create the GUI for the system, which involved converting legacy code over to Java. During this process, the Air Force encountered the sticky problem of trying to sort out the editing business logic and the processing business logic that become almost inextricably intertwined.

"When you move to distributed processing, you have to separate or mine out and edit the [business] logic so you can convert it to Java applets. You can then put the business logic into an open environment," Stanford explains, so they turned to Relativity tools to automate the mining process, which could have taken three to five years manually.

Thin clients tighten application ties

B.J. Services, one of the largest oil-drilling outfits in the world, laid the groundwork for its Web-enabling project as part of its Y2K compliance efforts. The company took 30 Banyan servers out of production in 30 different locations and replaced them with a 10-server MetaFrame 1.8 server farm from Citrix that is now located at its head office.

"This allowed us to slash costs dramatically because we would have had to spend big bucks to make the Banyan servers Y2K-compliant, not only through hardware upgrades but the OS, as well. [MetaFrame] also allowed us to go to thin clients, saving us lots on desktop hardware," said Art Doumas, a senior network engineer at B.J. Services.

Once the MetaFrame server was in place, the company wanted to Web-enable the system to allow its alliance engineers from large clients such as Texaco and Exxon to access a variety of engineering programs and proposals residing on the MetaFrame system.

To do this they bought Citrix' Nfuse, which allows MetaFrame-based applications to be published to a Web page. Nfuse can also serve as an application portal technology.

Before deciding to go with Citrix, B.J. considered other approaches, including wrappering and converting legacy code to Java, but the company decided the Citrix approach would allow them to make quicker technical decisions, deliver the system earlier, and maintain the system more easily.

Making a molehill out of a mountain

Many larger shops prefer to take smaller steps over the short term while they are still researching products and strategies for more encompassing solutions. One such shop is Bank of America, which wanted to extend its mainframe-based ordering system to more users and a wider variety of products.

There was an application for ordering forms and office supplies on the company's 10-year-old mainframe. The bank decided it wanted to extend the program's capability of ordering more complex products, starting with orders for desktop hardware and software products.

"We thought we could just put some hardware and software items into a catalogue where people could take advantage of IBM's mainframe tool, Host On Demand. But the people ordering PCs were a lot more technically savvy than those ordering office supplies and wanted a point-and-click environment," Michael O'Hara, who oversaw the project, said.

But ordering computer equipment is more complex than ordering pens and paper, requiring additional functionality.

"We didn't want to have to build this functionality into the mainframe application, so we used Host on Demand to create a graphical Web-based interface that was 100 per cent Java," O'Hara said.

In this case, the critical goal of turning a tedious host-access project into bite-size chunks was achieved, although O'Hara fully expects to keep an eye on future options.

"This is a get-your-feet-wet approach that extends a tool, which figures to be entrenched here for a while, out to a lot more people while we look for the end-all solution," O'Hara says. wLosing the business logicOne of the barriers for many companies seeking to Web-enable their host systems - particularly those with hosts that are 10 or even 20 years old and have been continually updated and enhanced - is understanding how the original business logic works, or even knowing where it is. Although no upstanding IT director freely admits it, most know that the vast majority of programmers who make technical adjustments to legacy applications rarely document those changes.

After a few decades of enhancing and improving a legacy application, the good news is that the application is typically feature-rich and fits the hardware like a glove. The bad news: all those changes often obscure how an application's logic works, which is a problem for shops trying to get at the logic as part of some Web-enabling or distributed processing project.

"We were doing a large project with one of our clients that involved their billing system. The system's logic had been changed or moved around so much that no one on their staff knew exactly how the rates were computed, and several other basic functions," one software executive said.

"When you first develop a system you tend to create a good set of docs on the business logic, but as time goes by, most don't keep them up to date. Sometimes people just move the logic off of a mainframe and create new logic simply because over time the source code running the object gets lost," the Air Force's Leland Stanford said.

For this reason, IT managers preparing to take on host-access projects should consider the condition of the business logic when weighing their decision on which approach makes sense.

* Business case for Web-enabling your hosts* Speeding time to market for e-business applications* Expanding audience for existing host applications* Reducing hardware and software updating costs* Reducing IT labour costs

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