Extend and win

The real nitty-gritty of enterprise application integration is the notoriously difficult task of opening up legacy systems to distributed end users.

The problem isn’t so much that legacy applications are cumbersome to use. Rather, the ability to centrally manage applications, deploy new ones to users and make on-the-fly modifications to up-and-running applications poses stumbling blocks for IT managers whose companies run business logic at the edges of their networks.

Another problem is that developers familiar with Java, .Net and other object and/or service-oriented languages may have little experience with Cobol and other mainframe languages. Yet business requirements necessitate that these barriers between developers be torn down.

EAI solutions must come with tools and a user interface that interacts with the host so developers can understand what an application on the host does, without having to know how it works. New tools — connectors, if you will — from IBM, NetManage and Attachmate, for example, make it possible to turn Cobol-based transactions into Web-accessible functions.

When using these connectors, there’s no need to change the legacy applications. The process involves delivering host-based information as XML, Enterprise Java_Beans or COM+ (or any other component technology), making it simple for applications to use.

That was the rationale behind work at Poste Italiane, Italy’s national postal service, which wanted fast implementation, configuration and personalisation (it took less than a week for a proof of concept) and a standard Web development language.

The goal was to give every post office in Italy access in a Web-ready format to an existing bank-account application.

The post office tied the venerable OS/390 system at headquarters to the Visual Basic environment in each post office.

This VB world had its own business logic, which had to be synchronised with the mainframe in order to use the application. It was too complex, so no one ever did it. Using Smart Connector technology, the developers remapped the mainframe’s business logic to every local server. Now the application is in wide use.

As business process becomes more complex and demanding, IT must find a way to respond by reaching into the rich asset base of legacy applications.

Using connector technology to expose functions to Web-based clients is a valid and proven approach.

Pimm Fox is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara, California. Contact him at pimmfox@pacbell.ne

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