Riding the Wireless Wave with the AS/400

SAN MATEO (07/31/2000) - A surprising consequence of the Internet revolution has been the explosion of the wireless scene. Wireless users can now access the Internet, their e-mail, and other corporate resources from various handheld devices. And with just as much enthusiasm as their users, many network managers are turning to wireless networking to simplify administration and reduce expenditures. IBM Corp.'s AS/400 fits neatly into this picture, whether your goal is to allow wireless device-toting users, customers, and business partners to access AS/400 data or you are migrating to a wireless network.

As wireless networking continues to pick up steam, the biggest competitive advantage for wireless strategies is gained by providing access to e-business data and applications. By making your company's AS/400 data accessible via wireless devices, you create an always-on workforce: Wherever they are, your road warriors will be able to complete business transactions, maintain contact with customers, stay in touch with colleagues, and more.

In this Test Center Analysis, we examine some of the ways you might consider using the AS/400 as part of your overall wireless strategy. For example, you could enable wireless access to AS/400 data via e-mail, enable AS/400 application access via a WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) gateway, or use a wireless service provider to better manage wireless access to your AS/400 e-business server.

Movin' on out

Before you can choose how you will enable wireless access to your AS/400, you need to determine if you want wireless users to get just AS/400 data or if they should also be able to access AS/400 applications. You'll need to inventory the data and applications you intend to make wireless-ready.

Customers upgrading to the latest release of OS/400, the AS/400's operating system, will find their journey to the wireless world made easier with the addition of native XML support, including wireless XML derivatives.

More cautious adopters can also get in on the fun by using an application server such as IBM's WebSphere on the AS/400. In addition to offering strong load-balancing capabilities, WebSphere provides all of the necessary translation capabilities for converting data into WML (Wireless Markup Language), part of the WAP standard.

If you have an adventurous spirit but lack Java or XML skills, IBM on its AlphaWorks Web site (www.alphaworks.ibm.com) offers a downloadable tool aptly named the XML for RPG (Report Program Generator) interface. Consisting of a set of RPG interfaces and a corresponding service program to act as front end for the XML4C parser for the AS/400, it enables legacy applications and their developers to move into the new wireless world quickly and without learning a slew of new technologies.

IBM also mentions on its site another tool currently under development that will do the same for Cobol code, further extending the possibilities and potential of a wireless AS/400 content provider.

In addition to enabling your AS/400 applications and data for wireless access, you will find that brushing up on wireless technology fundamentals, starting with the different network types, will also prove beneficial.

For example, circuit-switched networks are cellular telephone-based and require a dedicated line for sending and receiving transmissions. Packet-switched networks, on the other hand, break down data into small packets, which allows multiple users to share the same channel. It does not require a dedicated line, making it more efficient and cost-effective for Internet traffic. Some wireless networking options include CDPD (cellular digital packet data), CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), GSM (Global System for Mobile communication), and TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access).

Getting there

You might consider using e-mail services to let your users synchronize with AS/400 data. You can use solutions such as IBM's Mobile Connect or AvantGo's platform to facilitate this. But using e-mail platforms to link to the AS/400 via wireless devices may not be a good solution if you have a wide array of data that requires wireless accessibility.

More likely, you'll choose to leverage a standard protocol, probably WAP, to interconnect your AS/400 with one or more wireless networks.The WAP protocol includes an XML derivative that lets you link AS/400 e-business applications and data with any of these wireless networks. WAP's content-encoding language, WML, adapts XML to the constraints of handheld computers' small displays. You could use a WAP gateway to link wireless devices to AS/400 applications and data using standard HTTP requests.

Your AS/400 programmers will need to be knowledgeable about WML, scripting, and the WTA (Wireless Telephony Application) framework. Also, you'll need to define which devices you'll support and how you will test your AS/400 applications prior to deploying them to wireless devices in a production setting. Several wireless device emulators are available to simulate these devices in testing.

If wireless e-mail access or WAP-enabled applications don't suit your organization and end-users, consider outsourcing wireless access to your AS/400 to a service provider. This method can be more cost-efficient, especially if you don't have experienced IT staff available to transform your applications into wireless-ready tools. But beware of possible hitches; depending on your service, you may encounter service-related issues such as limited customization of your applications.

Pricing for service providers that can wireless-enable your AS/400 data and applications varies greatly. You should start by defining one or two key applications that would provide strong ROI when they become untethered.

Completely transforming your core e-business functions for wireless access could be a pricey affair -- prepare to put an estimated $50,000 (or more) dent in your budget for a complete transformation.

E-business unleashed

The AS/400 has completed its shift from legacy system to excellent e-business solution. Enabling wireless access to AS/400 applications and data is now just as viable as with any competing e-business server platform. You can choose to enable wireless connectivity on your company's AS/400 via e-mail, WAP, or ASP (application service provider).

No matter the method you choose, the AS/400 will bring e-business applications and data to end-users, customers, and business partners regardless of their location or their mobile device.

Senior Analyst Ana Orubeondo (ana_orubeondo@infoworld.com) covers all things wireless for the InfoWorld Test Center. Senior Analyst Tim Fielden (tim_fielden@infoworld.com) covers AS/400-related technologies.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Wireless access and the AS/400

Business Case: AS/400 applications will gain expanded value at sites that implement wireless access for their end-users, customers, and business partners.

Technology Case: IT departments can choose to implement wireless access to AS/400 applications and data via e-mail servers, WAP gateways, or service providers.

Pros:

+ Offers multiple implementation paths

+ Meets support offered by rival e-business platforms+ Expands AS/400 e-business applications to a wider audienceCons:

- None noted

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