A young head on old shoulders

Generally speaking, the valve of data on so-called legacy systems is not in doubt, writes Nick Langley, as he examines the...

Generally speaking, the valve of data on so-called legacy systems is not in doubt, writes Nick Langley, as he examines the options for bringing 20th century applications into the third millennium.

Legacyware sounds like those dubious 'collectable' decorated plates you find in adverts at the back of Sunday supplements. It's actually the unlovely term that analysts have coined for products that put modern interfaces on old applications.

Enabling legacy applications for client-server, let alone for e-business and the Web, has long presented big users like banks with a major headache. The systems are too valuable to replace and too big to rewrite, but hand-coded interfaces involve a high maintenance overhead which slows down responses to changing markets and new opportunities.

A survey of 342 financial services institutions, conducted by Datamonitor for PeopleSoft, found legacy integration is causing the most pain of all the issues they face. As PeopleSoft vp Martin Mackay commented: 'FSIs have typically heavily customised their software applications, with the result that they have destroyed their own upgrade paths.' An uncanny echo here of Larry Ellison blaming users for bringing problems on themselves, by tinkering with Oracle Applications.

What annoys the ERP suppliers is that by customising their core applications, such companies have made it harder to implement the suppliers' own e-business extensions. Yet the point of customising ERP suites - and the reason suppliers provided tools to do it - was to build in the business process logic unique to each company. Web-enabling customised applications migrates that investment in business logic to the e-business world. And building on existing applications allows for quicker deployment and shorter time to market. Thin client, browser based user interfaces are quick and cheap to deploy and cost little to maintain, since all the heavyweight stuff is done centrally, on the server. According to GartnerGroup, web-to-host connectivity solutions offer up to 25 per cent savings in operating costs over traditional terminal emulators. IDC predicts web-to-host solutions will account for the major part of the host access market by 2004, with a potential 12 million users in the UK alone. Web access is in many ways an extension of terminal emulation, and the traditional PC-to-host suppliers like WRQ, Hummingbird and Attachmate, Esker/Persoft, and NetManage/ Simware/WallData (there's been a lot of consolidation in this market) offer suites which provide both green-screen-in-a-window terminal emulation, and the ability to create new, entirely browser based user interfaces.

Unsurprisingly, IBM is the leading supplier of host access technologies. IBM's tools for extending mainframe applications to the Web include the Host Access Client Package, which combines IBM Personal Communications (3270, 5250 and VT emulation plus a variety of APIs) with the WebSphere Host On-Demand Java emulator, thereby offering a combination of traditional and browser based emulation. The package includes IBM's Screen Customiser for recreating green screens as GUIs, using drag and drop technology, with no coding. The package can also be used for new e-business application development.

Then there's the WebSphere Host Integration suite, which adds WebSphere Host Publisher and Communications Server to the components of the Host Access Client Package. Host publishing converts host data into standard HTML for display in users' browsers, and translates users' HTML data into a form understandable by the host application. WebSphere Host Publisher can integrate multiple sources of data - 3270, 5250, Java classes and JDBC (Java Database Connectivity) - enabled databases.

The Host Integration suite also includes WebSphere Application Server and WebSphere Studio, for developing and deploying e-business applications with links to legacy systems. Another WebSphere tool, Transcoding Publisher, performs further conversions to make the data readable by e-business applications and handheld devices like 'smart' phones and PDAs.

IBM says the 14,000 Cics user organisations around the world process 30 billion transactions every day. Cics Transaction Server enables e-business applications to access Cics data and applications through Enterprise Java Beans deployed within Cics. This data can then be used by new applications developed using EJB and other platforms.

Legacyware specialists offer solutions which complement or in some cases replace the more traditional emulation solutions. Bill Sawyer, UK country manager of Jacada, described his business as legacy application rejuvenation. 'We take existing legacy applications and put new interfaces on, without touching the source code. That could be anything from Visual Basic to an intranet using Java, or the Internet using html. We are solving a major pain in the industry, because the guys who are writing Java and html haven't got a clue about these very big business systems, any more than the guys who have written these systems know anything about Java or html. We allow the existing people to generate new interfaces in source code, at the press of a key.'

Jacada's major competitor is Seagull from Holland, which is dominant in the AS/400 market throughout Europe. Seagull's WinJa is typically used for web enabled extranet (authorised third party) and intranet (employee) host-to-web deployments. Like Jacada, Seagull claims that since its product requires no changes to the mainframe application, the risk of business interruption is nil, and the project success rate is orders of magnitude greater than 'build from scratch' approaches.

Customer base
'But we have a larger market within the mainframe arena,' Jacada's Sawyer claimed. 'We work with IBM and CA among others in the States, and we're looking to do that in Europe.' Although a newcomer to the UK, Jacada already has an impressive customer base here, including the Woolwich, HM Land Registry, ERF trucks and HSBC.

We're also seeing the emergence of XML based solutions, like QED Business Systems' FireXML, which extends XML formatting and functionality to data stored in mainframe DBMSs via Cics.

Like Jacada's Sawyer, Ian Kilpatrick, managing director of Wick Hill Group, highlights the cultural gap between core systems and e-business developers as the source of integration problems. 'The challenge is to mix these two approaches to gain the maximum business benefit.' While some companies have gone for a revolutionary 'Big Bang' approach, Kilpatrick said most organisations are moving in a cautious, evolutionary way.

Wick Hill resells WRQ's Reflection for the Web, a competitor to IBM's Host On-Demand. Kilpatrick said web-to-host solutions like Reflection address three groups of users. There are occasional corporate users, which includes everyone not directly involved in supporting and using core applications. 'The common factor is that they are not regular users of host applications and have a limited understanding of them.'

Then there are business partners, suppliers and customers who regularly access information remotely via virtual private networks or extranets, whose knowledge and use of host applications will vary considerably. Finally, there are consumers who may want to access corporate information for e-commerce transactions or checking on the status of their orders.

Training casual internal users would be unviably expensive. Training casual external users is a non-starter. Expecting partners to get to grips with the idiosyncrasies of your core systems is a bit much, unless you are the dominant force in your market.

The solution is an intuitive, point-and-click Web interface. 'This will ideally need to be achieved without re-engineering the application or back-end system,' Kilpatrick says.

You could put that more strongly. The prospect of the continuous maintenance effort, and non-stop business process re-engineering, required to change legacy systems to meet every twist and turn in the e-business environment, makes the blood run cold.

Case study - SAAB
IBM Global services worked with Jacada to give Saab's network of dealers access to customer purchase histories, and vehicle locator, warranty and training applications. These applications are held on various back-end systems, including S/390 and AS/400, and use green screens.

Saab wanted to web-enable this information without redeveloping the host systems. IBM Global services wrote the Java-based user interfaces using tools from Jacada. End users' requests are handled by Lotus Domino middleware running on an AS/400, which relays the queries to the backend S/390. Saab estimates that building just one part of the application from scratch would have taken two to three years. Web enabling the existing systems using Jacada and Domino took nine months.

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