All-pervading, all-pervasive AS/400

Wireless networking has already caused a revolution in communications, and we have only seen the first wave.

Wireless networking has already caused a revolution in communications, and we have only seen the first wave.

Extensions to the basic cell phone have come in the form of services based on the wireless application protocol (Wap- see box). Yet the development of Wap based solutions remains at an early stage, in particular to support the predicted boom in mobile commerce activity. Basically, analyst firms reckon that over half of e-commerce transactions will come from people on the move, using a range of devices from cell phones to PDAs and eventually much smaller, wearable personal communicators.

By 2004 we will also see the advent of the third generation (3G) internet ready mobile phones, offering much greater bandwidth, as well as promising a richer and more visual experience for end-users. And 3G will be just another stepping stone to even faster and more powerful mobiles. It can also be expected that new kinds of devices will be created, such as a hybrid PDA and phone. While this represents a wealth of opportunity for both IT customers and suppliers, the key to success in wireless networking will be how well these portable machines can be connected to the data and transaction processing capability on network and its servers.

Getting pervasive

IBM plans to adapt all its server lines to meet the demands of m-commerce, categorising this work under the Pervasive Computing (PVC) banner. In fact, during the June briefings at its AS/400 headquarters in Rochester, the company outlined the wireless strategy as Tier 0 technology. This means that we will not see such features on the AS/400 imminently, but can expect them to come in a packaged form in the medium term. Developers can avail themselves of the existing PVC toolsets at IBM PartnerWorld site (http://www.ibm.com/pvc).

Like many in the industry, IBM seems to be truly committed to Wap as a key enabling technology for m-commerce. This is despite the fact that a degree of uncertainty hangs over the future of this wireless standard. For instance, respected IT research firm Ovum recently commented that Wap's 'window of opportunity' is closing fast. And less than half the total of first generation Wap phones were shipped in the first six months of their general availability. Doom mongers say that 3G will blow Wap away, at least in the UK. However, predictions of Wap's early demise may prove premature. Similar ugly rumours surrounded Java until quite recently. We have only seen the beginnings of Wap development, and the standard still commands the support of most major suppliers.

Typically, all e-business routes taken by IBM flow through the WebSphere software platform. So WebSphere will provide the infrastructure to carry bi-directional traffic over wireless IP networks between mobile devices, the AS/400, and its crucial DB2 Universal Database. This environment will be augmented by modules like DB2 Everywhere and MQ Series Everywhere, both aimed at the mobile business user market.

A gateway from Wap to HTML browsers can be created, with HTML also acting as the repository for content accessed by Wap-compliant devices, according to Rick Stevens, chief engineering manager for AS/400 application development technologies. Data compression is an important part of this process, pumping information efficiently over wireless networks. Stevens claims that this development curve is not as steep as it sounds, likening Wap programming to any other work with the internet technology stack. But he does stress a difference between WML - the mark-up language bundled with Wap - and the standards behind traditional browsers and the web in general.

'WML does not represent a single large page of information, but is rather like a deck of cards to navigate with smaller pages appearing on the mobile device where you have to keep control of the user interface,' says Stevens.

Browsers enabled with a rich blend of WML, HTML, and the XML extensible mark-up language could be built in as a layer within the internet environment. In addition, Stevens points to the extension of 5250 applications to the wireless networks. The emulated green screens would be wrapped up as JavaBeans and transported via WebSphere to the end-user. Apart from WebSphere, further IBM or third party software is useful to assist in bringing green screen applications to wireless networks. An example is the Host Publisher, which can encapsulate single or multiple 5250 screens, in addition to features like pooling AS/400 connections to improve performance.

Java server pages could be generated and delivered via HTML to a palmtop equipped with WML, according to Stevens. The key is to make content a data stream that is independent of the presentation medium deployed at the client end.

Synchronising devices with back-end systems is another issue IBM is tackling when it comes to matching the AS/400 and its other servers with the demands from the m-commerce market. The goal is to provide real-time access to the DB2 Universal Database on the AS/400, from any kind of mobile. IBM sees the best way to handle transactions over wireless networks is to use synchronisation at the system level, but permit direct access to the database. Strictly speaking, IBM sees synchronisation and transactions as not being the optimal mix of techniques.

Other directions

Apart from Wap, another technology that IBM actually helped develop will prove crucial to the development of commerce applications for wireless. This is Bluetooth, a short-range form of radio frequency communication medium for both voice and data, which typically works in cells of 10 metres. These can be boosted by providing overlapping cells, as users roam around. Developed by the Bluetooth special interest group - with IBM claiming finder status for this SIG - this technology will enable a wide range of computing and communication devices.

Applications of Bluetooth for m-commerce could include kiosks you can walk up to order information and services from, queue busting technology that will allow shopping totals to be calculated and rendered as a wireless transaction. In fact, Bluetooth is such a flexible technology that it could be used on the factory floor, in the home and for networks for motor vehicles.

Mercury Interactive, the market leading supplier of testing tools, is monitoring the development of wireless networking and will focus on the AS/400 once the action picks up. Mercury has not seen any definite wireless networking activity with the AS/400 so far, according to Andy Crosby, European field market manager for the company. He sees the AS/400 effectively playing a back-end role in the m-commerce phenomenon. This is opposed to the view that the AS/400 will play a central role in wireless networking. Although it's still early days for m-commerce solutions, Crosby could not think of any planned architecture where the AS/400 is intended to play a pivotal role. Organisations like Phone.com and Nokia use Unix or Linux servers.

When and if technologies like Wap and Bluetooth become a key element of the AS/400 offering, Mercury will be able to test the interfaces between the server and the wireless network, as well as other aspects like connection-oriented aspects involving calls and connection-less traffic like cell phone short messaging.

Security counts

Many industry observers do not see the current crop of mobile m-commerce applications as being secure enough for safe usage. Ovum is one analyst firm to publicly express such a viewpoint. For its part, IBM has adapted the SecureWay software used for other e-business systems to fit the needs of wireless transactions. Still, the SecureWay wireless gateway works with Microsoft Windows operating systems, which would then link to an AS/400 server. Wap also has built-in security features.

Yet there is a great concern regarding the quality and robustness of internet security, following some well-publicised gaffs by the likes of Barclays Bank. Research conducted among internet users by the Consumers Association in the UK shows that the public generally does not think the Net secure enough to avoid fraud and other crimes being committed. US research from the National Consumers League reveals that the level of reported fraud on the internet costs the punters involved an average of $580 per head. Internet auction sites are the most common areas where fraud occurs, according to the US research.

The mobile revolution is clearly here to stay, but it remains to be seen what role the AS/400 finally plays in this newest of games in town. At the very least it will be a valuable back-end server, where transactions can be processed. If IBM gets its e-business strategy right for the platform, then it could easily end playing a more central role. l

Wap's it all about?

As Wap plays such a key part in IBM's plans for wireless networking, it is worth explaining what the wireless application protocol is about. For starters, it is really a set of tools, as opposed to one single all-encompassing specification. Wap version 1.0 consists of two distinct groups of specification - the wireless application environment (WAE) and the actual wireless protocols.

Under the WAE umbrella are the different forms of the wireless mark-up language. This includes a browser, WMLScript virtual machine and standard library. The wireless telephone application interface. The wireless protocols contained in Wap include the WSP session protocol, the WTLS transport layer security, and the WTP wireless transaction protocol.

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