Wedding bells ring for legacy apps and the Internet

Talk of scrapping legacy systems to build new infrastructures dies quickly. Today, IS Web-enables vital legacy applications and/or enables legacy access through the Web.

During the past two decades, mainframes and minicomputers have proven themselves to be robust, viable and valuable pieces of large corporate networks. With this proven record of reliability, and their ability to store a great deal of information, organizations are in no hurry to discard their investment in them.

Welcome to the year 2000 and the ever-increasing presence of e-commerce, business-to-business and business-to-consumer entities. E-commerce, like the mainframe and minicomputer, is proving to be a viable and valuable asset to large corporate networks. But "there is a demand to take functionality that has been, in effect, locked up in older mainframe systems and make that available to Web users," said Ross Altman, research director at GartnerGroup, Stamford, Conn. For companies to embrace both types of technology, and for these technologies to work together, a marriage must take place. Corporations must "Webify" their legacy systems.

One of the most obvious ways to wed legacy applications and the Internet is for a company to scrap its legacy systems and information and build a new infrastructure from scratch. But this option is attracting very few, if any, organizations. Large companies already have a major investment in their current infrastructures. In the time it would take a firm to get a new system up and running, many of its customers, as well as a great deal of money, may be lost.

An easier route is to extend le-gacy applications to the Web. "Businesses should be able to refurbish gracefully, rather than alter their technologies," said Carl Hartman, vice president, e-business marketing at Computer Associates International Inc., Islandia, N.Y. Some of the longtime suppliers of host-based software, for example, have been selling products to do just this. But they are now gaining more attention since the Y2K phenomenon has died down. Candle Corp., El Segundo, Calif., Compuware Corp., Farmington Hills, Mich., Attachmate Corp., Bellevue, Wash., and WRQ Inc., Seattle, among others, also offer legacy extensions to the Web.

Extending legacy systems to the Web
There are a couple of ways to extend legacy systems to the Web. Corporations can either enable access to legacy data through the Web, or they can move the applications to the Web themselves by Web-enabling them.

Computer Associates' Jasmine ii e-business platform aids in the first approach. The product allows a company to gather bits and pieces of data from all over the organization to create new applications using existing information. For those who do not necessarily need to create a new application, but want to gather and disseminate information to end users in the way they want to see it, the soon-to-be-released Jasmine ii Portal gathers information and delivers it to users via a portal.

CA also offers Opal, a product that lets corporations put a Web-based user interface on their legacy applications without changing any of the code.

Universal Health Services (UHS) Inc., King of Prussia, Pa., is one of the largest hospital management companies in the U.S. The firm, which owns and manages hospitals in 23 to 25 states, is trying to allow both physicians and patients to access certain information through its system in real time. According to CIO Linda Reino, UHS is using Opal to give its 3270 mainframe system the look and feel of the Internet. "Opal sits on top of the legacy system, streamlines the user interface, reduces keystrokes to get to the information, and [then] presents it in a more user-friendly screen," she explained.

The management company is currently preparing to go live on three physicians' offices in Texas and three in Florida. UHS will be replacing mainframe access connectivity with connectivity through Opal. "Replacing that connectivity will allow the end user to not have a textual 3270 mainframe-based view of data for my hospitals," Reino explained. "They'll get a GUI-streamlined appearance of data, which will make it far more appealing to get on the system and pull down patient information."

Florida Hospital, based in Orlando, is taking a similar approach to expanding its legacy applications to the Web using technologies from Houston-based BMC Software. BMC, like Computer Associates, offers customers a way to put a Web server on the front end of their mainframe system. BMC has a five-stage approach to extending legacy systems to the Web: monitor, manage, control, optimize and predict.

Abraham Madha, director of technology planning and strategies for e-business at BMC, said it usually takes about three years to go from the monitoring stage to the control stage (stage one to stage three). In stage one, he said, people are worried about availability. In stage two, they are apprehensive about availability and performance. In stage three, people shift their concerns from availability to reliability, recovery and performance. People are now embracing stage three, he said.

BMC offers products to convert data into information, as well as predictive analysis and modeling tools.

Porsche Cars North America wanted each of its 205 dealerships spread across the U.S. and Canada to be able to access corporate data. It also wanted to make this information available to internal users. The company turned to Jacada Ltd., Atlanta, for help.

Porsche uses Jacada for Java to intercept screen displays from host screens (AS/400 or OS/390) and to interpret them. Java code is then generated to make a GUI presentation to the user. Before turning to Jacada, "we found that while all the information a user needed was in the host application, it was a counterintuitive user interface," noted John Jacobs, manager of dealer and field systems at Porsche Cars, Atlanta. "The user had to drill in several layers from the main menu, perform a transaction, back out and drill in again" to access another database.

"It was very task-oriented," Jacobs said. Using Jacada for Java, Porsche Cars was able to reengineer its workflow. Now a user can access all of the necessary information in one step. "We still have the robustness of the host, but have a totally different presentation to the user and improved workflow," he noted.

Porsche Cars did consider other products before choosing Jacada, but international constraints forced it to confine its research to tools that were simply legacy extenders. The green-screen host apps in North America were internationalized and used in Germany. And while Porsche Cars North America wanted to extend its legacy systems to its dealer body, it could not modify any code that would affect its importers.

Other products Porsche considered did not have the flexibility the firm needed or the capability to reengineer workflow, Jacobs said. "We could get a lot of one-to-one screen conversions and look Web-like, but we still had to move from screen to screen to perform transactions," he noted. Jacada was the only tool the firm found that could extend legacy code non-intrusively and also reengineer workflow.

Porsche Cars North America is wrapping up a seven-dealer pilot program as of press time. The company plans to have all of its 205 dealers installed in the program by the end of Q1/2001, giving it a two-year cycle from start to finish. The biggest benefits the company has realized are an average 50% time savings, transparency into dealer operations, transparency for dealers into corporate operations, and information flow.

"If a dealership has a customer and needs information that is not readily at hand, we can now present everything they need through this system at the time they need it," said Jacobs.

The mobile communications industry is also realizing the need for consistent access to corporate data. AT&T Wireless (formerly Cellular One), San Francisco, relies on a mainframe for subscriber billing and credit scoring. At least half of the wireless carriers, however, do not own their own mainframes but use third-party providers, according to Victor Feinstein, senior application development manager at AT&T Wireless.

The wireless carrier needed to reduce many mainframe screens into a few Web pages. It also needed to bring new people on to the call center quickly and cut down on the learning curve. "With the mainframe interface, there was no way to give them access to the mainframe easily," Feinstein said. "Overhead would prohibit running the legacy system effectively."

AT&T Wireless invested in an application server from Dallas-based OpenConnect Systems Inc. It then used OpenConnect's I-Ware Technology Suite to develop an application that gives its users a user-friendly interface to legacy information. "On the back end, this application opens several connections, plugs into the mainframe, gets information from [it], and updates [it] with information," said Feinstein.

A number of other vendors were considered, but AT&T Wireless chose OpenConnect because it offered both an app server and the technology to develop Web access to legacy information. AT&T Wireless' list of requirements for an app server included a 3270 connector, connection pooling, memory caching, load balancing and support for Unix.

Now the wireless carrier's call centers and sales channels can talk to customers to determine the rate plan and phone they want, and plug customer information into a Web page. The mainframe handles the credit scoring and subscriber billing without the call center and sales channel users seeing it. Those users "never get exposed to the complexities of the legacy systems," Feinstein explained.

What about COBOL?
There is yet another way to extend legacy systems to the Web, and that is through moving the applications themselves to the Web by Web-enabling them. But according to Michael Connor, director of product management for System 390 solutions at Compuware Corp., there is a problem with this: Legacy COBOL applications are not designed for the Internet world—they have screen processing, screen validation and small business functions embedded in them.

"To move into a messaging infrastructure to support the Internet," said Connor, "you need to be able to separate components and logic going from hierarchical and index, to relational."

Merant, Rockville, Md., has traditionally dealt with COBOL applications and has taken a unique approach to Web-enabling apps. The software vendor makes it possible to take an existing COBOL application and move it as is, or to extract the business rules from it and reuse those in a new e-business application. The company does this using Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs)—they componentize mainframe applications and wrap them as EJBs. An organization can approach this from either the Java side, by writing new methods in Java, or the COBOL side, by writing a new COBOL program and enhancing it. The nice thing about this is that a COBOL programmer does not have to understand Java to do this.

Towers Perrin, a Philadelphia-based benefits and management consulting firm, used Merant to extend its record-keeping pension plan application to the Web. Merant's "Net Express allowed us to leverage our in-house intellectual capital and take existing COBOL applications and put them on the Web," explained Mike Kline, senior project manager. "We have a lot of programmers who understand pension plans and how to code for them, but [who] don't necessarily understand Web technology," he added.

With Merant's technology, they do not have to. Towers Perrin simply uses EJBs to wrap its current COBOL modules that are doing a sufficient job and have no need to be rewritten. "We took a COBOL-based app with more than half a million lines of code and 40 to 60 screens of data," said Kline, "rearchitected it, componentized it, redid the front end to be browser-based, and moved it to an Oracle database with a team of people from Merant and a team from Towers Perrin." Towers Perrin was able to accomplish that task in nine months.

Because pension calculations are complex, Towers Perrin needed developers who understood the business, Kline said. The firm was able to leverage people with years of COBOL experience and produce a browser-based product. "Most of what is on the Web is content-based screens. There's not a lot of application behind them," added Kline. "This is a full-blown, fully functioning application that happens to be a browser-based presentation."

The marriage of legacy applications and the Web is likely to blossom. It just makes sense to combine two technologies that each work well and keep companies in business. Of the options that abound, "the trick is for customers to really understand what their needs are and [to know] that they're bringing in solutions that will fit their environment," said Tracy Carbo, senior analyst at the Hurwitz Group, Framingham, Mass.

Carbo believes that componentizing legacy applications is the wave of the future. But she also believes we will see a combination of technologies involved in this. Companies, she said, are going to "gravitate to solutions that are going to hit on all cylinders that are important for you." It will be based on needs, she added.

What it boils down to is finding the best way to leverage the information stored in legacy systems. As Computer Associates' Hartman summed up, there is a "need to make [mainframes] more intelligent and to add value to what they're already doing—more storage, good access and Web access—the best of all worlds."