Wireless DevelopmentLegacy goes wireless

IT scrambles to get corporate data onto wireless devices; experts list assorted paths for different objectives.

There's no time like the present for corporate IT developers to begin work on extending legacy applications to wireless devices. Wireless has become the next big thing to corporate executives. Giving development and sales personnel instant access to corporate data from any location can significantly speed the process of building and selling products, giving companies a competitive advantage and enhanced revenue and profit numbers.

Reaching that goal, however, calls for development managers to make some difficult decisions about technology and process. These managers must wade through a variety of technologies to determine which is best for a specific project and for specific legacy platforms. The burgeoning raft of tool categories ranges from so-called "screen-scrapers," to proprietary tools to enhance packaged apps, to the relatively new arena of "wireless middleware."

Which road to take depends mostly on the number and types of legacy applications to be delivered on or connected with wireless devices, the number and types of wireless devices to be supported, and whether developers must change the underlying logic in the legacy app or merely reshape the user interface to fit the new device, say wireless experts. The complexity level of the task at hand also depends on current and future business needs and how critical the wireless world is to the corporation as a whole.

Studies from many top research organizations continue to predict off-the-chart growth for the wireless medium. The Cahners In-Stat Group, Newton, Mass., for example, expects that the number of wireless data services subscribers will grow from 170 million worldwide in 2000 to more than 1.3 billion in 2004. Analysts say wireless technology use will continue to be rolled out for consumer tasks like banking on-the-fly and paying insurance bills from a cellular phone.

At the same time, corporate IT organizations are moving aggressively to give employees in a variety of jobs access to corporate data from wireless devices like cellular telephones and personal digital assistants. For example, financial services giants such as Chase Manhattan Bank, Wachovia Corp. and Bank of America have, in recent months, been aggressively rolling out wireless services to both customers and employees.

Many other companies are starting to deploy wireless applications in new ways. General Motors Corp., for example, recently beamed press materials and other information to PDA-equipped reporters at an automotive trade show. Accenture, formerly known as Andersen Consulting, has deployed an information portal that lets its consultants get news, reserve conference rooms and do other tasks from cell phones and other wireless devices.

Rob Veitch, director of business development at the iAnywhere Solutions Inc. subsidiary of Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif., takes pains to differentiate mobile from wireless applications. "We've been deploying mobile applications for 10 years, but we're just at the beginning of the wireless curve." While sales force and warehouse applications are traditional wireless users, the industry is just now beginning to broaden out to include other uses. "Building wireless applications has been possible," Veitch said, "but now it's much more practical. And now the race is on to make it easy, too."

Wireless tools and services
Company name
& location
Product name Brief description URL
Allaire Corp., Newton, Mass. ColdFusion Application development environment that includes links to legacy applications. E-mail systems and more
BEA Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif. WebLogic Server 6.0 Middleware platform that provides integration, scalability, performance and other features and functions
Bluestone Software Inc.,
Total-e-Business A Web framework and application-development environment that promises to link mobile to enterprise applications, among many other things
Dharma Systems Inc.,
Research Triangle Park, N.C.
eUnify Provides a unified view of all packaged (SAP, Siebel) and custom (CICS, AS/400) applications—integrates legacy applications into one "virtual" source into which the wireless device can then tap
Esker S.A., Stillwater, Okla. Corridor Wireless Translates mainframe and AS/400 data to Wireless Markup Lanuage
iAnywhere Solutions Inc.
(a Sybase subsidiary),
Emeryville, Calif.
iAnywhere Wireless Server Provides "industrial-strength" access to enterprise applications and data
IBM, Armonk, N.Y. MQSeries Everyplace Allows mobile workers to tap into corporate data that resides in any of the 35+ platforms supported by MQSeries middleware, adds security and other features
Information Builders Inc.,
New York
Mobile Computing Server Integrates wireless devices including PDAs and cell phones with back-end databases; also provides real-time synchronization with production applications
iPlanet International (joint venture
of America Online, Netscape
and Sun), Mountain View, Calif.
Integration Server E-business software platform with pre-built adapters that connect into IBM MQSeries, SAP, Vantive, Siebel and other software
Jacada Ltd., Atlanta Jacada for Palm (and other products) Captures mainframe and AS/400 screens or source code and translates them to a PDA- or Java-based format
Mercury Interactive Corp.,
Sunnyvale, Calif.
ActiveTest and LoadRunner Has added the ability to test wireless applications to ActiveTest, its hosted testing service; LoadRunner, a load-testing tool
Relativity Technologies Inc.,
Cary, N.C.
RescueWare 6.0 Helps re-architect legacy applications to turn them into n-tier applications, to separate the business logic from the presentation layer
RSW Software Inc., Waltham,
e-Test for WAP Popular testing software now handles WAP applications
WaveLink, Kirkland, Wash. WaveLink (several products) Provide emulators and Telnet software to connect wireless devices to hosts including mainframes, minicomputers, Unix and NT servers
Stellcom Inc., San Diego N/A N/A

A broad set of complex technologies
Experts note that the term "wireless" covers a broad set of complex technologies, from hardware to software and communications systems. "Very few people really understand it, yet it seems very simple," explained Sergey Fradkov, co-founder and chief technology officer of w-Technologies Inc., New York City, a maker of wireless development tools and architectures. "Everyone has a cell phone—so you think you should know it. But there are so many moving parts."

Another issue is emerging wireless standards—covering both wireless networks as well as a variety of software categories, such as mobile browsers. In several cases, multiple "standards" are vying for the support of technology providers and users. One small example is the Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML) versus the Wireless Markup Language (WML). Today, an IT organization that wants access to all available wireless devices must decide whether to support both protocol sets or choose between them and hope for the best. Even the standards that seem to be on their way to becoming ubiquitous, such as the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), are still unclear at this point because some software and services are more WAP-compliant than others.

The standards issues clearly are not stopping companies from implementing wireless—but the current ambiguity does present IT organizations with another layer of complexity. Or, as Dana Gardner, research director at Aberdeen Group Inc., a Boston-based researcher, explained: "It's hard to integrate something when you don't know exactly what you're dealing with. It's a bit of a moving target."

Still, Gardner said he is a big believer in the wireless medium as a means for redefining how business will be done. Gardner notes that many corporate purchasing departments are looking forward to the day when alert companies will regularly send out alerts via pager or wireless phone when the price of a critical component hits a certain low point. That action can have ripples in the supply chain throughout the company.

Security is also a huge issue—both perceived and real—among corporate executives fearing that wireless access to corporate data could let outsiders get at the corporate jewels. Thus IT development managers are dealing with the need for both the usual safeguards such as passwords, as well as the need to secure potential breaches specifically related to wireless. "It adds a different element, because there's a great amount of non-control over who accesses your network from a wireless device," noted Framingham, Mass.-based IDC analyst Sally Cusack. "It's a different mindset and everyone's trying to figure it out."

The possibilities are endless
The possibilities are virtually limitless—but, at the same time, many organizations are struggling to understand exactly what wireless can do for them and their customers. The answers, in both the short term and the long term, will affect how you connect the wireless world into legacy systems.

As Tyler McDaniel, a senior analyst at Hurwitz Group, a Framingham, Mass. consulting firm, put it, companies "need to decide how much wireless they need, what their key applications are and which parts of their existing applications are most important to be in wireless. Just because you can extend something to wireless doesn't mean it should be."

Keep in mind that the answers to those questions will likely change over time. Anders Bons, head of strategy and competitive intelligence at European banking giant SEB Group, based in Stockholm, Sweden, said that wireless banking is "not yet business-critical" to his company, "but it will be. It's not just another channel or a new way of access—in the long run, it's an expansion of the whole banking activity, leading to increased business and more revenue, we hope."

Of shrinking screens, standards and security
Also, no matter how you go about doing this, be advised that it isn't "an easy thing to do," said Tony Wasserman, head of the West Coast lab for Philadelphia-based Bluestone Software Inc. "Most legacy applications were built for a different world—they weren't designed to work with the kinds of user interfaces available in today's mobile devices," he said. He suggests that the most likely candidates are applications that help customers or employees do specific things—buy a book, get a news headline, trade stock. Because of the space limitations of the user interfaces on wireless devices, "if you try to do more, it gets ugly in a hurry," Wasserman said.

Jeff Misenti, director of Internet application development at Suretrade, an Internet-only stock-trading service in Lincoln, R.I., agreed that the user interface issues related to downsizing or redeploying a legacy application can be critical. When Suretrade developed a system that lets customers get market data or trade from virtually any wireless device, the company spent a "significant amount of time—six or nine months" retooling its HTML-based Web interface to work well with PDAs and cell phones, Misenti said. "Which three lines do you put on a cell phone? It is a large undertaking."

Misenti said that his programming staff took the lead on dealing with the interface issues as a way of extending their skill sets.

Screen scrapers and their ilk
Once an organization decides how to connect between the wireless and legacy worlds, the development staff can find a wide variety of tools to help.

The most simple and straightforward—if any development project can truly be described that way—are screen scrapers with different levels of functionality. Such tools are usually built to "grab" the underlying code and/or screens from the legacy application and, with human intervention, "shrink" these to fit onto a PDA or other mobile device. This process generally makes no changes to legacy code, experts say. Not all of these tools allow developers to revamp or extend the underlying business logic of the legacy application.

Several suppliers, including Esker Inc. in Stillwater, Okla. and Jacada Ltd. in Atlanta, have started bringing out tools in this category.

The Jacada toolset is said to take the source files or screen captures from an AS/400 or mainframe application and then generate a graphical representation of each file. The tools are designed to complete several functions such as converting every instance of "F3=exit" on a so-called "green screen" into a graphical button, a Jacada spokesperson said. The tools also let you extend the functionality of the legacy application via a scripting language, so that you can add features in the wireless world that you may not have had in the mainframe application without the need to re-code the mainframe, the spokesperson said.

Brian Anderson, a product marketing manager at Jacada, conceded that his firm's offerings can "never" redeploy an application "perfectly—you'll want to massage the screens to make them work" for a particular wireless device. Still, he said, "80% of the work is already done for you. You might have to do some tweaking, but you won't lose any of the underlying work or business logic that you've already got in the original legacy application."

HTE Inc., an applications vendor in Lake Mary, Fla., is using Jacada for Java to redeploy its public-sector applications to work with the Palm 7 PDA from Palm Inc., Santa Clara, Calif. Particularly suited for the wireless world are utility-billing and some emergency-management applications, according to Brian Heafy, a vice president at HTE.

"It's a very straightforward process," Heafy said. "Once I got my senior architects trained, it was a matter of 45 to 60 days" to actually deploy the application. "It was really easy, and we haven't experienced any 'gotchas,' even in our preliminary alpha" version, he added.

The middle path: Some old, some new
The middle path is to use these tools to create an interface and use more traditional tools to make some changes in the legacy code. Such projects do require that the development team include an expert or two in legacy languages such as Cobol and knowledge of or an ability to discern complex legacy systems. Sanjeev Varma, research director of enterprise application integration at the GartnerGroup in Stamford, Conn., calls this "composite" integration—where developers can leverage some existing code and write new code for specific functions.

Alternatively, you can contact the supplier of the packaged legacy application to find out if it offers wireless components or if work on such extensions is underway. Some suppliers will write custom links to wireless systems, experts say. German applications giant SAP AG, for instance, is working with Abaco PR Inc., a Roswell, Ga. tool supplier and consulting firm, to build a library of application templates that will link mobile SAP users to legacy systems.

Edward Hines Lumber Co. in Buffalo Grove, Ill. has started working with its application providers to extend its packaged applications to the wireless world. "We're planning on taking an Internet application that ties into our mainframe and delivering it on the PalmPilot, as an extension of an application we already have," said Joe Owczarzak, director of development.

The application involves letting contractors order last-minute supplies and building materials onsite. "We can't compete with big boxes like Home Depot," Owczarzak explained, "and a remodeler may need a drill we don't stock. We can partner with Buildscape [in Jacksonville, Fla.] to have access to a wide variety of products that we don't stock. They are the intermediary between our customers and us—they provide the mechanism to enter and monitor the orders," he said.

The first phase is to offer this ability to a small number of Hines' existing customers via the Internet, then broaden the program to offer it to anyone with a Web browser. Phase three is to take it wireless—eventually, Owczarzak said.

Going full-bore: Using architectural software and middleware
Taken to the other extreme, the legacy-to-wireless process can be extremely complex, requiring substantial investment in infrastructure and other software products including middleware—as well as a fairly significant learning curve for programmers and a significant length of time before the project starts hitting payback.

This approach usually requires middleware that sits on one or more servers and connects the back-end applications to the wireless device(s) on the front end. The middleware software handles tasks from systems management to security and rollback in case a transaction gets interrupted midstream. The application is split into presentation and business-logic layers so that the end-user device can change without requiring the user to fiddle around with the business logic.

A variety of suppliers, including some of the traditional middleware vendors as well as startup firms, have started shipping systems that include wireless links. Some of these include BEA Systems Inc. San Jose, Calif.; Sybase's iAnywhere Solutions unit; Nexterna, Omaha, Neb.; and w-Technologies.

"We don't really see the challenges of integrating wireless applications with the existing infrastructure as being significantly different from what you're looking to do to integrate e-commerce applications in general," said Jon Kiger, director of marketing at BEA. "We see the wireless application infrastructure as being an extension of your existing e-software infrastructure."

Another player is Dharma Systems Inc., Nashua, N.H.,—its eUnify "simplifies legacy integration by providing a unified view of packaged (SAP, Siebel) and custom (CICS, AS/400) applications. With all the necessary applications integrated into a single 'virtual,' requests can cross multiple applications."

Experts list several benefits from using the middleware approach to create a wireless piece of the legacy pie.

The most significant benefit, observers agreed, is that companies can use the technology to deploy a back-end application to virtually any device, by letting the middleware do the translation. For example, a company that wanted to access a mainframe-based sales-force automation system from a PDA today and from a cell phone tomorrow could use middleware to accomplish that.

"You could script a mobile application, but then you won't be able to use that across different devices," said Beth Gold-Bernstein, a vice president at eBizQ, an information portal focused on integration technologies and solutions based in White Plains, N.Y.

"Long-term operations management is an issue," she said. "When you've got lots of different devices, if something breaks or changes it's hard to manage." All told, Gold-Bernstein said, "if you're deploying functionality that comes from multiple back-end systems, there will be an ROI for an integrated architecture down the road." She explained, "If companies are viewing mobile applications as strategic, they need to focus on long-term adaptability and manageability, which means they need to do long-range planning. Companies that have the long-term view of this will see the investment pay off."

One company hoping to do just that is Partners HealthCare System Inc., a Boston-based company that runs Massachusetts' biggest group of academic medical centers, including Brigham & Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. Partners is starting to deploy wireless applications, including ones that access an employee directory with the ability to page doctors from the road and access to clinical results and reports as well as prescription writing and other uses.

"We've gone with a multi-tier architecture that separates the presentation layer from the underlying business logic," said Steve Flammini, director of application development at Partners. "So we can graft an alternative presentation layer on [that is] suitable for wireless." In some cases they will need to write for a specific device, but in general they can get away from that.

"It's really the approach we've taken to what has traditionally been a multi-tiered architecture and is now being called a Web services model or service-oriented architecture," Flammini explained. "The Web service is completely independent of whatever presentation layer you put on that."

Partners has been using this application development approach for about a decade, since it entered the world of client/server.

The middleware/architectural approach is not for the faint of heart, however. Jim Geier, lead consultant at Wireless-Nets Consulting Services in Yellow Springs, Ohio, said it is almost impossible to compare middleware products with each other because "there's no real standard—they're all so different. Vendors are in a position to argue their case." In general, he suggests looking closely at the feature set and making sure the products support industry standards.

What to remember
Wireless experts list a variety of factors that can help determine the most effective approach to integrating wireless technologies with legacy systems.

  • Understand where wireless fits strategically within your company's plans, and know what you're trying to accomplish by delivering a legacy application into the wireless world. What is the value?
  • The answers to the above questions can help decide whether to go the screen-shrinking (tactical) or the full-bore architectural route to wireless adoption. A company experimenting with wireless or piloting an application or two may best start out with the tactical and less expensive approach and invest in a few tools that can help reshape old "green screens" for cell phones and PDAs. Or contact the supplier of specific packaged legacy applications; there is a good chance that a wireless version has already been shipped or is in development. But if the end goal is to deliver significant pieces of back-end or business-critical applications into the wireless world—and especially if these applications need to work together—it's probably best to investigate the middleware/architectural route.
  • Managers had better know which wireless standards their organization will support. The whole area of wireless standards is still up in the air, so managers must tread carefully—and work to redeploy mainframe applications to run on pretty much any wireless device, from fax to phone.
  • Know which host systems and wireless devices will be used and whether either can be changed over time.
  • Deployment of a vertical or specialized legacy application on a wireless device requires a middleware module that can be built internally or acquired from a third party.

—Johanna Ambrosio