Mainframe data integration made easy with SOA

For more than 50 years the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has provided benefit plans to more than 900 electric utility companies nationwide. When NRECA began, transactions were sent through the mail and manually logged into a benefits administration system using a database on its IBM zSeries mainframe.

But times have changed.

In 1997 NRECA─with 39 million customers in 47 states─launched its first Web site but change didn’t end there. The antiquated site had worn out its welcome and developers were challenged with finding a way to integrate their mainframe data with Web-based apps.

“With the majority of our business and customer transactions taking place via the Web, we needed to update our back-end system to speed transaction processing,” said Linda Scotto, manager of application development and support, NRECA .

Today the site hosts more than a dozen HR apps including, new hire registration, terminations, employee disabilities, health plans and 401Ks. Deploying DataDirect Technologies’ Shadow z/Services software, NRECA streamlined the integration of its customer transactions with its mainframe data. By updating its IT system to support a more flexible SOA, customer service and efficiency reached greater heights.

“Bottom line, we were able to extend the value of our mainframe investment…and created a more flexible, service-enabled solution for re-using 3270 screen-based applications,” Scotto said. “Service clerks now spend less time in front of a green screen and more time responding to customer inquiries.”

DataDirect’s Shadow foundation architecture supports all major mainframe integration possibilities including Web services for SOA, real-time events for Event-Driven Architectures, SQL for direct SQL data access and transaction support, and automated presentation-layer generation for expanding screen-based apps on the Web. The goal at DataDirect is to make the mainframe integration process as painless as possible.

“Developers don’t want to move out of their comfort zone,” said Calvin Fudge, director of marketing, DataDirect . “Shadow provides the ability to allow a distributed app developer to use both mainframe data and apps in a format that’s consistent with their dev environment.”

The Bedford, Mass.-based company spots more developers, like Scotto, taking the route of mainframe integration to extend their data and support multiple paradigms from a single platform. The process enables requests and replies (sequel paradigm), Web services (integration paradigm) and events changes (database paradigm). Though mainframes were designed with specific apps in mind, SOA has made the systems more receptive to change.

“There really is a dramatic impact that SOAs are having on the viability of mainframes,” Fudge says. “Before SOA, mainframe integration was very risky and the level of programming highly problematic.”

At its May 2006 analyst conference in New York on SOA, IBM estimated that the number of transactions run on mainframes would double by 2009. And those mainframes are surviving because SOA is enabling those systems’ interoperability and increasing their value in the biz world. Fudge says more mainframe users are integrating now that integration can take place without interfering with the operation of the mainframe. It’s a trend he’s coined a “quiet revolution.”

Through Shadow and SOA, NRECA provided viability to its mainframe by expanding existing data and apps, sharing the services over the Web. Once customers enter the info online, the data is stored in a SQL server database and distributed by BizTalk to the appropriate end-point. And if the transaction requires face-to-face attention, it is sent to a Windows SharePoint portal using Mircosoft’s InfoPath. But data is most often sent to the mainframe for processing. NRECA now automates more than 80 percent of its benefits transactions on the Web.

With Shadow, Fudge estimates a three to six month mainframe integration process and says developers should allocate a two to three-week training period.

About the Author

Jason Turcotte is an assistant editor at Application Development Trends. He can be reached at [email protected].