Studio aimed at simplifying the mainframe

In the brave new world of Web-to-host offerings, the latest release of the Winsurf Mainframe Studio from ICOM Informatics promises, according to the company, to move beyond traditional green screens and the need for intense programming skills.

The Java-based 32/70, 52/50 emulator is able to communicate to both mainframes and AS/400. “You can turn a clumsy mainframe interface into something that a user today is more accustomed to seeing, something more on the lines of a Web-based application,” said Diego Alfarache.

The technology manager for ICOM Informatics in Austin, Tex., said the generic, character-based, green writing on a black screen, terminal emulator needs to be more appealing to today’s user.

Once the software is installed on the back-end server and is brought up on the mainframe, the user moves through the application screen by screen, and at each individual screen, can decide on the type of presentation to use, Alfarache said.

He outlined how the system can work, giving a customer/supplier/retailer scenario. “The retailer can log onto our customer’s Web site and the customer’s mainframe interacts with our software, retrieves that information and puts it back onto our customer’s Web site, (and) the retailer isn’t even aware that they’ve made a mainframe connection.”

Alfarache said that with the tools used previously, it required someone with programming experience or a programming staff to create the Web-enabled host application. However, the Winsurf allows the same interface to the mainframe application without any sophisticated knowledge.

Industry experts are split on the release, expressing praise and skepticism.

“The release allows for automatic rejuvenation for host applications for mainframes and AS/400s, (and) makes it easier to achieve drag and drop and customize new Web type interfaces for what were previously textual green or black screens,” said Anura Guruge, the independent consultant from Gilford, N.H. “ICOM has the Swiss army knife of host access products and they give you the maximum capabilities.”

But, aside from competition problems the Winsurf will face, particularly from IBM’s bundled WebSphere, Darcy Fowkes, research director for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Aberdeen Group, said there are other mitigating problems.

“The legacy extension suppliers are competing for IT dollars and while the extension of mainframes is happening, an enterprise has to look at the challenge of the Internet…and there’s limited dollars.” People are overly optimistic about this market, Fowkes added. “It’s a matter of migrating your customers forward (and) legacy extension isn’t the end all and be all, it’s just one piece of what the enterprise is challenged with.”

There’s good reason for entering into the legacy market, Fowkes argued. “The install base is huge, and don’t underestimate the inertia of the install base, and this market is an attractive opportunity.”

Guruge agreed with this sentiment. “There are thousands of mainframe customers (and) there’s about US$20 trillion in investment in legacy applications and the technology is targeted at all of them.”

Yet Fowkes remained steadfast in her concerns about the market as a whole. “Screen scraping extends the environment, but it doesn’t do a lot to provide the flexibility that future systems are going to have to embrace.”