The Web-to-host connection

As with most anything to do with the Web, the Web-to-host market is set to grow. A recent report from Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC indicates that the market has already experienced noticeable growth, with sales increasing 113.6 per cent to US$240 million. By 2004, the worldwide market revenue for Web-to-host products is predicted to reach US$1.5 billion.

And with e-commerce on the rise, vendors are planning to make Web-to-host more feature-rich and more accessible, which analysts say will add to its success.

The Web-to-host phenomenon all started with a need, according to Audrey Apfel, vice-president and research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group.

There was always a pretty constant demand to connect user devices to hosts, she said. In the PC era, large desktop-resident software applications were doing essentially the same thing a terminal did years ago. As the market grew these applications — like all PC applications — got larger and larger and became more difficult to maintain, but the task of connecting to the host was still pretty straightforward, she explained.

That, Apfel said, is when Web-to-host was born.

“I look at it as an intersection of some really old technology — terminal host communications and Internet host technology. To say, ‘Gee, the browser is not a bad replacement for a terminal screen. I’ve already got the browser, and if I could just get the terminal display, I don’t need this 8MB of additional software that these vendors threw at my PC.’ So in fact, browser-based communications is a pretty good fit for terminal communications.”

Most companies are running a mix of desktop software for host connectivity and Web-to-host, depending on what the users need. Going this route is a pretty safe bet, Apfel said, and in fact probably the best thing to do.

What makes it a fairly recent style of deployment is that the users can now actually get mature Web-to-host products from their chosen desktop vendor. So they’re running two products, both fairly mature and from a known vendor, she explained.

Portland, Ore.-based Willamette Industries Inc. is a forest products company with over 100 plants in the U.S., France, Ireland and Mexico.

“We’ve just started using the Internet and Web-type tools to access our systems,” said Sue Warfel, the mid-range systems manager for Willamette. “What we’ve basically started with is trying to resolve the issue of our sales folks being out on the road.”

The company is getting ready to roll out Reflection for the Web 4.0, a product from Seattle-based WRQ Inc., a connectivity solutions provider. Willamette had been involved in the product’s beta program.

“Using a Web- or browser-based connectivity tool like WRQ’s, they (users) don’t have to put it on their PC at all. They can serve it up from the host, and there it is. That has resolved that issue right there.”

The company also uses the system for warehouses that are not company-owned, Warfel said. Instead of having to pay for the installation of equipment into these facilities, the company uses a VPN solution which allows the warehouses to use the Internet to access the network in Portland, and it also allows them access to certain servers.

David Hebert, group market manager for WRQ Reflection, said that the reasons people are drawn to the Web are beyond hype. The cost savings and competitive advantages are reasons why people would choose to use these kinds of tools.

“If you’ve got a large network with a lot of users keeping their software on their desktop, managing it on the desktop can be a real challenge. Because as the desktop technology changes, you’ve got to do upgrades, you have users that change, you may want to change the settings and configurations for that desktop and the terminal emulator that’s on that desktop,” he explained. “So what happens with the Web, and with Reflection for the Web, we provide the strength and power of Web-based, Java-based terminal emulation to minimize those kinds of costs.”

Gartner studies indicate that the total cost of ownership of doing Web-to-host was a third lower than using traditional desktop software, Apfel noted.

“For a large part of the market, the users found out that it did a good percentage of what they wanted it to do. So over time, the technology’s taken hold as a pretty reasonable replacement for bloated desktop software.”

While most customers are happy with offerings right now, the future is something that always needs to be kept in mind. Analysts and vendors agree that the onslaught of e-commerce is something that will have an effect on the market.

IDC reported that in 1999, Internet sales accounted for 7 per cent of total revenue, up from 4 per cent in 1998. New products available this year will offer enhanced user interfaces, integration with application servers as well as more scalability, according to the report.

William Thompson is the director of technical operations for Atlanta-based GT Software Inc., which provides Web-enablement solutions. Novation, a series of its products, offers the ability to customize mainframe applications and create new applications without modifying existing programs.

Thompson explained that the Web has got everyone’s attention, from all kinds of directions.

“As companies feel the pressures to move into e-commerce solutions, and get closer to their real end users — which is their consumer in many cases — the capabilities and offerings are just going to extend further. Having the ability to not only meet today’s needs but tomorrow’s needs is going to be important in any product choices that they make. They’ll need to find a technology that fits today’s needs and has enough flexibility built into it to meet the unknown offerings of five years from now.”

Vendors need to be able to serve up solutions for whatever devices come on the market, he added.

Toronto-based Hummingbird Communications Ltd. is singing the same tune. Marnie Biles, product marketing manager for connectivity for the enterprise software company, noted that the wireless market is taking off, and there will be different applications people will want to see with their PDAs and cell phones.

Hummingbird, along with its HostExplorer Web product, this year announced its e-Gateway DHTML-to-host product, which enables users to dynamically view application screens as custom and graphical screens.

“Within a mainframe, you’ve got so much information on a screen and you’ve got such a limited display on a PDA or cell phone — that’s where GUI rejuvenation is going to play a very key part in the future,” she explained. “They need to limit the amount of information that you see off a mainframe so it will fit into a smaller display.”

Gartner’s Apfel doesn’t really see the wireless realm making an impact on the market, despite predictions in the IDC report that the emergence of handheld devices, pagers and cell phones will increase the market opportunities for Web-to-host connectivity.

“I think overall in terms of a market trend, wireless devices and capabilities are a huge trend. However, I tend to be very sceptical that when businesses become dependant on them and they’re mature and standard enough to deploy enterprise applications out to, that we’ll still be talking about essentially a terminal data stream. I think you’ll have a new application built somewhere on the back end. So, does your Palm Pilot need an emulator? I really don’t think so.”

What she does see happening is that Web-to-host offerings will grow, and at a certain level get as fat as the old desktop counterparts. Vendors are looking for more to add, and as the technology becomes more mature, the Internet technologies and Java will let them do more, she said.

She added that right now, these products get used in a lot of different environments. While wireless is still down the road, security is something that should be thought of now.

Willamette’s Warfel said security was not an easy part of the process.

“There was a lot of different pieces in order to secure the network for dial-in or Internet-type users,” she said, noting that products from other vendors were used. “And that piece was a lot more difficult than I think anyone was expecting. Especially to ensure that it’s secure. If it wasn’t for security, I think it would be fairly easy. But in order to make everything secure — well, that’s very complex.”

It depends on what environment you are using the solution in, according to Apfel.

“Certainly if you’re on your internal network, you’re on a trusted network environment — network security is not a big issue. When you use these products externally, maybe on an extranet, then you need network security as you would for any data stream over a non-trusted environment. Since it’s all IP-based technology, you could actually use standard security methods like firewalls and SSL. There’s many levels of security you could add to the data stream.”

Hummingbird’s Biles said that security is a main concern from customers, in terms of accessing a mainframe. Some things Hummingbird has done include implementing SSL security, but she said customers should have security on their own.

“We pretty much explain that we’re not a security vendor,” she said. “We know you have security in place — you could have a PKI solution, firewalls, hardware encryption — you probably already have security. So what we do with all the different security mechanisms we have in place is interoperate with them.”