Webifying the mainframe

Here is an in-depth look how one Canadian company made their mainframe Web friendly.

Company: Mutual Life of Canada, Waterloo, Ont., lead company of The Mutual Group. It deals with group pension plans, group life and health insurance policies.

Mainframe: IBM S/390 running MVS

Database: IBM IMS

Users: Remote internal users and some external customers with direct access rights to mainframe data on Mutual Life products, customer files and so on.

Rather than forcing users to abandon familiar terminal-to-host interfaces cold turkey, Mutual Life provided the familiar 3270 green screens and IMS screens as a window on users’ browsers. The old access methods will be phased out gradually in favour of “a nice Web GUI interface,” said Tim Wadman, technology solutions consultant at The Mutual Group.

Configuration: Browser clients can access an internal Mutual Life Windows NT Server that runs Internet Information Server via a virtual private network (VPN) over the IBM Global Network or an internal Remote Access Service dial-in platform. Wall Data Inc.’s Cyberprise Server running Cyberprise Host (also on the NT server) downloads an ActiveX application to the browser. The application sets up a window on the browser through which the user can link up to the mainframe via Cyberprise Host TN3270E emulation to access and manipulate IMS screens of data.

Status: Currently the system supports 500 users, with plans to roll out to all 3,500 by June.

Reasons for this configuration: “We briefly considered a Web server on the mainframe, but we’d have to do upgrades first. And we still have security concerns about providing direct mainframe access from the Internet,” Wadman said. “We need to understand the risks better.”

The VPN link creates a secure, reliable intranet that external and internal customers can use to download the client application and access the mainframe.

Challenges: “A big challenge has been getting a base [mainframe data querying] functionality to users in an [ActiveX Control] solution that isn’t too unwieldy to download,” Wadman said.

There also has been difficulty providing access to customers “with unusual browsers or unusual versions of Microsoft C++ runtime libraries or some other crazy thing installed on their machines.

Second phase: Provide comparable services to additional external customers via the Web.

Status: Still choosing products.

Configuration (tentative): Looking at Wall Data Cyberprise Host Developer kit and other products that “would allow an IIS server to communicate with the host, scrape data off [IMS] screens, incorporate it into an HTML Web page and fire it off to the client machine,” Wadman said.

Challenge: Mutual is still figuring out how to present data in a more interactive fashion, “such as a spreadsheet on a GUI Web page,” Wadman said. Although the above configuration allows users to download raw data streams from the mainframe, it loses “the value of the business logic that’s programmed into [IMS] screens. Data doesn’t mean as much if you can’t manipulate it.”

— IDG News Service