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Modernizing the Mainframe - Unleashing the power of XML and Web services

Modernizing the Mainframe - Unleashing the power of XML and Web services

Central Hudson Gas and Electric, a New York State utility company, wanted to find a way to improve its customer service by creating a Web-based platform where customers could view and retrieve bills online. Replacing or rewriting the company's 20-year old mainframe billing application wasn't an option. The mainframe worked great and could satisfy the company's growth plans for some time to come.

Instead, Central Hudson took the simpler route of deploying an XML integration server between its Customer Information Service system and an Internet portal. As a result of this very simple project, Central Hudson estimates it can generate yearly savings of $500,000 by offloading customer calls to a self-service Web site.

Central Hudson is not alone in taking a second look at its admittedly "unsexy" mainframe and finding impressive new sources of productivity and cost savings.

While many signs point to an economic recovery in 2004, it is clear that chief executives are not prepared to return to the free-spending ways of the late 1990s. Chief information officers are being told they will simply have to do more with the same or fewer resources. IT departments that have been trimmed in recent years through downsizing or outsourcing will be under intense pressure to meet new business-driven goals without double-digit increases to budgets.

The end result is that organizations will increasingly be forced to reevaluate the role and value of the mainframe in their operations. Business goals will dictate that information and resources kept on the mainframe must be made available to a much broader audience within and outside the corporation. The crucial question is how best to achieve those future e-business goals within the time and budget constraints set out by management.

For a great many organizations, the answer will be to implement standards-based technologies that will modernize the mainframe. By unlocking the power of technologies such as XML and Web services in the enterprise, companies will not only be able to mine the decades of experience invested in developing legacy applications, they will also be able to exploit a highly stable and powerful platform to meet their future business needs.

Evaluating the Strategies for Modernizing
Organizations will typically choose among four strategies for modernizing their mainframe applications. The first and least-dramatic strategy is to simply make sure that the mainframe is optimized as much as possible. This might include evaluating all databases and applications currently deployed in production to ensure that they are making the best use of resources, as well as providing developers and administrators with visual development platforms to boost productivity.

The second strategy is to keep the business logic of the applications on the mainframe, while providing the user with a more "friendly" interface to the mainframe data such as a Web browser or mobile device. The third strategy is to actually integrate the mainframe applications with new technologies, while the applications themselves, as well as the data, still reside on the mainframe. Finally, the most dramatic approach (short of replacing or rewriting the applications, which is outside of the realm of "modernizing") is to migrate the mainframe application source code to a different platform with little or no change. The data might also be migrated, or might remain on the mainframe.

In the current business climate, many organizations have already come to the conclusion that reusing existing mainframe applications by implementing one of the four strategies mentioned makes the most sense when compared to the time and labor costs involved in replacing or rewriting the application.

After all, mainframe legacy applications are usually still in place because they are critical to the enterprise. They hold strategic data on customers, operations, and financial reporting. They often handle transactions that invoke multiple databases and systems or contain custom coding that has been developed and fine-tuned over long periods of time.

Beyond the strategic role played by mainframe systems, organizations also recognize that these systems excel at high-speed transactions, handling, and reliability. As such, they are ideal back-end engines for new Web-facing e-commerce applications. Add to these two factors the current competitive pressures that demand new functionalities be brought to market in months - not years - and it becomes apparent that leveraging mainframe systems may be the only effective way of meeting cost, time, and feature requirements.

Customer Access and HIPAA Compliance
Consider the situation faced by American Fidelity Assurance Company, a leading provider of insurance products to the education sector and trade associations. The Oklahoma City-based company was under pressure on two fronts to find solutions to modernize its mainframe applications. On the first front, there was a clear business need to provide its customers with a Web portal to gain access to information and resources kept on the mainframe that were previously only available to American Fidelity employees. The second front involved meeting a federal mandate under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 for the exchange of electronic health records between health-care providers.

James Lupton, vice president in Information Systems for American Fidelity, says the company initially looked at rewriting or replacing many of its mainframe applications to accomplish the two goals, but after evaluating the options, it was clear that this route made no business sense. "It would have cost us seven figures to complete and taken several years to do it," he says. "Instead, we were able to leverage our existing applications at less than 20 percent of what it would have cost us to rewrite them."

For the first project, developing a Web portal for American Fidelity's six different customer groups, the solution was to deploy a message-oriented middleware product (Software AG's EntireX). Such systems act as brokers between a wide range of legacy applications and newer Internet technologies. They enable the placement of an application on the platform that fits it best, and then facilitate access to the data from wherever it resides. In this case, the portal application was deployed on network servers, mainframe applications were executed, and data was retrieved from the mainframe databases. Some of the mainframe applications generated an XML Data Stream to pass down to the Web applications to render as a PDF or other Internet-displayable format.

Using this technology, American Fidelity was able to develop its AFAdvantage portal in just seven months. Today, more than 11,000 customers - as well as 1,200 brokers, 400 account managers, and 260 bookkeepers or group administrators - are plugged into the portal on a daily basis. Data access takes place in real time and response time handily beat the sub-four-second goal set by the deployment team. Lupton says the system will have no problem scaling for future growth.

Based upon one simple cost-saving factor, a reduction in the number of calls received for insurance forms, the Web portal is saving American Fidelity at least $495,000 a year - twice the initial deployment cost.

On the second project - meeting HIPPA compliance - American Fidelity once again exploited the power of XML. It implemented message-oriented middleware to accept HIPAA transactions and convert them into an XML format. Those documents are now being stored in an XML database, and can be searched, retrieved, and delivered to a variety of systems in all required formats.

"When we started down this path we had a consultant come in and tell us, 'You're behind the curve, you're mainframe based and your systems can't talk to one another'," says Lupton. "While that was never actually the case, we have certainly proven his assessment false. We now have a system in place that gives us the confidence to move ahead with a number of other projects."

In fact, American Fidelity has 11 initiatives on the table for 2004 to further integrate its mainframe and networking infrastructures.

Technology Drivers for Modernizing
Drivers for modernizing the mainframe vary depending on the individual organization and its business goals. These drivers may range from a desire to simply represent the information from a mainframe green screen on a Web browser, to a need to access the legacy application code via the Internet, to a requirement to build true interoperability across databases and applications (including the need to persist, monitor, and audit data as it moves around the enterprise).

Whatever the driver for modernization, organizations are finding that XML, used in conjunction with a Web services-based architecture, is an excellent foundation for extending the life, functionality, and value of mainframe systems. By allowing data to be dynamically repurposed into multiple presentation formats, the technology provides a means to deliver standard access to both structured and unstructured information. Furthermore, the implementation of a Web services-based architecture enables universal access to all information systems.

This is not to imply that XML and Web services are required in all cases. In many instances, a simple 3270 screen-scraper system may be all that is needed to accomplish an organization's goals. The difference today is that screen-scraper technologies can be combined with XML technology to quickly and inexpensively create easy-to-use Web interfaces. The underlying Natural or COBOL code has not been changed, but the user experience has been modernized. This approach can extend the life of a wide range of legacy systems with minimum effort.

Give the People What They Want
Perhaps the biggest driver facing companies and organizations is the need to access legacy applications from Internet devices or desktop systems. Today, organizations want to reach out to their customers, suppliers, and business partners in new ways through Web applications and business intelligence tools. In addition, companies are looking to provide wider access to legacy applications and data throughout their own organizations. XML integration servers are providing the answer.

Consider this challenge faced by the New York City Department of Buildings. In the past, information in the agency's database could be accessed only by city employees. This meant that citizens, contractors, and builders had to line up in borough offices to check the status of a building permit or to look up information on a building's history, such as violations or complaints. The information in the system was public data, and could be made available via the Internet. The problem was finding a way to pull the information out of the mainframe system and publish it in an easy-to-use format.

The underlying system was more than a decade old, and the cost to rewrite the application simply wasn't an option, says David Presley, assistant director of application development. Instead, the Department of Buildings deployed message-oriented middleware and built an Internet window into the millions of pieces of information on the 900,000-odd buildings in all five New York boroughs. The system puts a software-based "wrapper" around data and programs written in Software AG's Natural programming language. This allowed the mainframe data to be passed to a Java-based Web application.

The project took less than a year to complete and has been embraced by both the building community and New York residents. The system now receives about 200,000 requests for information each day, and provides access around the clock.

"Everyone's seeing benefits as a result of this project," adds Presley. "It's saving us money because we don't have as many people standing in line, it's saving the building community time and money, and it's democratized the information in our system."

Remarkably, the application development team has built more than 80 servlets tapping into the department's legacy systems, and Presley says many more are on the way.

SOA: Providing the Keys to the IT Shop
There is a fundamental problem that applies to most organizations. Much of the value that exists in an enterprise's IT systems is locked away or not accessible to those who could benefit from it because access to data (and the tools used to analyze and exploit the data) is usually restricted to specific user communities. This is particularly true in the mainframe world.

A service-oriented architecture (SOA) provides the means to begin unlocking the vast amount of value tucked away in an organization's mainframe infrastructure. At its heart, it offers the capability to develop a collection of services that may communicate with one another. Such an architecture can be used to divide larger applications into discrete modules and make those modules available to other applications. This process addresses one of the key modernization challenges, which is to build interoperability between databases and applications.

SOAs are certainly not new, but a wide range of new technologies based on Internet standards have made the concept much more technologically and economically feasible. Technologies such as Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and Web Services Description Language (WSDL) provide a simple yet effective way to exchange XML documents and describe how to invoke a Web service. Standards such as Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration (UDDI) provide a way to register Web services so that one Web service application may locate and invoke another.

As organizations develop SOAs, they will be able to start tackling large organizational challenges, such as providing various business units with a customized "single view" of all the relevant data that resides throughout the enterprise, or supporting the ability to persist, monitor, and audit data as it moves around the enterprise from system to system.

XML-based products have been developed to orchestrate the aggregation, transformation, and filtering of XML messages between multiple back- and front-end systems and Web services. XML database servers now provide the means to store, monitor, and audit data as it moves around the enterprise. Think of it as a completed circle. An XML integration server, along with XML connectors, handles the interface with legacy and newer enterprise systems; XML brokers orchestrate the intelligent routing and delivery; and native XML servers complete the circle by providing persistence, historical analysis, and full auditing. Together these components make it possible to deliver an SOA that truly modernizes the mainframe.

Long-Term Value for the Organization
At the end of the day, organizations are looking for a way to better protect the investment and the value of their IT assets. The good news is that technologies, to a great degree based on XML and Web services, have provided that means. In fact, mainframe systems in the years ahead will serve as the backbone for a wide range of exciting new service-based applications.

Central Hudson, American Fidelity Assurance, and the New York City Department of Buildings didn't just prolong the life of their mainframe systems - they used new technologies such as XML and Java in concert with legacy applications to make a big contribution to the company's bottom line. Looking at the year ahead, that will be a key factor driving organizations of all shapes and sizes down the same path toward modernizing their mainframe infrastructure.

Note: In the printed article, "Modernizing the Mainframe" by Joe Gentry (XML-Journal, January, 2004), the scope and cost savings attributed on page 24 to the State of Minnesota's MAXIS Web access project were inaccurate. The project was in fact deployed for one county, with approximately 1,300 users, and a cost neutral impact.

More Stories By Joe Gentry

Joe Gentry has more than 19 years of experience in strategic marketing, product management, and software development. As senior director of product marketing for Software AG, Inc., he is responsible for overseeing product definition, solutions planning, positioning, and market launch. Joe has managed software products through all phases of the life cycle and has become a leader when launching products into the marketplace.

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Vasikaran 06/25/07 08:38:46 AM EDT

i want to know what is mainframe billing..