Jul 6 ’09

The Mainframe’s Role in Mobility: Mobile Devices Create Sophisticated Computing

by Editor in z/Journal

In late 2007, researchers reported that worldwide mobile device penetration had reached 3.3 billion, and that number has been steadily climbing since. That amounts to billions of handheld devices capable of communications and, increasingly, sophisticated computing.

“Mobile devices today far outnumber PCs,” says Robbie Higgins, vice president, Security Ser vices at GlassHouse Technologies, a technology consulting firm based in Framingham, MA. “We reached that crossover point a few years ago.”

Imagine billions of devices more powerful from a computing standpoint than 3270 terminals; granted it’s 30- year-old technology, but it’s still a workhorse in many mainframe shops. Expect the users of these mobile devices to demand access to mainframe data and applications.

In January 2009, TMCNET reported on this trend, noting that there are more corporate users of mobile devices at all levels of the enterprise, not just top executives checking their email and calendar. Although corporate email and calendar applications typically are the first to go mobile, it doesn’t stop there. TMCNET reports that more transaction- oriented applications—such as sales-force automation, field-force automation, fleet management, inventory management, supply chain management, and wireless Customer Relationship Management (CRM)—are taking hold. Often, these involve mainframe applications, but even when they don’t, it’s likely they contain mainframe-based data. Collaborative applications and social networking will further complicate the mobile issue for mainframe managers. Mainframe CICS transaction data on Facebook, accessible from an Apple iPod, is an imminent reality.

“Mobile phones outnumber everything else out there,” says Scott Searle, IBM’s marketing manager for enterprise modernization and mobility. “It’s the way the world communicates. The workforce is more mobile than ever, and it will have to get to CICS data; and it will do it via the mobile phone.”

For the mainframe staff, this emerging mobile device-equipped workforce will present an enormous challenge, especially in terms of security, which has the potential to become a nightmare. However, before we address security considerations, let’s explore three key software systems that are enabling mainframes to take their rightful place in the movement to mobile communications:  

• Host Access Transformation Services (HATS)

• WebSphere

• Lotus Notes.

Host Access Transformation Services

Essentially a screen scraper, HATS is software from IBM/Rational that lets an organization take applications initially developed for 3270 and 5250 devices and give them a Graphical User Interface (GUI). According to IBM, HATS lets developers create Web applications targeted for the browsers on mobile devices. By using HATS, 3270 and 5250 applications running on the System z platform can, in effect, run on a range of mobile devices.

HATS consists of a toolkit that enables creation of the HATS applications and a run-time component. It lets developers hide unnecessary information, organize data into tables, and display only required input fields—critical capabilities when redeveloping applications for mobile devices. It also enables developers to provide drop-down lists of valid values for an input field, change the size and location of text, and provide navigation buttons.

HATS runs on the mainframe or on a PC attached to it, Searle explains. A new visual editor makes it easier to develop HATS applications. “With a little help, a developer can build Web-facing applications in two weeks,” he says. Since it basically is a screen scraper, it should be nearly bulletproof when used appropriately. “Projects succeed almost every time,” he reports.

Ball State University (Muncie, IN) finds itself on the cutting edge of mobile and Web 2.0 technologies. It started with a CICS application residing on the mainframe, the student schedule, which is frequently accessed by Ball State’s 20,000 students—increasingly through mobile browsers.

“When we have applications we don’t want to modify, we use HATS,” says Fred Nay, director of University Computing Services at Ball State. It typically deploys the application as a Web service. “With HATS, we’ve gotten to the point where we can get a Web service up and running in two hours,” he says.

HATS applications, however, add a little overhead, about 0.5 sec., to the response time, but by having the Web service go directly to the CICS COMMAREA, the school can accelerate performance.

For its student schedule application, the school didn’t want just any Web service. Although the application and Web service runs on the System z, students now spend much of their lives on Facebook, the popular social networking site. Nay’s plan is to let the students access their schedules directly from Facebook, which they’ll be able to do via any browser, including mobile browsers. “We shoot for the browser as the highest level of deployment to catch the widest audience,” Nay says.

The school started with the public Facebook Application Program Interfaces (APIs) and did some tweaking using Microsoft’s .NET (C#). Now students using mobile devices, and the usual desktop and laptop browsers, can access their Facebook pages and from there gain access to their schedule.

WebSphere

Viterra Inc., a grain cooperative based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, is looking to its WebSphere portal to provide access for mobile devices. The company intends to build WebSphere portlets to connect with mobile devices, starting with the BlackBerry developed by Research in Motion (RIM). This is a Web services strategy with the portal acting as the services gateway to the mainframe applications while the portlet connects the mobile device.

Connecting mobile devices to the mainframe, however, isn’t straightforward.

“Your portlet has to reflect a different viewing structure,” says Mike Brooks, CIO. “You have to consider the complexity of the query and the amount of data you want to exchange.”

The WebSphere portal runs on Viterra’s mainframe.

Developing mobile applications based on existing applications isn’t simply a question of reducing the display to the smaller format of the mobile devices. Each device has different display and input capabilities. The application must account for how it’s displayed and how the user can respond. Teenagers might enter the equivalent of a short novel when text messaging, but most users and devices have, at best, rudimentary text input skills and screen navigation capabilities. Pick lists are essential, but even pick lists used for conventional access must be restructured, reordered, and scaled down.

At this point in the mobile industry’s development, the specific mobile device target is important. The devices aren’t standardized in terms of format or capabilities, although targeting the Web browser considerably simplifies things. Still, what works for an iPhone may not work for a BlackBerry, Nokia S60 Symbian device, or Windows mobile device.

Similarly, developers need to consider the speed of the mobile connection. Slower speed connections necessitate reducing the amount of data transfer to a minimum.

For now, Viterra’s mobile initiative is purely exploratory. “We’re trying to figure out customer demand,” says Brooks. Its first effort will target BlackBerry units. “We could probably do an iPhone, but the BlackBerry is the dominant device in western Canada,” he adds.

Lotus Notes Options

IBM has another mobile play involving the mainframe, Lotus Notes/Domino, its groupware/collaboration and messaging product, which provides several mobile options. Domino is the server, which runs on the mainframe under z/OS or in a Linux on System z LPAR or virtual machine. Notes is the client.

“In the past, companies wanted traditional desktop access,” says Collin Murray, IBM product manager for Lotus Domino. “Now, it’s an advantage to have access anytime, anywhere.”

The primary mobile target is the BlackBerry, though IBM recently added the iPhone. With the introduction of Domino 8.5 on 64-bit Linux, IBM will completely shift Domino away from z/OS to Linux and eventually discontinue Domino on z/OS, Murray reports.

Viterra also uses Notes and has just started a pilot using Lotus Notes Connections. This is social networking software specifically designed for organizations that want to tap their collective knowledge and that of partners and customers. It does so by dynamically building new connections between people, the expertise they have, and the tasks they’re executing.

“It has mobile connection capability,” says Brooks. “We will use it for social networking.”

IBM has several Notes/Domino products that address mobility, including Notes Traveler and Lotus Sametime, a collaboration tool. IBM also has bolstered its mobile vendor relationships with CommonTime, Nokia, Motorola, and RIM to facilitate Notes/Domino mobile access.

Also, in recent announcements, IBM revealed that:

• Verizon will provide its 85 million U.S. subscribers with access to IBM’s Lotus Notes and Domino offerings.

• Orange expects to deliver Big Blue’s collaboration software for mobile devices to its 113 million customers across Europe.

• Samsung has agreed to support IBM software to enable its Smartphone users to manage Lotus Notes email, calendars, and address books on the go.

Verizon and Orange agreed to certify support for IBM Lotus Notes Traveler software, which IBM says is designed to wirelessly replicate Lotus Notes email, calendaring, and personal information management on select Smartphones.

Security

The biggest challenge to mobility is one over which the mainframe data center has the least control—lost or stolen devices. Despite the most stringent corporate policies, users invariably will access critical, often confidential data through mobile devices, where it sits exposed to the world.

Consider the prospect that important, often confidential, corporate data on mobile devices will be inadvertently dropped at little league games or left in airport restrooms.

“Many of the mobile devices aren’t even password protected,” says Higgins, the GlassHouse Technologies consultant. “Most lack encryption.”

Unfortunately, the data sitting on a lost mobile device isn’t protected by your investment in RACF or CA Top Secret. Expect to see more effort to password protect and encrypt these devices. Beyond that, organizations will have to rely on policies, user education, and risk management.

“There always are a set of trade-offs involved,” says Higgins. “You will have to make a business-level risk decision, not just an IT decision.”

For now, security remains an unresolved issue. Nevertheless, driven by a new generation of workers, partners and customers, mobility will become the way of computing. Stationary desktops and terminals will give way to mobile devices. As the primary repository of the organization’s logic, rules, and data, the mainframe will have to accommodate them.