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jargon busters mainJargon Busters -
Willing and enabled - (January 2000)
John Stevenson discusses Web enabling your legacy with Microsoft Front Page

Everyone is talking about Web-enabling systems, but what does it mean? Microsoft Front Page makes designing sites simple, but how can you hook access to a legacy application into the front page quickly to deliver business critical information? For any company (user or reseller) looking to capitalise on the burgeoning e-business market, one of the key questions is how easily and quickly can I derive business benefit without huge investments in skills, and without re-engineering any of my existing business systems? Simply put: speed and simplicity are the watchwords.

Business-to-business e-commerce

A typical example is business-to-business e-commerce. A telecommunications company provides products and services to a number of resellers. The resellers are skilled at what they do – delivering products and services to the customer. They are used to fulfilling the customer’s requirements. They know how to order what they need from the telco. They understand how to navigate the telco’s accounts, purchasing and engineering departments. They use the telephone and fax to order products from the telco, check the status of orders, request new documentation and book engineers. But it all takes time.

This scenario is a classic example of where a business-to-business e-commerce system should provide real benefit. An extranet that enabled the reseller to order products, check the status of orders, access documentation and book engineers would save time and money. The telco could free up its order processing and technical staff from constantly answering the phone. The reseller could get the information it needed quickly and easily. In short, the extranet would help to shrink the supply chain, improve productivity and increase sales.The problem of course, is that presenting the reseller with access to the telco’s order processing and engineer booking systems is not an option. Especially as these are frequently green screen applications running on IBM mainframe or AS/400 systems. Leaving aside the security implications, even if you could take an AS/400 screen and slap it in a Web browser and deliver it to a reseller, you would need to train and educate the reseller in how to run your business application a costly and time-consuming process.

Core competencies

From the telco’s perspective, the secret lies in re-examining its core technical competencies and looking at what will deliver the fastest, easiest solution. In our example scenario, the telco will be highly competent in the use of its AS/400 business system. Chances are, it will also have experience of some of the basic building blocks of the Web – particularly HTML – and may well be familiar with tools such Microsoft FrontPage (for basic page design) and Microsoft Visual InterDev (for more advanced code development and management). Given its expertise with the core business system (AS/400) and Microsoft/Web technologies (FrontPage, HTML, browsers, Windows NT Server, etc.), what is the quickest, easiest way to shrink the supply chain?

Clearly, the answer is not to invest heavily in a major development project that requires extensive knowledge of new environments and languages, e.g. Java, C++, etc. to ‘program’ a solution. Better to target the investment in ensuring that the design and ergonomics of the extranet reflect the very best company image. After all, the best e-business sites have had thousands invested in the design and ergonomics – and it shows! The best approach would be to find a way of giving the reseller access to a secure Web site, designed using a product like Microsoft FrontPage. This would give it the option to place and track orders, access documentation and book engineers. The site would be pure Microsoft but – invisible to the reseller – the raw data would be pure AS/400. All the reseller would need would be a Web browser on its desktop, access to the Internet and a password.

In fact, there are products on the market today that allow you to open up a corridor from within a Microsoft FrontPage-authored Web site and access a mainframe or AS/400 application. They are often called ‘host-publishing’ products and their simplicity is their real appeal. The best of these products can be called seamlessly from within FrontPage and Visual InterDev and they are a godsend to any e-business developer. The best products make use of Microsoft’s Active Server Pages to run server side scripts from Windows NT. Active Server Pages is an open, compile-free application environment in which you can combine HTML, scripts, and reusable ActiveX server components to create dynamic and powerful Web-based business solutions. Active Server Pages enables server side scripting for IIS with native support for both VBScript and Jscript.

Using FrontPage, you can embed design-time ActiveX controls to call an Active Server Page and execute scripts to get the necessary data from the AS/400 system. The results are pretty impressive. In fact, given the levels of expertise we’ve discussed here, you could have a prototype up and running in minutes. Speed and simplicity guaranteed!

Next month we’ll continue by looking at precisely how you could use Active Server Pages, design time controls and FrontPage to shrink this particular supply chain.

jargon busters mainJohn Stevenson was writing on behalf of Esker