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jargon busters mainJargon Busters -
Teaching an old dog new tricks - (Nov 1999)
John Stevenson looks at the arguments for and against re-developing legacy applications to run in a Windows NT environment.

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There is nothing as permanent as a temporary solution. So says the old adage. And for many years now, cost-conscious IT managers have been implementing 'temporary' solutions in the form of terminal emulation sessions to enable users with personal computers to access legacy data and applications on IBM, Digital and Unix computers. These 'temporary' solutions have a habit of hanging around and becoming integral to the successful day-to-day operation of the company. Desktop operating system upgrades come and go. Windows NT server upgrades come and go. And still the trusty terminal emulation product that connects users with Oracle Financials on the Unix server keeps on going. Why?

The emulation window

One of the main reasons for staying with the trusty terminal emulation is, of course, that if it ain't broke there is precious little reason to fix it. The underlying applications are proven, mature and reliable. Unfortunately, emulations are not widely liked by users. Within the emulation window the application behaves in a way that is completely alien to the rest of the applications on the PC. It does not support the fonts, colour schemes, etc. of the other PC applications on the user desktop. Most important of all, it does not support the mouse!

For exactly this reason, certain vendors offer the option to 'dress' the emulation window as though it were a native PC application using an approach called application re-vamping which is designed to address the objections that users have to emulations. With application re-vamping, the organisation can transform an existing application so that it gains rapid user acceptance without the need to re-write or re-develop any of the application code or configuration. Using a re-vamper, any user can take an emulation session and allocate mouse commands, colours, background bitmaps, scalable custom fonts, 3D buttons, button bars and custom key panels.

Typically, a session designer is used to set fonts, graphical attributes, background attributes, button bars and mouse events. The best re-vamping tools are dynamic and intelligent. Dynamic in that they can re-vamp an application 'on-the-fly' at any time. Intelligent in that they remember, understand and reproduce the re-vamping instructions. For example, within an emulation session, the look and feel assigned to a works order module will be replicated in an invoicing module, ensuring complete consistency. In much the same way that certain emulation vendors offer the option to re-vamp a terminal emulation session so that it resembles a native PC application, some also offer the ability to re-vamp a legacy system for extranet/e-commerce access using a Web browser. While some of the technologies and motives may differ - the basic approach is very similar.

Giving access to a host system via a Web browser is more likely to be motivated by commercial considerations - global e-business, improved productivity, increased profitability, better customer care – than by the need to give an internal user a mouse-driven interface. But the basic premise is very similar. Why re-develop your application, when you could effectively re-vamp it for use with a Web browser? When the application concerned is an ordering system or parts catalogue that has been running successfully on an IBM mainframe for 10 years, this is a very persuasive argument!

Tools of the trade

The best tools for re-vamping in a Web-enabled world will enable you to design your extranet/e-business application using a standard Web-authoring tool such as Microsoft FrontPage. Where access to a core business system is required on the page, they will enable you to embed calls to an IBM mainframe application and perform on-the-fly HTML conversion, for example. The result will be a new e-business application that uses your existing legacy application(s), is accessed via a Web browser and took days rather than months to develop.

Re-vamping is a highly cost effective way of making a core business system easy-to-use and accessible to all. Even the most sophisticated business systems can be transformed in a matter of man-hours rather than man-months. The approach requires no special technical skill and absolutely no programming knowledge. The resultant applications are easier to use, increasing productivity and ensuring rapid user acceptance. They perform the identical core function in the same way - so no new training is required. Significantly, this approach does not require any additional capital expenditure on hardware, networking or software development. It shortens time to market and can make a dramatic improvement on bottom line performance.

Many client/server re-development and Java re-write projects have proved to be both costly and time consuming – a financial and technical graveyard for the unwary. In many circumstances, re-vamping can help to deliver real benefit - fast - by teaching an old dog new tricks and delivering core business systems in the right way to the point of need - both in the organisation and across the globe.

John Stevenson was writing on behalf of Esker
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