People have always worked away from the office. Some have worked at home. Some were the so-called road warriors, who travelled round the country promoting what their company had to offer. And some had to connect to head office when away on business trips. However, the pandemic turned nearly all office workers into people who work from home – and, now, they are becoming people who work from anywhere. So, how can these hybrid workers (part time n the office, part time somewhere else) connect to the mainframe and carry out useful work?
I guess, if I were to have written this article in the 20 years before 2019, the answer that almost everyone would have given to the question would be 3270 terminal emulation software running on a PC. This would give the user the ‘green screen’ experience that they would get if they were working from a terminal attached to the mainframe. They could work quickly and effectively using software that simulated the environment that they knew so well. Some products are very well known, like IBM’s PComm and tn3270 from Tom Brennan Software, but there are many others from a variety of software vendors.
When the pandemic hit, some organizations thought that a more secure way for people to work from home was to connect from their home computer to their office computer. Once they’ve logged in to their work computer, they can connect to the mainframe in the usual way using the terminal emulator installed on that computer. Some organizations used Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) as a way to connect from their home computer to the office. Other organizations used a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to allow employees to securely connect from home to their corporate network, and then access the mainframe.
While that all worked in the rush to get everyone working from home, and they are tried and trusted methods for remote working, the question that IT teams need to ask themselves as we, hopefully, move out of lockdowns is whether this is the best way for their staff to access the mainframe. Is this really what remote workers want? How do people usually interact with businesses?
If you think about how you and your friends and family work online, you probably sit at your computer and use the browser to look at the menu available at a restaurant. You also look at prices and opening times, and you might book a table. All through your browser. If you use social media, you point your browser at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc, and see what people have to say. If you’re doing your shopping, you use your browser.
Of course, if you’re on your phone, then you are using apps for these activities, but they are really, specialized browser interfaces.
The point I’m trying to make is that for most things, people use a browser to do what they want. So, I’m suggesting, people would really prefer to use a browser to access the mainframe like they do everything else
Clearly, some companies recognize that this is the case. For example, Virtel has its Virtel Web Access (VWA) product, which securely serve 3270 screens as standard HTML webpages over encrypted HTTPS connections to remote browsers. So, as far as the user is concerned, they are seeing the interface that they are familiar with, it’s just that the 3270 terminal emulation is through a web browser. Rocket Software has its Rocket Terminal
Emulator (Web Edition), which also securely serves up 3270 terminal emulation to a browser. Both of these allow people to work on mainframes from any device that has a browser.
Similarly, Macro 4’s session management software, Tubes, has a web interface, which can web-enable mainframe applications from the user’s point of view. Again, employees can access mainframes from any device with a browser. Being a session manager, Tubes provide a single point of entry for a user to all the applications that they’re allowed to access. And users can change from one application to another without having to log off and on again. Being web-enabled allows users to work on any sized screen and use mouse clicks and even touch-screen commands to get work done. Again, other vendors offer 3270 session manager software.
What, I guess, a lot of users and technical teams would like is some way to make mainframe access to everyone without needing to purchase separate tools for individuals to use. Wouldn’t it be great if the mainframe actually came with a web interface? And if that isn’t possible, wouldn’t it be fantastic if there was an easy way to install one? And, what if, the software not only allowed our users to work with the mainframe, but also allowed z/OS applications to interoperate with apps that live on Linux, Windows, and in the Cloud in real time? Obviously, it would only be any use if it used standard interfaces such as XML, HTTPS, and REST APIs. Things that plenty of people are familiar with and could use easily.
So, everything runs on the mainframe (apart from the browser, which would be running on the end user’s local device). That would mean that there’s no need for the user to login to a Linux or Windows server first before accessing the mainframe. There’s also no need for IT to purchase any new hardware. Plus, there’s also no need for any extra support, and none of the applications need to be modified in anyway. One piece of software would have to be installed on the mainframe and everyone who is authorized can access CICS or IMS or whatever they want from their browser.
The new software wouldn’t affect the way those people worked who wanted to continue using terminal emulation. People working from a browser would still have to go through RACF and any other security software. And it would save your organization’s programmers having to develop a web interface to any existing mainframe applications. It would mean the end of using z/OS Connect and 3270 emulators at your site.
So far, my research has found only one product that fits the bill. If you think your employees who work remotely would like to simply use their browser, have a look at GateWAY z/OS from MainTegrity at https://gatewayzos.com/. Just a thought.
Regular Planet Mainframe Blog Contributor
Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd, and an IBM Champion for the eight years running. He currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups, and is features in many blogs. He is also editorial director for the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook.