Forever COBOL: Page 3

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Larry Streets, a senior systems analyst for the Internet group at Central Insurance Co., says there's no real reason to get off the mainframe.
"There's never been any question of moving off the mainframe. Everything we have is invested there," says Larry Streets, a senior systems analyst for the Internet group at Central, a 120-year-old privately held company in Van Wert, Ohio. But that doesn't mean the move to open computing and the Internet are totally lost on the company. In order to give its 650 independent agents speedier service, Central recently Web-ified a number of its applications and made them available to the agents on an extranet.

"Now, there's no real reason to get off the mainframe," says Streets. Web-enabling its legacy applications is a "big plus" for Central, he says.

With hundreds of vendors selling in this space, the Web-to-host market is hot, says Garden of Technology Business Research. Companies that stay on the mainframe and Web-enable components for business partners or select user groups have the advantage of lower cost of ownership than some client/server environments, he says. "The pendulum is swinging back toward strong centralized servers like the mainframe. Companies are using the mainframe for the jobs that it's suited for and Web-enabling some of the customer-facing applications," says Garden.

Companies that serve a constituency of independent agents and franchisees are jumping at the chance to connect with these external partners using an extranet. Diehard mainframe shops like Central and car rental giant Avis Europe in Bracknell, England, are enticed by the productivity gains and improved customer service of giving their independent agents and franchisees access to their applications via Web browser.

In many cases, these new Web applications represent the agent companies' first foray into using computers of any kind. Many small insurance agencies and reservations booking offices must rely on manual methods such as telephone and fax to get the job done. The benefits of migrating to an easy-to-use Web application are clear.

Quicker turnaround

Lessons learned...
...about maintaining legacy COBOL code on a UNIX platform and Web-enabling mainframe COBOL applications

COBOL is COBOL. The programmer learning curve with an open systems COBOL language like ACUCOBOL is short, since the code is still COBOL and programmers need only learn some syntax to create a GUI.

UNIX has what it takes. UNIX has many of the same security and manageability characteristics of the mainframe, but with the benefit of openness and lower cost of computing, says Seagram's Joe Horlander.

Steep learning curve. The Central Insurance team had to educate themselves on IIS, IE, Web security issues, and JavaScript--none of which they had ever touched before.

Start small. Central's Larry Streets recommends picking a very simple application of no more than five to six screens as your first Web-enabled application.

Get the users involved. Go directly to the people who will be using the application or you'll miss critical components of the business process, says Streets.

Don't forget the help desk. When a company moves from a wholly mainframe-based environment to a mainframe plus extranet environment, its help desk will likely be flooded with calls post-deployment. Help desk personnel will need a lot of Web training.

Two years ago, when it came time to Web-enable the legacy applications, Streets' first priority was to extend Central's COBOL-based commercial quoting system to an extranet. Previously, an agent wanting to get an insurance quote for a commercial customer would have to fill out a long, paper-based application and send it through the U.S. mail to Central's headquarters office, where clerks would re-key the information into the mainframe. It would take an average of five to seven business days before the agent would receive the quote back. Not exactly what you'd call crackerjack customer service.

So, Streets embarked on a project to Web-enable the quoting application using the Amazon product from Intelligent Environments. He chose Amazon over tools from Attachmate Corp., of Bellevue, Wash., because at the time it could connect to a variety of different types of legacy data, from VSAM files, to DB/2 data, to 3270 files. "Their product was superior in terms of the types of connections it could make to different data types," says Streets. Although the commercial quoting application data was in 3270 files, he knew later he would wish to extend other legacy data sources to the Web.

Using a dynamic form on the extranet, the agent now gets the quote back in about five minutes, and there's no need to re-key the data. Central has not cut head count as a result of Web-enabling its applications, but has absorbed data-entry people into other roles, says Streets.

The one difficulty was selling the application to the agents, most of whom either did not have a PC or did not have an Internet connection. It took a few months of marketing the Web application through brochures and other product literature for the agents to come around. Today, about 200 nationwide use the system and Streets expects that number to grow.

Bringing partners closer via the Web

Just as Central Insurance used the Web to link its agents, so too did Avis Europe. The company used the Salvo tool from Simware to Web-enable its car reservation system for the smaller independent companies all over the world that book its car rentals. These firms often could not afford the cost of a dial-up connection to Avis' famous Wizard reservations and fleet management system.

"In many cases, the communications infrastructure for leased lines is not developed sufficiently. It's still quite expensive for a company in a country like Kenya that may be doing a low volume of rentals," says John Saunders, director of business systems for sales and marketing for Avis Europe. On the other hand, with a few exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia, even the underdeveloped countries generally have telephone lines that are adequate to connect to the Internet.

So, the company elected to make its Wizard system available on an extranet for its agents to use. Web-enabling the system was lower in cost and hassles than Saunders had expected. The company spent roughly $16,000 U.S., at today's exchange rates, to develop the link.

Like Central, Avis Europe is sticking with its mainframe. "We had a legacy system that we had to keep. We've used this system for 24 years--we weren't going to throw it out. Everything else had to fit in with that," he says. Bringing its business partners closer to the mainframe system in a convenient, low-cost Web-access method was gravy. //

Contributing editor Lauren Gibbons Paul writes frequently about legacy systems. She can be reached at laurenpaul@mediaone.net.

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