Microsoft mixes mainframe apps with .Net

When it comes to the mainframe, Microsoft has two distinct personalities. While the software giant would like to believe the Windows platform can replace anything that runs on the mainframe, the reality is that smaller users might want to migrate. However, many users are looking to integrate tried-and-true mainframe applications and processes with next-generation application and network architectures in the form of Web services and service-oriented architectures (SOA).

Microsoft thinks they have both camps covered.

The company last month ended a four-year development project and released Host Integration Server (HIS) 2004, which focuses on integrating mainframe, transaction-based applications into the Windows infrastructure, such as links to its BizTalk orchestration engine, and Visual Studio development tool environment. With HIS, Microsoft leaves the screen-scraping technology to partners and provides access directly to mainframes' business logic.

However in contrast to the integration message Microsoft in April formed the Mainframe Migration Alliance (MMA), which helps users migrate workloads off the mainframe and onto Windows platforms. Last month, the MMA along with 22 partners launched a community Web site aimed at sharing best practices and providing resources to users migrating off mainframes.

"You have to have an integration story, and I think HIS is evolving," says Dale Vecchio, research director with Gartner Inc. "Microsoft is very much going down the path of trying to offer integration as opposed to simply mainframe migration. HIS 2004 is really their first effort to offer this product in this way. It is a reasonable start, but they have a long way to go. At least they've started to suggest that mainframe integration is not a bad thing."

Its HIStory

HIS began as System Network Architecture (SNA) Server in 1992. It has been a gateway product for most of its life, acting as a pass-through for IBM's SNA. Over the years, Microsoft has included other tools such as Component Object Model Transaction Integrator (COM TI), which links Microsoft's COM with IBM's transaction programs on the mainframe, and developed links to DB2, but had not integrated the server with its development tools.

Adding that development tool integration and protocols, such as Host Initiated Processing (HIP), to let either Windows or the mainframe initiate processes on the other platform were milestones with HIS 2004.

"There is a renewed focus on application integration in HIS 2004," says Scott Woodgate, lead product manager for business process and integration at Microsoft.

"From a philosophy perspective, customers are looking to SOA, looking to reuse their existing mainframe access as part of that architecture," Woodgate says. "So we looked at that opportunity and delivered that through Visual Studio and .Net integration and HIS 2004. It's a very significant area of new ambition for us."

Users are getting in tune with the message, especially through new technology such as the HIP protocol, new to HIS 2004.

HIP lets the host system make calls into the Windows environment letting for example, the mainframe populate a form on the Windows platform and kick off a print process. HIP tricks the mainframe environment into thinking it is making calls locally.

"It completes the puzzle," says Tom Taglianetti, platform architect for Fiserv LeMans, which develops software and provides services for the auto-lending industry, including a host accounting system that is a Customer Information Control System (CICS) and COBOL application. "There are now two directional transactional activities. What was a pull model with HIS, where the Windows environment would pull data, now the host can push data to the Windows environment. It essentially allows the host to be an equal player in our distributed programming architecture."

Taglianetti says HIP has let the King of Prussia, Pa., company re-engineer its mainframe batch process into an interface that can serve up data in real time.

To help developers build applications, HIS 2004 includes tighter integration with Visual Studio. The highlight is the Transaction Integrator design tool, which runs within the project designer in Visual Studio and lets developers expose CICS and Information Management System transactions to Windows as COM+ components, .Net packages or XML-based Web services. Microsoft added a feature for tunneling SNA traffic into the mainframe over IP. The new IP-DLC Link Service lets PCs connect to z900 mainframes via IP networks.

Also new is a managed provider for IBM's DB2 database, which allows DB2 data to be published as Web services or integrated into Windows forms, such as those produced by Microsoft's InfoPath application.

"The HIP and Web services support are both very important because they provide flexibility to developers on either side of the divide between Windows and mainframes," says Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with the Burton Group. "You could have a big CICS-based system and take a subset of it and move it to Windows and not have to change anything on the mainframe. You can start to consolidate things piece by piece."

Challenges remain

Experts say Microsoft's challenge will be finding takers for its integration message; currently it has 8,000 HIS customers.

Gartner divides the mainframe market into three sections: those with less than 500 MIPS, where users tend to be migration candidates; 500 to 1000 MIPS, where users are a little too big to get off the mainframe but might be too small for IBM's WebSphere mainframe integration modules; and 1000 MIPS and up, where users can't realistically get off the big iron.

"The guys in the middle are trying to minimize MIPS growth," Gartner's Vecchio says. "They are trying to migrate some apps, and to the extent they are migrating to .Net, I think HIS will play there."

But Microsoft doesn't have a free and clear shot at those looking to migrate. IBM is talking up WebSphere and Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition, mostly in the form of its Host Access Transformation Services.

A number of third-party vendors, including Microsoft partners ClientSoft, Farabi Technology, NetMange, Proginet and Seagull Holding, offer tools to inject the mainframe into emerging distributed architectures. Other competitors also offer programmatic integration including Jacada, WRQ and Neon Systems, whose Shadow Foundation technology runs directly on the mainframe.

"Our solution supports tens of thousands of concurrent users and millions of transactions," says Dan Finerty, director of product management for Neon Systems, a Sugar Land, Texas, company that develops middleware that runs on the mainframe to link it to Intel-based systems. "That non-stop workload is not what the Intel platform is really good at."

Despite what avenue users might travel to integrate the mainframe, the idea behind HIS 2004 and other platforms is to cut development time and costs.

"You eliminate the cost and complexity of running everything on the mainframe," says Hugh Raiford, senior vice president of corporate development at ClientSoft. "You can run applications in a distributed environment. You are reducing the processing and applications that are running on the mainframe to your core systems, and you can move some logical subsystems of the mainframe to a lower-cost platform."