Linoma's New Software Web-Enables OS/400 Apps Without the Interactive
by Alex Woodie
Linoma Software last week announced a new product that Web-enables OS/400 applications on-the-fly, while avoiding use of the 5250 data stream. The software, called aXes, uses XML, FastCGI, data compression, and a proprietary technology called InterSession to provide fast access to OS/400 application screens from a Web browser. The product doesn't generate jaw-dropping GUI effects, Linoma officials say, but it works efficiently and is a suitable choice when bandwidth is a major hurdle.
Avoiding the 5250 data stream is just as important--if not more important--today than it was in January, before IBM decided to change the way it packages and sells the iSeries. With two editions of OS/400 (one that includes all the interactive 5250 CPW you can use, called Enterprise, and one that includes none of it, called Standard), buying the Enterprise Edition, when the Standard Edition would suffice, can easily add hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra fees to the cost of an iSeries server.
IBM Rochester's solution to the interactive question is called the WebFacing Tool. With this software, companies can convert 5250 application screens into JavaServer Pages (JSPs), which can be served from the WebSphere Application Server. On the new iSeries servers, screens that have been refaced using the WebFacing Tool run in the batch subsystem, which allows companies to purchase the less expensive Standard Edition of OS/400.
However, there are several limitations to the WebFacing Tool. The conversion process can be lengthy, it requires application source code, it requires more memory and processor power to support WebSphere, and it won't reface OS/400 system screens. These limitations in IBM's WebFacing Tool have spawned new efforts on the part of independent software vendors to create alternatives to the WebFacing Tool--namely, different Web-enabling tools that run in batch. While Linoma already offered such a tool, called Envoy, company officials say they felt they needed another tool that was less expensive and easier to use. That's when they found aXes.
An aX for All Seasons?
Linoma makes no bones about what you're getting with aXes. "It's a step above emulation, in terms of the quality you see," says Bob Luebbe, president of Linoma Software. "If a customer wants a rich interface, if they want to go well beyond a character-based interface, aXes is not a good solution. If they want to access the AS/400 over a browser, and have a little richer look and feel, and they want to run in batch, then aXes is a good solution for them."
The screens generated by aXes look very much like a colorized green screen. The software's use of XML and XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language) templates allows administrators to easily control the presentation of the aXes interface by using "skins" that feature customized color schemes and logos. If the company wants to add things like radio buttons and drop down menus to the interface, those items can be served by aXes, but it requires going into the application's display files (DDS code) and manually adding the supported IBM DDS keywords. Enhanced graphics support is in the works for future releases, officials say.
aXes may lack some of the features of more expensive products, but Linoma officials say it makes up for this simplicity with one very important feature: speed.
Feeling the Need
The aXes suite features two components: the aXes Web Server and the aXes Terminal Server. The aXes Web Server is based on the FastCGI specification. While the CGI access technique is pretty well-established on the OS/400 platform (through Net.Data and other third-party products), the newer FastCGI spec had never been implemented on OS/400 before aXes, Luebbe says. Because of FastCGI, Luebbe says, the aXes Web server clocks in at around three to five times faster than IBM's traditional HTTP Server for iSeries (powered by Apache).
But the neatest trick is in the aXes Terminal Server. The aXes Terminal Server is the host access component of the suite that sits between the OS/400 program and the Web server, and provides the XML translation. The whole process works like this: "The browser interacts with the aXes Web Server," Luebbe explains. "If it sees the user requesting terminal access, the Terminal Server will go out and capture the program I/O, change it to XML, and the Web server compresses it and pops it down to the browser."
In this way, aXes avoids the wrath of 5250 consumption. "It captures the I/O, at the program level," Luebbe says. "The 5250 stream is not even being scraped. No Telnet sessions. There's some wizardry going on under the covers."
Wizard, Wizard, Where Art Thou?
That "wizardry under the covers" is called InterSession, a term that aXes developers came up with to describe the way that aXes workloads get the benefit of being interactive, yet appear to OS/400 to be running as batch jobs. While the aXes developers are not divulging the secrets behind the InterSession technique, the company says InterSession can only be applied to aXes workloads, and does not make systemwide, or "global," changes to other terminal sessions running on an OS/400 server (like FAST400 does). (For the record, Luebbe says the changes created by InterSession are more akin to IBM's WebFacing Tool than to FAST400, and they abide by all IBM licensing requirements.)
Linoma Software caught wind of aXes (which stands for "Arterial XML eServer") several months ago, after reading a review of several WebFacing products that raved about aXes. Linoma, based in Omaha, Nebraska, now has exclusive distribution rights in North America.
Another Piece of the Puzzle
aXes joins a suddenly crowded field of OS/400 Web-enablement solutions at Linoma. The company sells WebFacing Tool services, as well as Envoy, which was developed by Pluta Brothers Design and is also available through that company as PSC/400. Both Envoy and the WebFacing Tool can get OS/400 shops off the 5250 habit, but they both require a higher level of commitment (read: programming) on the part of their users, Luebbe says.
"The WebFacing Tool and Envoy can give a richer interface, but it's going to require quite a bit of layers to get that enhanced interface. It's not automatic," Luebbe says. "Some people just want to do simple administration. They're not looking for a cool interface . . . With aXes, it's load and go, then you can forget about it."
Linoma just announced aXes last week at the IBM iSeries technical conference in Las Vegas, but it already has a customer. A school district in Oregon is using the software to provide about 300 teachers and administrators with browser-based access to a centralized OS/400 application. The users currently use Client Access to access the server. aXes has also seen several implementations in its native Australia.
aXes 1.2 is available now from Linoma. The software can be purchased with user-based licensing, where the first five users cost $2,000, and each additional user costs $200. For an unlimited number of users, aXes costs $7,500 for a P05 box and $32,500 for a P50 box. For more information, go to www.linomasoftware.com.
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