Access OS/400 Servers from Wireless BlackBerry Devices
June 1, 2004 Alex Woodie
BlackBerry, meet your iSeries. Epoch Integration, a developer of management software for the wireless BlackBerry devices made by Research In Motion, recently launched a new version of its NeedTEXT Shell terminal emulation software that allows users to access, monitor, and manage OS/400 servers through a secure command line interface displayed on their BlackBerry screens.
Epoch’s NeedTEXT Shell customers historically have been Unix and Linux users, but some of its customers had OS/400 servers they wanted to access or manage through their BlackBerries, say Epoch officials. The company responded with NeedTEXT Shell Version 3.0, which introduces a new feature that allows customers to map specific OS/400 function keys to the BlackBerry’s full “QWERTY” keyboard.
NeedTEXT Shell establishes a secure VT100 emulation session on a BlackBerry device. With the NeedTEXT Shell running, administrators equipped with BlackBerries have as much control over their servers, routers, and other devices as they would have if they were sitting at a terminal in the data center, Epoch says. And since the software uses the BlackBerry’s secure mobile communications facilities (over standard cellular phone networks, like CDMA or GPRS), administrators and other users can access the servers from anywhere there is cell coverage.
Epoch’s software uses the Windows-based BlackBerry Enterprise Server and the APIs for Enterprise Server’s Mobile Data Service (MDS) technology, which extends the BlackBerry’s role beyond that of a simple SMTP e-mail client, and provides it with greater access to data and applications residing on a host server. No software needs to be installed on the OS/400 server, nor do any changes need to be made to the OS/400 server to enable BlackBerry access; the NeedTEXT Shell software simply presents users with a log-in screen and access according to their user profile. And since NeedTEXT Shell rides along with BlackBerry Enterprise Server’s 3DES encryption, users don’t have to worry about implementing their own wireless security infrastructures–a major drawback that severely handicapped the adoption of once-promising wireless technologies, such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP).
Ramon Taveres, Epoch’s president and chief executive officer, says that NeedTEXT Shell is primarily targeted at administrators who need 24/7 access to their iSeries servers. “We’re treating this first release as a test and a market validation,” he says. “The more traditional way for us to take this product to market is on the management side. With qualified partners, we could begin the enablement or deployment of field applications that run on the AS/400.”
If Epoch’s OS/400 beta site is any indication, there could be many potential uses for NeedTEXT Shell outside of standard administration.
Insulectro, a circuit board distributor in Southern California, worked with Epoch to develop NeedTEXT Shell. Insulectro tried out two other 5250 emulators that ran on Palm Pilots before selecting the BlackBerry-based NeedTEXT Shell program. One of the 5250 emulators allowed users to pull up an AS/400 sign-on screen, “but the navigation was really bad, and you couldn’t see the cursor,” says Aun Qadir, Insulectro’s network services manager. “On the other one, the screen was totally screwed up.”
Most of Insulectro’s sales people–the one’s who needed access to the company’s OS/400 server–had been given company BlackBerry devices to give them mobile access to their e-mail. Insulectro contacted Epoch to see if it would be willing to add OS/400 support to NeedTEXT Shell. At first, Epoch was not willing to make the changes, Qadir says, but eventually they came around and Charles Baptiste, NeedTEXT Shell’s lead developer, worked closely with Insulectro’s OS/400 programmer, Dan Diesel, to make the necessary modifications.
Early problems with not being able to backspace or delete were fixed, and what emerged was a version of NeedTEXT Shell that provided straightforward access to Insulectro’s homegrown applications. “The cursor can move up and down with the track wheel, and when you’re typing, you’re not waiting,” Qadir says. “It’s still Telnet, but the navigation is easier, much better, if you follow the documentation.”
As a result of the successful beta test, Insulectro is planning to deploy NeedTEXT Shell to provide AS/400 access for its 50 to 60 salespeople. Qadir says the salespeople will be able to check inventory, release orders, and access sales reports using the software on the BlackBerries, which could begin replacing laptops at the company.
A 5250 FUTURE?
If demand warrants it, Epoch may implement full support for the 5250 protocol, which would allow greater access to OS/400 applications, Taveres says. “We have not implemented a full AS/400 standard. The emulation is still VT100. What we have done is allow you to map specific function keys,” he says.
OS/400 servers can read VT 100, which is a Unix emulation standard, just fine, lead developer Baptiste says. “It’s close to 98 percent accurate,” he says. “Some fields may be filled in” erroneously by using VT100 emulation with an iSeries server, but overall it works fine, he says. NeedTEXT Shell lets users scroll back and forth, pan up and down, and view the entire screen, since the screens on BlackBerries are not that wide.
Epoch has about 25 to 30 users of NeedTEXT Shell, Taveres says, including Raytheon Missile Systems, The Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, the National Institutes of Health, and Advisen, a provider of commercial insurance market research. And there is a growing base of BlackBerry devices in use. RIM, which is located near Epoch in Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, recently passed the one-million subscriber mark for its BlackBerry service.
Pricing for NeedTEXT Shell is a relative bargain, with a flat rate of $695, which supports an unlimited number of users; OS/400, Unix, or Linux servers; and BlackBerry Enterprise Servers. But that rate will likely change in the next couple of weeks as the company switches to a per-user price structure, Taveres says. Maintenance is currently $295 per year.
Epoch Integration is considering partnerships with established vendors in the OS/400 arena. For more information, go to www.epochintegration.com.