Attachmate Refreshes Emulator with Useful New Features
January 27, 2009 Alex Woodie
Let’s face it–sometimes it can be difficult to get excited about a new terminal emulator. As the graphical extravagance of the Web 2.0 revolution trains us to consume data via a million exotic widgets and colorful gadgets, the green-screen 5250 display begins to look a little old. One wonders, then, what Attachmate could do to spark interest in its new terminal emulator suite, Reflection 2008, which was publicly announced yesterday. As it turns out, there’s plenty of room for innovation.
As director of product marketing and management for Attachmate’s three terminal emulation lines, Michael Miller has pondered these very questions: What can you do to improve on an emulator? How much new technology can you actually bring to such an established product? “That’s exactly the sort of thing that I sit around with product managers and do, exactly that. We ask ourselves, ‘What can we do with an emulator that makes it new and interesting and adds value?'”
Miller is no newbie to the business. He came up with Wall Data, the originators of the RUMBA terminal emulator that was (and still is) popular among AS/400 shops. RUMBA is now in the hands of Micro Focus, which paid $73 million for NetManage last year. At Attachmate since 2006, Miller now oversees the second largest emulation business outside of IBM, one that spreads to tens of millions of computers at tens of thousands of customers around the world.
“On the surface level, it does seem like a highly commoditized piece of software,” Miller acknowledges. “What we’ve done is focus on what are our customers asking us to do. We’ve developed an amazing amount of innovation, and a large R&D budget allows us to be responsive.”
That work is on display with Reflection 2008, the latest release of emulation software for accessing various servers, including System i, System z, DEC, Unix, and other hosts. Attachmate actually delivered the Reflection 2008 suites to customers last November, but waited until yesterday to formally announce them due to the economic chaos and political disruptions that greeted us over the holidays, Miller says.
There are three main areas of improvement in the latest release of Reflection, which is Attachmate’s flagship emulator and the product that it wants users of the EXTRA! and InfoConnect emulator lines to eventually migrate to: virtualization, security, and customization.
On the virtualization front, Attachmate recognized the huge time-saving gains that large organizations can squeeze from packaging a desktop terminal emulator in a virtual environment, which can drastically reduce compatibility testing and deployment requirements. The company has long supported Citrix Systems traditional ICA virtualization technology for Windows, but a new generation of so-called “application virtualization” technologies is starting to take hold in the market, and Attachmate needed to respond.
Attachmate tested Reflection 2008 with four application virtualization products: Citrix’s XenApp, Microsoft‘s AppV, VMware‘s ThinApp, and the offering from Hewlett-Packard. While each vendor does not offer a certification for interoperability with their virtualization offerings, Attachmate invested a lot of time to ensure it, Miller assures.
Miller says using emulators with virtualization offerings enables emulators to be deployed more quickly, and without going through a traditional installation process on each desktop. “It’s also a way to isolate the applications from one another, and eliminate resource conflicts,” he says. “Desktop and application virtualization gives customers a way to shorten the cycles to roll out new applications, and minimize the overhead of managing their desktops.”
In terms of security, Reflection 2008 introduces two features that will be useful for any organizations interested in reducing the leakage of sensitive data (which is hopefully all of them). These features are called privacy filters and trusted locations.
Privacy filters is a form of data obfuscation that prevents users from viewing or otherwise accessing sensitive data, such as credit card or Social Security numbers. The feature uses pattern-matching technology to detect when sensitive data is on the screen, and then it blocks out the data so the user can’t see it. If users needs to see the data to do their jobs, the privacy filter feature can be scaled back to allow them to view the data, but prevent them from copying and pasting sensitive data. “This helps to enforce compliance with regulation like PCI, for example, and fight the misuse of business processes,” Miller says.
The new trusted locations feature provides another layer of security upon macros, which are scripts that many organizations use to automate tasks in the emulator environment. The feature gives administrators a way to restrict access to macros. Only users in certain locations will have access to macros, and admins can even pick and choose which macros are available to users. Last but not least, Reflection 2008 brings support for FIPS 140-2 and DoD PKI, two important security specifications required for government use.
Attachmate has customers in some of the world’s largest corporations and government entities, and a common trait of these customers is a high demand for customization and automation in the products they use.
One of the ways that Attachmate responded to that demand for automation and customization in Reflection 2008 was by including a full implementation of the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) scripting language. This comes on top of the work that Attachmate began with Reflection 2007, which introduced close integration with Microsoft Office 2007 and a Vista-like GUI.
The VBA engine and editor will give users more power to streamline the creation of macros in Reflection 2008, Miller says. “So in addition to those Office capabilities and the Microsoft Office ribbon user interface, now you have a full automation technology that is exactly the same as what you use when you’re creating and editing macros and automating your business processes in MS Word or Excel,” he says. “Admins, IT engineers, and even end users that are accustomed to using MS Office macros and VBA to automate their day-to-day practices, can now transfer that knowledge directly to Reflection 2008.”
For example, the VBA engine could simplify data entry for a call center worker. Instead of manually moving data back and forth among a 5250 screen in an emulator, an Excel spreadsheet, and a homegrown Windows app, the company could write a VBA script that automates the data movement. The same could be achieved with browser-based applications and Reflection for the Web, as long as the browser-based apps are Web service enabled.
IT As It Is
The future of enterprise computing may be largely Web-based, and Web 2.0 technologies do hold a lot of promise for unlocking new ways for people and computers to interact. But for now, much of the actual work that drives (or used to drive) the economy–making, moving, and selling products to other businesses and consumers–is still done with green screens. And that means the terminal emulator, the mainframe, and the AS/400 aren’t going away anytime soon.
“It is amazing how much of the Fortune 2000 literally run those business on the green screen,” Miller says. “There was a period of time when there was a real push to get off of the mainframe entirely. Then customers really started taking a hard look about what that would mean, to the security, stability, and robustness of their underlying business processes.”
Miller realized the primary factor driving change among his customers was not their desire for a new computer platform. “It was to simplify and streamline the information worker’s experience,” he says. “So whether it’s a teller at a bank, a cashier at a point of sale terminal, or just an information worker in a back office environment, our goal is to provide them with a streamlined, modern, automated, integrated experience. That’s where our focus is at.”
Four Reflection 2008 suites are available now, including Reflection Enterprise Suite 2008, which includes Windows- and Web-based the emulators for accessing i OS, z/OS, Unix, and OpenVMS hosts; Reflection Standard Suite 2008, a Windows-based emulator for accessing i OS, z/OS, Unix, and OpenVMS hosts; Reflection for IBM 2008, a Windows-based emulator for accessing i OS and z/OS hosts; and Reflection for UNIX and OpenVMS 2008, a Windows-based emulator for accessing Unix and OpenVMS hosts. Pricing was not disclosed by Attachmate. For more information, visit www.attachmate.com.