OpenSpan Aims to Bring Mainframe Qualities to Desktop Integration
June 2, 2009 Alex Woodie
For all the flack that green-screen applications get for being difficult to use, powerful macro tools and well-defined APIs make it relatively easy to access mainframe processes and data through 5250 and 3270 terminal emulators. But when the tables are turned and fat-client Windows apps are asked to open up and share, the DLLs and executables get cold feet. OpenSpan is trying to change that with an integration tool it claims can create on-demand APIs for any Windows app, and include them in cross-platform business process automation projects.
Francis Carden, who co-founded OpenSpan in 2005 with CTO Stephen Beckett and is now its chief evangelist, comes from the mainframe world, and thinks like a mainframe kind of guy. He’d rather sit in front of a green screen than a Web browser to enter time and attendance information. He embraces the term “legacy,” and considers anything written more than five minutes ago as legacy code. He is somewhat suspicious of the productivity claims made by developers of client-server technology and Web portals, and is loathe to ask end users to learn or do too much. He’s a pragmatist when it comes to shielding end users from technology “improvements,” which often don’t pan out as improvements at all.
“Normally, to provide productivity benefits for users, you would rewrite everything and give them a brand new interface, which ultimately means they just get another interface, and you can’t get rid of the ones they already have,” Carden says in an interview with IT Jungle. “Everybody believes they have a better interface. So the user just suffers over and over and over again. Not only do they have to learn different applications and use different applications for similar workflows, but they all have a different user interface.”
Instead of re-writing applications using the latest, greatest technologies, Carden’s and Beckett’s vision entailed allowing users to continue using the applications they already know how to use, and connecting to other applications and data as needed. Of course, application integration technologies have been around for decades, and while they are very good at what they do, they have functional gaps, especially when it comes to real-time integration with Windows applications.
Without APIs that expose Windows applications in real time, users are forced to copy and paste data between applications. Copy and paste remains the core, if rudimentary, form of integration for many users, Carden says. As crazy as it may sound, this is an area where decades-old mainframe and AS/400 technology has outpaced the client-server revolution.
“Green-screen applications have a way, within the emulator, to build some very powerful macros,” he says. “Some very good productivity tools have been around the mainframe for many years. But everybody gave up on all the other applications, the fat-client applications and the Windows applications. With the exception of Microsoft Office, most of the applications on the users’ desks don’t have any form of integration point whatsoever.”
This dilemma provided the impetus for the creation of the OpenSpan Platform, which has been in development for about seven years, although the Alpharetta, Georgia, company has been incorporated for only four. At the core of the OpenSpan Platform–the “secret sauce,” as Carden refers to it–is its capability to interrogate any application displayed through the Windows operating system, through the application’s in-memory tasks, and to expose application processes in new and exciting ways.
“One thing that every Windows application has in common is that, under Windows, it’s running in memory,” Carden says. “We can inject in memory . . . for almost any application and give you an almost ‘instant on’ API. It doesn’t matter if it’s written in C or C#, written to run in a browser, an emulator, Java, or a fat client. I can instantly give it an API, and then start having those objects inside each of those applications communicate with each other on a real-time basis.”
The development process starts with OpenSpan Studio, a drag-and-drop IDE that business analysts and programmers use to interrogate various fields in their target application and record the output and all the properties and methods that they utilize. The output is then stored as an object that the developer can manipulate using the OpenSpan workflow generator, which is also a drag-and-drop tool. A client component that resides on the user’s desktop “drives” the interrogated applications, and executes the new or revised workflows designed under Studio.
This process gives the OpenSpan developer programmatic access to any field or program that has been interrogated, and allows him or her to create new workflows that involve those fields or programs. It provides very low-level access, such as the capability to detect when a user has clicked on a given field–a level of access most application APIs (when they exist) do not offer.
Many of the use cases for OpenSpan involve call center workers and representatives of financial services companies, who are often required to navigate many screens. With OpenSpan, instead of using a dozen different applications, the user would be working mostly within a core group of two or three applications, say a Siebel CRM app. When data or services from these ancillary applications are required, such as a credit check or address validation, OpenSpan would “drive” the other applications and automatically enter the required data, eliminating the need for copy and paste and helping reduce errors.
Carden estimates that OpenSpan works out-of-the-box with about 90 percent of Windows applications. For those weird birds that don’t just “work,” such as for SAP‘s Web interface, IBM‘s Lotus, and applications generated from the PowerBuilder 4GL, OpenSpan puts its developers to work on adapters. The 4.1 release, expected later this month, introduces a raft of new adapters. “We’ve had our rocket scientists knee deep for the last 12 months really building out the adapters,” Carden says.
OpenSpan is not meant to replace other integration tools, such as the high-end business process management (BPM) suites and messaging backbones from TIBCO or WebMethods. “We’re complementary to TIBCO and WebMethods,” says Joe McGonnell, vice president of marketing for OpenSpan. “We’re seen as a great way to access any application where you don’t own the source code, for any Windows-based desktop application. We do the hard stuff and we make it easy, and therefore we’re very complementary to more traditional integration approaches that are out there.”
OpenSpan also plays well with existing APIs, including the HLAPI version used by emulation vendors like Attachmate, Ericom, Hummingbird, IBM, or Jacada. “Often the user is still using the mainframe on the desktop. It might be the application of choice,” Carden says. “What we can do is monitor where they are in the mainframe application, but now allow other applications to participate. Or if you prefer, let the newer applications be the ones that drive the mainframe applications. You get to choose.”
In the end, OpenSpan advocates an iterative approach to improving business processes, which happens to jibe well with today’s IT mantra of doing more with less, and getting by with what you already got.
“We keep throwing more user interfaces at the user, and what we’re saying is make the UIs they already have productive first,” Carden says. “Automate all the workflows they have heavy investment in and happen to be trained up on, and start eliminating the time it takes to navigate these workflows. We know of no other technology that can provide desktop integration, and can integrate new APIs and still consume and work with existing ones.”
OpenSpan version 4.1 will be available this month. Pricing starts at $800 per runtime license, with discounts for volume orders. For more information, visit www.openspan.com.