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Camped on
the HP 3000’s
Bleeding Edge

Joe Geiser seems to like the unblazed trail. He set out on one early last year to found a company dedicated to creating client-server and Web-based applications, after years of working in HP 3000 corporate datacenters in the insurance, finance and manufacturing industries.Geiser has worked with the 3000 since 1979, and client-server since 1989. Now in addition to being the senior partner in CSI Business Solutions, he’s the co-chair of the Interex SIGWeb special interest group and awash with answers about new HP 3000 technologies such as Samba, ODBC middleware and Windows NT integration. Geiser’s name shows up plenty on the HP 3000 Internet newsgroup, delivering answers to how-to questions and opinions about what HP 3000 customers and their favorite vendor should do next. With HP hard at work delivering a mainstream Web server for the HP 3000 and the MPE Programmer’s Forum just in the offing, we took time to quiz one of this market’s Web wiseguys about the potential for clients both thick and thin, and how it feels to become a 3000 entrepreneur after toiling on the corporate rockpile.

You head up a company with client-server in its name, but act as co-chair of a Web Special Interest group. Do you expect Web technology to supplant client-server needs for HP 3000 hosts? What’s the advantage of each technology choice, from your perspective?

Web technology is client-server technology, albeit in another form than what most people associate with “client-server.” Most folks look at client-server applications as a Windows-based application which accesses a data source, not on the local PC (like Image/SQL). A Web-based (or “Webbified” as I like to call it) application, or even a static Web site, is a client-server application as it involves a “client” (ones favorite browser) and a server (a Web server such as Apache, QWEBS, the upcoming Netscape FastTrack server for the 3000, or IIS and a raft of others for NT, as well as the usual suspects for HP-UX and other systems.

People have asked whether the HP 3000 could also serve as a Web and database server. I always say “Sure, why not?” The HP 3000 can do anything that any other platform can perform, do it as well, if not better than other platforms, and if it involves data, can serve that data up easier and faster than many platforms.

That’s a rather bold statement, I know, but a programmer with knowledge of COBOL can crank a “Webbified app” using QSS’ QWEBS, writing a subroutine stored in an XL, and do so rather quickly and easily.

You’ve worked extensively with Samba for your clients and offer a Java-based solution through Minisoft’s Javelin. What is it about Samba that’s prompted more support from HP – it’ll be in 6.0 – than Java has been able to muster?

There’s a big difference between Samba/iX and Java/iX in terms of application category. Samba/iX is a product that’s been available for some time and became quite popular after Lars Appel (HP Response Center, Germany) performed the first several ports. This product really starts bringing the PC and the HP 3000 file systems together into one interface, such as Windows Explorer, and provides the ability to run print to an HP 3000 system printer.

Java/iX, on the other hand, has a smaller following, but one that is just as fierce and loyal. It too was ported by an HP employee, Mike Yawn. Its momentum is gaining, and if a true and well-performing JDBC does emerge for MPE/iX, either from within HP or a third party, this momentum will gather steam very quickly.

I can’t speak for HP, but in my heart of hearts, I feel that CSY wants both, but resources need to be allocated to what customers want now. CSY has become more customer oriented (although there a few war stories), and CSY seems to want to provide what the customer is looking for. Believe me, if CSY had no interest in Java/iX, we would not be seeing porting interest from within CSY on HP 3000-L and other venues.

Customers who work in all-3000 shops show some reluctance to putting a Web server on their systems that host mission-critical databases. What kind of assurance can you give them that data will remain secure if they use the 3000 as an e-commerce engine?

I’ve seen this reluctance as well. There are several factors at play here, most surrounding the issue of security. First, no one wants to have their mission-critical data exposed to the Internet. No one would be foolhardy enough to have their mission-critical HP 3000 systems exposed without a firewall in place.

In addition, many IT professionals and executives are not educated on all aspects of firewall operation, and how it keeps out the “bad guys.” (No one ever accused me of being politically correct, but in the interest of fair play, this includes the ladies too).

There are many ways to solve the issue, but it all revolves around education, from the top brass all the way down to the systems engineering and programming staff. I sincerely believe that once the security issue is addressed (both in terms of data access and system breaches), more and more projects will be initiated.

There is one area where all-HP 3000 installations have a problem, and that is the fact that a Web server on their HP 3000 is now another application to handle, another application to manage and learn, and more overhead on a system which may (or may not) be strained. There are no hard and fast answers to this issue. It’s the applications served by the Web server which will determine how much more overhead will be generated.

ODBC, native JDBC, Adager’s ADBC – there’s a lot of connectivity technology coming available for 3000s. Is it enough to eliminate the need for non-3000 hosts in a network?

Thanks for the loaded question. In all seriousness, there is no ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer here. Looking at the issue subjectively, yes, there is a case to eliminate NT, Unix, NetWare and every other operating system other than MPE, and still get the job done. Looking at it objectively, as any IS professional should do, the answer is not so clear-cut.

What if, for example, the enterprise includes a DB2 database? This happens– companies acquire other companies, and at times they don’t always merge systems, or if they do, it takes awhile. What if the company is small and has one or two Windows NT servers with Internet Information Server and an HP 3000 Series 928? Given the choice for many people, IIS is easier to administer, easier to learn, integrated with mail (Exchange), ODBC (IMAGE/SQL and Allbase), MS Message Queue and Transaction Server. That’s a lot of power, which can be administered very easily.

So, do you use ODBC with IIS or another Web server via NT? Do you use Apache or the upcoming Netscape FastTrack server with CGI scripting or JDBC? A lot depends on skill set and resources.

You made the leap from MIS staff to owner of your own firm serving the 3000 community. What has the experience taught you about the value of your HP 3000 background? Did it help make you more marketable than someone with higher-profile skills in say, just NT or Unix systems?

Even though our company primarily serves the HP 3000 market, we do have disciplines in other areas, most notably all flavors of Windows and most variations of Unix. We have brought a diverse set of skills to the table because we realize that we may need to work with a variety of platforms, not just an HP 3000.

A case in point would be a client in New York state. This client used the HP 3000 for one segment of their business (legacy data), but used Windows NT Server and Microsoft SQL/Server in another segment (document handling, imaging and workflow). The objective was to merge the two into one application which permitted users to view both data and documents within the same interface. We handled this with a combination of ODBC from the desktop, ActiveX to the Imaging system, and presented the user with a “tabbed notebook” for each item being viewed. A “tree” in the left pane allowed the user to navigate between items, and the tabs allowed movement between legacy data, image index and images.

So what this has taught me, and those who work with me, is that one needs to have an open mind when it comes to designing applications, and to be creative. MIS shops today still have a lot of restrictions on how applications are developed. I like creativity (which usually comes at 2:00 to 3:00 a.m.). Sometimes I need to get really creative to solve an issue. With the example, the creativity was the simplicity. When the users saw the application for the first time, they were absolutely in awe. We didn’t have to change a thing.

What benefits do NT servers bring to 3000 sites that MPE customers would have a long wait for otherwise?

Again, I don’t subscribe to hard and fast rules that an NT server must be part of an organization’s IT infrastructure, but there are advantages in many cases.

The first, of course, is file and print sharing for PCs. Combined with Samba/iX, PCs can be backed up to one or more NT Servers. Taking that one more step, these can be backed up to the HP 3000, and included as part of the overall backup strategy.

Secondly, we always look at applications. There are some applications which are a better fit for a business, or only available on an NT platform. These two operating system environments and objects contained within them can be brought together in a single application like the imaging application I spoke of earlier.

I have to say what a lot of other people are saying, and have said for some tim – the computer is no longer just a box in a glass room. The “computer” is the Network. There is a collection of computers on a network, and we shouldn’t care whether it’s MPE/iX or NT, because they can both work together, and do what they do best.

MPE/iX has superior online transaction processing. Combine that with NT’s capabilities and an organization can have the best of both worlds. Many folks are using offline editors now like Facade and Whisper Programming Studio. These are Windows applications that are working hand-in-hand with MPE/iX, even down to the Compile and Test level. Again, it ain’t just a box anymore – it’s the network.

Will FastTrack be enough Web server for the HP 3000s? More advanced servers seem to be available for NT and Unix systems.

Netscape FastTrack is an excellent entry-level to midrange server. It’s easily managed and serves intranet and Internet Web sites very well. Netscape has more robust server software available, however, the FastTrack server software is used for the purpose HP is introducing it. The fact that this is FastTrack, the fact it’s from Netscape (even with their recent news) tells people that it’s a quality product. The fact that HP’s bundling it free of charge will get people to try it.

The one thing I have found over the years is that, other than a core group of HP 3000 professionals who like living on the “bleeding edge” to stay one to two steps ahead, the HP 3000 community are not early adopters. Client-Server applications are a perfect example. The majority of HP 3000 applications today are terminal-based applications, even with the availability of three, very good, commercially available ODBC drivers (ODBC/32 from Minisoft, Linkway from CSL, and ODBCLink/DataExpress from M. B. Foster). HP also had PCAPI, which was free, bundled with IMAGE/SQL, and a good entry point. It’s just within the last 12 to 18 months that interest has really taken off, but the technology has been available since the late 1980s, with ODBC available since the early 1990’s.

I think that after people try FastTrack, they will like it and continue to use it. It’s alternative is Apache. It too is free but not supported in the same manner as FastTrack will be. If a customer outgrows FastTrack, they can go to Apache with little effort, in most cases. That’s the beauty of the Web – the many standards in place today.

HP seems to be on the fence about supporting Java/iX. Will the language ever become important enough to build mission-critical applications without HP’s official support?

I really wish you didn’t ask this, because my answer is hated by many. Java is a wonderful start to a language that will permit cross-platform application development. I have serious reservations as to whether that objective can be completely met. Microsoft’s already released their variation to the Sun’s standard, and even Netscape has admitted that they too, introduced several variations, as has Digital. I see some fragmentation starting already, which does not bode well for the objective.

Secondly, I have a problem with any one commercial entity owning the specifications to any programming language/ application development tool. This includes, by the way, Microsoft with their Visual [fill in the blank] languages. Microsoft has taken BASIC, for example, and placed a lot of proprietary extensions into it. I would like to see Java placed under the control of an independent entity to set the standards. In this way, all players have to play by a single set of rules. I strongly feel that if this happened earlier, we would not have a Sun/Microsoft suit today.

Lastly, the language is still young and I have yet to see one mission-critical application or applet written with Java. I’ve seen a lot of applets (and craplets) which make images giggle, all the way to MiniSoft’s Javelin, which goes a long way to turning around how terminal emulators are sold and licensed. But I have yet to see one application which a company could not operate without.

The closest I saw was the port of Corel’s PerfectOffice to Java. It was touted at last November’s Java conference as a clear, mission-critical Java application. The one minor detail which was not mentioned was that Corel scrapped the project after it found it could not get the performance required out of Java that they could with C++. I call that a major “oops.”

Should HP continue its port? Absolutely! Will Java take off? Absolutely!

What are the two most common misconceptions about using ODBC middleware to access HP 3000 information?

What am I, takin’ a test here? Okay, one is performance and the second is the proprietary nature of ODBC, being a Microsoft standard.

Performance is solved in a couple of areas. First, use a workstation that can handle the amount of data being read and written. Second, the driver has a lot to do with speed. I cannot and will not get into a report card of drivers here, although I have run every single one through a test suite on the 16- and 32-bit levels, and have statistics on them; suffice it to say that some are better than others in certain instances. Lastly, and related to the driver, is the application itself. Is this application ‘read only,’ or are there writes and updates involved? How much data is involved? All of these factors go into the raw performance issue.

In addition to the application, there is network performance, and the issue of the developer. ODBC-based applications are not developed like a standard host-based COBOL program. With a client-server based application, data is physically moved over network wiring to a PC for use. If the network is not performing to par, or is not fast enough to accommodate the amount of data being sent, performance will suffer. If the application is not designed in the proper manner, performance will suffer.

On the subject of the ODBC standard, Microsoft had the foresight (just as Sun had the foresight for Java) to come up with one standard, to allow an application to use data from multiple database management systems. Database vendors jumped in and created drivers to this standard. Should it be turned over to a standards body? I would be hypocritical if I said “no.” I think ODBC and JDBC should be controlled from an independent source. This is a perception problem though. ODBC itself has been around for some time, and has gotten a lot better since its dismal inception. The idea was sound, and Microsoft came through, as did the database vendors.

Can Web technology bring applications to the HP 3000?

Absolutely, and they will come. Some vendors are already working on updates to their applications to include Web-based components.

Now, “Webbifying” an application, or even components, is not for all. For example, Web-enabling a heads-down data entry application is not a good idea. Web enabled applications are great for general browsing of data, general inquiries, and for applications which can be used from the road such as “passive order entry” by a sales rep from the prospect’s office or by a customer in their own homes.

Yes, Web applications and components will come, just a Java/iX will emerge on the scene. It will take some time, but the projects are already underway.

Joe Geiser

Senior partner

CSI Business

Copyright 1998 The 3000 NewsWire. All rights reserved