NewsWire TestDrive:

FrontMan: Much More than a Pretty Face

Test Drive Road Report

MiniSoft, Inc.
312 Maple Avenue
Snohomish, WA 98290

Fax: 360.568.2923

Creates new GUI-enabled client-server applications for your HP 3000 that natively access IMAGE databases, KSAM, and MPE files. Also, migrates terminal/host VPlus applications to client-server (with a Windows-based GUI user interface), usually without having to change the underlying HP 3000 code.

A development license for FrontMan/MiddleMan is priced from $2,995 to $9,995 and includes a 5-user (concurrent) runtime license. Additional runtime licenses are $995 for a five-pack, with the per-seat cost decreasing as the number of runtime licenses increases. An evaluation copy is available at no charge.

Review by John Burke

FrontMan, from MiniSoft of Snohomish, Washington, can create GUI-enabled client-server applications for your HP 3000s that natively access IMAGE databases, KSAM, and MPE files. Perhaps more importantly, it can also migrate legacy terminal/host VPlus applications to client-server (with a Windows-based GUI version of the original VPlus screens as the user interface), usually without requiring changes to the underlying code on the HP 3000. (Important note: FrontMan is much more than just a screen scraper for VPlus.)

MiniSoft is well-known in the HP 3000 community for its terminal emulators (MS92 for DOS and Win92 for Windows) and network printing solution NP92. Perhaps less well-known, but certainly gaining converts, are the relatively new products based on MiniSoft's comprehensive middleware product MiddleMan. These include SCOUT, a client-server report writer and data extraction tool; SCOPE, a report viewer and distribution system; and, now FrontMan.

I hate the term "legacy system." "Despise" might more accurately reflect my feelings toward the term since it is so often used in derision; since MiniSoft uses it in their marketing, I have used it above. I prefer to think of systems that have been used and developed over many years and perform their intended functions ably as the "baby" in "Don't throw out the baby with the bath water." Organizations have tremendous investments in these babies; plus these babies often have embedded in them the very business rules that really define the organization.

To throw these applications out because someone decides you need to be more modern and "do client-server" is to throw away "the baby with the bath water." FrontMan enables you to build upon existing systems, changing the presentation and functioning without changing the proven core functions. Since this is so obviously superior to replacing systems that already work, you can imagine my interest in FrontMan.

System requirements
While FrontMan can be used alone to develop applications based upon PC databases or RDMSs on your network, but if you want to use FrontMan to access databases/files on an HP 3000 host (which you probably do if you are reading the NewsWire) then you must also have MiddleMan -- the host portion of FrontMan -- on your HP 3000. MiddleMan can also be acquired as a stand-alone product for developing client-server applications using a variety of Windows-based tools, including Visual Basic, Visual C, Excel and any other tools that support DDE or OLE objects. Because of the focus of the NewsWire, I am going to concentrate only on that part of FrontMan, which when combined with MiddleMan, will create new client-server applications for the HP 3000 or will enable you to migrate existing VPlus applications to client-server.

MiddleMan requires that the HP 3000 host run MPE/iX 4.0 or later, have a hardware interface to your LAN and run ThinLAN Link/iX (bundled with MPE/iX 5.0). For development purposes, FrontMan requires at least a 386 PC with a LAN interface card and at least 4Mb of RAM running DOS 3.1 or later, Windows 3.1, 3.11, Win95 or NT, and that you have a WinSock-compliant TCP/IP stack (the run-time version requirements are less). If you are already doing terminal emulation from a Windows environment across a LAN to an HP 3000, then you should have everything you need to use FrontMan/MiddleMan.

Installation of the host software is straightforward, although it requires you to issue a sequence of NEWACCT (or ALTACCT), NEWGROUP and ALTGROUP commands by hand -- a procedure that can easily lead to errors that are difficult to track down and correct. [Memo to all software vendors: please include installation STREAM jobs with your software.]

Installation of the PC software (both the FrontMan modules and the client portion of MiddleMan) uses the standard Windows-setup approach and went without a hitch, although you do end up with a rather dizzying number of icons in the MiniSoft program group.

Test Experience
With FrontMan, you create application front-ends; i.e. the GUI client. The fastest way is to use FrontMan's wizards. First, FrontMan extracts structural information about your database(s) (tables, datasets, fields, indexes, etc.). Then FrontMan guides you through specifying the tables or sets, fields and relationships (joins, etc. for RDBMS tables and links for IMAGE datasets). Finally, you can have a FrontMan wizard automatically generate a screen, which you can of course customize. The customizing can be as simple as dragging fields and labels with your mouse to different positions or as complex as creating scripts using FrontMan's powerful scripting language to control actions.

It is an impressive sight to specify an IMAGE database and see the structure graphically displayed on your monitor. Once I got past the initial learning curve, I was able to develop a simple client-server transaction application with GUI front-end that spanned two datasets of one of my IMAGE databases in under an hour.

To create a client front-end for a VPlus application, you start by downloading a formsfile listing created by FORMSPEC.PUB.SYS to your PC, which you then import into FrontMan. The formsfile listing is processed by FrontMan to identify all the fields, translate processing specifications, define the function key labels, and create the front-end client. Finally, you create what MiniSoft calls a launcher form to run a script (which you will have to modify slightly for each application) that launches the application and accesses the VPlus interface.

On the host side, the application has to be prepared so that VPlus intrinsic calls are made against the FrontMan XL (XLX.MM.MINISOFT). The recommended way to do this is with the ALTPROG command of LINKEDIT. In many cases, that is it. Fire up the server job on the HP 3000, fire up the FrontMan runtime module on the PC and away you go.

User Experience
Many companies are making plans to use FrontMan/Middleman to migrate classic applications such as MANMAN to client-server (something that MANMAN's manufacturer, Computer Associates, appears to have no plans to do). One such company is Quantum Software of Houston Texas (713.894.2145). Quantum provides consulting and bolt-on tools for MANMAN. According to Ali Saadat of Quantum, they are using MiddleMan to convert their tools to client-server and the FrontMan/MiddleMan combination to convert MANMAN's transaction processing modules, which use VPlus, to client-server using FrontMan front-ends derived directly from the VPlus formfiles. Saadat is particularly impressed by the ease and speed with which you can prototype applications and by the ease and speed with which you can migrate existing VPlus applications to client-server.

The weak point in the FrontMan/MiddleMan package is the documentation and HELP system. MiniSoft needs to add non-trivial tutorials for each of "Creating an Application with a PC Database," "Creating a Front-end for an Image Database," and "Creating a VPlus Client Front-end." This would save a lot of frustration at the product evaluation phase, a time when you are trying to decide if FrontMan will work for you. FrontMan is not an end-user tool. You need familiarity with your database environment, whether RDBMS or IMAGE, and certainly reasonable programming skills if you plan to create VPlus client front-ends. Even still, the learning curve for FrontMan is fairly steep, in large part because of its versatility and breadth of function. I would recommend that if you make a commitment to using FrontMan, you attend one of MiniSoft's classes.

Future directions
Version 2.0 of FrontMan should be in production release by the time you read this (I evaluated version 1.23). In addition to general enhancements, particularly to security, Version 2.0 adds IMAGE and VPlus support to the Web. This is exciting, particularly for anyone contemplating an Intranet, and wanting to interface with existing applications.

Since I was not able to test this, I'll paraphrase from the description I was given: Just as FrontMan now has a Visual Basic converter that takes applications from the FrontMan development environment and exports them to Visual Basic, a new converter with version 2.0 creates HTML from front-ends. These FrontMan HTML Web Pages will allow you to run your existing HP 3000 IMAGE and VPlus applications using Internet or Intranet links. Any FrontMan application can be converted to HTML code, producing one or more Web pages. With FrontMan's Active-X controls, your existing applications can be run from a browser (current support only for Microsoft's Internet Explorer with support for Java and Netscape Navigator planned) accessing existing IMAGE databases, KSAM files and MPE files.

This capability will be demonstrated at HP World. However, if you miss the demo at HP World, you can still see it on the video tape of the non-broadcast July TCU "An HP 3000 Client/Server Update."(For more information on this see the July HP 3000 Advisor or point your browser to

FrontMan is a fascinating product well worth considering both as a Rapid Application Development environment for client/sever and as a means for migrating existing VPlus and IMAGE applications to client-server in a timely, cost-effective and evolutionary manner. Be aware that evaluating FrontMan/MiddleMan takes more than an afternoon. In fact, you should probably commit several days to a week for the evaluation process -- not because the product is inherently difficult to use, but because it is so feature rich. For example, I have not discussed the automated interface between FrontMan front-ends and Visual Basic. The possibilities for FrontMan are limited primarily by your imagination.

There are screen scrapers for VPlus and at least one other product for VPlus applications that functions in a manner similar to FrontMan. There are also several middleware products that give you direct access to IMAGE databases (without having to go through IMAGE/SQL), KSAM and MPE files. What FrontMan/MiddleMan gives you is a complete, integrated system for both the development of new client/sever applications for the HP 3000 and for the migration of classic VPlus terminal/host HP 3000 applications to client-server.

John Burke is a longtime HP 3000 columnist and contributing editor to the 3000 NewsWire, editing our net.digest column. John has 18 years experience on the HP 3000, works as systems manager for Construction Computer Center, and can be reached at

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