Hands-on: Chorus makes mainframes manageable

CA's new browser-based user interface gives the 3270 terminal a 21st-century look

Remember the mainframe "green screen" 3270 terminals used by so many companies? Well, they haven't gone away.

Tim Grieser, program vice president at IDC, is of the opinion that the number of currently used mainframe applications that rely on 3270-style interfaces is substantial. "These applications are often core business operations," he adds. However, fewer and fewer workers today have the mainframe-oriented skills and expertise that enterprises need.

"IT organizations with mainframe-based applications frequently identify staff skills issues -- finding or retaining mainframe staff -- as one of the top concerns around continued support of the mainframe," Grieser says. "Traditional mainframe user interfaces -- especially ISPF and TSO on 'green screens' -- are one of the areas that require specialized knowledge and skills which are in short supply."

To help alleviate the shortage of mainframe skills within enterprises, CA Technologies has designed a new mainframe user interface which, according to the company, will make both novices and pros more productive. Called CA Mainframe Chorus, it replaces 3270 "green screen" terminal access with an artificially intelligent graphical HTML-based interface accessible from almost any device capable of running a Web browser.

Historically, attempts to replace the 3270 interface have been less than successful. The first such approach was screen scraping, in which a PC stored a 3270 screen in memory, picked up data from that memory image and displayed the data in a manner different from how a 3270 terminal would display it. For instance, a screen-scraping program might re-interpret codes and abbreviations on a screen to present the data in a less cryptic form, or might pick up specific data from the screen contents and forward the selected data to another application.

There have been other approaches, too, each with its technical challenges or high costs, including applying Services Oriented Architecture (SOA) techniques and middleware to make mainframe applications more Web-friendly. Companies such as Micro Focus, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft sell services and products geared to translate mainframe applications into software that runs on other platforms, or provide access to mainframe software from these other platforms.

In 2002, IBM introduced WebSphere Host Access Transformation Services (since rebranded Rational Host Access Transformation Services (HATS)), a sophisticated 3270-to-HTML translator. HATS lets programmers add drop-down list boxes and other HTML data entry mechanisms to a 3270 screen. Other mainframe application vendors such as SAP have offered snazzy Windows-based interfaces to replace 3270 access to their applications, but these interfaces work just with those specific applications.

A paradigm shift

Enter CA Mainframe Chorus. A mix of mainframe Java and C code, Chorus provides what CA terms "role-based workspaces." In these workspaces, Chorus can vary its content (e.g., verbose or terse) to suit the user's experience level, adjust the organization and presentation of data to suit the task at hand and provide context-sensitive access to both help files and collaborative data.

Chorus
Searching for DB2 objects and visualizing the relationships among those objects in the code from a 3270 terminal can be difficult.
Chorus
The CA Mainframe Chorus for DB2 Database Management browser window provides image-based depictions of object dependency searches.

It can also personalize the display of content, the organization of the content and the level of assistance. Chorus is aware of task dependencies and will, for instance, automatically open additional workspaces to ensure the user completes all the steps associated with a task.

Chorus runs on the mainframe, alongside the application it supports. You can visualize Chorus as an overlay on top of the target application. It interacts directly with the mainframe application to both control the application and obtain status information. It then presents the data in a flexible browser-based interface using JavaScript and, occasionally, Java applets. The result is a dynamic point-and-click visual environment.

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