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A HostBridge Case Study


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XML-Enabling a Customer Service Application

Hawaiian Electric Company


Hawaiian Electric Company is the electric utility serving five of the six major islands in the state of Hawaii, and has over 400,000 customers. ACCESS is the customer service application on which the organization relies for trouble reporting, meter reading, field service and billing. “ACCESS is our most critical application,” states Roger Angell, director of Development Services at Hawaiian Electric. “It’s a CICS application that has been around for over ten years and has been highly customized. We expect it to remain in service for several more years. In the meantime we had to web-enable it and link it to both other internal applications and to external service providers.”

Hawaiian Electric has implemented HostBridge™ to link its customer service system (ACCESS), a CICS-based application, with its e-business environment, which runs under Vignette. HostBridge causes the ACCESS CICS transactions to output XML documents instead of 3270 screens, providing a simple, standards-based integration path to Vignette that did not necessitate changing ACCESS. On the web front, Hawaiian Electric is a Microsoft ASP shop, comfortable with JavaScript and Visual Basic.

Challenge

Hawaiian Electric Company initially wanted to enable customers to enter start and stop service requests and billing address changes from the Internet, 24x7. “For example, a mainland visitor who owns a condominium in Waikiki might submit a connect request in advance of coming here for the winter,” said Angell. “We wanted our web site - which has been in operation since 1994 - to become an additional channel through which customers could interact with us and our customer service representatives.” The application requirement expanded to also permit customers to view their bills, payment history, and other account-related information. CheckFree handles Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment separately. However, the Hawaiian Electric site performs customer validation by querying the ACCESS information for that customer.

Technical Requirements

Customer validation and data retrieval required multiple CICS transactions, particularly in the case of commercial customers, who often have multiple accounts and service locations. Response time had to remain at an acceptable level regardless of the number of CICS transactions required to retrieve the data.

Additionally, the internal design of ACCESS, which utilizes a common control transaction that transfers control within CICS to the appropriate program and a generalized communications area, precluded use of some other products and techniques.

Finally, the customer needed a different interface from that of the customer service representatives. Therefore, the application had to do much more than simply put a GUI face on a green screen.

Solution

The first attempt at creating the web interface used a screen-scraping product and SNA on the middle-tier to handle communications with the mainframe. Its poor performance and the additional layers of code severely constrained the functionality and reliability.

Hawaiian Electric Company had investigated middleware but found it to be overkill for their requirements. The high initial and ongoing costs, high learning curve, and product complexity were also daunting. Moreover, the products are still evolving as vendors try to increase market share, which would have worked against the stability that Hawaiian Electric wanted for its web site.

Judith Suzuki, Systems Programmer and Project Manager, had previously suggested using IBM’s 3270 Bridge feature, but the complexity in coding application interfaces made it undesirable for use in the object-oriented web developer environment. Then Suzuki learned about HostBridge, and liked the approach. “It handles the tedious work that the 3270 Bridge requires, reducing the development and maintenance effort. Writing directly to the 3270 bridge required COBOL/CICS programming which was more complex than using the HostBridge XML interface.”

“Microsoft provides an object to parse XML,” says Grant Yoshimori, Senior Systems Analyst. “Using that object, I could create a custom COM+ object for the programmers to use, which returned the ACCESS data they needed, and they could retrieve the fields without knowing anything about CICS or XML. This made it look pretty simple. Judith and I got a prototype running fairly quickly, and since then I’ve developed a primer for the staff with sample code. They can readily adapt it to use with other screens or applications once I write a new object for them, and even that’s pretty simple,” he continued.

“We have three major mainframe applications, each utilizing a different technique for doing screen I/O. Two are compatible with HostBridge, and we’re working with them now to support the third, which uses Terminal Services rather than Basic Mapping. They’ve been very supportive, responsive, and generally great to work with,” said Suzuki. “We’re currently planning Internet and Intranet interfaces to the other applications; this will allow us to replace many batch programs by real-time interfaces.”

Figure 1

Figure 1. HECO eService application architecture

Benefits

HostBridge eliminated the need for SNA software running on the middle-tier, which greatly improved reliability and response time of the CICS transaction requests from the web applications. Web developers did not need to know COBOL or CICS in order to develop web applications. The web developers also found HostBridge easier to learn than application interface software (middleware), so it was faster and cheaper to develop the web applications. The increased application performance and improved employee productivity made HostBridge a compelling solution for Hawaiian Electric Company’s integration needs.

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