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iSeries Access Family -- A good product you may not need

The Value Manager looks at the choices for accessing iSeries apps and data from Windows clients and the Web. As you might suspect, iSeries Access isn't always the best option.

Let's start with some facts. Most customers own iSeries Access. I know of only a few who swear at it regularly. It's not a bad product at this point in its history (although the old Client Access had real quality problems in the past). It also has grown quite a bit with new functions IBM has added in recent releases.

Today, iSeries Access Family (5722-XW1) offers a lot of middleware tools under one umbrella:
 

  • iSeries Access for Windows, including iSeries Navigator
  • iSeries Access for the Web
  • WebSphere Host Publisher
  • HATS Limited Edition
  • ISeries Access for Wireless

In addition, this month IBM started shipping Net.Data as part of the iSeries Access Family.

That's actually a lot of software function when you examine each individual package and add it all up. As someone once said when referring to the iSeries Enterprise Software package: "I needed a bicycle, and they wanted to sell me a Cadillac."

Our situation: Should we spend the money for iSeries Access?

For our 270, we looked at the iSeries Access Family pricing. It WASN'T cheap. The list price was $11,000 for our P-10 processor group. There was also a special bundle deal that WAS a lot more attractive. Other software AND iSeries Access for ONLY $7,500 --a much more reasonable deal. We didn't need any of the other software with one exception: Query/400. By itself, Query/400 was $1,600. The question was: Do we spend the extra $6,000 for this other software?

We have had very good experience with some software alternatives to the iSeries Access components: WebFacing, secure Telnet and the Mochasoft 5250 emulators.

We decided to ask our business partner for some help to look at our options. They had worked with some of the packages in the iSeries Family we hadn't (Net.Data, Host Publisher, HATS), and they knew other solutions that provided equivalent function. In addition to providing the simple commands to "get" and "put" DB2 data to ASCII-delimited files for PC use in spreadsheets, etc., our partner trained us for a day on the Web tools in IBM's WDSC (WebSphere Development Studio Client -- part of 5722-WDS). We used it to build some simple Web queries, quickly searching and selecting DB2 data, and we deployed our applications to the Web using a Tomcat server easily.

But before we could decide whether iSeries Access was for us, we needed to take a closer look at all the software included and determine whether all that stuff was necessary.

Comparing iSeries Access to some other options

Product Product capability Alternative tools
iSeries Access for Windows, including iSeries Navigator
  5250 emulation for Windows clients Free or shareware 5250 clients (Mochasoft www.mochasoft.dk was a very affordable alternative)
  iSeries data transfer to Windows Our business partner gave us some "crude" commands that send or receive ASCII text files between spreadsheets and our iSeries database, using the CPYTOSTMF, CPYFRMSTMF commands under the covers. It wasn't as good as the other data transfer tools on the market, but it's OK for now.
  iSeries print support for Windows clients IBM Netserver is part of OS/400 for the same service (STRTCPSVR *NETSVR)
  iSeries IFS access IBM Netserver is part of OS/400 for the same service (STRTCPSVR *NETSVR)
  iSeries Navigator For the services WE need, the existing green commands work fine. We don't own the software many of Navigator's plug-ins are designed for.
 
iSeries Access for the Web    
  5250 emulation for Web browsers We've run secure Telnet to remote clients over the Web using built-in OS/400 support. It isn't as pretty, but it works well for us.
  Remote printer support for iSeries printers Our options weren't as good here. We DO transfer spool files with CPYSPLF and the data transfer commands above.

Our partner said they'd setup FOP (from www.apache.org) and link it to output from CPYSPLF to generate spool files on the PC, but that's too much to spend (at least now).
  SQL access from a browser We built a very simple set of SQL Web queries in Java using IBM WDSC's Web database pages wizard. These simple applications run in Tomcat or WebSphere Express fine. (WDSC is part of WebSphere Development Studio 5722-WDS.)
  IFS file access We have only a few "power" users that access IFS for anything. They use a free GUI FTP client to do that.
 
WebSphere Host Publisher    
  Can create applications that send and receive 5250 screens to a Web browser. Requires WebSphere to be installed. You have to build the applications for Host publisher. We found the WebFacing tool to be much easier to generate 5250 applications for the Web, and it DOESN'T require runtime license software. We run our WebFacing applications with Tomcat. The WebFacing tool is part of WebSphere Development Studio (5722-WDS). That is NOT free, but we got it as a no-charge upgrade from our RPG compiler. WebFacing is a definite winner here.
 
HATS Limited edition    
  Converts 5250 screens to a Web browser interface on the fly using basic templates. WebFacing works for DDS 5250 and menu screens (our applications). Secure Telnet works for system screens used by programmers and administrators. No need for this "lightweight" version of HATS. It's an "iSeries only" subset of the real HATS product.
 
iSeries Access for Wireless    
  A good set of functions for wireless access. We definitely like the idea of managing our iSeries while sitting at the beach! We found Mochasoft offers two emulators that can handle wireless. There's a Telnet emulator for an Ericsson cell phone! We haven't used it, but we DID try the 5250 emulator for Windows CE on an HP Jornada 720 and that worked very well. It provides full 5250 access (not a special subset for wireless) WITH a REAL keyboard. Adding an Air Card, we can spend all day at the beach. Who knew?
 
Net.Data    
  An old CGI scripting engine IBM developed. It allows you to create a script that can build simple input and output Web pages accessing DB2 data. We use the database Web pages wizards in WDSC to generate Web applications that access DB2 data. It's much quicker to build and takes only minutes to learn.

Our partner has used Net.Data and was surprised IBM still pushes it when PERL and PHP CGI scripting engines are available on the iSeries. Those are the free, industry standard engines for those that want to use a scripting engine.

IBM left out OUR Web-to-host option

We found a strange page on the IBM iSeries Web site defining Web-to-host options for iSeries customers: http://www-1.ibm.com/servers/eserver/iseries/access/web/web_to_host_comparisons.html

It offers Web-to-host comparisons for different IBM software products on the iSeries. Oddly, they left out the one we use the most -- secure Telnet. Maybe it's because it doesn't cost anything. It's part of TCP (5722-TC1). For developers and administrators, Telnet works great. IBM's WDSC RSE module (Remote Systems Explorer) also delivers a GUI view for developers (somewhat similar but not as rich as Operations Navigator).

The bottom line: We passed on iSeries Access

We liked our net savings of $6,000 more than our options with iSeries Access. In a number of areas, we agree that iSeries Access had better function or support than our options. At the same time, we were actually happier with some of our other options, particularly WebFacing, IBM WDSC's Web development tools (very easy to learn and use) and the Mochasoft 5250 emulators for Telnet access.

While we didn't find iSeries Access was the best answer for our needs, it's clear many customers will find a lot to like about it. If money weren't an issue, we probably would have picked it up for some of the functions our alternatives were weaker in.

It's clear IBM focuses heavily on promoting anything related to WebSphere on the iSeries site. iSeries Access also has modules that require WebSphere, and it has hefty price tag so it gets a lot of IBM focus, too. By comparison, information on PHP, Perl, Telnet, etc. wasn't as easy to find, but it's there if you look.

Note on pricing: Prices quoted here are only estimates for what we would pay in our situation. Unfortunately pricing with IBM ISN'T simple. For accurate pricing for your situation, you need to contact an IBM business partner who can quote you specific prices.

What are the right options for you? What's your situation and what makes sense for you? We'd ESPECIALLY like to hear from you if you have gone farther than we have in making either iSeries Access or an alternative work for you. Write me at thevaluemgr@yahoo.com.

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About the author: The Value Manager is an IBM iSeries IT manager trying to make the right decisions to deliver better value for his company. He welcomes your comments and feedback. E-mail him at valuemgr@yahoo.com.

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Other columns by The Value Manager
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