Thousands of LTV employees use ordinary e-mail to access mainframe, midrange and LAN databases. Here’s how the IS staff set it up.
So you’re looking for a practical way to get users to regularly tap into the mountain of information stored on your company’s computers. You could try making your legacy applications more accessible by undertaking a major–and expensive–overhaul of the outdated user interfaces involved. Or then again, you could leave that for another day and explore some simple extensions to the one application everyone already knows and uses anyway–electronic mail. Welcome to the promising new world of mail-enabled applications.
The concept behind mail-enabled software is really pretty simple. Although e-mail was originally intended for sending messages back and forth between people, it turns out to be a perfectly good mechanism for communicating with computers, too.
A mail-enabled application is one that either triggers or is triggered by an e-mail message. When an application is triggered by an e-mail message, the application executes and returns the results to the person’s mailbox, which is often more convenient than accessing the information interactively through complicated screens. When an application triggers an e-mail message, it uses e-mail for the delivery of information.
Take a mainframe-based report generator that formerly could be queried only by users familiar with the time-sharing option (TSO) and comfortable using a command-line interface. Once mail-enabled, this old program can be accessed much more easily by users who simply query it from their electronic mail system. Answers are returned the same way: in an e-mail message automatically sent by the application. And, best of all, many existing mainframe, mini or LAN-based applications can be e-mail enhanced through the implementation of some fairly basic programming techniques.
The LTV Aerospace and Defense Co. in Dallas has found that e-mail-enabled applications can be modern-day wizards–in fact, “wizard” is the name the company has given those applications. Despite having a wealth of information on line for its 14,000 employees, LTV noted that much of it goes untapped because it is so cumbersome for users to access. Information is scattered across different computer platforms, and users must learn to traverse a myriad of systems, user interfaces and applications to get to it.
But e-mail has proved to be extremely popular and almost universally understood. With mail-enabled software now practical at LTV, the e-mail front end can finally be used with existing applications, and 4,000 regular e-mail users have a whole new way to tap company information.
Based on LTV’s experience, here are a couple of examples of accessing information from mainframe-based systems. The same principles apply to pulling information from local area network servers and midrange systems.
Let’s say a user wants to search the company directives (policies and procedures) database for the current mileage allowance for local travel. There once were only two choices–search through several binders filled with paper copies of the directives; or electronically query the IBM 3090-600E mainframe on-line directives database.
Now there’s another choice. Users just ask LTV’s e-mail wizard to find the directive for them. The wizard lets any e-mail user query the on-line directives application instead of logging onto the interactive application and querying the database.
In effect, the e-mail wizard performs the query on the user’s behalf. It can do so using any of the three in-house e-mail systems installed at LTV: cc:Mail from Cambridge, Mass.-based Lotus Development Corp.; Emc2/TAO from Fischer International Systems Corp. of Naples, Fla.; and All-In-1 from Digital Equipment Corp. of Maynard, Mass. Soft-Switch Central from Wayne, Pa.-based Soft-Switch Inc. is used to integrate the three systems.
To use the services of the e-mail wizard, a user simply mails a query to the e-mail address of the mail-enabled application–for example, “directives.e-mail.” In the body of the e-mail message the user types:
keyword = mileage allowance
The user receives a reply from the e-mail wizard containing a list of all directives containing the words “mileage allowance.” The list shows directive number, issue date, subject and so on. Another e-mail query is sent requesting the specific directive by number. This returns an e-mail message with the text of the directive. Another popular use of the LTV e-mail wizard is to query an on-line organization system called ORGLIST, which retrieves information on LTV organizational units. ORGLIST shows such information as the employees in a unit, the name of the manager and the name of the next higher level manager. From this list, an e-mail query typically would be sent requesting the desired item by number, using the following query:
unit = B63520
Similar e-mail-enabled front ends have been added to other LTV applications.
Many types of mail-enabled applications are possible. E-mail messaging may take place between people, between a person and an application, or between applications. The directives and ORGLIST examples are typical of person/application messaging.
LTV also has e-mail-enabled applications that use application/person and application/application messaging. Two examples of application/person are the LTV-developed computer education on-line enrollment system (COED) and the DASD Management mainframe disk storage management system. These systems create and send e-mail messages reminding users, for example, to reduce disk storage space or to attend an upcoming computer education class.
An example of application/application messaging is the LTV e-mail directory synchronization system. The central Soft-Switch Names Directory is updated daily from an IMS-based employee information system and from e-mail address changes e-mailed in from the component mail systems (cc:Mail, All-In-1 and Emc2/TAO). After the central directory is updated, the changes are automatically e-mailed to the component mail systems to update their directories. What was most important, however, was for the data on the hard drives to be absolutely safe. Proper hard drive crash recovery was of course one of the most important points for the systems, as obviously on the fly hard drive repair would have been impossible. Yes, there were some advantages to having a solid backup system in place so that a data recovery service could easily recover hard drive data, but safeguards were clearly key here.
The advantages are straightforward enough. With a mail-enabled application, users don’t have to log on to the system where the application resides. LTV, for example, uses a textual database management system called Inquire/Text from Infodata Systems Inc. in Falls Church, Va., to provide an on-line keyword search capacity for its directives system. Since Inquire runs under timesharing (TSO) on the IBM mainframe computer, the on-line user must log onto TSO, access the directives application, then navigate through the application to retrieve a directive.
Although the on-line system has many advantages over the paper-based directives system, some users find it complex and time-consuming. To use Inquire from e-mail, the user only needs to address a query to the mailbox of the e-mail-enabled directives application–our old friend the wizard.
Another advantage is that e-mail provides a familiar user interface. In the directives example, on-line users have to learn both the TSO and Inquire interfaces. If they know how to use e-mail and can follow a few simple rules of syntax to construct their queries, they can use the Inquire system via e-mail.
A final advantage of e-mail-enabled applications is that they return information to a user’s e-mail in-basket, where it can be viewed, filed, forwarded or printed. Most on-line systems permit users only to view or print their responses.
There are potential problems, of course. LTV soon found that returning the full text of 10 or 15 directives overloads the e-mail system. The solution: it established a default where the full text is supplied only in requests for individual directive numbers. All other requests yield a list of directives. Users may override these defaults, however.
LTV found that some users didn’t appreciate getting a list back with only one member in it and having to send another query to get the text. The system has been modified so that if there is only one member in the list, the full text is sent instead of a list.
On-line applications usually have help screens to help users navigate through them. Although it takes some work to implement, mail-enabled applications ought to be equipped with help screens, too.
IS managers who usually distribute access costs (for example, TSO charges) back to specific users or business contracts may face another minor hurdle. The e-mail-enabled approach can circumvent such chargeback methods. One solution is to include in the body of the e-mail query the organizational unit or contract number to be charged. The application can then be modified to extract the number from the query to produce the chargeback record.
To ensure ease of use, designers of mail-enabled applications should establish some basic standards across applications, such as for the syntax of queries. For example, LTV puts the word “find” on a line by itself, uses “=” to separate parameters and values, allows no embedded blanks (except in value fields) and allows either upper-or lower-case letters to be used in queries.
Each application should be listed in e-mail directories for easy access. Grouping them together in the directories–say, by giving them the same last name, such as “e-mail”–constantly reminds users of all mail-enabled applications, including any new ones.
E-mail users must be notified that the e-mail-enabled applications are available and how to use them. They should understand the store-and-forward nature of e-mail systems and that it will take a few minutes to get their replies. The LTV Central Information Technology department keeps its users informed through its “Systems Illustrated” newsletters and computer education classes.