Client-Server Has Newfound Role in Today's E-World

Client-Server Has Newfound Role in Today's E-World<@VM>Tying It All Together<@VM>The New Paradigm<@VM>Making the Most of Old and New

By Heather Hayes

In all the recent hoopla surrounding e-business and Y2K, client-server ? that white-hot technology of the early 1990s ? seems to have been forgotten.

Does this mean this once-innovative network architecture is dead? Hardly. With more than 90 percent of organizations invested to some degree or another in the technology, industry experts expect client-server to be around and functioning for some time to come.

But client-server as it once existed, intelligent desktops and local back-end processing, is evolving quickly to meet the requirements of the new e-business paradigm. And that spells thinner and thinner clients, increased integration and the use of middleware, and the need to work with a burgeoning business service offering known as the application service provider (ASP), whereby organizations "rent" applications by accessing remote servers with local clients.

"It's definitely not being forsaken or abandoned," said John Levey, president and CEO of Macro 4 Inc., a global developer of systems software solutions. "It's just that as we look forward into the market, it's a much more compelling argument to sell a less expensive, less complex architecture."

Indeed, client-server, for all of its appeal, has long posed problems of cost, scalability and performance for organizations, as well as a need to maintain a huge in-house IT staff to deploy, manage and maintain a slew of client applications. Marrying the old client-server paradigm with the new Web-enabled e-business and ASP models promises to solve many of those issues.

For organizations that have invested heavily in client-server architectures, the good news is that all of the new technology works in tandem with the old. In fact, some observers view this new millennium model as simply a more robust, more refined version of client-server. For if one defines client-server broadly, the server is simply where the data and sometimes the application resides, and the client is the tool that accesses it.

The future will involve a browser residing on a less complex appliance, which could be a PC, a personal digital assistant, a cell phone or even a television set accessing data from multitiered servers, which could be anything from a local mainframe to a remote NT workstation.

No matter the environment, the key is the use of browser as client. "It's a platform that's pretty low cost in terms of its manageability and for organizations that want to launch new applications quickly, it allows that speed to market that is critical in today's environment," said Aubrey Chernick, chairman of Candle Corp., Santa Monica, Calif.

"Instead of going out and actually installing new applications on each and every desktop, organizations now can Web-enable an application and put it on a server, and internal users, partners and customers can all use it on the same day," he said. "So you've got tremendous business acceleration because of the compression of the deployment cycle." Of course, bringing old client-server technology into the new e-business world will not happen magically. The biggest task facing organizations today is integrating their environments in such a way that all of the technology investments that have been made in the past can be used to the fullest extent in a state-of-the-art, Web-based world.

As such, today's software vendors are faced with a dual challenge: how to continually produce new and exciting technology while working within existing environments. But that dilemma will mean ever-greater opportunities for systems integrators.

"There's always been an integration issue with client-server, but now it's just that much more pronounced," stated Ali Jenab, president of the technology division at Amdahl Corp., a systems integrator in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Where the integration challenge before might have been simply tying together different flavors of Unix, now you have those same flavors of Unix, but you also have the mainframe data that you need to access. On top of that, you have NT and Linux servers and Web browsers."

Levey agreed, noting that in the aftermath of the Y2K scare, organizations now have a pent-up demand for this kind of enterprisewide integration.

"There's an awful lot of data that is available to decision-makers within an organization. The question is: How do you best collate that data and organize it in a way that they can make informed and quick decisions on the state and health of their business?"

To help organizations do this in a more automated way, a new tool called enterprise application integration (EAI) has been developed. This broad-based set of technologies includes middleware, message brokers, component-based computing, business process modeling tools and work-flow software. It allows applications within disparate systems to talk easily with each other without the need for custom-built communication links.

"EAI is going to be critical to tying the Web with client-server, especially as organizations broaden their application base and set up e-commerce scenarios," said Lance Travis, vice president and service director for e-business infrastructure at AMR Research, a Boston-based industry and market analysis firm.

"Ideally, when an order comes in off the Web site, you want that to be automatically entered into your back-end enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, or if you've invested in a customer relationship management system, you want to be able to share that information with your ERP system. EAI will allow you to do that."

Candle Corp., which is marketing an EAI product known as Roma, has led the way in this relatively new market, but a product alone is not enough to do the job properly in today's e-business model, said some observers. It needs to be coupled with management consulting.

"It's very important to look at what hooking up a browser to your process is going to do to the entire business process, from customer relations to just-in-time inventory, because hooking up that front end impacts the entire way you do business," said Jenab, who added that a newly launched enterprise integration practice within Amdahl is designed to do just that.

Aubrey Chernick

The complexity and cost of managing a broad base of ever-more complex applications within both the client-server and browser-server paradigms, however, is spurring a whole new way of doing business, one that industry analysts expect to dominate the market within due course.

The ASP is an external service provider that deploys, hosts, manages and enhances business-process enabling applications over a network via a subscription-based outsourcing contract, including e-commerce, financial software, customer relationship management systems, video editing, security monitoring, data storage and other complex and resource-intensive packages, as well as customized internal applications.

Unlike a traditional hardware outsourcing arrangement (and more in keeping with the newer seat management model), the ASP actually owns the application and the server, and performs whatever customization and configuration is required; the customer leases time on the application, according to a variable arrangement, which could be to pay per hit, per user or per time interval, or on a flat-fee basis.

The ASP model also differs from client-server in that a client accesses a remote server with, usually, no local processing, though if required the ASP actually can act as a participant on the client-server network.

Several industry research firms see this market as a model for the future, predicting it will grow phenomenally in the next few years. The market, which took in just $889 million in 1998, will increase to $22.7 billion worldwide by 2003, according to Dataquest, a market research firm in San Jose, Calif. Forrester Research, a market analysis firm in Cambridge, Mass., figures the market to top $20 billion by the end of 2001.

A number of trends are driving this market, including the explosive growth of the Internet and e-business; the emergence of broadband network access, which makes it easier to communicate remotely with storage and processing facilities; and the growing disparity between the demand and supply for high-quality IT workers.

"It's always cheaper to aggregate a lot of resources when multiple customers time-share them," said Michael Samoilov, president and CEO of Javu Technologies Inc., an ASP that offers multimedia production and video editing services over the Web. "There's also the issue of security and convenience, which are both found in more abundance in a centralized repository than in a distributed environment."

What's more, said Amit Yoran, CEO of RipTech, an Alexandria, Va., ASP specializing in security monitoring, the ASP model can work in tandem with client-server technologies even while avoiding the higher cost of ownership associated with the older model, and can involve the delivery of a much higher quality of services.

"Because an ASP is so specialized, they can be more effective than an in-house staff," he said. "In our case, we are focused 100 percent on maintaining the very latest knowledge in the security field. Not only does that mean that we can be more effective, but we think it results in lower costs."

For all of its promise, though, the ASP market still has issues to face. Network latency and customer response times, especially as more and more users access high-bandwidth applications over the Web, remain problematic, although ASPs and analysts expect that problem to resolve itself as bandwidth continues to become more abundant.

There is also the service-level agreement (SLA), which is a quantifiable and measurable way to determine the ASP's performance in providing the application service.

"One of the big inhibitors in the ASP market right now is what kind of SLAs are going to be provided for corporate data," said Chernick. "And that is turning into a real quagmire, because few hosting companies provide service-level guarantees at this point and, secondly, the bleeding-edge service-level guarantee only covers network latency, not end-user response time."

Candle has just released a new service called CandleNet, designed to set up SLA conditions and monitor such critical metrics, and more companies likely will follow suit.

In the meantime, corporations are just beginning to stick their toe into the ASP pool. "It's still on the edge," said Yoran. "But as corporations look to focus hard on their core competencies and compete in the e-business environment, they'll start to really jump on the ASP bandwagon."

The federal government, with shrinking budgets and a decreasing ability to compete for IT talent, likely will follow as well. "The government really won't have any choice, because they're not going to be able to have the attractive skill sets they need to be a leading-edge technology provider," said Jenab. "And the latest and greatest technology is becoming that much more complex and overwhelming, so they've got to move to this model eventually."

Not all ASPs are alike, though. And observers recommend that organizations looking to rent their applications carefully research the provider before taking the plunge. Among the questions to ask are:

? Does the application make sense commercially? In other words, can the ASP provide the application more efficiently and more effectively than your in-house staff? Think SAP vs. word processing. The former makes sense for most organizations, while the latter, a low-cost and low-resource application, likely will remain a desktop client-server offering.

? What kind of bandwidth access do you have? If you have a lot of employees or customers on low-speed modems in rural areas, it probably makes more sense to keep your applications local.

? Is the technology sustainable? Because ASPs make their money on heavy use of central server power, investigate what kind of plan they have to scale their infrastructure to meet increased demand.

Finally, Samoilov said, it is important that the ASP applications were designed for ASP use.

"You're basically taking lots of little brains and moving to this huge, central brain trust where all the pieces work together," he said. "To coherently and efficiently maintain those cost advantages is a challenge, and you have to know that the providers you're going with are capable of providing you with the performance you need."What does all this mean for organizations already steeped in client-server technology? One thing is certain: applications such as word processing and other office packages will remain the domain of the intelligent desktop.

In the meantime, organizations must begin migration strategies as business requirements arise, and that means a slow transition to thin clients where, over time, proprietary devices are swapped out and users moved to browser-based clients.

Because of the increased reliance on the network, there will be more points of failure as well, so organizations must invest in a network upgrade, more network management, monitoring tools and talent.

Client-server is really in the middle now, the piece that extends between the old architecture of desktop PCs and mainframes and the new model of browsers and remote servers.

"It's in transition," said Chernick. "Over time, client-server will undergo a typical technology transition, where organizations have to look at their existing applications that are running on clients and determine the value of converting each to a browser-based application or even outsourcing that application to an ASP.

"It's just like the database industry, where some data now resides on state-of-the-art relational databases and some remains on non-relational databases," said Chernick. "We've been dealing with that on a cost-benefit basis for years, and will continue to do so. And it will be the same for client-server for years to come."

Systems integrators will be affected most by the evolution of client-server. Observers state that the opportunities only will increase in the near future, but systems integrators need to begin to positioning themselves to take advantage now by familiarizing themselves with EAI products and setting up partnerships with ASPs, which will have a high customization and integration requirement.

"Integrators that have a diversified knowledge portfolio now have a tremendous opportunity to get engaged with a variety of organizations that are now looking to maximize the return on investment they spent in the 1990s getting all these applications up and running," Levey said.

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