GMAC Web-Enables Legacy Data With NEON Systems Shadow Direct

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GMAC Web-Enables Legacy Data With NEON Systems Shadow Direct
M. Reed - March 5, 2001

Event Summary

GMAC Insurance group, a subsidiary of General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC) was tasked by General Motors Corporation to build a customer service website. This required access to multiple years of legacy data in the ADABAS database system. This case study, provided by the vendor and further researched by TEC, investigates how NEON Systems' Shadow Direct product, a part of their iWave Solution, provided the solution. TEC analyst's comments are interspersed in green.

Case Study Overview

As part of its commitment to Web services for its more than 400,000 policyholders, GMAC Insurance began the process of building the first phase of its website. According to Project Manager Scott Nelson, Phase One is designed to allow customers to navigate their policy and billing information and pay their premiums online, at their convenience. (According to Mr. Nelson, a follow-on to this phase will be a mission critical application to interface the same ADABAS data with GMAC's customer call center application, which is also homegrown.) Phase Two will be designed to allow potential customers to compare various coverage options and calculate rate quotes online, without having to consult with a customer sales representative. "The benefits of allowing customers to perform common tasks, with less dependency on customer support representatives, are tremendous on both sides of the counter," said Nelson, who anticipates increased sales and reduced costs.

Nelson explained the process that led to his company's selection of Shadow Direct. "We came to the table with an interesting set of challenges," he recalled. "We had been using ADABAS for many years, and wanted to access our legacy data and leverage it for new Web applications which we were writing in Java. We also wanted to access DB2 data, and to hit COBOL sub-routines for remote procedure calls to DB2 and ADABAS data. That was one tall order, and I believe that there is no other product on the market that could have done the needed task as easily and effectively as Shadow Direct," said Nelson.

GMAC Insurance's Lead Programmer/Analyst Jeff Sadler agreed. "ADABAS isn't a true relational database (ADABAS is a DBMS from Software AG which is an inverted list DBMS with some relational capabilities, and one of the first DBMS' on the market, released in 1969), so interacting with other databases is very tricky," he said. "But Shadow Direct does a lot with minimal coding, so we get full functionality with ADABAS."

Nelson said his company looked at several e-business integration solutions (including Information Builders EDA gateway and CICS sockets). However, most of the software products required the Customer Information Control System (CICS) transaction processing extension, which his branch of GMAC does not use. "We tried one product that installed horribly and left a huge footprint in terms of memory and space," Nelson recalled.

He said his team also looked at another product but was not impressed with the product or the sales and support team. "The negative side of one of the competitive products that we reviewed was that it required a gateway, and it has read-only capability for ADABAS data," he explained. "And on the updating side, it required several pages of complicated coding, as opposed to 20 lines or less for the Shadow Direct product. In terms of ease-of-use and coding, Shadow Direct is as easy as you can get!"

Product Background

Shadow Direct, a part of the iWave Solution, provides data access and legacy application renewal. It allows IBM System/390 users to readily incorporate data and transactions from DB2, IMS/DB, IMS/TM, CICS, ADABAS, Sybase MDI RSPs (Remote Stored Procedures), VSAM and other mainframe sources into a variety of execution environments, including ODBC and JDBC. By providing direct client-to-host access, Shadow Direct eliminates the need for database gateways and associated issues regarding performance, scalability, security, control, and management (Shadow Direct runs as a started task on the mainframe).

Shadow Direct provides an exceptionally robust and stable e-business integration infrastructure that enables IT organizations to blend existing enterprise resources, distributed systems, and emerging technologies with low complexity, cost, and cycle time. Numerous iWave Solution features and optimizations combine to deliver high performance, security and scalability, with extensive diagnostics and monitoring and control capabilities.

The Shadow JDBC driver combines the best of Shadow Direct and Java "write-once-run-anywhere" technology by allowing developers to produce Web applications that transparently incorporate System/390 data and transactions using the Java JDBC data access interface. The Shadow JDBC driver supports leading Web application servers, including BEA WebLogic Enterprise, which was chosen for the GMAC project.

NEON Systems' iWave Solution for GMAC Insurance allows a GMAC customer to access information using any Web browser. The request flows through GMAC's Web server, then through their Web application server, which contains the NEON Client driver. The NEON Client driver accesses the System/390 mainframe, where Shadow Direct provides access to DB2 and ADABAS data. Existing logic developed in COBOL sub-routines participates in the process.

Shadow Direct integrates the following software products:

  • VisualAge for Java v. 2.0

  • Sun JDK v. 1.1.7b

  • Macromedia Dreamweaver HTML tool

  • BEA WebLogic v 4.5 Web server and application server

And the following hardware:

  • 2 Sun E4000s as production servers - one is the Web server, the other is the application server

  • Test system servers on Windows NT

  • Development system desktop on Windows NT

Speed and Support

Even the Visual Basic demo impressed Sadler. "There is an area where you're instructed how to use the Shadow Direct psuedo-stored procedure for SQL calls," he said. "You can access data and have it returned as an ODBC table. Once I got the data source set up, it rolled. I got something back from my very first entry. It worked very fast, and I didn't have to go through tons of coding. I was able to try many 'what-if' scenarios."

Sadler was also impressed with the proof of concept phase of the project. During this phase, NEON worked closely with both their client and BEA. The team found quick, easy solutions to what Sadler referred to as some "very tricky" problems, and the proof of concept was completed within four days.

Both Nelson and Sadler praised the knowledge and responsiveness of the NEON Systems support team, citing that many issues throughout the project were resolved within minutes, and most were resolved within one or two days. During the few instances when a problem required more than one day to solve, NEON Systems sent status reports each day. (Mr. Nelson states that the same high level of customer support and fast turnaround on software issues by NEON Systems continues to this day.)

As for the product itself, Nelson remarked that it works "so fast that, at first, I thought something was wrong!" Nelson has been particularly pleased with the speed with which Shadow Direct enables his IT people to call COBOL sub-routines. "With Shadow Direct, we don't have to re-code rules and calls in Java or some other language. Instead, the very same rules and calls we use in our mainframe can now be used online and in batch environments. The results are incredibly fast." According to Nelson, access to the mainframe has a 98-99% sub-second response time, with access in the Java environment at approximately one second. "That's FAST," he emphasized. In addition, "NEON Systems showed an amazing level of customer support and service from the very beginning, with their ability to support enhancements that we were looking for."

TEC's Analysis of Market Impact

The ADABAS database system is common in larger corporations with lots of legacy data. Many vendors in the data extract, enterprise application integration, B2B e-commerce, and customer relationship management arenas are struggling to find access methods to these types of legacy, non-relational systems. Examples of other mainframe systems that can be accessed with the Shadow Direct component of the iWave solution are DB2, IMS/DB, IMS/TM, CICS/TS, VSAM, and partitioned datasets (PDS's). It is important to note that Shadow Direct runs as a started task on the mainframe, therefore it does not need a CICS transaction. It is fairly common for customers to not have CICS, especially in an IMS environment. Also, the lack of a gateway requirement is a strong competitive differentiator.

Virtually all vendors in this market are going to have to develop this capability, or partner with another vendor such as NEON Systems, IBM, ETI (Evolutionary Technologies), or IBI (Information Builders) to provided it. Access to legacy data for historical information is becoming increasingly more critical, especially in areas such as customer relationship management and supply chain management.

TEC's User Recommendations

Most IT professionals in larger companies have had to deal with legacy data access issues. Years ago, this involved the difficult and time-consuming task of writing custom code (typically in COBOL) to access multiple data sources and produce internal reports. The advent of the Internet, B2B and self-service applications now mandates that development cycle time for these data access capabilities be as short as possible. Customers should investigate the sources of data that may need to be queried to provide data to external-facing applications, and plan for acquiring products that meet those needs, preferably one product for all data sources which does not require any of the legacy data to first be extracted into "flat files". The product should also have an elegant method of dealing with some of the common oddities found in files created by COBOL programs, such as repeating groups (these types of oddities are technically known as "Occurs", "Occurs Depending", and "Redefines" clauses).

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