Posts Tagged 'cobol'

API’s and Mainframes

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I like to try to read as many American Banker tech’ articles as I can. Since I don’t work anymore, I chose not to take out a subscription, so some I can read, others are behind their subscription paywall.

This one caught my eye. as it’s exactly what we did in circa 1998/99 at National Westminster Bank (NatWest) in the UK. The project was part of the rollout of a browser Intranet banking application, as a proof of concept, to be followed by a full blown Internet banking application. Previously both Microsoft and Sun had tackled the project and failed. Microsoft had scalability and reliability problems, and from memory, Sun just pushed too hard to move key components of the system to its servers, which in effect killed their attempt.

The key to any system design and architecture is being clear about what you are trying to achieve, and what the business needs to do. Yes, you need a forward looking API definition, one that can accept new business opportunities, and one that can grow with the business and the market. This is where old mainframe applications often failed.

Back in the 1960’s, applications were written to meet specific, and stringent taks, performance was key. Subsecond response times were almost always the norm’ as there would be hundreds or thousands of staff dependent on them for their jobs. The fact that many of those application has survived to this today, most still on the same mainframe platform is a tribute to their original design.

When looking at exploiting them from the web, if you let “imagineers” run away with what they “might” want, you’ll fail. You have to start with exposing the transaction and database as a set of core services based on the first application that will use them. Define your API structure to allow for growth and further exploitation. That’s what we successfully did for NatWest. The project rolled out on the internal IP network, and a year later, to the public via the Internet.

Of course we didn’t just expose the existing transactions, and yes, firewall, dispatching and other “normal” services as part of an Internet service were provided off platform. However, the core database and transaction monitor we behind a mainframe based webserver, which was “logically” firewalled from the production systems via an MPI that defined the API, and also routed requests.

So I read through the article to try to understand what the issue was that Shamir Karkal, the source for Barbas article, felt was the issue. Starting at the section “Will the legacy systems issue affect the industry’s ability to adopt an open API structure?” which began with a history lesson, I just didn’t find it.

The article wanders between a discussion of the apparent lack of a “service bus” style implementation, and the ability of Amazon to sell AWS and rapidly change the API to meet the needs of it’s users.

The only real technology discussion in the article that I found that had any merit, was where they talked about screen scraping. I guess I can’t argue with that, but surely we must be beyond that now? Do banks really still have applications that are bound by their greenscreen/3270/UI? That seems so 1996.

A much more interesting report is this one on more general Open Bank APIs. Especially since it takes the UK as a model and reflects on how poor US Banking is by comparison. I’ll be posting a summary on my ongoing frustrations with the ACH over on my personal blog sometime in the next few days. The key technology point here is that there is no way to have a realtime bank API, open, mainframe or otherwise, if the ACH system won’t process it. That’s America’s real problem.


About & Contact

I'm Mark Cathcart, formally a Senior Distinguished Engineer, in Dells Software Group; before that Director of Systems Engineering in the Enterprise Solutions Group at Dell. Prior to that, I was IBM Distinguished Engineer and member of the IBM Academy of Technology. I'm an information technology optimist.


I was a member of the Linux Foundation Core Infrastructure Initiative Steering committee. Read more about it here.

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