Automation in Mainframe Access: The journey continues

In my first post I discussed the fact that enterprises have been opting to save time and reduce errors by automating repetitive computing tasks since the era of personal computing began. Business automations are faster than ever thanks to ongoing advancements in the underlying technologies and tools. In this post I will build on that and review the need for RPA, how RPA and the mainframe is different, and how to do RPA with the mainframe.

The Need for RPA

Let’s remind ourselves why RPA matters.

Expense: Automation takes time, and while it aims to reduce the long-term expense of manual processes – it is in itself a costly exercise. While technology usability has improved, building business-critical automations still needs time – and the right skills.

User Errors: Even the most seasoned human end-user can make mistakes, introducing errors and leading to inaccurate data in business-critical systems. Spelling errors are perhaps the simplest form of errors that pollute business data. On the other end of the spectrum, advanced features, like macro recording and automation tools, are powerful, but potentially introduce greater potential for error.

Integration and Orchestration: Automating a business process can mean going beyond automation and integrating applications. Access to all relevant data on various disparate systems and then sharing it appropriately may require a more holistic approach than the current environment readily supports.

Automation is not Easy: The goal of automating repetitive user tasks is a sensible ambition but there are practical difficulties:  End-users can be partners, people accessing information from a kiosk (aka, unknown users), or a robotic user. Furthermore, users possess an unprecedented range of devices– laptops, tablets, thin clients, smartphones.

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Mainframe RPA – an unknown quantity?

Windows applications are ubiquitous and integrating with them is common knowledge in the developer community. The mainframe, on the other hand, is less mainstream, and, experience of IBM’s HLLAPI (high-level language application program interface- the most common way to access and reuse data) can often be limited.

Achieving RPA for the Mainframe

Here’s the good news: automation has progressed to meet the demands of the mainframe community. And the tooling has come of age, too. Creating an application or automation does not require C++ or Java knowledge, or even extensive training. These ‘citizen developers’ create applications by leveraging no- or low-code tools (think drag and drop).

And with a large percentage of data used in mission-critical business processes lives on host systems, including mainframes, mid-ranges, and Unix/Linux systems, RPA needs to handle those environments too.

The more elegant method requires developing distinct procedures against host-based applications that perform units of work as consumable web services, and then have the RPA tool call on these web services as needed during an automated process. We call this approach ‘service-enabling the mainframe (or host)’.

The other option we call ‘HLLAPI enablement’ of the mainframe. In this scenario, the RPA tool leverages the HLLAPI interface through a terminal emulator and corresponding green screen to access host data. All RPA solutions support this standard interface for accessing mainframe data; the advantage being these solutions can include this data via a desktop-based terminal emulator.

Micro Focus solutions for RPA on the Mainframe

Micro Focus provides a range of options for enabling the integration of host 3270/5250-based data streams into their RPA initiatives. Whether RPA developers prefer to integrate via web services or more traditional application programming interfaces (APIs), like HLLAPI or .NET, Micro Focus has programmatic interfaces to support the developer’s integration initiatives.

RPA use cases range from “attended”, where an end-user kicks off an automated process that leverages robots to automate repetitive tasks, to fully unattended with no human user involvement to complete a business process. Examples of automation from the Micro Focus Reflection Desktop product that support the attended use case include:

– The Reflection Events Mapper allows users to configure specific actions, such as run a macro, when a host session triggers an event. A simple configuration wizard guides the human user as they set up events (or rules) as they apply to a mainframe screen. They prompt action from the emulator without any coding required.
– Further, Reflection Desktop recently added the ‘Rumba Plus’ UI modernization feature. Using this drag-and-drop design tool, users can now redesign a green screen application UI to include modern drop-down boxes and calendar controls.

Meanwhile, a more robust ‘service-enabling the mainframe (or host)’ RPA approach is available using Micro Focus Verastream.

Micro Focus also offers a single enterprise-ready RPA product. Micro Focus Robotic Process Automation (RPA) helps enterprises build, secure, and scale automated processes, from legacy to modern. Resilient robots can identify hundreds of UI objects from SAP to terminal emulators, web, and Windows.

Summary and Next Steps

While RPA largely focuses on integration and data exchange between desktop and web-based applications, mainframe / host systems can also participate in enterprise RPA initiatives.

Mainframe RPA support is available across the Micro Focus desktop terminal emulations solutions, including Rumba+ Desktop, Reflection Desktop, and Extra! X-treme, and the Micro Focus mainframe integration solution Verastream Host Integrator.

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Learn how you can apply RPA to the mainframe in our webinar on June 17, Access & Integrate Mainframe Data with RPA via Terminal Emulation, or find me on Twitter to talk about this directly if you like?

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