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By Chris Wey, President, Power Systems Business Unit, Rocket Software
For years, the balance of office and remote work has been shifting. Access to the internet, bandwidth, and the benefits of a broad labor market have driven that shift. Culture, it seemed, was the biggest factor counterbalancing this transition. But, in the last year, COVID-19 has forced an acceleration. In most companies, anyone who can work from home now – is doing just that.
Even when the pandemic is behind us, many industries will continue to allow remote and hybrid workforces. While this change gives workers and employers unrivaled flexibility, it also brings new challenges of operational efficiency, access, and security.
Fortunately, there are technology solutions that can help address these challenges. Some have even been used for decades. Of critical importance is secure access to core business systems, including the mainframes at the heart of healthcare IT environments. Within them are the insurance claims, medical records, financial systems and more. Employees who need access to those applications and data typically have business critical functions.
Establishing Host Access
Even from the office, most employees connect to a mainframe or IBMi application with a terminal emulator. The system itself is often located elsewhere. But, that connection, from a company desktop computer, was predictable.
Now, employees have been issued laptops or even use mobile devices as they work from home – or wherever they are – and need the same access as before. The security and efficiency of the connections are paramount.
Unfortunately, rudimentary emulators can be difficult to use, even more challenging to configure, and can hobble a team’s ability to work together. Cumbersome interfaces can cost countless hours of productivity and create more frequent errors, which in turn compromise operations and even leave an organization open to security breaches. With the vital and sensitive nature of healthcare, the risks of poor terminal emulators are high.
Optimizing the Access Experience
For those using terminal emulators to access their core business applications, the bar for quality is quite high. There is often a perception that this is a commodity space with dozens of low-cost alternatives – but, as with most technologies, the human costs can be high. So, what makes an emulator good for its users?
Configurability is key. The mainframe or IBMi systems that are accessed by emulators are keyboard-based “green screen” systems in many cases. Power users or consistent users have programmed macros that vastly accelerate operating these applications. In many healthcare administration functions, where repetition is pervasive and speed is key, these macros directly result in human efficiencies. Users whose work requires it ought to be able to create, edit and leverage these macros independently.
There are also usability features, like hot spots which introduce mouse-based interaction through clickable parts of the screen, like a URL embedded in the legacy application.
Finally, there’s the breadth of accessibility. A desktop terminal emulator may have been a wonderful option for office-based employees with consistent PCs. But, for a mobile and remote workforce, access via any web browser on any device provides the flexibility that matches the needs of today’s employee base.
Managing Host Access Securely
For those managing their company’s host access, security is often a top concern. For healthcare companies handling sensitive personal information, that concern is even more prominent.
In evaluating terminal emulators, most IT leaders look for secure single sign-on and support for Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) as a baseline. These pervasive security technologies should seamlessly integrate with your emulator, ensuring the security measures taken across the organization are present in host access, as well. Other security considerations include secure FTP access and standard cryptography protocols embedded in the solution.
In order to manage the deployment, maintenance and configuration of the terminal emulators across the organization, a centralized administrative function with remote management capabilities ensures your system administrators are not burdened by the day-to-day operations of maintaining host access. Since these systems and access to them is mission critical, the more easily they can be administered, the better.
Finally, there’s administrative value in consolidating host access across all mainframe, IBMi and legacy systems inside the company, minimizing vendors and maximizing consistency for both administrators and users. Therefore, consider vendors with the broad platform support you need for your organization.
An Emulator with A Roadmap
Terminal emulators can be workhorses within IT departments, delivering value daily to thousands of healthcare workers across a company. But, for IT leaders, they are often seen as core technologies with limited future innovation.
That’s simply untrue. A good terminal emulator will have a robust roadmap of future enhancements that fall into three categories: innovation that makes user experiences more efficient and comfortable; innovation that supports faster, easier administration; and security enhancements to continuously keep up with the changing threat landscape.
While, at its core, the notion of host access is straightforward, the tools that deliver that access can fundamentally impact the work of many employees in an organization.
Confidence in Challenging Times
In this difficult time, we have seen not only the criticality of front-line healthcare workers to the wellbeing of our society, but also the importance of streamlined, seamless back-end functions across the entire healthcare value chain. A huge part of that work happens on core systems like mainframes, and therefore via terminal emulators.
It’s time to ensure every one of those critical employees and functions have the tools they need to operate with speed and accuracy, ensuring healthcare services are delivered rapidly, patients get the answers they need, and medical professionals get paid. It’s one small but important piece of accelerating our path back to normal.
Chris Wey is the President of the Rocket Software business unit that develops IBM i solutions and cross-platform utilities. Chris brings two decades of experience leading product organizations, transforming companies through organic and inorganic growth, and driving business strategy.