Ever since the nineties, people have been asking if the era of IBM 3270 green screens is coming to an end. To which one may reply that “green screens” already became extinct in the seventies when they began to display multiple colors!
Anyway, back to the question: are IBM 3270 “green screens” coming to an end? Well, while we do admit that IBM 3270 interfaces are quite dated, they are still actively used by companies around the world.
A study by Vanson Bourne, a technology market research company, found that 93% of surveyed large organizations still use text-based user interfaces today.
Banks, airlines, car manufacturers, factories, and other critical aspects of our economy often rely on IBM 3270 interfaces. Yet that same study also points out that these organizations are becoming increasingly frustrated with them, especially on the end user level.
So why is this interface (often announced as dead) so widely used today, and how long will it last?
If you were to ask me why these 3270 terminal-based applications are still being used, I’d tell you that it is because they simply work. They may be quite bare-boned but that is to be expected from such old technology. Remember that it was designed for less powerful machines and networks at the time.
However primitive they seem today, IBM 3270 interfaces were a major revolution in business processes. There was a time (between the 1960s and 1970s) when punch cards were the only way to communicate with mainframes and inquiries took all night (batch processing).
With the arrival of IBM 3270 mainframe terminals, users could finally experience real-time information management.
IBM 3270 mainframe terminals were rare at first since they were originally meant for big companies to access centralized applications. This made them very expensive and not affordable by the general public or smaller companies.
Nevertheless, 3270 applications quickly managed to become the norm thanks to the emergence of powerful PCs and TN3270 emulators. And although hardware has exponentially evolved since then, IBM 3270 applications have persisted because they have been perfected over the years and have grown in size and complexity.
It would have been extremely difficult and risky to redevelop these applications from scratch, so companies chose to keep them around with the help of TN3270 emulators.
Take the case of Fraikin, an industrial vehicle leasing giant, who decided to modernize their whole IT infrastructure with Chrome devices (Chromebook and Chromebits).
Fraikin got rid of most of their desktop apps. However, their core legacy business applications (such as booking management tools, accounting solutions, and customer databases) remained unchanged. Fraikin simply chose to modernize access to these applications through Chrome browsers thanks to a 2-tier thin client emulator.
Unfortunately, that same study we mentioned states that 45% of the surveyed organizations feel that IBM 3270 green screen interfaces hinder recruitment. Many claim that their end users experience frustration when using these outdated applications.
Understandably, younger generations have trouble adapting to interfaces that are nothing like the GUIs they are used to. However, the technology itself is not the only one to blame. There are efforts to be made on multiple fronts.
For instance, perhaps companies could produce more comprehensive resources online to teach end users how to use these applications.
Training time may be consequent, but the alternative would be a complete overhaul of all 3270 applications. And such drastic modernization efforts are too expensive and risky, at least according to 43% of the IT leaders interviewed in the Vanson Bourne study.
So why not take modernization one step at a time? Leave the trusted applications’ code untouched and focus on the user experience?
That’s what we strive to achieve here at SysperTec. We have been helping our customers progressively modernize their 3270 applications since 1993. We have done this by allowing faster and more secure access to them, integrating them to web application portals, or making them adopt browser-based end user interfaces without touching their core code.
NRB, an IT service provider for an important insurance company in Belgium, is an excellent example of such a progressive modernization. Their TN3270 emulator (Extra! From Microfocus) was about to be decommissioned. At the same time, NRB was also trying to modernize their client’s digital workspace.
The goal was to find a TN3270 emulator that could easily integrate into their new Angular framework, all while gradually modernizing IBM 3270 green screens and improving flexibility (putting an end to mainframe silos).
Eventually, they were drawn to our web modernization solution, Virtel. It allowed them to keep the IBM 3270 look and feel for certain applications while transforming others into proper modern web GUIs.
3270 applications are still being used today. They are well implemented within multiple companies and getting rid of them will be difficult and costly.
However, user and executive demands make the daunting idea of green screen modernization more and more pressing. But rather than jumping into complex and costly modernization projects, companies can choose a lighter and more pragmatic alternative. Upgrading TN3270 emulators to a web-based solution is a viable way to modernize 3270 applications gradually.
IBM 3270 “green-screens” still have some years left before they disappear, and some of us will be long retired before they do. However, 3270 interfaces will continue to evolve and adapt to the new digital era. Therefore, companies should prepare and equip themselves accordingly.