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Innovations in the Terminal Emulation Space

A look at innovations in the terminal emulation space, and what to keep in mind when selecting a terminal emulator vendor

Even technology professionals mistakenly assume that mainframe computers are being replaced by newer technology. However, tens of thousands of organizations in all industries across the globe use and rely upon legacy IBM mainframe technology. By using a terminal emulator, end users can engage directly with the mainframe—or other legacy systems. Through programming repeatable functions with macros, users save time performing repetitive tasks and have an improved user experience.

Christopher Wey, president, Power Systems business unit at Rocket Software, says that terminal emulators are nowhere near the end of the life span. “Our business in terminal emulators has been growing consistently for years with customers constantly requesting new features and innovation. We see a constant need for reliable and secure connection providing the ability to interact with the system.”

Terminal emulators are commonly used today to connect mainframes with applications. Users with a dedicated role, such as a gate agent at the airport, factory floor worker or customer support representative, move through a set of predetermined screens to perform a single function. Other users, typically users familiar with shortcuts and advanced features, access terminal emulators to perform a wide range of tasks. With the recent increase in remote work, many users are increasingly using mobile devices to connect to terminal emulators, such as tablets and personal computers.

Haseeb Jawad, director, Product Management at Rocket Software, says that terminal emulators can create a more flexible, anywhere-access solution that allows anyone needing access to a mainframe to use their mobile phone or tablet. He sees small businesses, such as local boutique clothing stores, using a terminal emulator to connect a point of sale, as well as Fortune 1000 financial companies.

Terminal Emulator Innovations

Recent changes in how people are using terminal emulators as well as technological advancements have led to the following recent innovations:

  • Security enhancements. Because mainframe data typical includes sensitive data, such as employee data and customer transactions, terminal emulators must provide secure access to the systems. Additionally, terminal emulators use SFTP or FTPS to share files, which creates additional need for security. Because multi-factor authentication (MFA) remains a high priority for many companies, Jawad says that terminal emulators now integrate with leading MFA tools such as Okta and Duo to provide users with a single-sign-on capability. He says organizations should also look for terminal emulators offering HTTPS and SSL.
  • New features. Terminal emulator products now include new features, such as power pad configurable buttons, local and network printing and secure file transfer support. Hot spots can also dynamically create URLs.
  • Modern frameworks. As a new generation of terminal emulator users are now beginning to use the technology, many products are turning to modern UIs, such as the Zowe desktop framework, to provide a point and click experience similar to Mac and Windows environments. Wey says that by integrating the launch bar and Zowe desktop, users can now get into terminal emulators without a separate log in. The Zowe Open Source Consortium helps new developers learn skills such as new languages and framework that allow them to better leverage mainframe technology.
  • Customizations and integrations. Many users must perform the same repetitive tasks hundreds of times a day, such as looking up customers, which traditionally required as many as five or more screens. Instead of clicking seven buttons in a row, Wey says that terminal emulators create customized shortcuts to allow the user to click a single button, which provides the value benefit of reducing monotony. Repetitive tasks become even more cumbersome as more users access the technology on their mobile devices without a mouse. Through terminal emulator innovations, users can now click on the link within the terminal emulator and open the browser to access the website.

Key Features to Look for When Selecting a Terminal Emulator Vendor

While on the surface many terminal emulator products offer similar features, companies looking to achieve the highest level of productivity and user experience should look for vendors offering the following:

  • Mobile access. In addition to researching products offering mobile access, test the product on mobile devices to determine if the product offers the same user experience through mobile.
  • Configuration. Users need to able to configure and customize their terminal to work with their tasks, work style and access method.
  • New updates and enhancements. Many vendors launched terminal emulator products 25 years ago, but are not currently providing updates. Organizations should look for vendors that accept, listen and act on enhancement requests, especially related to security as new risks continually emerge. Look for companies that currently invest in R&D as well as those who actively work with customers to improve usability.
  • Seamless experience regardless of device. Users should receive the same excellent experience whether they use the terminal emulator on a tablet or desktop terminal. Before purchasing a product, test the terminal emulator for ease-of-use based on your typical user.
  • Extensive product help. Look for vendors that provide customer service options as well as product documentation and in-product tutorials. Have users review the documentation to ensure it is understandable and easy-to-use so they can resolve their own problems when possible.
  • Easy upgrade experience. When the vendor announces new product updates, determine how easy it is to upgrade to the latest version. Look for vendors that provide tools and processes to save time and reduce issues.

The Future of Terminal Emulators

Wey says that going forward, a key factor in optimizing terminal emulation is constantly remaining current, meaning that vendors need to remain current with their innovations, usability and security. Additionally, he sees opportunities for organizations to capture and understand the analytics collected by terminal emulators to better use their mainframe and IBM i environments.

“Many mainframe applications are typically big and complex with many different user states,” notes Wey. “By giving customers the ability to understand the applications through terminal emulator analytics, they can then turn the insights into usable insights.”