The convergence of information technology (IT) and business strategy has become an increasingly critical competitive factor for most businesses. Lincoln Re came to this realization several years ago when we embarked on transforming our IT systems architecture from a mainframe-based environment to a distributed client/server infrastructure.
Our goal in IT was to enable more flexible and faster paced development of "database-aware" and browser-interfaced applications that could be accessed by employees throughout the enterprise and potentially by clients via the Internet.
Three years later the transformation continues with much new groundwork laid. One enterprise application has been rolled out that makes it easier for Lincoln Re employees to access information about our clients. Meanwhile, more enterprise-wide and department applications have been completed or are in development.
A New Mission Statement
The transformation began in 1996 when then new Lincoln Re CIO Linda Fraley redefined the mission of the IT department in the potent phrase, "Establish the systems area as a core competency for the department." In other words, she sought to transform IT from a cost center and service unit to a business partner for both Lincoln Re and our parent company, Lincoln Financial Group, or LFG. (LFG is the marketing name for Lincoln National Corporation and its affiliates, just as Lincoln Re is the marketing name for the reinsurance companies of Lincoln Financial Group. Lincoln National Corporation is a financial services holding company with consolidated assets of $103 billion and annual consolidated revenues of $6.8 billion.)
That same year, Fraley called for an assessment of the Lincoln Re IT department's readiness to move from a mainframe-based development environment to one based on Sybase's PowerBuilder.
An IT Architecture That Can Drive Business
A critical step toward embracing the new IT mission was to identify and establish an enterprise architecture upon which Lincoln Re could build its current and future business. Fraley proposed a large, scalable architecture project to be built over three years. After securing CEO Larry Rowland's endorsement, the project began in January 1997.
Step one involved assembling an architecture team whose members underwent extensive training and mentoring in the development of enterprise architecture. These sessions produced a comprehensive report that included two parallel findings:
Among the key business objectives was to improve customer service by making it easier for clients to do business with Lincoln Re. To reach the objective in the IT realm, the department needed a highly productive environment to develop scalable, interoperable systems for both the enterprise and workgroups. We also needed a new database that would serve as a single central location for maintenance and administration of the life insurance policies Lincoln Re reinsures. And, like the system itself, the database needed to be accessible enterprise-wide by means of a browser-user interface and be accessible to clients who would log on via the Internet.
- The current state of Lincoln Re's business and its future direction
- The current state of Lincoln Re's IT department and what the department needed to do to align with Lincoln Re's strategic business objectives
Systems inoperability and a Web-centric environment led inevitably to certain choices in foundation technologies, including Java, CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) and MOM (Message Oriented Middleware).
VisualCafé Stands Out as Best-of-Breed
The next step: choosing the development environment. The Lincoln Re development team evaluated the leading Java integrated development environments (IDEs), including PowerJ from Sybase, Visual J++ from Microsoft, VisualAge for Java from IBM, JBuilder from Borland, JDesignerPro from BulletProof and VisualCafé from WebGain, Inc. (formerly from Symantec Internet Tools).
Our requirements were:
The team chose VisualCafé Professional Edition. VisualCafé was clearly the leader of the pack, and we felt that Symantec would continue to enhance and support the Java language. The RAD environment allowed our developers to create database-aware applications by pointing and clicking the mouse, ensuring a highly productive development environment, even for beginning Java developers.
- Robustness of Java GUI development capabilities needed to be determined
- Easy-to-use IDE needed to convert a COBOL shop to a Web-based Java shop
- RAD (rapid application development) capabilities to enable developers to be productive while learning Java
- Cost effective
- Market position
- Strength of the company and its commitment to the language
Currently, about 10 developers are writing Java code using VisualCafé, working on Microsoft NT workstations linked by Token Ring and Ethernet networks.
Access for Employees and Clients
The first application in production was a client information system called "LegacyLinc." A four-tier, CORBA-based application, LegacyLinc provides browser-based access to multiple, disparate legacy databases that operate off MVS and Lincoln Re's LAN-based DBMS, Microsoft's SQL Server.
Previously, the legacy systems used multiple CICS-based - Customer Information Control System - interfaces for maintenance. Through browsers, LegacyLinc now provides both structured (database) access for employee maintenance and unstructured (document-based) access for intranet-connected clients. The LegacyLinc runtime environment includes:
- MS Windows NT 4.0 workstations equipped with Netscape 4.7 browsers
- MS Windows NT 4.0 Web servers equipped with Netscape Enterprise Server and MS IIS
- Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 running on in-house-developed application servers using Inprise's Visibroker ORB (Object Request Broker), which resides on the Web server, and JDBC Level Four drivers from BEA WebLogic
- MS SQL Server 6.5 database management system running Windows NT 4.0 systems
- Legacy databases - CICS applications hosted on IBM mainframes
LegacyLinc contains information drawn from the legacy databases about clients and their insurance policies, key client contact names and numbers, and information about the account team members. Built primarily to support the sales and marketing activities of account management teams, the system has been made available to about 800 cross-functional employees to enable them to access information and contribute to it, as appropriate. The unstructured document data available to Lincoln Re employees includes, for example, Trip Reports - descriptions of site visits to clients - in the form of Word documents published to Lincoln Re's Document Management System.
The development process for this enterprise application took an IT team of 10 to 12 developers about a year to complete, from start to finish. VisualCafé was used to develop the user interface, and to develop and compile the business rules and CORBA objects.
Ensuring the Future
Another enterprise-level application - RMI-based (Remote Method Invocation) instead of CORBA - has been moved to production and continues in development. This application will interface to an Informix database running on an IBM AIX RS6000 and several smaller-scale, two-tier workgroup applications being put together by smaller teams of two to four developers. These workgroup-app developers are using the RAD capabilities of VisualCafé, including its database wizards.
As in all development, debugging is a necessary evil. Distributed debuggers play a big role in the ability of an IT organization to develop systems effectively and efficiently. We're looking at the VisualCafé Enterprise Edition product as a way to provide those capabilities to our developers.
We're also developing workgroup-level solutions that are simpler in complexity and lower in scalability requirements. The current 3.0 version of VisualCafé offers us the right toolset for this type of job; we believe we don't always need to hunt with an elephant gun, and expect to use both types of tools in our environment.
The capability to develop distributed objects easily is a real advantage to an IT group - like Lincoln Re's - that needs to produce distributed systems.
Matthew Brown is an assistant vice president and director of research and architecture at Lincoln Re.