NZI: ready for web services

Insurance company NZI has started down the road of externalising its applications so others can use them.

Insurance company NZI has started down the road of externalising its applications so others can use them.

First, NZI put the infrastructure in place and then delivered a quotations and placement application, which is used by call centre staff and will be extended to customers and brokers through a web site.

Before the application was developed potential customers spoke to NZI staff on the phone, but a quote had to be run from the legacy system and then mailed out to the customer. Now call centre staff can get the quote information while they're talking to the customer and in future customers and brokers will be able to get that information themselves through the website.

But settling the infrastructure in first was vital. "Basically we've broken the system into various layers, data, which is via the heritage system, business rules, application and presentation," says NZI IT strategy and planning manager Phil Bowden.

NZI, which is using the J2EE platform, put IBM MQ Series messaging layer in front of its legacy system, which is called Polisy and is where it holds all its policies. The new applications, which are developed using IBM VisualAge, sit on a WebSphere application server. XML is the message format linking the layers, though it is not used for the final presentation because not all browsers support a direct presentation of XML, says Bowden.

There are two presentation formats, one called the "wizard" for customers consisting of a series of simple forms, while brokers and staff use the "expert" form.

The expert form is now up and running and staff are using it to access the new quotations application. "It's a sales support tool, not a web service," says Bowden, "but infrastructurally we're set up to use them if we want to."

So how did NZI get from having a single monolithic tightly coupled application built in the 1980s to having an infrastructure where it could push information out or pull data into the system?

"We ported Polisy to Oracle and HP-UX in 1995. That gave us a more flexible platform and an extensible database from which we could start moving into modern technologies."

The GUI world was opening up and browsers appeared on the scene so the company started looking at thin client and browsers.

It had to get its business rules out of Polisy -- which was written in Cobol -- so started looking for a rules engine and chose Idiom, built by a New Zealand company of the same name.

"In mid-2000 we said we don't really know where we're going but we want to stay open and flexible so we chose the J2EE approach. We had a choice of BEA, IBM or Sun. It didn't really matter to us but our parents in the UK were big IBM users so we chose VisualAge for Java and WebSphere. The .Net approach didn't exist then."

Prior to that there was no middleware and any interfaces to Polisy were bespoke, hard-wired, highly specific and hard to manage, says Bowden. Whereas the new system allows NZI to treat interfaces with other businesses as a presentation layer, though these "presentation layers" could actually interact with the another company's system. Security and the directory is handled by iPlanet running on a HP box.

"We now have an infrastructure that can evolve with those facilities."

The call centre is up and running and the aim is to have it on the web by the third quarter.

Bowden doesn't see what it's doing as being web services in the truest sense of the term. "Web services are where you're interacting with other businesses and actually buying a service as part of your application," he says. "The rest is e-business.

"We're more likely to use XML for inter-business messaging/transactional processing, than any actual purchasing of web services at this point in time. However, I think that game will change and we'll keep an active eye on it. And we'll be in a position to use that sort of service."

As examples of the type of applications that could be enhanced and sold as web services, he gives BNZ's real time credit card transaction facility BuyLine, credit checking by Baycorp or motor vehicle registrations.

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