Erwin Kersten led his company through a revolution. As lead IT architect for Univé Verzekeringen, Kersten helped the Zwolle, Netherlands, insurance company adopt the very first pieces of what would become an organization-wide SOA.
But even as the project blossomed, Kersten recognized a problem. Five services became 10. Ten became 15. And soon management of his fledgling service-oriented architecture became as big a challenge as uprooting the legacy systems themselves.
His is a cautionary tale. “In my experience, the management portion of an SOA always comes later,” Kersten said. “Thats the one thing I think most of us do incorrectly. My advice to anyone considering an SOA implementation now is to start looking for management tools as well, in order to keep everything steady.”
Univés motivation differs from that of most conventional enterprise businesses. A not-for-profit cooperative, the insurance carrier is driven not by revenue goals but purely by providing the best service for member customers.
So it was fitting that in 2004, Univé began its IT systems metamorphosis. The organization took its first steps toward eliminating a dated, siloed approach to IT and started implementing an SOA. As with most SOA pilot programs, there was a strong business incentive for doing so. In the fiercely competitive insurance field, speed and quality of service are keys to customer retention.
In that respect, Univé typifies many insurance companies that have much to gain from SOAs, since most have large investments in legacy systems, as well as heterogeneous environments resulting from mergers and acquisitions. An SOA can often give an insurance carrier a critical business edge.
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Univé, which offers business and consumer insurance and financial services products such as life and property policies and mortgages, has 1.3 million customers and some 3.7 million insurance policies. The company employs more than 3,100 people across Europe.
The SOA efforts ultimate goal, Univé officials said, is to develop a standards-based system that helps the company automate and move away from traditional paper-based processes, as well as enable communication across all the companys heterogeneous systems. As a consequence, the change should help Univé find new ways for using and combining legacy data to unlock business opportunities and improve customer service, officials said.
Like most enterprises, Univé started small with its SOA. The effort began as a response to changes in Dutch law that allowed citizens to change health insurance carriers annually. “Our first SOA implementation was for health insurance registration and quotations. What we had normally been doing on paper, we took online,” Kersten said.
That initial SOA project, which included about a dozen interconnected services, resulted in the automation of 60 percent of Univés 100,000 health insurance transactions annually. That sort of success fueled an expansion of the insurance carriers SOA efforts. Suddenly all parts of Univés legacy systems and practices were under review as the fundamental shift toward delivering better customer service through newly combined and collaborative offerings got under way.
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“The legacy IT stove pipes we had in place no longer reflected our business processes,” said Bob Alberts, project manager for Univé. “The services-based approach not only delivers greater IT and economic efficiencies but also streamlines our internal business processes, providing both significant performance improvements and greater flexibility.”
Such thinking has pushed Univé into a broad SOA implementation aimed at automation and the removal of traditional paper-based processes. So far, through the work of some 30 developers, the company has implemented 74 .Net-based Web services with 177 endpoints or individual services. The full system will eventually be rolled out as a Web-based platform interacting with millions of users, Alberts said.
But with the growth of Univés SOA deployment came pain points. Kersten said theres a big difference between managing 10 to 15 services and managing more than 70.
So in 2006, as part of the companys vision for its multi-tier architecture, Kerstens team at Univé began looking for a way to corral SOA growth and manage the burgeoning number of sources to keep the SOA benefits flowing.
That search resulted earlier this year in Univés tapping local systems integrator Systemation to roll out AmberPoints SOA Management System. Univé is integrating AmberPoints run-time governance software in conjunction with Microsofts MOM (Microsoft Operations Manager) to manage and monitor its SOA systems. According to Kersten, the AmberPoint tools essentially ensure the health of Univés SOA through dynamic implementation of policies in the run-time environment.
As a result, AmberPoints tools give customers such as Univé more adaptive end-to-end control of services-based applications.
AmberPoints software was chosen in part because of its ability to tightly integrate with MOM. Combining the two complementary products improves efficiency and performance by letting Univé centrally monitor and manage all its distributed systems. Kersten especially praised the AmberPoint products ability to not only monitor all services activity between Univés two data centers but also actively engage in failover routing when performance is affected. In addition, the SOA Management System tools are used to track dependencies among services to gain insight into which are heavily used and how development changes can affect overall system performance.
The SOA Management System can ferret out exceptions issues—intercepting input and output messages “so you can always see what went wrong,” Kersten said. The AmberPoint tools also allow users to see which services are becoming obsolete. The AmberPoint management systems ability to proactively manage an SOA is a major differentiator, according to John Hubinger, AmberPoints president and CEO, in Oakland, Calif. “Many times, the main issue with SOA management products is that they are observers but not participants,” Hubinger said. “Univé is a good example of a user that wanted increased visibility and action. “When I see services out of compliance with service-level agreements or the like, you have to tell me, and you have to do something about it,” Hubinger said. “You have to add services or retry. Its not enough to simply look at the problems and report on them.”