Web-to-host is a relatively simple approach that insurers often overlook as they scramble to build a Web presence for internal, business-to-business, and public-facing applications.However, many companies now realize that by adding browser access to existing back-end applications, they can quickly and adequately Web-enable mainframe and midrange applications.

Under this scenario, datastreams from mainframe and mid-range systems are captured and presented in a graphical format, with function keys and menus converted to buttons.

Web-to-host is viewed by IT experts as a cost-effective strategy to replace terminals and fat-client PCs and to extend legacy applications to customers and business partners outside the enterprise.

That's the approach Prudential Institutional, the employee benefits division of Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Financial, has taken. Prudential Institutional, which provides group insurance, disability, long-term care, 401(k) plans, retirement services, pensions and real estate services, now offers a Web interface that can be accessed by customer companies and their employees.

"Our goal is to give that an integrated look and feel to employees and employers," says Paul Mattern, vice president of operations and systems. "Our Web site aggregates all our products into a single payroll deduction. Customers have one place they can go, and no longer have to connect with five or six different product providers."

Prudential Institutional needed a more effective way to consolidate and support a multitude of interfaces to its IBM Corp. S/390 and AS/400 systems.

System end-users include Prudential employees, such as those working in the customer call center, all the way out to benefits administrators at customer companies. End-users' connectivity ranged from "dumb" terminals assigned to Prudential employees, to customized PC software used by clients.

FRONT-END CHALLENGE

The challenge for Prudential was supporting various customized interfaces for its clients, which were built when the different technologies were in vogue, says Jane Landon, CIO of Prudential Institutional.

"There are probably five or six different technologies that we have used to deliver front ends to our clients, or to our operations internally," she notes. Prudential also wanted to eventually provide full Web access to clients' employees. "Products where we touch individual participants are being driven up to our Web site," says Landon.

Prudential employed Jacada Server, developed by Atlanta-based Jacada Ltd., to provide a single interface layer that will support these various forms of access. The platform currently delivers both green-screen and Web-based interfaces for its guaranteed products and group annuities environment, which are supported on back-end mainframes running CICS, IBM's time-tested software that manages online transactions of all types.

Prudential also supports a Web-to-host interface to customers and its call center for delivering its retail life administration package. "We didn't have the flexibility of building a messaging infrastructure in that area," Landon says.

a single interface

The latest Web-to-host implementation by Prudential's Group Property & Casualty division, which handles voluntary benefits plan enrollments, delivers data supported on a back-end AS/400 system. Initially, the interface is being extended to the company's call center, with the likelihood of eventually extending it to individual plan participants as well, Landon says.

Prudential put in place an interface layer that not only supports these older interfaces, but also adds a Web browser interface. By having a single interface platform with a knowledge base, rather than separately maintaining six different interfaces, Prudential has been able to gain efficiencies from its information technology operations.

For example, the company no longer bears the costs associated with developing and maintaining client software at its customer sites. "Those were fat clients that were customized-a version for each client-at a significant cost to us," Landon explains. And by migrating connectivity to the Web, Prudential is gaining "the economics of using the Web as a transport mechanism," she adds. Most clients are connected to Prudential over a wide-area network using T-1 lines.

At the call center for Prudential's WorkingSolutions division, which handles voluntary benefits packages for companies and their employees, the aggregated interface has been deployed to about 100 customer service representatives. Previously, these employees were accessing data through a variety of methods, says Mattern, who oversees the call center's operations.

The most evident benefit to the call center operations is saving time, Mattern states. For example, a customer may call in with a question that requires the call center representative to query multiple data sources. The system eliminates the need for any types of call-backs, since the employee doesn't have to go retrieve information," Mattern says.

In addition, providing a Web self-service portal to employees also saves on call center inquiries, he adds.

All end-users access the system interface through a centralized rule base that defines the data they are presented. In essence, pre-defined code is already generated prior to when the client logs in, Landon says.

Creation of a common platform and knowledge base is helping to standardize Prudential's development efforts as well. "We have standards for our own internal presentation level in our operations, but it's hard to get people to follow them," Landon explains.

moving off the mainframe

"We not only get the cost-effectiveness of the platform, but we also get a consistent presentation level."

Outside of the actual cost of the software licenses, setting up the interface tool was a relatively inexpensive project, Landon maintains, encompassing the time of two staff members over a period of a month. The cost of the software itself was less than $300,000, according to a source close to project.

However, preparing the back-end interfaces-mapping Java to CICS-took much longer. "In one area, we put 300 screens up in several weeks. In other areas, it took three months to do three transactions, because they were interfacing to five different systems," Landon says.

Prudential Institutional plans to eventually move off the mainframe, but recognizes this will be a gradual process.

"We can start disconnecting the back end and the business logic over time," Landon continues. "We can't rebuild 30 years' worth of product rules and knowledge in one clean swoop. We can start minimizing our reliance on older technology, yet recognize that it has value."

Joseph McKendrick is a research consultant and freelance writer based in Doylestown, Pa.

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