Web services, the Internet standards-based approach to software distribution, promises to greatly simplify enterprise integration for insurance carriers and their business partners. To take advantage of this new technology, companies are faced with choosing a Web services platform-namely Microsoft's .NET or J2EE, which is based on Sun Microsystems' Java programming language.Some industry observers predict that large carriers with multiple back-end legacy systems will migrate toward J2EE, while small carriers, typically entrenched in Microsoft's operating system for their business applications, will choose .NET. Mid-sized carriers are up for grabs, they say.

But some companies are not taking the either/or approach to choosing a Web services platform. Allstate Financial, for instance, is using both Microsoft's .NET and IBM's J2EE-based Websphere for a producer Web site that went live in July.

Best fit

The Northbrook, Ill.-based unit of Allstate Insurance Co. is using .NET for the Web and application tiers of the new producer site-and J2EE to integrate the site with its back-end policy administration systems. And the company has had no problems in getting the two platforms to work together.

"People ask why did you use .NET versus J2EE, and it really wasn't a 'versus' conversation," says Patricia Coffey, vice president of technology for Allstate Financial. "It was about what fit best where." IBM'S Websphere was a better match for integrating the company's policy administration systems, but it made sense to go with Microsoft's .NET for the Web and application tiers.

Allstate has a lot of experience with Microsoft operating systems, Coffey says. "So it was a natural extension." In addition, .NET development tools currently have a "leg up" in speed to market for developers, she says.

In fact, developer productivity with .NET was even better than the company anticipated, says Kevin Rice, enterprise architect for Allstate Financial. When his group came up with the project plan to develop the site, they took 25% to 30% off the usual time- because .NET enables faster development than the Windows DNA development environment.

But, even with a tighter schedule, programmers developing the business logic were still ahead of the schedule every week.

"They were ahead, then further ahead, waiting for testing, waiting for data," Rice says. As a result, management was able to rearrange resources as needed-moving developers into quality assurance to make testing more efficient. Development that began on the producer site in December 2001 culminated in July when the first version of www.accessallstate.com was launched.

Within four months, 13,000 independent producers appointed with Lincoln Benefit Life, a subsidiary of Allstate, were registered users. "We add more producers every week," Coffey says. In fact, the company is rolling out the Web site to its captive agents late this year, and then will make it available to banks and brokerages that sell its products.

"We have a lot of different ways to get our products out to the marketplace," Coffey says. "And we have a lot of different products." The company sells checking, individual retirement and 529 college savings accounts, mortgage loans, mutual funds, annuities, and life, cancer, accident, long-term care and disability insurance.

Focus on service

The purpose of the Web site was to enable Allstate Financial to be more efficient, and to make it easier for producers to work with the company, Coffey says. To do that, the company designed the content and navigation of the site based on extensive research observing and working with producers.

As a result, unlike many of its competitors' sites, Allstate Financial's site is service-focused, rather than sales-focused, Coffey says.

"We found the biggest pain points (for producers) were around how they service customers," she says. "So the navigation of the site is designed to help producers be more effective in servicing customers once they've sold products to them."

In addition to providing up-to-date forms and product information, marketing materials and sales tools, the site also enables producers to view their books of business, and drill down for detailed customer, policy or account information. Users also can view pending and in-force business in one place; submit address and billing changes and fund transfers; and produce illustrations and reprojections.

All these features make producers more efficient with around-the-clock servicing capability, and they reduce costs for the company as well-costs associated with call volume to the call centers, and mailing and faxing information back and forth to producers.

Feedback about the site's functionality, performance, availability and design has been nothing but positive, according to Coffey. The only negative feedback is about the inconvenience of tight security.

Ready for the future

Even though the company is using a nonproprietary Web services messaging scheme-XML (extensible markup language) over HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol)-it is not publishing its services over the public Internet. "We didn't want to expose these cross-platform services to anything sniffing on the network," Rice says. Messaging occurs directly between specific points within Allstate's IT infrastructure. "That's the way we protect customer transactions."

That's not to say the company won't be providing Web services to business partners in the future. And when it does, the task will be simplified-because programmers have already completed the bulk of the development work. "We don't have to make any architectural changes to the system to provide 'true' Web services," Rice says. "All we have to do is publish the right services, put the right security in place, and we are done."

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