If an application works well for a business, why risk staff and financial resources on a replacement system that may prove to be substandard? That's the quandary carriers are addressing, many of whom have invested tens of millions of dollars in systems and software to track, store, and manage data on their policyholders, finances and product lines.Indeed, many insurers are still using software originally written in the 1970s and 1980s for mainframes, but which continues to support critical operations. The issue often boils down to whether to stay with the big iron-and its high administration and upgrade costs-or migrate to more distributed, commodity-priced systems such as Unix, Linux, or Windows.
Fortunately for insurers, there is a third solution that enables them to maintain their valuable mainframe code-often representing thousands of hours of development time-by moving off the mainframe and running it on lower cost platforms.
That was the route Presidential Life Insurance Co. took in early 1999, when it moved its COBOL applications off its IBM mainframe to Microsoft Windows NT Server boxes.
The Nyack, N.Y.-based insurer built and ran its life insurance and annuity products, tax and stockholder systems on IBM Corp.'s CICS platform, which functions as middleware between the mainframe and application layer, much as an application server does today. More than 160 screens and 650 COBOL programs were part of that migration.
Now, the company is moving the COBOL applications again to a third home, onto a Windows Server 2003 system. Not only is Presidential Life dramatically improving the performance of its applications, but it is also able to take full advantage of the skills of its IT staff, which is highly competent in both COBOL and Windows.
Founded in 1965, Presidential Life is a provider of fixed deferred and immediate annuities and life insurance products to financial service professionals and their clients across the United States. The company has annual revenues of almost $300 million and employs 100 people in its headquarters and regional offices.
After the first migration in 1999, Presidential Life's COBOL programs ran well on the company's Windows NT systems, says Marilyn Shenn, senior vice president and CIO at Presidential Life. However, much of the market has moved to new generations of Windows-the latest being Windows Server 2003-and Microsoft recently phased out support for NT.
"Continuing to execute on these unsupported systems would clearly be unacceptable," she explains. "We had to find a solution that would keep us fully supported for the foreseeable future."
In addition to resolving support issues, Shenn seeks to change the look of the end-user screens. Most of Presidential's applications still have a character-based, menu-driven mainframe look, versus a Windows graphical user interface.
Presidential wants to better leverage the .NET Framework aspects of Windows Server 2003, and eventually begin to make its annuities information available to agents over the Web.
The company currently is rolling out a solution from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Fujitsu Software Corp. called NeoKicks and NetCOBOL for .NET, which runs COBOL code within a framework compatible with CICS.
Microsoft's .NET Framework will support legacy languages such as COBOL, running the code within a virtual container known as Common Language Runtime. Thus, applications written in COBOL code can run within a Windows system, and take advantage of all Windows features.
Presidential also installed Btrieve database for COBOL data file support from Pervasive Software, Austin, Texas. The Btrieve database acts as a common file system, enabling Presidential Life to store data from both its legacy and Windows 2003 systems.
Shenn says her department recently completed a move of Presidential's tax system to the NeoKicks system, a process that took about two months, including user testing time. The conversion of the annuity system is underway.
"Since there are many more programs associated with our annuity system, we expect it will take about five months, including about one month of testing within IT, and then an additional two-month testing period with our business units."
Presidential is reaping many benefits from the conversion, beginning with its ability to maintain existing applications on supported software. There also has been a multi-fold performance increase by moving to Windows Server 2003, Shenn reports.
But the greatest benefit, Shenn says, is that the carrier continues to leverage its COBOL skill sets and take advantage of the prevalence of Microsoft skills.
"We're building on the knowledge we already have in the department," says Shenn. "I work with a very small group of resources here. We had to fit this project into all the other application development work they have to do."
Currently, the COBOL-based CICS applications that run on Windows still have character-based screens as they did on the mainframe, rather than graphical user interfaces. "We wanted to make it a seamless migration for our business units," she says. "The applications have the same look and feel."
Although integration into Windows and .NET enables IT professionals to build graphical user front ends-and Shenn intends to implement GUI screens in the future-the migration will take place in deliberate steps. For example, attempting to build graphical front ends for the tax system would have slowed down the conversion, she explains.
"We felt the tax system was going to be a very quick migration, which it was, and we didn't want any kind of a learning curve involved in it. There's very little difference in the use of the keys," Shenn says.
Eventually, Presidential intends to make some aspects of its annuities system accessible to its network of independent agents through its Web portal.
"We have a very good start on a robust Web site for our agents," she comments. "We deal with about 10,000 independent agents nationally. This would be an ideal migration at some point in the future-to enable them access to see information regarding specific policyholders. It will make business a little bit easier for everybody."
Joe McKendrick is a business writer based in Doylestown, Pa.
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