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Allstate Connects with Countrywide Producer Network in Seven

By James Payne,2014-05-13 10:47
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Allstate Connects with Countrywide Producer Network in Seven

Allstate Connects with Countrywide

    Producer Network in Seven Months Using

    Microsoft Visual Studio .NET and the .NET

    Framework

    Published: January 2003

    Solution Overview

    Customer Profile Allstate Financial Group wanted to extend its five existing policy The Allstate Corporation is the nation’s largest publicly held management systems for access by the company’s countrywide network personal lines insurer. of independent producers. Using Microsoft Visual Studio .NET and the

    Business Situation Microsoft .NET Framework, Allstate built a solution combining .NET Allstate wanted to extend its policy technologies and J2EE to put Allstate Financial information at producers’ management systems for access over the Internet. fingertips. Allstate attributes the success of its project and rapid time to

    Solution marketseven months from the start of coding to production rolloutto Allstate used Microsoft? Visual the significant gains in performance, scalability, reliability, and developer Studio? .NET and the .NET Framework to build a solution that productivity provided by Visual Studio .NET and the .NET Framework. integrates .NET technologies with J2EE and existing mainframe applications.

    Benefits Situation ? Rapid time to market ? Lower call and service center Founded in 1931, the Allstate Corporation (NYSE: ALL) is the nation’s largest publicly held costs ? Decreased mailing costs personal lines insurer. Widely known through its ―You’re In Good Hands With Allstate‖ slogan, ? Extensible for system-to-system Allstate has approximately 13,000 exclusive agents in North America and provides insurance integration or mobile device support products to more than 14 million households. The company ranks fifty-seventh in the Fortune 500, ? Significant increase in developer with 41,000 employees and U.S.$29 billion in annual sales. productivity ? 200 to 300 percent greater Web The Allstate Financial Group provides server performance Fast Facts investment, retirement, and life insurance Software and Services Number of developers to build application 45 Microsoft Windows? 2000 products. Those products are sold through a Number of months to build application 7 Advanced Server with Internet wide variety of third partiesa group that Information Services (IIS) 5.0 Number of registered users 13,000 Microsoft Visual Studio .NET Allstate collectively calls sales Microsoft .NET Framework Size of database 50 GB representatives. Sales representatives can Microsoft SQL ServerTM 2000 Performance improvement over ASP 200300% Enterprise Edition be exclusive (e.g., the 13,000 Allstate Microsoft BizTalk? Server 2002 agents) or nonexclusive producers, such as banks, securities firms, and independent agents. In Microsoft Consulting Services total, Allstate has more than 350,000 producers. Hardware Four Compaq ProLiant DL380 G2 Allstate Financial Group is beginning a strategic push to grow its business significantly over the two-processor servers Six Compaq ProLiant DL580 four-next few years. Independent producers play a key role in this initiative. Because independent processor servers producers can choose to sell products from a number of different financial institutions, Allstate Two Compaq ProLiant DL760 eight-processor servers must service these critical distribution channels better than the competition does in order to grow Hitachi Lightning 9000 storage its business. area network Partner For Allstate, servicing producers more effectively means providing anywhere, anytime access to Avanade the information that producers need to meet customer needs. In the past, independent producers

had no direct access to the data in Allstate’s policy management systems. Instead, they were “There were a number of forced to call the Allstate service center and speak with a representative to perform common

    people who asked why we tasks such as tracking the status of a new life insurance policy through the underwriting process.

    didn’t just write it all in J2EE, Similarly, all account transactionseven a simple address changehad to be made by mail, fax,

    so we spent a lot of time or a call into Allstate’s service center.

    looking at the pros and cons To address this challenge, Allstate Financial launched its Producer Connectivity initiative. This

    of both technologies. We initiative required building a solution that integrates with five policy management systems and

    landed on .NET because we extends their functionality for Web-based access by Allstate’s countrywide network of producers.

    To make sense strategically, the solution had to be extensible; it would eventually need to felt that it was where we support direct system-to-system integration with larger producers such as banks and brokerage needed to be in the future.”

    houses. ―We were determined to take the architectural approach that provided the greatest

    strategic value,‖ recalls Kevin Rice, an Enterprise Architect at Allstate and lead architect for the

    Patricia Coffey project. ―We had to leverage our existing infrastructure, yet we didn’t want to change our host Vice President of Technology systems any more than was necessary. And we didn’t want to have to integrate with any system Allstate Financial a second time in the future.‖ Solution

    Using .NET technologies to extend and combine the functionality of its host systems, Allstate

    delivered a solution that meets the unique needs of its countrywide producer community. Except

    for a thin integration layer, the entire solution was created using the Microsoft? Visual

    Studio? .NET development system and is based on the .NET Framework. The integration layer,

    which runs off-the-shelf J2EE application connectors under IBM WebSphere, is exposed for

    access by the solution through a common Extensible Markup Language (XML)based interface.

Figure 1: Allstate’s Producer Connectivity platform mixes .NET technologies with J2EE to expose the company’s policy

    management systems for access by Allstate’s countrywide network of independent producers.

―Exposing the functionality of our host systems was a one-time requirementnecessary, but not “Real strategic value comes delivering value in itself,‖ says Rice. ―Real strategic value comes from being able to combine and

    from being able to combine extend the functionality of our host systems to build solutions that meet new business needs. This

    and extend the functionality is an area where .NET far surpasses J2EE. Reinventing the wheel when off-the-shelf integration

    of our host systems to build components were available would have been foolish, but attempting to build the rest of our

    solution using anything but .NET would have been far more difficult.‖ solutions that meet new

    business needs. This is an AccessAllstate.com was delivered within budget and on timejust 31 weeks from the start of

    area where .NET far system design to production rollout. ―AccessAllstate.com is one of the largest projects Allstate

    Financial has ever undertaken that was completed on time and delivers real business value,‖ surpasses J2EE.”

    says Cathleen Halliburton, Director of Technology at Allstate Financial. ―With .NET, we were able

    to deploy an enterprise-class, feature-rich solution in only 31 weeks. I’ve never seen a Kevin Rice development team accomplish so much so fast.‖ Enterprise Architect Allstate Corporation AccessAllstate.com places everything that producers need to service Allstate products at their fingertips. A personalized start page lets each producer monitor all current Allstate-related

    business at a glancedata that can be distributed across as many as five policy management

    systems. The Web-based interface enables producers to drill down into data residing in Allstate’s

    host systems when more detail is needed. Many transactions can be performed against the host

    systems in real time, eliminating the need to call the service center to perform common account

    service tasks. Producers can create their own libraries of commonly used forms, access product

    information, and order marketing materials directly through the site.

     Figure 2: AccessAllstate.com places everything that producers need to service Allstate products at their fingertips.

Benefits

    By selecting a Microsoft .NET solution, Allstate built a solution that will increase the company’s “Microsoft .NET has connection with its 350,000-plus producers in only seven months. AccessAllstate.com was

    exceeded our expectations launched on time and on-budget, had 13,000 registered users within 60 days, and currently

    in terms of stability, perfor-receives approximately 500,000 hits per day. ―Microsoft .NET has exceeded our expectations in

    mance, and productivity.” terms of stability, performance, and productivity,‖ says Halliburton. According to Allstate Financial Vice President of Technology Patricia Coffey, embracing .NET Cathleen Halliburton technologies will enable Allstate to stay ahead of its competition in a highly competitive market. Director of Technology ―Allstate Financial wants to make a difference through technology,‖ says Coffey. ―In doing so, we Allstate Financial

    need to pick the best partners to do business withthose companies that are well known in the industry and have a proven track record. We’re a big company and we can’t afford to bet on

    technologies that may not be there tomorrow. There were a number of people who asked why we

    didn’t just write it all in J2EE, so we spent a lot of time looking at the pros and cons of both

    technologies. We landed on .NET because we felt that it was where we needed to be in the

    future.‖

    Improved Producer Service and Increased Revenues

    AccessAllstate.com simplifies the effort required for producers to work with Allstate, which in turn

    increases the likelihood that a producer will recommend an Allstate product to meet a customer’s need. ―Our products sit on a shelf along with those of other companies,‖ says Halliburton. ―For an

    independent producer to choose to promote our products over those of our competitors, we need

    to be easier to work with. AccessAllstate.com accomplishes just that, putting the tools that

    producers require to efficiently sell and service Allstate products at their fingertips.‖

    ―Producers really like the new Web site—the reason being that it provides them with information they’ve never had access to before,‖ adds Lisa Flanary, Assistant Vice President of Distribution

    Channel Support at Allstate. ―However, some of the biggest compliments we’ve received have

    been from our peers at other insurance companies. Although it must have been painful for them

    to say, they told us that they’ve seen our new site and that it really hits the mark.‖

    Decreased Call Center and Mailing Costs

    According to a conservative business case prepared by the producer connectivity team for top

    Allstate management, AccessAllstate.com will pay for itself through lower call center costs and

    mailing costs. ―Once producers get used to AccessAllstate.com, we plan on making all printed

    correspondence sent to policyholders available online instead of sending producers a duplicate

    paper copy,‖ says Halliburton. ―Combined with lower call center costs, as driven by the self-

    service capabilities of AccessAllstate.com, this savings is expected to pay for the solution in four

    years. Increased revenues due to producers choosing to sell more Allstate products will only

    serve to accelerate our return on investment and are not factored into our break-even

    projections.‖

    Faster Time to Market

    Responsible for the delivery of the project, Halliburton feels that the strongest benefit provided

    by .NET technologies is decreased time to market. ―The greatest benefit I see from using .NET is

    that it made meeting our schedule commitments possible, which is something we could never

    have achieved on another platform,‖ says Halliburton. ―With .NET, we’re at least twice as

    productive as we were in the past. Moving forward, this increase in productivity will enable “With Visual Studio .NET delivering incremental value to the company in short six- to nine-week cycles.‖

    features like IntelliSense Allstate is already looking at extending the functionality of its Producer Connectivity platform technology and Dynamic through the use of other .NET technologiesas needed to capitalize on new market opportunities Help, I was able to come up or meet new business challenges. ―Plans are in process to publish our solution’s functionality to speed on the .NET using XML Web services, which will enable direct yet seamless integration with other Allstate

    Framework very quickly. It internal systems and the internal systems of our larger distribution partners,‖ says Rice. ―We’re

    soon became clear that the also looking at using the Microsoft Mobile Internet Toolkit together with Visual Studio .NET and

    the .NET Compact Framework to extend our solution for connected or disconnected access by extensive prebuilt plumbing

    users of mobile devices. With the .NET infrastructure we now have in place, we’ll be able to in the .NET Framework

    deliver these new capabilities by extending what’s already therewith minimal time and expense. would significantly increase

    With .NET, the possibilities are endless and the results are close at hand.‖ our productivity.”

    Platform Selection and Development Process

    Kevin Rice Before recommending .NET technologies, Rice installed Visual Studio .NET and explored the Enterprise Architect capabilities of the .NET Framework. ―With Visual Studio .NET features like IntelliSense? Allstate Corporation technology and Dynamic Help, I was able to come up to speed on the .NET Framework very

    quickly,‖ says Rice. ―It soon became clear that the extensive prebuilt plumbing in the .NET Framework would significantly increase our productivity.‖

    To test the reliability, scalability, and performance of ASP.NET, the .NET environment for running

    Web applications, Rice converted portions of the company’s existing Web site from Active Server Pages (ASP) to ASP.NET. When he benchmarked both technologies, the ASP version reached

    100 percent processor utilization at 50 users. An identical server running ASP.NET supported

    170 users before saturating the test network. Scalability gains were just as impressive; adding a

    second server running ASP.NET resulted in 90 percent additional capacity, compared to a 50

    percent improvement after adding a second server running ASP. ―In every test we performed,

    ASP.NET delivered a 200 to 300 percent improvement over ASP,‖ says Rice. ―The scalability,

    performance, and reliability gains provided by .NET are incredible.‖ Scoping the Project and Building a Team

    In parallel with the platform selection process, Allstate went through an extensive scope and

    requirements phase to determine the functionality required for the site. Once the key features

    were identified, Allstate determined the order in which to expose its existing systems. Although

    policy data would remain in the host systems, the solution would need its own operational data

    store to pre-aggregate data and limit the workload placed on the mainframes. Each back-end

    system still had to be exposed for real-time account service and retrieval of policy details.

    Allstate enlisted Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS) and Avanade to assist with solution design

    and development. ―Having our people work side by side with MCS went a long way to facilitate

    knowledge transfer and gave us confidence that our initial solution architecture was sound,‖ says

    Halliburton. ―The level of skill exhibited by Avanade developers also was impressive, in terms of

    both their overall technical breadth and their .NET-specific knowledge. They had a great attitude

    and were completely dedicated to the success of the project.‖

    In every test we performed, With 31 weeks to complete the project, Allstate decided to take an iterative approach and break ASP.NET delivered a 200 to solution development into four phases, each resulting in an executable release. This approach

    300 percent improvement enabled testing to begin early in the project, ensuring that any requirements, design, or

    over ASP. The scalability, implementation issues were caught as soon as possible. The scope of each phaseand of the An Iterative Approach to Application Development project as a whole—was managed by a team consisting of members from Allstate’s Enterprise performance, and reliability

    Architecture team, the core application development team, and various Allstate business groups. gains provided by .NET are

    incredible.” Phase one of the implementation process, which began on December 17, 2001, spanned four

    weeks. During this phase, a technical architecture team consisting of one Allstate architect, two

    Avanade architects, and one MCS consultant finalized the solution design and began to code a Kevin Rice set of common system services. ―We didn’t have to write much low-level code in the system Enterprise Architect Allstate Corporation services layer,‖ says Clark Sell, Development Lead at Allstate Financial and leader of the technical architecture team. ―All we did was add a thin layer on top of the .NET Framework

    classes to enforce best practices and make life easier for the developers writing business logic.‖

    After laying out the solution’s overall design, the technical architecture team used the Enterprise

    Templates in Visual Studio .NET to customize the development environment for the rest of the

    team. ―With Enterprise Templates, we were able to jumpstart the development process while

    reducing the number of decisions and complexity of choices that application developers were

    forced to make,‖ says Sell. ―Re-usable code such as our system services can easily be made part

    of the initial project structure, thus enforcing best practices and design consistency across a large

    team of developers.‖

    In the system services layer, the technical architecture team extended the role-based security

    mechanisms in the .NET Framework to accommodate Allstate’s unique business needs. ―We

    extended a user’s identity to capture additional details, such as which channels a producer is

    associated with or the relationship between a producer and an assistant,‖ says Emily Stephenson,

    a Solution Development Consultant at Avanade. ―This provided the ability to apply more granular

    logic in making security decisions. In the past, we would have needed to write all this code from

    scratch. With the .NET Framework, we just extended what was already there to add a few more

    attributes.‖

    Implementing the User Interface and Business Logic

    Business logic implementation began in phase two, when several more developers were brought

    on board. During this 10-week period, the technical architecture team finished coding the system

    services, user interface (UI) designers began creating Web pages, and the development team

    implemented the four most difficult business functions.

    By phase three, an 8-week period, the technical architecture team had completed coding and

    testing all system services. The UI team continued building Web pages, and the development

    team added 40 more business functions. In phase four, the final nine weeks before launch, an

    additional 40 functions were added. At peak staffing, Allstate had 45 developers working on the

    project, with another 40 people in testing and other support roles. ―Developers were so productive

    they were typically ahead of their project plan and were able to help out in other ways,‖ says Rice.

    Test and Debug

    Developers achieved code-complete on June 21, 2002. ―We achieved bug convergence [when

    the number of closed bugs surpasses the number of open bugs] far sooner than expected,‖ says

Sell. ―All low-level plumbing was provided by the .NET Framework, which meant that we had very

    few structural issues to fix. Programming against the .NET Framework also meant that all code “The best thing about was type-safe and eliminated the need to worry about memory leaks. When debugging was ASP.NET is that it enables required, stepping through the code and even across tiers was very easy. Visual Studio .NET complete separation provides a vastly improved and fully integrated debugging environment.‖ between the code and the Production Rollout user interface. We get the While developers were debugging the application, other teams trained call center representatives productivity benefits of a and built out the production hardware infrastructure. As soon as the production environment was forms-based environment ready, each build was propagated to it using simple XCOPY scripts and tested as if the solution along with the flexibility were livean approach that ensured there would be no surprises at launch. In mid-July, the site benefits of true object-was switched on and made available to a limited group of producers. AccessAllstate.com opened oriented programming.” for all producers on July 30, 2002. ―I’ve never felt more confident about an application going into

    production,‖ says Sell. ―Even though the entire project took just seven months, it was feature-complete and rock-solid when it went out the door.‖ Clark Sell Development Lead

    Allstate Financial Application Architecture Allstate’s requirements for uncompromised flexibility, scalability, and security pointed to a multi-tiered architecture, with the functionality in the presentation, business logic, and integration tiers

    fully abstracted to maximize future extensibility and facilitate code reuse. To maximize availability,

    each tier is load-balanced and consists of two or more servers performing identical roles.

    Web Tier

    The Web tier of AccessAllstate.com resides on four two-processor Compaq ProLiant DL380 G2

    servers running the Microsoft Windows? 2000 Advanced Server operating system with Microsoft

    Internet Information Services (IIS) 5.0 and the .NET Framework. Over the course of the project, a

    team of six UI developers used the Web Forms designer in Visual Studio .NET to create the

    solution’s 520 ASP.NET pages. ―The best thing about ASP.NET is that it enables total separation

    between the code and the user interface,‖ says Sell. ―We get the productivity benefits of a forms-based environment along with the flexibility benefits of true object-oriented programming. To build

    a Web page, all you need to do is drag a few Web Forms controls onto a page and set their

    properties. All data validation, page permissions (using forms-based declarative security), and

    access into the application tier are managed by the code behind each page.‖

    Object Model

    .NETCodeASP.NETRemotingApplicationHTTPBehindEmissary(.aspx)Internet(C#)TierBinary/HTTP

    System Services

    .NET Framework

     Figure 3: ASP.NET enabled Allstate to achieve complete separation between the application’s code and user interface.

Session state management for the Web tier is provided automatically by ASP.NET, with the data “BizTalk Server is perfect for stored in an active-passive database cluster consisting of two four-processor Compaq ProLiant

    the synchronous manage-DL580 servers running Microsoft SQL Server? 2000 Enterprise Edition and Windows 2000

    ment and transformation of Advanced Server. The cluster resides in the demilitarized zone along with the Web servers, and

    XML messages. Its graphical shares a storage area network with the solution’s operational data store (ODS). ―ASP.NET

    provides great support for state management across a Web farmfunctionality that under ASP mapping tools made creating

    required a highly skilled developer to implement,‖ says Sell. ―Adding one line to the web.config file the hundreds of XSLT

    directs ASP.NET to store all session data in a SQL Server database. ASP.NET even includes the transformations that we scripts required to build the SQL Server tables and stored procedures. The entire process required a simple task.” couldn’t be simpler, and it saves having to send session data back down to the browser to

    maintain a stateless Web farm.‖

    Clark Sell All calls from the Web tier into the solution’s business logic pass through an emissary, which is a Development Lead Allstate Financial C# assembly that abstracts the interface into the application tier. The emissary uses the remoting

     functionality in the .NET Framework to serialize the objects passed to it and sends the objects on

    to the application tier, using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) Channel with the binary

    formatter. On the application tier, an executant implemented as an ASP.NET page with C# code

    behind it receives the HTTP post, rebuilds the object (along with the user’s security credentials),

    checks the user’s authentication status, and calls the intended business function. ―With .NET

    remoting, developers don’t need to worry about the fact that the business logic resides in a

    separate tier—it’s completely transparent,‖ says Rice.

Application Tier

    The application tier resides on two four-processor Compaq ProLiant DL580 servers running

    Windows 2000 Advanced Server with IIS 5.0, the .NET Framework, and Microsoft BizTalk?

    Server 2002. When a business component residing in the application tier is called by the

    executant, the component executes the business function and passes the resultant object back to

    the executant, which in turn uses the remoting functionality in the .NET Framework to serialize

    the object and generate an HTTP response that passes the object back to the Web tier.

    Figure 4: In the application tier, BizTalk Server 2002 translates messages in Allstate’s standard XML schemas to the proprietary XML formats required by each J2EE application connector.

Components that need to read or write data to execute a business function can go to two places: “I’ve never felt more directly to the ODS or through the integration tier to a policy management system. If a component

    confident about an needs access to data residing in a mainframe, the component creates an XML message and

    application going into passes it to BizTalk Server 2002. BizTalk Server translates the XML message to the proprietary

    production. Even though the XML format required by the application connector in the integration tier, logs the message, and

    passes it on to an integration broker (a C# component) that in turn sends the XML message to entire project took just seven

    the integration tier using an HTTP post. ―BizTalk Server is perfect for the synchronous months, it was feature-

    management and transformation of XML messages,‖ says Sell. ―Its graphical mapping tools made complete and rock-solid creating the hundreds of XSLT transformations that we required a simple task.‖ when it went out the door.”

    In the case of Transcend, Allstate’s UNIX-based annuity management system, the business logic

    components use the COM interop feature of the .NET Framework to access a COM component Clark Sell that communicates with a brokering program running on the UNIX host over straight IP socket Development Lead Allstate Financial calls. COM interop is also used to integrate with Code-1, an address lookup and validation

     application running on a remote UNIX hostagain through a COM component that runs on the

    application tier and communicates directly with the remote host.

    Integration Tier

    The integration tier, which manages all access to the policy management systems, resides on a

    pair of four-processor Compaq ProLiant DL580 servers running Windows 2000 Advanced Server

    with IIS 5.0, IBM WebSphere, and the J2EE-based application connectors. The specific J2EE

    connectors that Allstate used to integrate with its back-end systems include:

    ? IBM Host Publisher, a screen-scrape utility for 3270 and 5250 applications, which

    communicates with Allstate’s Life/70 and ATLAS policy management systems.

    ? Cyberlife XML Server, which communicates with Allstate’s two Cyberlife policy

    management systems.

    ? The IBM OnDemand Web Enablement Kit, which communicates with IBM’s Content

    Manager OnDemand application running under the Microsoft Windows NT? Server

    operating system and DB2.

    Each J2EE servlet has its own URL within IIS 5.0. When the integration tier receives a post

    from the application tier, IIS 5.0 passes the XML message contained in the post to the

    appropriate J2EE servlet running under WebSphere. The servlet communicates with its

    corresponding host system, retrieves the required data or performs the required transaction,

    and returns an XML file to IIS 5.0 for transmittal back to the application tier. In addition to the

    J2EE host connectors, the integration tier runs a J2EE servlet from Xenos that translates

    proprietary IBM Advanced Function Printing (AFP) files to Adobe Portable Document Format

    (PDF) for viewing in a Web browser.

    Figure 5: .NET technologies integrate with J2EE application connectors through an XML-based interface.

Operational Data Store

    To maximize system responsiveness and reduce the load placed on the host systems, a large

    amount of data is aggregated in the ODS, which resides on an active-active cluster of two eight-

    processor Compaq ProLiant DL760 servers. When a business component requires data residing “Visual Studio .NET and in the ODS, the component uses a common system service that accesses the database server ADO.NET make the process through the SQL Server Managed Provider. Every night, the ODS is refreshed through 27 batch of pulling an entire data set feeds from the various policy management systems. SQL Server Data Transformation Services is

    out of the ODS and using it used to parse the files sent by the host systems and load the information into the ODS. ―Having

    to populate a grid control on an ODS improves responsiveness by enabling the aggregation of commonly needed dataa

    an ASP.NET page a one-producer’s book of business can span all five policy management systems,‖ says Rice. ―Our host

    systems aren’t up 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so the ODS provides a way for producers minute task for even an to get information when the host systems are offline.‖ entry-level developer.” The ODS stores basic information on each producer, the channels that producer operates in, the

    status of his or her pending policies across all host systems, aggregated commission reports, and Clark Sell so on. The ODS also contains a master ID for every producer, along with how each master ID Development Lead Allstate Financial maps to the unique producer IDs for each host system. ―Visual Studio .NET and ADO.NET make the process of pulling an entire data set out of the ODS and using it to populate a grid control on an ASP.NET page a one-minute task for even an entry-level developer,‖ says Sell.

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