The promise of technology has been exaggerated so much and so often, that when the real thing arrives, the messenger may reasonably be suspected of crying wolf.
Web services could play a huge role in facilitating timely information exchange between enterprises and their business partners, according to Nationwide's Vijay Gopal, enterprise architect and project leader of a Web services pilot to connect enterprise systems with those of the carrier's Berwyn, PA-based Nationwide Provident subsidiary (formerly Provident Mutual). "This is basically the same promise you've heard before-from object-oriented technology, from CORBA, going back even to structured programming," Gopal says. But with major vendors such as IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems working in an unprecedented fashion to achieve new levels of interoperability, that promise is closer to reality, he asserts.
The potential benefits of Web services for Nationwide were heralded by Srinivas Koushik, the company's enterprise CTO since January 2002, who says he faced a certain challenge in convincing his business counterparts. "When you go back to the business users to talk to them about it, they either say, 'OK, this is the latest silver bullet,' or simply, 'OK, what's so great about this?'"
Nevertheless, Koushik says that two things helped to make the case for pursuing the development of Web services. First, whether on the Nationwide Insurance or Nationwide Financial sides-the firm's two principal wings-doing business requires collaborating with multiple partners and suppliers. "For us to continue to be very successful, we need to be much more closely integrated with them," Koushik remarks. Most B2B integration has been done manually, requiring duplicate entry of information to systems-a process that is prone to error and delay, Koushik argues. "So putting in a truly integrated solution using Web services technologies provides some pretty significant benefits that management is willing to support."
But also key to securing that support was the fact that a Web services initiative would be based on existing technology investments. "It's built on top of the Web and application servers and other infrastructure that we built in the late '90s," he relates. "I believe if we'd gone to the business with the case that 'Here's great technology; give me more money to invest in infrastructure,' we'd have been thrown out!"
In March 2002, Koushik assigned Gopal and fellow enterprise architect CarlVon Patterson to research the technology and develop proofs of concept that would demonstrate to the enterprise how internal and external Web services could interoperate across platforms, as well as how legacy applications could be enabled as Web services, according to Gopal. Patterson and Gopal then conducted "lunch-and-learn" sessions to "socialize" the Web services effort throughout the organization, he adds.
Koushik also acted to get Nationwide to join ACORD (Pearl River, NY) and the WS-I (Web Services Interoperability Organization), an industry consortium dedicated to the promotion of Web services, by July 2002. The idea, Gopal explains, is that "as an early adopter, we might be in a position to have some influence on the standards."
Following the team's evangelical efforts, it was clear that "there were business problems crying out for this solution," Gopal says. One within the Nationwide Financial domain stood out in particular, given Nationwide's Web services adoption strategy: "Whereas many Web services adopters prefer to deal with the technology internally before trying to expose Web services to external partners, we see valuein integrating our back-end system to those of external partners as an area where we could see immediate impact," Gopal explains. The pilot was able to accomplish this goal while minimizing risk by solving a problem experienced by the recently acquired Provident Mutual subsidiary.
Following the acquisition (agreed upon August 2001), Provident Mutual's retailers were able to sell Nationwide products, but doing that involved core systems functions, such as transfer of assets, Gopal explains. That required broker/dealers having to leave the Provident Web site and sign-on again with Nationwide to transact business. "We worked on developing a cross-company authentication solution that would securely get them over to our site, seamlessly, without their having to log on again," he relates.
In October 2002, Nationwide worked with IBM's (Armonk, NY) jStart early adopter program, for architectural guidance and collaboration on the pilot. The objectives they set out to meet, according to Gopal, were to establish a reference architecture for Web services, develop a security framework for Web services, and define a framework to administer and monitor usage of Web services. The pilot was based on a centralized infrastructural component-referred to as the Gateway-that acts as a conduit for all inbound Web services and invokes line-of-business Web service provider applications. Based on J2EE, "the Gateway infrastructure is currently implemented using IBM's WebSphere Application server and Web Services Gateway," says Gopal.
The Gateway had to be designed to accept Web services requests-or "invocations"-and forward them on to Nationwide "provider" applications running on either J2EE or Microsoft (Redmond, WA) .NET platforms. The reason, according to Jim Gay, CTO, Nationwide Services Co., an organization that provides technology infrastructure services to the various Nationwide businesses, is that "Nationwide's applications have been architected differently in our various lines of business." An equal number of applications are written in J2EE and .NET, Gay explains, and because of the carrier's different architectures, large Internet presence and the need to provide a highly available environment that is geographically separated, it has to have multiple hosting environments.
In order to move forward with Web services and other Internet-based technologies, such as instant messaging, shared content and integrated authentication services, Nationwide needed to find a cost-effective architecture to undergird these services. "Our solution was to build a separate Internet environment called the Shared Infrastructure Internet environment, to provide a common platform for these shared services," Gay explains. "Nationwide is also standardizing on an architecture that allows our various application Internet environments to connect to this shared environment."
Implemented in the first quarter of 2003, the Shared Infrastructure Internet environment will play a key role in the future of Web services, according to Gopal. "Jim Gay feels that since all of this is still in an R&D mode, he's made it so we have one environment," he says. But while the Shared Infrastructure "DMZ," as it's referred to colloquially, now functions as a kind of "enterprise sandbox to play in," Gopal adds, as capabilities mature it will be the enterprise's shared Internet operating environment. "If a line of business decides they have a use case where Web services could be useful, instead of them going out setting up a separate infrastructure and going through the growing pains, they will come through the Shared Infrastructure."
That day may not be far off. Following a successful implementation of the Nationwide/Provident Web services pilot in April 2003, "we are in the process of upgrading our infrastructure and ensuring that it is scalable for higher-volumes before we open it up to all producers at Provident," Gopal says. And in the wake of that success, "we're getting a lot of interest from the other affiliate companies, and even other business areas within the enterprise that have specific business problems in mind and want to do similar pilots."
Meanwhile, Gopal adds, recognizing the problems solved in making the B2B model work, Nationwide's attitude to Web services is now, "Hey, if we're able to do it in a B2B world, we can make it work within the enterprise."
THE REAL DEAL
COMPANY: Nationwide (Columbus, OH, $24.5 billion in assets).
LINES OF BUSINESS: Personal and commercial lines P&C, life, health, annuities and mutual funds.
KEY EXECUTIVES: Mike Keller, enterprise CIO; Srinivas Koushik, enterprise CTO; Jim Gay, CTO, Nationwide Services Co.; Vijay Gopal and CarlVon Patterson, enterprise architects.
IT BUDGET: $900 million overall; $400,000 pilot investment, covering two-year total cost of ownership.
INTERNET ARCHITECTURE: Cisco-based (San Francisco) routers, firewalls and load balancers; Apache (Lincoln, NE) Web servers running on a Sun Microsystems (Santa Clara, CA) Solaris platform; IBM (Armonk, NY) WebSphere Application server running on Solaris.
PILOT ARCHITECTURE: IBM WebSphere Application Server running on Sun Solaris; IBM WebSphere Studio Application Developer; IBM Web Services Gateway technology.
I&T: WHAT CHALLENGES HAVE YOU HAD TO ADDRESS?:
JIM GAY: "To architect cost-effective Internet-based solutions, Nationwide has developed a segregated Shared Infrastructure Internet environment."
Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio