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Independence Blue Cross' Operational Control Center Takes a Customer's View of Operational Monitoring

The proactive approach of IBC'S Operational Control Center anticipates customer use issues while providing diagnostic insight to the carrier's technology architects.

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Faced with systems outages that affected the performance of customer-facing services, Independence Blue Cross (IBC; $11.4 billion in total revenues) adopted the ITIL framework to govern software development, release and configuration management, service-level management, and problem management to address instability and unavailability in its production environment. But while the effort resulted in a more stable systems environment, it still left the Philadelphia-based nonprofit insurer in a reactive mode, aware of outages only once they had occurred, according to Nick Robak, senior director, technology services, IBC.

"We were spending an inordinate amount of time reacting to things and not fixing root issues that may have been systemic," comments Robak. "We tried to think of a way we could build an organization around proactive improvements."

That's when IBC lighted upon the idea of creating a dedicated, centralized capability to actively detect service interruptions and diagnose underlying causes. The result was the carrier's Operational Control Center (OCC), which not only transcends the network monitoring paradigm of simply detecting whether service streams are on or off, it also actively probes systems for weaknesses and reveals trends that provide a feedback loop for architectural planning.

Once IBC had a rough concept of what it wanted, in late 2007 it engaged LiquidHub, a Wayne, Pa.-based technology consultant with which the carrier had worked on an earlier infrastructure stability project, relates Maryann Phillip, director, service delivery, IBC. Having worked with us earlier, they knew our environment," she says.

IBC began working with LiquidHub in April 2008 to construct a maturity model for the OCC and identify key deliverables. That included the design and build-out of the facility to house the OCC, designing the Center's organizational structure and identifying internal staff to run it, evaluating the tools the Center would use, identifying business services to monitor, and developing service-level agreements (SLAs), according to Phillip.

Later in the year, Phillip notes, IBC selected an upgraded and expanded implementation of HP's (Palo Alto, Calif.) Business Technology Optimization (BTO) tool suite. "By the end of the year we had centralized all the staff and had four services on pilot -- claims, broker, e-mail and authentication -- gathering information from them and refining processes," she recounts.

At the turn of the year, IBC put in place an HP UCMDB (Universal Configuration Management Database) 8.0 and worked with business colleagues to identify 10 more services for the OCC to monitor. "We also spent time training staff on the new tools we got through BTO, and we're integrating the tools themselves," Phillip says.

More Than Checking for a Pulse

Superficially the OCC resembles a network operating system (NOC), but the latter only checks to see if a given capability has a "pulse," Phillip clarifies. "We're not starting at the infrastructure and asking if it's up or down," she explains. "We're worried about the consumer coming in through a portal — we want to make sure their whole trip is fully functioning and that the response time meets the consumer's expectation."

An integral part of the OCC's monitoring is the execution of simulated customer activities to probe business critical services, Phillip adds. "If our simulator sees a problem, we will know about it before the customer does," she says.

In 2010 IBC will add 20 additional business services to the OCC and will provide managers with a full-service executive dashboard for SLAs and other KPI metrics, according to Phillip. "Throughout the year we'll be focused on event correlation and trending analysis, using the data that we yield from having integrated the tools."

The results of that analysis will create an unprecedented transparent picture of IBC's production environment from the standpoint of consumer access, according to Robak. Like many carriers, IBC has a complex legacy systems environment, he concedes. "When you try to move to the next level of technology, you need to be very careful about unwinding the last one or you create a sort of coral of applications," he argues. "We're going to take some of the results of the OCC's activity and bring that to our technology architects."

Translating that information into architectural planning is vital to the company's future, Robak believes. "We are starting to explore the whole Web 2.0 model, so accuracy and availability are more key," he says. "Unless we simplify our architecture, we will not be able to deliver data at the required speed."

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

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