Management Spotlight : National Life of Vermont

Converting from a traditional mainframe environment with "green screen" terminals to a more robust distributed client/server model containing graphical user interfaces is a daunting task. This is especially true if one wants to use the original mainframe as the server. National Life of Vermont, a 147-year-old life insurance and equity company based in Montpelier, Vt., learned that middleware and all its intricacies play a key role in pulling off just such a conversion task. As with most businesses, the company needed to follow the trend of moving to a Windows-oriented environment in order to stay competitive and increase productivity, according to Reed Parker, a senior systems analyst with National Life.

"We were a traditional IBM mainframe shop, moving toward Windows client/server," said Parker. "We wanted to connect our client environment applications to the mainframe without screen scraping or helopi technology. Our view is the mainframe is a server, both for data and processes." The company uses many applications, all running independently on the mainframe, that deal with a range of data from customer information to policy values. An unspecified middleware tool provided limited connectivity to the PC front ends that are strung together with Novell's NetWare network protocol IPX. National Life wanted to present a single graphical interface to its users for all of the business applications running on its IBM ES9000 Series mainframe. This would allow both the 1000 in-house employees and the additional 1000 field employees dispersed across all 50 states to access all the necessary information easily and provide simplified customer service, said Terry Carlyle, project manager for National Life.

Last year, National Life began evaluating other middleware options to improve its networking infrastructure. IBM's MQSeries and offerings from Digital Equipment Corp., Maynard, Mass, were evaluated, but both lacked support for the IPX protocol. Pipes from San Francisco-based PeerLogic Inc. was also evaluated and eventually selected as the middleware of choice because of its support for IPX, the technical staffing that comes with the product and because National Life was generally impressed with the company, Parker said.

"We wanted to connect our
client environment ... to the
mainframe without
screen scraping ..."
-- Reed Parker
senior systems analyst

PeerLogic's technical support was important because one does not "take Pipes out of the box, stick it on a machine and [go]," Parker said. Two consultants from PeerLogic spent time with the National Life team going over Pipes' functionality, installation procedures and how to fine tune the product for specific environments. National Life did all the interface coding with its own staff.

Two full-time and four part-time National Life developers spent the next five months developing the Pipes/CICS interfaces to the client and back-end applications. "We did not work on the project full-time, we had other projects to work on simultaneously," Parker said.

The team spent most of the development time creating a "protective shell" around Pipes and its many application programming interface (API) calls. Parker said there are some 14 or 15 proprietary API calls available for Pipes, but developers only needed access to one or two for many of National Life's applications. PeerLogic helped customize some of Pipe's mainframe components.

"[PeerLogic only has] a few mainframe customers, so they helped build a CICS piece," said Parker. "They worked extensively with us to change some of the base product to fit our needs."

For the finished product, which went into production March 1, National Life used Visual Basic for the client applications, C for the Pipes interface, and a combination of C and MicroFocus (Palo Alto, Calif.) Cobol for the APIs, according to Parker. The majority of the mainframe applications were written in Cobol2 or Assembler.

Parker's group did not want the Windows front to connect directly to the mainframe with IPX/Pipes. Instead an OS/2-based box was placed in the middle to covert the protocols and bridge the gap. National Life is currently working on a more standard TCP/IP implementation to replace IPX which is slated to be completed by year's end. "That should speed things up and allow us to get rid of the OS/2 bridge," explained Parker.

National Life used both technical and user testing methods to make sure it had everything put together correctly. On the technical side, Data Sniffer-type tools were used to see how information traveled across the LAN and to make sure there were no bottlenecks. Meanwhile, a team of business people were brought in to test the new system against the old, to ensure all the data being returned from the mainframe to the clients is correct.

To date, National Life has been very pleased with its investment in the Pipes architecture. "The speed is very fast and reliable," said Parker. "Pipes is known for its reliability and stability. It stays up very well."

-- Jason J. Meserve