Winding road leads NCFE to BEA

BEA still seems undaunted in the face of battles with giant competitors like IBM, Oracle and Sun. Why should it be? It has fared well in app server bake-offs and has replaced incumbent software based on older mainframe or midrange technology, as well as on more recent Java app servers.

Despite hard economic times, users have not been afraid to migrate apps. An example is National Century Financial Enterprises (NCFE) Inc., billed as the largest source of healthcare receivables financing in the U.S. The Columbus, Ohio-based firm has spent years putting in place state-of-the-art receivable purchasing and tracking systems by continuously adding to and improving its core platform.

Three years ago, the company decided that developing on, maintaining and scaling its IBM AS/400-based environment was prohibitively expensive. To reduce costs, streamline customer interactions and accelerate the client closing process, NCFE decided to move to J2EE. “We decided on a J2EE architecture with the portals as a gateway to provide information not only to our extranet users, including healthcare providers and investors, but to our own employees as well,” said Kevin Armstrong, associate vice president of the technology group at NCFE.

After evaluating several J2EE solutions, the company narrowed its choices to BEA and the Sun Microsystems Inc.’s iPlanet enterprise application platform. Although BEA ranked higher, “we went with iPlanet to mirror an architecture that we shared with a partner company,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong soon came to rethink that decision, citing lower-than-expected service levels, high maintenance costs, deficiencies in the portal product’s framework, and an application server that was not as scalable as NCFE wanted. Worst of all, he said NCFE found that “iPlanet was not truly J2EE-compliant.”

When the yearly maintenance tab came due in late 2000, NCFE decided to evaluate BEA WebLogic and IBM WebSphere. WebSphere was quickly eliminated. Said Armstrong: “We wanted an integrated portal framework and at the time it was iffy whether they had one.”

During the four-week evaluation period, NCFE converted its major applications and ran a test cycle for scalability. Satisfied, the company moved to BEA WebLogic Server 6.1 and WebLogic Portal in early 2001. “With iPlanet or WebSphere, you end up investing in some J2EE environment and lots of proprietary technology,” said Armstrong. “There is some proprietary-ness in BEA, but you can choose whether to use it or not.”

What are the major advantages of using BEA? Armstrong cites BEA’s hot deployment feature, which means he does not have to restart the server in a certain sequence; its clustering feature, a factor because NCFE scales horizontally as opposed to vertically; and BEA’s ability to keep up with J2EE specs.

“Our local support is phenomenal,” Armstrong added. “If we run into a place where an implementation is not documented, or run into an issue where we’re looking for best practices, in addition to putting in a trouble ticket, we can go to our local folks, who can also put us in touch with other users.”

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