In-Depth

Configure at will! Allstate improves agent access

ADT's 2003 Innovator Awards

Application Engineering Winner

Web servers clustered and load balanced ... app servers clustered and load balanced ... database servers clustered and configured for rollover ... middleware servers set ... It sounds, perhaps, like an attack submarine preparing to submerge. It is, instead, a checklist for the rollout of a new application, AccessAllstate.com, a winner in this year's ADT Innovator Awards competition.

Built by Allstate Financial Technology, Allstate Technical Shared Services, Allstate Financial Business Area groups and a small cadre of consultant partners, the winning application engineering app seeks to give field agents access to key transactions and useful financial literature. It serves as a great example of how rigorous project processes can reduce risk while embracing new technology paradigms.

And, yes, it uses Web services.

Front row: Gregory Miller, John Kastning, Bob Niedzwiecki, Joe Tomalavage, Ken Kushman

Second row: Brian O’Sullivan, Lisa Flanary, Kelly Dickinson

Third row: Brenda Wiest, Jayanthi Krishnan, Pat Coffey

Back row: Cathleen Halliburton, Beverly Edwards

AccessAllstate.com provides Allstate's business partners with powerful new information access. They use the Web to interact with the larger system. The goal is to drive profitable growth for the company and meet customers' ongoing financial needs. The new system, which integrates several established systems, improves upon solutions that required the company's network of ''producers'' to call a service center to complete a transaction. It is open for business 24 hours a day.

Along the way, the Allstate teams used Microsoft's new .NET Framework, and related tools and servers, including Visual Studio .NET, Visual C# .NET, Source Safe, SQL Server, Sharepoint, Project 2000 and Biztalk Server 2000. As we talked with the Allstate team, the word was that the system was ready to interface with five different legacy systems.

An Interwoven TeamSite Content Management system was utilized (there are at least 3,000 'pieces of content' in this site), as well as IBM's WebSphere app server and various Mercury Interactive test tools.

As important as runtimes and tools may be, the important part of this story may be in the process applied to achieve the AllstateAccess.com solution. How did they get there?

The answer: With a fair degree of rigor. There were four project managers on the task, said Robert Niedzwiecki, project manager, Allstate.

''We established a project office, and out of the office on a weekly basis we produced a dashboard that we could use to communicate status. During test, we established some metrics that broke down the functionality of the Web site into about four dozen features,'' he said.

This allowed Niedzwiecki and crew to measure progress during the quality assurance (QA) phase to determine when the system was ready to launch.

There were about 16,000 test conditions to track, added Brenda Wiest, QA manager.

Because it was moving into the infant realm of .NET Web services, Allstate was prepared to work with outsiders. The company set time and money aside for training, something that some shops try to forgo these days, as they instead send developers to the bookstore to see what can be gleaned from the available literature. Allstate worked with Microsoft and other consulting partners to gain Web services know-how. But a deliberate part of that effort was dedicated to ensuring that knowledge was effectively transferred to Allstate developers.

This mitigated the risk of using new technology. ''We bolstered our team with contract experts [versed] with the technology required. We work side by side,'' said Niedzwiecki, ''to bring the expertise in-house.''

While the choices made in technology were largely in the Microsoft camp, the team managers decided to go with WebSphere for the interface for one legacy system. ''It had an API we'd done, and we decided we would use the existing one rather than rebuild it,'' explained Niedzwiecki.

An important project step was to ''nail down the system in terms of the software and hardware configurations,'' he added. Such rigor, admitted Niedzwiecki, was more prevalent in earlier computing eras, and was somewhat hard to find during the client/server and early Web computing eras.

Both of Niedzwiecki's and Wiest's experiences included mainframe environments. ''We were used to the rigor of mainframe environments, and it is true that the discipline or the controls -- once you migrate to other platforms -- isn't there,'' they said.

''One of the key moments of this project was when we configured the hardware in the production environment and saw a tremendous increase in the stability of the environment,'' said Niedzwiecki. ''That was because we controlled the rights to change configurations of hardware or software components. Our success has hinged on us controlling the environment.''

Application profile

Project: AccessAllstate.com

Purpose: AccessAllstate.com was developed to provide Allstate's producers with the most up-to-date information, products and services while simplifying and expediting service to their customers.

Benefits: Improved graphics and content, leverage of Allstate branding, recognition of users while visiting the site.

Tools: Microsoft Visual Studio .NET, Visual C# .NET, Source Safe, SQL Server, Sharepoint, Project 2000, Biztalk Server 2000, Interwoven TeamSite, IBM WebSphere and Mercury Interactive test tools

Development team: Pat Coffey, Kelly Dickinson, Beverly Edwards, Lisa Flanary, Cathleen Halliburton, John Kastning, Renee Konczal, Jayanthi Krishnan, Ken Kushman, Greg Miller, Bob Niedzwiecki, Brian O'Sullivan, Joe Tomalavage and Brenda Wiest


Keane Report

AccessAllstate.com's innovation lies in its approach and its technology. Allstate achieved significant gains by combining innovative use of the Microsoft Visual Studio .NET development environment with an iterative development approach that allowed core components of the Web site created in early iterations to validate and build out the technical architecture. Additional technology employed in the project included MS SQL Server 2000, IBM WebSphere, MS Biztalk Server 2000 and Mercury Interactive's suite of testing tools.

The new Allstate Web site launched as a result of the project provided a wide range of benefits shared across the entire Allstate stakeholder spectrum through features such as the leveraging of Allstate branding, personalization, single sign-on and content management capabilities.

Allstate identified its major area of challenge and risk to be the technology. To achieve success with their commitment to Microsoft's .NET framework and the tool suite supporting .NET, Allstate partnered with Microsoft while sharing the best practices learned with the Allstate design and development teams.

Team Leader: Jack Fuchs, Manager, Architecture Services, Keane Inc.


......

Click here to read about the finalist in this category, ''Best practices rule at Weston'', or click here to go to the Innovator Awards home page.

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.

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