In-Depth

Smalltalk lives on at St. Paul

ADT's 2003 Innovator Awards

Component-based Development Finalist

Baltimore, Md.-based St. Paul Companies Inc., which provides commercial property-liability insurance and asset management, used its homegrown Business Foundation System (BFS) for five years to sell, underwrite and maintain insurance policies for small commercial business owners. After five years, however, St. Paul wanted to re-architect its fat-client, object-oriented Smalltalk application as a distributed system hosting a fully Web-enabled interface.

Thus began Extended Policy writing Online (ExPO). The browser-based application generates and issues quotes in real-time. It also provides real-time quoting of policies with data entered via a company-neutral interface. Using dynamic page generation, ExPO serves up HTML screens in an average of 1.5 seconds and handles approximately 650,000 screens per week.

The insurance provider faced many risks and challenges in initiating this large, complex project. One of the most significant was ensuring that the system would be available to provide user actions representing the full life cycle of insurance policies and policy document processing. In addition, working with a large project team with relatively little development experience in Web technology proved to be quite a challenge. To address this, the organization clearly identified and assigned tasks. Effective communication was also critical as numerous software components were modified simultaneously.

The overall goal of the project was to retire the use of an unsupported application development tool while providing full policy-writing capability to a broadened user base. Going in to the project, the development team expected some issues around performance and functionality during system testing; however, they were very surprised at the magnitude of issues that surfaced. The team fixed more than 1,000 defects prior to production.

"It was remarkable that we were able to overcome so many issues and were still able to deliver a quality product on time," noted Karen Hope, application architect.

St. Paul realized numerous best practices as a result of implementing ExPO. Some of those include extensive project planning, clearly defined roles for each team member, motivating individuals to take ownership of the project, involving business customers in every step of the project, utilizing usability labs, thorough design reviews, as well as thorough test, implementation and training plans.

If St. Paul had the project to do over again, it would put more preparation into real-time visibility and recovery behavior. One thing the organization feels it did right, though, according to Hope, was to sell the new system to users and include them in every technology decision and phase of the project.

The new system led to the retirement of St. Paul's old VSE-based environment by using XML technology along with WebSphere and Java components to enable the former VSE application for distributed communication.

The IT operation did seek out commercial solutions, but could find none with the ability to generate and issue quotes in real-time via a browser. The developers were able to utilize the installed Sybase database and Cyrano diagnostic toolset, and turned to IBM's VisualAge for tools due to the developers' familiarity with IBM's VisualAge for Smalltalk offering.

Application profile

Project: Extended Policy writing Online (ExPO)

Purpose: To provide real-time quoting to external agencies via the Internet while preserving current capabilities.

Benefits: Simplified distribution issues, reduced client workstation demands, ability to reach a larger user base.

Platform: Java

Tools: Sybase, Cyrano, QARun, VisualAge Smalltalk, WebSphere, WebEx, SiteScope

Development team: William Scarff, project manager; Janet Pannone, technical lead; Chris Carleen, test team lead; Judy Bluhm, business lead


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Click here to read about the winner in this category, "Objects keep track of County addresses", or click here to go to the Innovator Awards home page.

About the Author

Lana Gates is a freelance writer based in Mesa, Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at freelancewriter@gates-works.com.

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