Fast, Global Access to DB2 Data Assured for Employers Reinsurance Corporation
Employer's Reinsurance Corporation (ERC), a unit of GE Capital Services, is the world's third-largest and one of the fastest-growing reinsurance providers. Headquartered in Overland Park, Kan., ERC has offered global risk management for more than 80 years, and now serves clients from more than 40 branch offices around the globe. ERC offers global risk management in five key areas: legal, actuarial, investments, financial services and underwriting.
ERC's rapid growth, partly fueled by the company's recent string of acquisitions in the United States and abroad, resulted in a need for a standard method of handling transactions. ERC needed to eliminate redundancy, insure consistent results organization-wide and provide their vast user community with fast, efficient access to nearly a terabyte of crucial IBM DB2 data.
"After the acquisitions, we had multiple systems doing the same tasks, so we had a lot of redundancy," recalls ERC Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Henry Slack. "Every office had a different method for producing price quotes based on the IT systems that were in place. Customers could call Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, and most likely get three different price quotes for the identical piece of business." Data was scattered and applications crossed frequently in the current environment. The IT structure was very fragmented. Slack continues, "We wanted to develop a common system across the company and make it easier for the user to get at the data from a single store. We knew if we could accomplish this that we would reach a much higher level of productivity."
To meet the challenge, ERC used a two-tier client server model. The server system uses IBM's DB2 relational database on an MVS system. The clients are PC desktop systems running Windows NT Workstation operating system. The network is comprised primarily of Cisco routers.
ERC was developing all new applications for property and casualty, life and healthcare systems. "What we wanted was a central data server because we didn't want to distribute data all over the world," Slack said. "It is much too difficult to replicate this amount data and try to keep 15 different locations in synch. We felt the low-cost alternative was to have a large database server - in our case MVS and DB2 - centrally located at our headquarters, and then distribute our clients out. To do that, we needed a few things - bandwidth, high reliability and the quickest possible communications between those end points and the central points."
ERC is in the business of risk management and Henry Slack manages the technology resources of the company with the same studied caution and experience that his business counterparts apply to reinsurance. As the CTO, Slack's main focus is ensuring IT adds value to the business. As the business changes, the IT infrastructure and application-architecture must be flexible enough to incorporate new business needs. Slack looks widely and in depth at what technology the business units need, including applications, application management and IT management. Slack looks for sound, mature technology with a proven ROI.
Looking for Enterprisewide Access to DB2 from the Desktop
"With our global computing environment, we felt a two-tier, fat client approach was appropriate because it eliminates the middle tier as a point of failure and systems management burden," Slack added. "We wanted as few moving parts as possible - the more intervening places you have to stop and do a translation or something of that nature, introduces delay and increases the chance for failure."
ERC decided to use Microsoft's Open DataBase Connectivity (ODBC) Application Program Interface to provide database access for over 30 applications used from the desktop. Using ODBC allowed ERC to provide support for third party products, as well as the in-house developed applications. For asset management and software distribution ERC chose to use IBM's Tivoli product which gave administrators more control of the desktop. A key component of ERC's architecture solution was the need for fast and reliable database access middleware giving desktop applications access to DB2 data on the mainframe. ERC needed a middleware product that would work with its existing applications and systems management tools.
ERC looked at various solutions to seamlessly connect its NT desktops, located worldwide, to its centralized DB2 server. With their large number of users, the scalability of the chosen solution was a primary concern. Most solutions ERC evaluated lacked the desired scalability requiring a lot of expensive hardware in order to support the volume of connections that were anticipated. Adding multiple hardware platforms increased the management and maintenance overhead of the solution and also required regular load balancing and monitoring.
Eliminating Gateway Bottlenecks
ERC started development with a product that used UNIX systems as gateways to DB2 on the mainframe. The gateway systems handled communication services and translated the desktop requests for data into Distributed Relational Database Architecture (DRDA) messages that could be processed by DB2. "The product met our minimum functional requirements. It was attractive because it did not require any special hardware or software on our host system," Slack explains, "but when it came time to deploy the solution into production, it became apparent the UNIX gateways were in fact bottlenecks and could not scale to the load. The cost of additional gateway systems combined with lackluster performance led us to consider alternatives."
After considerable due diligence and testing of the leading connectivity products on the market, ERC opted for a powerful new enterprise-level connectivity solution from StarQuest Software and Cisco Systems - StarSQL Enterprise Edition (EE) and Cisco Database Connection (CDBC).
Putting Open Standards to Work
Cisco Database Connection was developed jointly by Cisco and StarQuest Software. The two companies have integrated StarQuest's StarPipes technology into the Cisco router, with the software running as part of the Cisco IOS software. CDBC routes DRDA messages originating from a TCP/IP network over SNA, enabling access to SNA-bound DB2 systems from TCP/IP desktops. Unlike methodologies that require encapsulation, CDBC is incredibly fast and truly de-couples the requirement for matching network protocols on the LAN and host environments.
StarQuest utilizes DRDA, the open standard for database access interoperability and ODBC to provide a streamlined, secure method to access mainframe data from the desktop. By utilizing DRDA, the StarSQL EE ODBC driver does not require any proprietary hardware or software on the database host platform. DRDA also enables StarSQL EE to connect to all of IBM's DB2 implementations regardless of the host platform.
"CDBC is the fastest way for Windows-based applications to access DB2 data," said Cisco product manager Marie Zambuto. The product reduces host CPU utilization and eliminates network latency inherent with TCP/IP connections to host systems. "With CDBC, organizations have the speed, scalability and manageability to provide network-enabled application transport to the entire enterprise. Enterprises can use it to build data warehouses, Web-enabled applications or do decision support without having to worry about performance or availability," adds Zambuto. "It's another way that Cisco solutions provides flexibility as network requirements evolve."
Adding Performance, Saving Millions of Dollars
"When we first looked at StarSQL EE and Cisco Database Connection we checked out the architecture. The StarSQL EE driver does all of its processing on the desktop. That eliminated the processing bottlenecks. When we started using the StarQuest product we noticed an immediate improvement in speed. When we added Cisco Database Connection, we connected our TCP/IP desktops to our SNA backbone and the performance improved even more" recalls Slack. "If someone had claimed to provide a 400 percent performance improvement, it would have stretched my believability levels, but that is what we see for some of our applications."
The end result of ERC's development efforts included closing two data centers, eliminating host-based 3270 applications, resolving Year 2000 issues, plus improving performance and bringing consistent results to the entire user community. Many 3270 applications were replaced with Smalltalk using StarSQL EE to access DB2. The Cisco Database Connection provided further benefit by eliminating Front End Processors (FEP's), specialized UNIX gateways and costly host software and operating system upgrades.
"Using the Cisco/StarQuest solution meant we didn't need to upgrade our operating system, DB2 or install additional communication protocols," Slack said. "This greatly reduces system overhead, as well as ongoing maintenance costs."
According to Slack, ERC has saved millions of dollars on this consolidation and rejuvenation of their applications. "We had numbers that told us that simply based on the ongoing operational costs of keeping our disparate systems operational exceeded the cost of the purchase implementation of our new system," he said. "With this new server-based deployment," Slack added, "we dramatically increased our functionality, while at the same time we eliminated unnecessary redundancy."
In addition to its new applications being rolled out, ERC is also using software from Platinum Technology to replicate legacy data into a data warehouse hosted by DB2 tables. "Before using StarSQL EE our actuary took about 15 minutes to process, pulling the data from DB2 into a spreadsheet. After changing to StarSQL EE the process ran in under a minute," Slack said. "The addition of StarSQL EE has helped speed up our data access - in some places by up to 10 times. The product is a powerful enabling technology for ERC."
Along with in house applications, ERC can now takes advantage of off the shelf products for decision support, on-line analytical processing (OLAP), data mining, reporting, publishing and E-Commerce. StarSQL EE works with all of the major ODBC-enabled desktop application software, including Crystal Reports from Seagate Software, Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS) and the BusinessObjects suite of enterprise decision support tools from Business Objects SA.
Using BusinessObjects and StarSQL EE, ERC will provide its employees in North America, Europe and Asia a robust decision support tool for query and reporting on DB2 data. ERC analysts will make use of Business Objects online analytical processing (OLAP) software with SICS, a DB2-based reinsurance software application from Computer Sciences International (CSI). Virtually all ERC employees across the company interact with SICS which will provide them with business intelligence and a better understanding of their corporate data.
"The key factors in selecting a decision support system for our company were high performance and tight integration with our DB2-based CSI application," said Slack. "Using solutions from StarQuest and Business Objects, we are now able to provide our end users across the enterprise with the ability to report against and analyze the data that is critical to our operations. The integrated solution provides seamless connectivity to our DB2 data and has made the evaluation process easier." StarQuest is only the second vendor to achieve Business Objects' Gold level certification for use with BusinessObjects' suite of decision support software.
Using Cisco Database Connection and the ODBC standard, ERC has network enabled application transport for future growth. An immediate benefit of this DB2 connectivity infrastructure is the ability to integrate products like BusinessObjects right into their production environment.
"Our strong relationship with StarQuest has helped in us in situations where customers have been experiencing high performance with StarSQL and they're looking to continue it with BusinessObjects," reports David Banks, the Business Objects account manager for ERC. "At ERC, every desktop has an ODBC connection to DB2 directly over TCP/IP. In this environment, our products just plug-and-play."
"The purchase cost of our new system was considerably less than the ongoing operational cost of keeping our disparate systems operational," Slack concludes. "With this new server-based deployment, we are in essence getting rid of seven major systems and eliminating redundancy while dramatically increasing our functionality."
ERC is confident that use of Cisco Database Connection and StarSQL EE will continue to grow as more applications realize the potential of high-performance, robust DB2 access from the desktop. The reduction in mainframe CPU cycles gained from using DRDA, as opposed to traditional 3270 access, provides ERC with additional, and ongoing benefits. Rated for 10,000 concurrent connections, Cisco Database Connection performs within 10 percent of peak performance at full load. With a hot standby router, Henry Slack and his group have built a fault tolerant network infrastructure that will work well into the next millennium as ERC continues to grow.
About the Author:
Mark Rampel is the Director of Product Marketing and a co-founder at StarQuest Software, Inc. in Berkeley, Calif. He can be contacted at Mark.Rampel@starquest.com.