Case Study: The Demise of Dueling Desktops

Web-based solution simplifies connecting users to legacy applications for insurer

From a business perspective, the acquisition of North Pacific Insurance by Liberty Northwest, a Portland, Ore. subsidiary of the Liberty Mutual Group, was a good marriage. The two companies were in complementary lines of business: Liberty specialized in workers’ compensation insurance while North Pacific wrote property and casualty policies. Both companies were about the same size, had a similar number of employees, and operated principally in the Pacific Northwest.

But when it came to IT operations, the acquisition amounted to what Eric Peterson, Liberty Northwest’s manager of IT infrastructure, calls a classic “IT collision.” Both of the newly merged firms were running decades-old, homegrown applications on different platforms. Liberty Northwest ran its business on AS/400s. Pacific Northwest ran its on a Hitachi 3090 clone (since replaced by a Cornerstone xSeries mainframe). Although the applications were somewhat similar in function—support for underwriting and claims, rate-setting logic and so on—merging them on a single platform would not, Peterson says, have been a trivial task.

“There were 20 years’ worth of legacy applications that had been written, home-grown, installed and maintained on these platforms,” he explains. “Neither one of them could disappear. So the decision was that they both needed to stay, they both needed to work, and they’d continue doing the jobs they’d been doing—but now, everybody needed access to those applications.”

Prior to the acquisition, user access to the two systems had been provided by a variety of 3270 and 5250 emulation devices. Liberty Northwest primarily used NS Elite from Novell, along with a smattering of MochaSoft. North Pacific used RUMBA in a thick-client mode and some Attachmate. After the two companies merged, users would have needed different desktops to access each system, and the IT department would have faced the added complexity of installing and administering them.

Not long after the acquisition, IT decided to standardize on Windows 2000 for the company’s roughly 1,000 desktops. That, Peterson says, created an opportunity to purge the older emulation technology and create a common platform for all of the systems’ users. “One thing we had to do was consolidate the desktop,” he recalls. “We knew we weren’t going to run in a dual-desktop environment. We wanted to get all those applications on a common platform, get them all to Windows 2000.

“At the same time, we wanted to dismiss legacy technologies. In going to Windows 2000, we wanted to get rid of our Windows NT environment and all the domain issues that come with it. We wanted to get to a common domain and take advantage of Active Directory. And, at every turn, we wanted to make our lives as simple as we could.”

Along with the Windows upgrade, Liberty Northwest’s IT department began considering alternatives for user access to the two systems. Already familiar with RUMBA, the company brought in the product’s maker, NetManage Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., for an update on its solutions. “When they mentioned their Web-to-Host product, it immediately caught our attention,” Peterson says. Web-to-Host lets users access mainframe and AS/400 applications with little more than an ordinary Web browser on client desktops. Most of the logic sits on a Web server, and users simply enter an intranet URL to log onto the mainframe and midrange applications.

The insurer decided to run a pilot installation of Web-to-Host, and within a day the IT department had the product running. It was, Peterson says, exactly the kind of solution Liberty Mutual was looking for—simple, fast and easy to administer. “We installed the Web server, got familiar with how to configure sessions the way we wanted them, and how to place them properly on the Web server to make them accessible. It took a little bit of understanding to make our groups, assignments, access permissions, directory structure—things of that nature. But once you have that Web server up and running, it’s nothing more than sending the user a URL.”

The only hitch, he notes, was with a home-grown claims application that had some hooks and APIs into the older RUMBA thick client for some specific calls. “When we went with the new product, we needed some new toolkits to rewrite our claims app. We knew we were going to run into that, and it was the only issue we really had.”

Most of Liberty Northwest’s users—about 700 of them—work in the company’s main offices in Portland. Some have access only to the workers’ comp applications; others can only use the property and casualty applications brought over from North Pacific. A few departments—business units the two lines of business share, such as accounting—can access both. There are also a number of remote offices that range in size from three people to as many as 60. They use the same applications and the same desktop as workers in the Portland office, and they communication with the server over a private wide-area network. Some of the smaller sites use a VPN or DSL.

Though difficult to quantify, the savings that have come from implementing Web-to-Host have been significant, Peterson says. “The obvious saving is that I don’t have to have two emulators, I don’t have to have dual desktops. But probably the biggest saving is in the cost of administration. I don’t have to send a desktop tech out to a user to give him an emulator or change his emulator settings. I send my server guy down with the parameters, he makes a few changes on the server, and we’re updated.

“If we have a new deployment, the user—or, more typically, the desktop tech who’s building that device—simply goes to the URL and pops their emulator on right there. He doesn’t have to load software onto the client. That’s the biggest cost saving.”

Savings aside, however, Peterson likes the way the Web-to-Host product has simplified the basic tasks of connecting the company’s users with its legacy applications. “The main thing about this product is that it makes the infrastructure guy’s life much easier,” he says.

About the Author

Bob Mueller is a writer and magazine publishing consultant based in the Chicago area, covering technology and management subjects.