Aflac speeds policy processing with re-engineered legacy code

Aflac Inc. has cracked a tough IT nut—successfully re-engineering a legacy batch system into a real-time application.

The insurance behemoth over the past two years has converted a legacy underwriting field and sales system, using Java to wrap IBM code. The conversion has sped up the processing of the 87% of applications that arrive at Aflac electronically. As a result, the Columbus, Ga.-based company can sell policies and underwrite them in real time, processing thousands per day.

Aflac partnered with IBM for the project that it internally dubbed Helix—because the system would be spiraling upward into the real-time computing era without replacing the underlying technology.

Project Helix was a follow-on to a 1999 project that allowed the company to accept 2.7 million applications annually over the Web. But "to have those applications come fully into our organization and dam up behind a brick wall of batch was not the thing to do," says Jim Lester, senior vice president and CIO at Aflac.

So Aflac went to work with a loaner mainframe from IBM as it set about re-engineering its legacy code with WebSphere, using a Java native interface to put a layer of Java around the code, says Rob McCurley, second vice president of IT and advanced technology at Aflac. The code could then be put into Enterprise JavaBeans with Web services on top, McCurley explains.

"It allows us to get deeper and more fine-grained and take subsystems ... and turn them into Java one at a time for an incremental approach and reduced risk," McCurley says. "The Java native interface allows you to not only wrap code but [also] to have native code call to Java. The interface allows legacy code to call into our modernized code within the same subsystem."

As a result, Aflac can now process each application in a few seconds and has increased the accuracy of application processing by 50%, says David Turner, vice president of IT and advanced technology at Aflac. Instead of running all the applications at night, Aflac has been able to evenly distribute the workload through a broader window from morning to night.

"When we put the application on a real-time basis, our backlog dropped 50%," says Turner. "The associates who transmit the applications were getting information back more quickly. They could check on them immediately. ... Before, they had to wait a day or so, and they were less inclined to follow up and correct errors."

"[Aflac's] recognition early that a complete rewrite of the application was crazy separates them from those who went hell-bent for leather and failed to migrate such a mission-critical application," says Dale Vecchio, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "While most organizations cringed under the architectural mismatch between Java and mainframes, Aflac recognized the value of extending their existing applications to new, more modern architectures."

But those results didn't come without some bumps along the way. Aflac was one of the early adopters of WebSphere for the mainframe, using its first version with J2EE support, and the speed of the IBM products was "pitiful to start with," Lester says. "We drove hard on that, and they picked up the ball."

In addition, Aflac found that heavy-duty regression testing was essential to the success of the project.

"We forced realistic daily volumes," McCurley says. "In parallel, we put our daily workload through the system for many months to make sure it was up to task."

The company now has a foundation for future re-engineering projects. "It provided a foundation for a fundamental shift in our thinking," Lester says. "Are we going to spend $150 million to replace our legacy systems, or do we have the technology and the people to re-engineer this code over the next five or six years? We do, and we are halfway there now."


Business: One of the largest supplemental medical insurance providers in the U.S., AFLAC covers special conditions—primarily cancer.

Project champion: Jim Lester

IT department: 400-plus

Project payback: Each electronic application can be processed in a few seconds, and accuracy of application processing has increased by 50%.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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