Flexibility often equals opportunity in today's business climate. So Vital Forsikring ASA, Norway's largest life and pensions insurance company, turned to Web services and an SOA to capitalize on an opportunity created by new pension legislation in that country.
Vital Forsikring, headquartered in Oslo, serves the life and pension insurance needs of more than 6,800 corporate clients and 700,000 individual customers and has annual revenues of $27 billion. It is a subsidiary of DnB NOR, Norway's largest financial services group.
The legislation, requiring every employee to have a pension savings plan, "made an opening for selling new pension products," said Rolf Nergaard, enterprise architect for Vital Forsikring. "We wanted to use an SOA because of flexibility and cost reduction. The market is changing rapidly in our area, which is why we need to be able to change our IT systems very fast. So flexibility is important."
That's why Vital decided to implement its new core pension system on an SOA. Vital's SOA deployment is based on Microsoft .NET 2.0 and includes BizTalk Server, Microsoft Operations Manager 2005 (MOM) and the SOA Management system from AmberPoint Inc.
The core pension system is able to access and integrate a variety of mainframe-based customer systems. Internal users can access the system through either a Web portal or Windows client. Nergaard said the pension system utilizes two abstraction levels: A high-level service (process service), which calls a low-level service (business service). "The business service maybe calls a mainframe system or an internal .NET implementation," he said. "The change will be reflected in the mainframe system. We hide the complexity of the different mainframe systems."
Although the company has a variety of platforms, .NET is the main platform. Vital starting working with the .NET 2.0 beta version last summer. Microsoft does not have an ESB per se, but using Microsoft BizTalk Server for orchestration and the Microsoft Enterprise Library, "we put together what you could call an enterprise service bus," Nergaard said.
The SOA does not include a UDDI registry at present and he is not sure if the company will go in that direction, but Vital was in the process of implementing a repository from LogicLibrary Inc.
Vital is using the AmberPoint SOA Management System for exception handling, service-level management, security and service network monitoring capabilities, Nergaard said. And because AmberPoint integrates with Microsoft, Vital can extend its SOA monitoring and management capabilities to MOM. "We wanted to have something to help us manage the increasing complexity of services. As the number of services increased, complexity is also increasing. AmberPoint also had close relationship with Microsoft. It was an advantage, since we're using a lot of Microsoft products."
In developing the pension system, security was also a concern. Although the company had been working with Web services prior to this system, it was mainly doing so internally and was not exposing Web services to external partners, he said. Security is a challenge because the insurance company maintains personal information about individuals, such as health information.
As a result, the company cannot let anonymous users inside the firewall; users must be authenticated first. To shore up security, Vital is using the Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2004 as an application-layer inspection firewall, virtual private network (VPN) and Web cache solution. Nergaard said the company plans to use the 2006 version when it becomes available.
The company began working on the pension system project in January 2005 and went into production in December with its first customer and Norway's largest employer, the Norwegian Postal Service.
A key advantage of the SOA, Nergaard said, is it allows the company to put more focus on reuse. "The services are shared by different consumers," he said. "If you change the interface of the service it will affect several different consumers. Now we can focus on reuse and build the system so it will be handling reuse much better. Also, we have more of an enterprise view of our architecture, so we don't see each system as a monolithic architecture. All services are used by the whole enterprise, not just one application. That gives us flexibility."
Vital was just starting a new project this spring that "will have a huge advantage over the previous project because we can reuse a lot of things," Nergaard said. He estimated the reuse value at $2 million.
Nergaard said as the company gains experience with its SOA, it will be scaling up and making adjustments. "Of course we've done things we should do differently," he said. "The process will be developed continuously."
His advice for other organizations embarking down a SOA path is to take an enterprise view. "Look at whole enterprise, because it will affect the whole enterprise -- how you manage your systems, how you develop your systems, how you organize your organization. Everything will change."
At Vital, the IT department sold the idea, but Nergaard said more of a top-down approach would help other organizations. But the business side at Vital, he added, was "very pro SOA. It's up to us to prove it now."