Insurance provider urges smart, strategic SOA adoption


As more companies apply a service-oriented architecture approach to their IT systems, one user that became serious about its SOA deployment last year suggests its peers keep open minds about the new concept’s possibilities.

Health-care insurance company Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts Inc. (BCBSMA) has most of its core applications such as enrollment and billing still residing on its IBM Corp. mainframe and isn’t planning to move them off any time soon. The company, with headquarters in Boston, provides coverage to 2.9 million members across Massachusetts. What the insurer is keen to do is to quickly and cost effectively create more Web-based services so that its members can easily access information contained in those back-office applications.

Frank Enfanto, vice president of health-care services systems delivery at BCBSMA, stressed that SOA is an approach to development, not a product. “You can’t say you want to ship SOA,” he said during a Sun Microsystems Inc. SOA roundtable event this week. What companies need to do is think about where in their operations they want to start taking an SOA approach and what that project might look like when it’s done, Enfanto added.

BCBSMA’s SOA approach is based on Sun’s Java Enterprise System (JES) software, which includes the technology Sun acquired through the August 2005 purchase of business integration software vendor SeeBeyond. BCBSMA first adopted SeeBeyond software in 2000 and Sun’s JES in early 2004.

The initial move toward SOA was driven by BCBSMA’s desire to get away from a vertical, silo-type approach to software development to a more horizontal focus where it might be possible to repurpose existing technologies. Although the insurer outsources its application development, with Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) as its primary IT service provider, BCBSMA has its own systems architects who are ultimately responsible for its applications.

Once BCBSMA determined it wanted to get serious about SOA, the first thing it did was create a team of its own architects and people from Sun and EDS.

“There was no project or contract associated with it,” Enfanto said. “We didn’t create governance or rules — we needed to find out how SOA would work.” A lot of effort last year went into creating general awareness among BCBSMA staff, both technical and business people, as to what an SOA approach to the insurer’s IT systems might entail. That education process “gave us the basis of something to stand on,” he added.

The completion of a claims management Internet portal for physicians and health-care providers in June 2006 presented a perfect opportunity to start thinking in SOA terms, Enfanto said. BCBSMA and EDS were about to start work on another claims management portal, this time focused on the insurer’s members.

In all, BCBSMA serves five communities — health-care providers, members, associations, brokers and its own associates — and eventually all five groups would require claims management portals. Naturally, the portals needed to be customized to cater to the specific needs of a particular group, but Enfanto said some efforts in the past had been “almost too customized.”

There was clearly some potential for reuse and EDS and BCBSMA started work on the registration portion, which is currently under way. The intention is that when they come to build the other three planned portals, those projects will take less time and money to complete.

With its SOA road map, BCBSMA hasn’t built an overarching plan all at once since Enfanto knows that the product mix and where in the company the Web services end up being used is likely to change. “You don’t want to pigeonhole any one thing into any one area,” he said. Above all, it’s a gradual process. For instance, BCBSMA has yet to implement the business process management piece of Sun’s SeeBeyond software into its SOA deployment, a move that will happen this year, Enfanto said. The insurer is also planning to begin setting performance metrics for SOA in terms of money saved, time to market and reuse.