Excellence equals ease of use at Equitable Life

When Equitable Life Insurance of Canada switched to a new batch processing system, it needed a new job scheduler to accompany the servers. One company insider says the winning scheduler put user-friendliness at the fore.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based insurance company processes information in batches at the end of the day — crunching numbers to send out cheques, renew individual and group life insurance policies, et cetera. These days Equitable Life uses servers running various Microsoft Corp. Windows operating systems. It used to run a VMS infrastructure with the JSS job scheduling system.

According to Andrew Garland, systems administrator at Equitable Life, the firm wasn’t particularly keen on keeping the VMS infrastructure up and running. “The hardware we’re on has been deemed obsolete,” he said. As for the software, “to move ahead we’d have to undergo some major development. We’re further ahead to move to a new platform entirely.”

Equitable Life considered four or five job schedulers, Garland said. The firm chose Advanced Systems Concepts Inc.’s (ASCI) ActiveBatch, which works on Windows boxes as well as Unix and OpenVMS systems. Garland said ASCI won Equitable Life’s business because ActiveBatch did two things particularly well: it offered a smart user interface and a transparent upgrade path.

ActiveBatch lets users drag and draw relationships between jobs. On screen the user can draw a line from one job, represented by a coloured box, and another job, and apply rules for triggering each new process.

“The system view is an important factor,” Garland said, adding that the simple presentation makes it easy to understand relationships among jobs — critical information for fixing job failures.

Garland also said ASCI seemed to have an upgrade path in place for ActiveBatch. Equitable Life became a veritable part of the development process as Version 4 of the program came out, beta testing the product. Having an upgrade path is important, he said. “If you’re on the same version for long enough, support can become a real nightmare.”

If Garland has a criticism about ActiveBatch, it’s that users must create jobs for simple tasks. For example, “to move a file right now, we have to script it as a separate job,” he said, adding that Equitable Life has suggested to ASCI that such low-level requirements be integrated into jobs, rather than stand alone as jobs unto themselves. “In the new version you should be able to say, ‘find this file and move it,’ essentially have that part of your flow.”

Equitable Life has “made a few calls” to ASCI’s support centre for help with ActiveBatch, but Garland said the vendor is quick to fix problems. “I usually get a patch in a day…You [would] expect a week or two, if not longer.”

According to Jim Manias of ASCI in Parsippany, N.J., whereas once people predicted the demise of batch processing, these days the practice remains an important part of many a firm’s high-tech procedures.

“As people went into the Microsoft world, they thought they were going to leave batch processing behind. The reality is, point and click only goes so far, if people want to sit at their computers 24 hours a day. You want to be able to run processes automatically.”

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