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Business process key to insurance group's application modernization effort

An Army and Air Force insurance association focuses on business processes as it exposes mainframe software to Web and mobile applications.

Mainframes and other traditional computer platforms have continued to thrive, long after many observers expected their demise. But, in recent years, some mainframe applications have been moved to newer platform types, or wrapped in Web services integration software, so that they can connect to the World Wide Web.

Sometimes such migrations and integrations have been seen as "low hanging fruit" for development teams to readily reap. But just changing platforms or merely Web-enabling legacy applications is not always adequate these days.

Instead, teams are taking on projects where underlying business processes can be improved as well. Take the Army and Air Force Mutual Aid Association(AAFMAA) and its information technology practice. At the association, business process management is a pivotal part of the application modernization effort, according to Amarish Pathak, who serves as AAFMAA's chief information officer.

AAFMAA provides insurance and related services directly to U.S. military personnel. The not-for-profit association works with services company MetroStar to operate its business systems.

Pathak said AAFMAA started its application modernization initiative at the end of 2006 with the goals of cutting costs by reducing labor through automation, helping the association sell more policies by using technology and capitalization on existing investments in software. Among the software applications retained were mainframe systems based on Adabase database and Natural language tool sets from Software AG.

"The objective was not to rip and replace but to look for ways to retain," said Pathak. "We invested in [Software AG/WebMethods] XBroker. It essentially is a middleware communication [layer] between the Natural back ends and the front ends, which are .NET and Java based."

Pathak said AAFMAA relies greatly on service-oriented architecture (SOA) to leverage its investment in software. SOA development is used to connect legacy back ends to the Web. SOA is seen as a path for connecting to the mobile space as well.

"We have Web services that let modernization take place," he said. "Association members now launch self-service applications online, and we are looking at expanding that into the mobile space."

The association is developing mobile apps and mobile-optimized Web sites that would use the service-oriented [components] already in place, he continued. Behind the strategy is a determined effort to achieve business process orientation as well.

Business transformation, application modernization

"The main thing for us is continuous process improvement. The key is to make sure, number one, that organizations can identify their business processes," said Pathak. "Then they can start to measure the performance of those processes and to understand how they can be improved."

"Once we look at the underlying business process, and understand how to improve those processes, then we can lay out the cost benefit for each project," he said.

Such thinking represents an advanced view of application modernization. "We know such initiatives have to transform the business, to be more business-centric, to exploit cloud computing, and to connect unstructured data -- or big data -- to the enterprise," said Joe Gentry, senior vice president of field operations at Software AG. "This is what I call 'modernization 2.0.'"

Previously, the focus of application modernization has been on a more simplistic level of modernization, said Gentry. "It's been the green screen, the low-hanging fruit." Now, in effect, he indicated, the rules of business transformation have changed.

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Are we doing enough to connect the mainframe to the Web?
Not much tools available which connects mainframe to web directly.
I believe that we’re getting there, but that there is still a great deal of work to be done. I’ve seen a large shift from focusing on applications that run on the mainframe to web-based applications that connect to the back-end, which has been largely driven by the ease of accessing the public cloud and a more mobile-oriented workforce. I think this will be the case, and that adoption rates will continue to increase as more systems are converted and the benefits (financial, productivity, etc.) are realized.
I have seen alot of focus on service development with Java based tools for consumers and producers. Not enough work on better ways of translating between schemas (*.xsd files) and COBOL Copybook. Mapping has been done for years but not sure if enough has been done in better automating this work.
This article seems to be talking about several different things which basically are linked together under the idea of process improvement.

Continuous Improvement or as I prefer to call it Inspect and Adapt as you go is critical for companies today.
I think that business processes are not only key to the modernization effort, they, and the problems or needs they address, should be considered an integral part of the effort. It doesn’t make sense to spend time and money modernizing a legacy application, perhaps even converting it to a mobile application, if you don’t first determine if the business process is outdated or inefficient, or if the underlying need the business process addresses is still a valid need.