SunLife extranet to woo insurance brokers

WELLESLEY HILLS, MASS. -- In a move it hopes will give it a competitive edge and hold down costs, SunLife Financial is opening its internal network to Web access so approximately 10,000 insurance brokers can more quickly and easily share customer claims data with SunLife.

"We want to make it easier for insurance brokers to do business with us instead of our competitors," says Lazz McKenzie, SunLife's vice president of worldwide network technologies and strategies. McKenzie said the insurance company is in a race to win the loyalty of brokers who are free to pick and choose which insurance companies to represent.

By providing the Web extranet, which SunLife will do through servers it is hosting at its Toronto data facility with T-3 access lines, SunLife will make it possible for insurance brokers to obtain information they need without having to phone SunLife's call center. In Webifying its business process, SunLife plans to be able to expand its business without having to add expensive call center resources.

If the first phase of the Web extranet proceeds smoothly, SunLife will also eventually let the policyholders themselves -- an estimated 200,000 individuals -- gain access to the SunLife network to view the status of accounts.

The problem corporate customers face in setting up extranets is that they must let other business or customer entities enter their corporate VPN, and yet maintain security. Each member of the extranet wants to share resources but also maintain its security.

Key to SunLife's plan is installing Netegrity's SiteMinder server as the Web access control and authentication server for its new extranet. SiteMinder will check each broker's identity and then restrict access to information available on the databases inside the SunLife LAN. The insurance brokers are expected to start using the SunLife extranet in January as a way to enter new sales information and obtain reports immediately without having to phone in the information or wait to have data faxed or mailed to them.

To enter the SunLife extranet, each broker will be given a unique password and ID that Netegrity SiteMinder -- which will reside on a dedicated server behind the Netscape Web front end SunLife uses -- will check for validity.

The authentication process will be limited to just a basic password at first, says Donna Nelson-Duey, SunLife's assistant vice president for e-commerce. "But we are looking at how we could use digital certificates with SiteMinder." Digital certificates bind a user's identity to a unique public-key certificate, and are widely viewed as more secure than simple passwords, which are more easily compromised.

Once the broker proves his identity, SiteMinder directs the broker to the Java-based application server that SunLife is adding as part of its extranet. The application server, based on BEA Systems' WebLogic in this case, will give brokers a personalized menu of choices for accessing or transmitting information. The application server present information as HTML for Web viewing so brokers can review their accounts or enter new customer information remotely. Although SunLife won't reveal exact costs related to installing the extranet, Nelson-Duey did point out that six Java developers are deployed full time on the project to design the extranet applicaations.

"For business-to-business transactions, the application server manages the data access and the transactions between the SQL Server and mainframe databases where information is stored," Nelson-Duey says.

Soon SunLife will begin giving out password and IDs to the first round of brokers -- an expected 2,000 -- later this month to start using the extranet. This raises the thorny issue of what department will be handed the job of keeping track of password assignments and deletions related to SiteMinder and the extranet.

McKenzie and Nelson-Duey anticipate that the LAN administrator will be given the task of keeping track of the extranet password list at SunLife. The passwords will probably be based on the agent numbers already assigned to each broker.

This story, "SunLife extranet to woo insurance brokers" was originally published by Network World.

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