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Tracking the elusive 401(k)

Mar 09, 20033 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsWeb Development

Hewitt Associates of Lincolnshire, Ill. has nearly 250 large companies contracted to its outsourcing service for employee benefits administration, such as enrollment and maintenance of 401(k) or health plans.

Previously, Hewitt used a Web interface and screen scraping so users could cull data from its mainframe system. Now about a dozen Web services, which took six to eight months to build, offer a programmatic way to access that data. “XML documents give us a more direct connection and a more flexible robust connection into that data,” says Tim Hilgenberg, chief technology strategist for Hewitt. “Instead of delivering HTML over the wire, we are now delivering XML over the wire. That’s the difference between talking to a Web page vs. a Web service.”

Web services and XML, he says, make it easier for companies to integrate benefits data into their portals and for third parties to combine the data with value-added services, such as 401(k) investment advice. Hewitt also used Web services to build applications that it offers to its clients, such as aggregating an employee’s benefits information.

Customers access Hewitt’s Web service from their company portal applications, which locate Hewitt’s Web services using a WSDL file and then send XML-based requests wrapped in a SOAP envelope over HTTP to an IBM WebSphere Application Server.

On the server, a Java servlet unwraps the envelope and initiates a CICS transaction to access a mainframe application. The mainframe returns XML-based data to WebSphere where it is wrapped in SOAP and sent back to the portal. The company does not use UDDI.

Hilgenberg says the keys to Hewitt’s success with Web services are that the company already had a robust Web infrastructure on which it could piggyback, and that its applications were service oriented.

“To succeed with Web services your application has to be built around a set of high-level business service, such as ‘get this data,'” Hilgenberg says. “It can’t be built around some lower-level screens that say ‘update table X’ or ‘get field Y.'”

Hilgenberg says the next level is guaranteed transactions and business process automation.

“Today, most of the stuff we are doing is SOAP over HTTP, and that is not necessarily reliable delivery,” he says. “Today, we only do updates if there is a user on the other end of the wire. But when you start to talk about how can I get other systems to talk to our benefits administration system, a system-to-system connection, you need guaranteed delivery of those transactions.”

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