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LICís WAN/MAN network

Taking life insurance to the masses and offering value-added services has always been top agenda for the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). It has now made its services more extensive and accessible by extending its WAN to the far corners of the nation. The next step is serving insurance policies on the Web. by Brian Pereira and Minu Sirsalewala

When the customer base of a services-oriented company is almost four crore, and service contracts usually span a human life cycle, enduring customer satisfaction right through becomes quite a challenge for a company. In such a business scenario, robust and extensive networking becomes mandatory for all operations.

The Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) is one of the biggest implementers of IT solutions in the country, and it's a perfect example of an enterprise that uses IT to the hilt to streamline operations and take customer satisfaction to higher levels. It has now extended its wide area network (WAN), voice-enabled it, and set up a Web server.

For the customer, the experience of doing business with LIC will soon be highly simplified. A policy holder will no longer need to visit the branch office and run from pillar to post, to check the status of a policy for he will soon be able to do this online (akin to Internet banking). And in the near future, if someone lodges a complaint online or requests a change in the policy, it won't be lost under a heap of dusty box files. S. Lakshmanan, Chief-Information Technology, LIC, says the new operational procedures will enable it to address customer grievances within a week.

Yes, LIC is pleased with all the new technology. Its online collections for premiums are rising rapidly every month. And because the new network is voice-enabled, the company has cut down drastically on costs for long-distance calls.

But this new experience may be a precursor of many new things to come. For in the coming months LIC is going to introduce many new online services, as it further enhances the network. In fact, network upgrades are an ongoing activity at LIC since 1997.

PHASES OF DEVELOPMENT
The LIC wide area network is still evolving and has been through two phases of development. It will be completed in the third phase (this year). So far LIC has spent between Rs 80 - 100 core on the project, which was initiated in 1997. Network design was done in 1995. When completed, all 100 divisions of LIC will be connected to the WAN. For administrative purposes, LIC as an organization is divided into 100 divisions located all over the country. So far 52 divisions have been connected to the WAN and the balance 48 will be connected during the third phase.

The nationwide WAN is arranged in a hierarchical fashion. The Central Office (C.O.) at Nariman Point, Mumbai is the network core. Next in the hierarchy are the seven Zonal Offices located at Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, Kanpur, Hyderabad, and Bhopal. The district/divisional offices (also known as MAN centers) come next, and these are in turn linked to the branch offices, which are at the lowest tier in the hierarchy. All branch offices have LANs. To date, there are a total of 89 MAN centers.

LIC has 2,048 branches across the nation. By the end of March 2002, it intends to connect 1,495 branches to the WAN.

In the first phase (1997), LIC connected 70 branches in Mumbai (excluding Thane). These were connected using a mix of 9.6 Kbps and 64 Kbps links. During this phase seven MAN centers (Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, Calcutta, Pune, Hyderabad, and Ahmedabad) became operational. The eight MAN centers (including one in Mumbai) were interconnected on the WAN using 64 Kbps links.

During the second phase 33 MAN centers became operational and these were interconnected on the WAN for data and VoIP traffic. Towards the end of this phase 52 divisions were connected that includes 41 MAN centers (each metro has multiple divisions). A total of 663 branches were interconnected.

In the third phase LIC will connect another 48 MAN centers. It is also setting up video conferencing links between Mumbai and six other zonal locations. The 64 Kbps lines between the zonal centers are also being upgraded to 2 MB links for this purpose. During this phase, the 9.6 Kbps links connecting the older MAN centers will be upgraded to 64 Kbps.

CHALLENGES
The network integrators who worked on this project faced certain challenges during various stages of development. There were equipment compatibility issues, sporadic router crashes and the need for effective middleware.

At one point the DoT issued a circular saying that -48v D.C. modems should be used, but LIC had already purchased A.C. modems (as these were being used by the DOT earlier). So these had to be replaced at many locations to maintain compatibility with DoT premise equipment.

Another bottleneck was choking of router memory, especially at the C.O. in Mumbai. This was due to the fact that the original network design was 'flat.'

Explains K. Chitra, Assistant Secretary (IT), LIC, "When we began, we did not foresee the problem caused by a flat design, because the implementation at each center was being done independently, without any interconnectivity feature. So when we connected 663 branches, every branch router was reflecting the address of all the other branches. The router memory (at the branch level) was insufficient for storing so many addresses/paths. As a result, we often faced some performance related issues initially."

Because of the flat design a branch router in Chennai for instance, reflected the IP addresses of all branch routers in Mumbai.

So LIC upgraded its routers (details later) and also switched to the hierarchical design. Now a branch router in Chennai reflects the address of the router at the Chennai MAN center (which is the next immediate hop in the hierarchy). The hierarchical design conserves memory and also cuts down the number of routes (routing paths).

"Previously we had 1,200 routes in the core router, but this has dropped to 66 routes. So 75-80 percent of the router memory has been saved. When memory is saved, the efficiency of the router increases. More packets can come in and the routing is faster. And data packets don't get lost," explains Chitra.

One of the key components required was Middleware, to interconnect the branches. "We initially considered MQ series but found that it was very expensive. So our team found a more simple and cost effective solution. We are now using UnixWare's queuing system and shared memory feature for network connectivity," says Chitra.

An external agency (Neo Computers) arranged for the middleware (network programs). The processes and Daemons were written by the LIC team, in-house.

NETWORK SETUP
There are two sides to the network the Web server that offers customer services through the Internet, and the nationwide intranet (WAN) which uses leased lines and VSATs for connectivity. The WAN is being upgraded for zone/division communication using VoIP and video conferencing technologies.

Being a public sector organization, LIC's practices are monitored by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). Hence, specific brands and equipment were selected as per the CVCs guidelines. Dr. D. B. Phatak, Head, Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology, IIT-Mumbai, is the technical advisor for this project.

Database servers and routing equipment form the heart of this network. The WAN is structured for distributed processing and there is no central database--each division maintains a database of policy holders. The servers at the branch and district offices hold policy information for customers residing at these respective areas only. The Central Office in Mumbai, maintains an index of policy numbers and the corresponding IP addresses of the servers on which these policies reside.

For the first MAN center, LIC went in for Sun servers. Later on, for the other two MAN centers, Intel servers were selected, to maintain compatibility with the branch applications and systems. The servers at the MAN centers are being upgraded to the Intel Xeon platform. However, Sun servers are being used for Web services.

"We found that Intel servers offered the same functionality (as the Sun servers) and we were more confident with these, hence the change in platform," explains LIC’s IT Head, Lakshmanan.

The servers at the MAN center run on the SCO UnixWare 7 operating system and have the MF COBOL application. The branch centers use Softek Cobol.

Mail servers and application servers (for CRM) will be deployed at a later stage.

For the leased line network, LIC has chosen Cisco routers, RAD modems/multiplexers and Cisco or D-Link unmanaged switches.

Chitra says the routers at the zonal centres had to be upgraded as more MAN centers were added to the network. Initially, Cisco 2600 series routers were chosen for servicing the first 10 MAN centers (under seven zonal offices). But these were replaced with Cisco 3640 series last year, when another 33 MAN centers were connected. The routers at the zonal offices were once again upgraded to 3600 series as the network expanded, to connect 89 MAN centers in 100 divisions.

"The Cisco 3640 series routers (at the seven zonal offices) could not service all the divisions (MAN centers) under them. So at the zonal level we upgraded the routers to Cisco 3660 series (3661/62)," says Chitra. "The 3661/62 is a six slot router and it was chosen because it has more memory capacity and greater processing power. These routers also offer more slots for leased line terminations."

Presently, the MAN centers use Cisco 3640 routers and the branches use Cisco 1750/1720 series routers. These routers are voice enabled, but at present only data passes through. The links between the MAN centers and zonal centers carry both voice and data.

The modems and multiplexer (MUX) are other essential equipment, and RAD products were chosen. The MUX helps in consolidating separate channels, cuts down the number of modems and also reduces margin for failure.

Explains Chitra, "In the Central Office we had 20 lines coming in to the router. We could have gone in for an E1 channel (30 x 64 Kbps lines) from DoT. But this would require 30 separate modems. Also, in that case, if the E1 channel went down, then the whole line would fail. Hence we decided to go in for a RAD MUX which is similar to the equipment available at DoT. We have gone in for an E1 channel at our Bangalore, Thane, Pune and Mumbai MAN centers."

However, MUX units are not being used at other locations, which use E1 channels instead for this an E1 card is placed in the router.

Three types of modems are used on the WAN RAD ASM20, RAD ASM31 and RAD E1. The RAD ASM20 is a four-wire modem, while RAD ASM31 is two-wire modem.

Five divisional offices/MAN centers and 15 branches will have VSAT connectivity, for linking distant divisions/branches (like those in the Eastern region), with the C.O. in Mumbai. The MAN centers with VSATs are Bongaigaon, Silchar, Jorhat, Jalpaiguri, Srinigar/Jammu.

VSAT connectivity has been provided by HCL Comnet. SCPC-PAMA will be used for VSATs.

VOIP
Since LIC made significant investments in EPABX equipment two years earlier, it has decided to link its existing voice communication system with the WAN, instead of going in for next generation IP phones and VOIP switches/gateways.

The technology is from Cisco and it involves voice-enabling the routers. This is done by putting special modules and cards (NM2V and VIC2E&M) in the router. The cards are connected to an EPABX unit. Digital handsets (from Tata Telecom) are connected to the EPABX.

Getting deeper into the technology, Chitra explains that the router has six slots-- four of these are assigned for voice while two are for data.

"We fit NM2V modules into these slots. NM2V is the base module required for fitting the VIC2E&M card. A cable connects the VIC2E&M card to the EPABX. Each NM2V module has two voice ports. Each NM2V will take two VIC2E&Ms. Each VIC2E&M will have two channels. So we put two VIC2E&Ms per slot and this effectively gives four voice channels per slot. The zonal office routers have one slot assigned for voice using one NM2V and two VIC2E&M."

The routers support both data and voice. On the Central Office router four slots are for voice thereby resulting in 16 voice channels (48 extensions). This means 16 voice sessions can take place simultaneously. The zonal offices have got four voice channels (12 extensions).

"For the other two data slots in the C.O. router, we have put an E1 card in one, which connects to the MUX. The slot has the NM4T card which is for connecting four 2 MB lines, to Delhi, Chennai, Calcutta, and Hyderabad," says Chitra.

VIDEO CONFERENCING
To cut down on travel expenses, LIC is implementing a video conferencing solution between its C.O. in Mumbai and six other locations. For this purpose, two locations (Kanpur and Bhopal) will have ISDN connectivity while the other four locations (Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi, and Hyderabad) will have 2 MB links.

Zydacron equipment has been selected for video conferencing (as per guidelines from the CVC). At the C.O. the video conferencing equipment is not being connected to the router directly instead it is being connected to an Ezenia MCU (multi-conferencing control unit).

WEB-ENABLED SERVICES
A Web server has been set up at the central office (www.licindia.com) for the purpose of offering policy holders basic services. In the near future a registered user can avail of services like making modifications to a policy (change of address, change of nominee), querying the status of the policy, etc. Already, LIC can send policy holders premium notices by e-mail.

According to LIC, 70,000 users have already registered for the status report.

At present, policy holders can pay premiums online through service providers (ICICI bank, HDFC bank, UTI bank, Bank of Punjab, Corporation Bank, Billjunction.com and Timesofmoney.com.)

"Through the website we will be offering a statement of all the premiums paid during the financial year, for filing of income tax returns. We plan to provide more value-added services later," says LIC's IT Head, Lakshmanan.

When a policy holder registers at the website, the system checks his details with the server at the relevant MAN center. Then his record is fetched from the MAN server and put on the Web server. It takes a day to complete this process. Thereafter, any change that takes place in the policy account (like further payments of premiums, change in nominee, change in address) is reflected on the Web server, and also on the branch server's database.

Sun E420 servers are used for the Web server at the Central office. The Checkpoint Enterprise Firewall (running on a Sun UltraSparc server) is also used. A similar set up exists at the Internet service provider's (VSNL) premise. A 128 Kbps ISDN line is used for connecting the Web server (at the C.O) to the ISP server.

Currently, the Web server and intranet/WAN are not directly connected, but LIC will interconnect the two with a leased line and put in a firewall in between.

Both policy holders and LIC are now enjoying the benefits of the Web server facility. Instead of running from table to table (or office to office), policy holders can now view the status of their policy from anywhere on the Web.

Further, customers can use the Web for placing complains/grievances and these can be resolved within a week.

LIC is benefiting too. Payments via the Web are going up every month, and workflow processes have been streamlined. As of February 2002, there were 2,872 collections for premiums made through the Web, amounting to Rs 86,28,410.

"The collections we are getting via the Internet are much more than what we would get through a service provider. It has also reduced the time taken for the transaction," says LIC’s IT Head, Lakshmanan. "We are paying the bank (service provider) Rs 3 per transaction as collection charges. But we also have to send a notice to the bank, collect the payments, etc. When doing this the traditional way, it takes a much longer time."

The WAN and Web server have also boosted the morale of the employees. "The level of computerization in our organization has increased and most staff members know how to operate a computer. We are also advancing loans to the LIC agents to purchase computers. These agents can also take some services to the policy holders from his machine at home," says a proud Lakshmanan.

CALL CENTER
LIC is in the final stages of setting up Call Centers at eight locations, and connecting these to the WAN. In addition, there are interactive voice response (IVR) systems at 56 locations. "Looking forward, we will have an all-India database with data warehousing. We will be interconnecting the call centers," informs Lakshmanan. "This will enable a person staying in New Delhi to find out the status of the policy which was taken in Mumbai, for instance."

THE COMPANY

Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) is a 1,93,621.69 crore public sector enterprise (total assets as of 31st March 2001). It is in the business of selling insurance products and related services. LIC has 1,25,000 employees and 6,28,301 agents across the country, and it services approximately four crore policy holders.

This corporation grew by over 60 percent in the last financial year, notwithstanding the opening up of the insurance sector. LIC's operations span the length and breadth of the nation through seven zonal offices, 100 divisional offices, and 2,048 branch offices.

THE NEED

Servicing so many customers across the country is quite a challenging task, and LIC wanted to improve customer services by streamlining processes and making policies more accessible to customers.

It also needed to reduce costs on travel and intra-office communications.

THE SOLUTION

An extensive network with a Web front-end to make policies and services more accessible. LIC connected more branches, district centers and zonal offices to the WAN in a hierarchical arrangement. It then set up a Web server so that policy holders could lodge complaints online, modify policy information or just check the status of policies.

To cut costs on travel and long distance calls, LIC chose to voice-enable its WAN and deploy video conferencing solutions. It needed to upgrade its leased lines for voice and video traffic. This involved replacing older routers with new voice-enabled one's having more memory and processing power. While doing so, LIC also interfaced its EPABX voice communications systems with the WAN.

THE BENEFITS

The upgraded and extended WAN streamlines processes, making it easier for customers and LIC staff to check the status of policies, address grievances, and act on feedback.

Collections via the Web reduce time taken for transactions. All this translates to improved efficiency levels in service.

LIC is also saving on intra-office long distance communications, thanks to the use of VoIP and video conferencing technologies on its WAN.

 
     
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