Ringmains, browsers, and thin clients can only mean technology has found a new way to confuse us and no doubt require us to redo the IT budget upwards. Or has it? The latest developments in the London market look like IT could be delivering business benefit at last, comments Andrew Driver.

The "Ringmain" is the latest announcement by LIMNET introducing a high-speed flexible network infrastructure based on TCP/IP. (TCP/IP stands for Transfer Communication Protocol/Internet Protocol and is the standard that allows packets of information to flow between networks and around the internet). TCP/IP is in fact now the defacto standard used by modern network operating systems and the internet.

This follows on Lloyd's development of a new version of the Lloyd's Insurance Network (LIN). LIMNET (the London Insurance Market Network) brings together the Lloyd's, company and broker markets. Significantly the network and core services will be provided by IBM the existing incumbent supplier together with AT&T.

The service will provide a vehicle for mail and directory services, internet gateway and access to other insurance networks such as the LIN. The infrastructure is an advance on EPS which had little support. The main reason for this was the requirement to force data into a structured message. Needless to say the message went through a number of iterations hardly conducive to market-wide acceptance.

The new environment will support internet browser based technology. This for instance will allow brokers to image risk information onto a server and be available to underwriters who can then download the data to their desktops for manipulation and transfer into the main systems. Browser software is now available with the latest versions of Windows. Even the requirement to acquire an additional network server still makes this technology very cost effective.

From a processing point of view substantial savings will also come from interfacing this data into the back office processing systems and avoiding the cost of manual re-entry. The low cost factor will also allow wider usage across the market. This technology will deliver business benefits to the smaller niche players with its potential for reducing the cost of producing, placing and processing. The three "Ps" . . . hmmm is that Blairism at work again?

Technology wise, one of the fastest rollouts in the London insurance and City financial markets is that of thin client technology. After intranets it is the most talked about technology in the market. Thin client computing means the use of very low capability (thin) desktop devices to deliver full strength business applications to users.

The Windows Thin Client can be no more than a keyboard, screen and a small terminal housing RAM. The thin client is connected to a server on which everything happens; all the processing for the business applications and storage of information.

This approach offers many benefits. Businesses can continue to use older ("legacy") PCs to run new applications, without the usual expensive upgrades or replacements. Remote users or branch offices can use low-bandwidth, and thus low-cost, connections to run business-critical, central applications. Finally, all the applications and data remain on a central server, allowing the IT department full centralised control of versions of software, data back up and user access.

Taken together, these benefits have allowed many organisations to significantly reduce the total cost of ownership of their systems and roll out programme enhancements to many users at far lower costs than by traditional means. NetSoft Solutions are rolling out thin client technology for CNA Re, who are connecting up two European branches and the Ashley Palmer Agency at Lloyd's. Interestingly enough Microsoft has recently reached an agreement with the leading thin client solutions provider Citrix to incorporate the technology in future releases of Windows/NT Server.

A not so surprising development which has recently come to light is the close talks between LIMNET, RINET, and WIN. Discussions have been underway for nine months between RINET (the Reinsurance and Insurance Network), WIN (the World Insurance Network) and LIMNET. Close co-operation between these three organisations will be a major benefit to their members and for the global market. What is important is that they proceed with both these interests at heart.

The London market "Ringmain" discussed above will be greatly enhanced by connections to RINET and WIN and for that matter BRMA and Marsh & McLennan's Global Broking network. This would cover two of the major geographic markets and prove a powerful conduit for the movement of risk information globally. Setting the standards and creating the strategic plan should be their aim. What the market may query is any intention on behalf of any of these organisations to become "commercial IT companies". One connection to the "Ringmain" for both WIN and Global Broking is surely to the benefit of the brokers involved and the market.

Andrew Driver is the managing director of Impact Media Limited. Impact is a broad based PR and marketing consultancy servicing insurers, brokers and service providers such as IT companies, run-off managers and lawyers. Previously Mr Driver was with Lloyd's broker Edward Lumley & Sons, English & American Group and Sherwood International plc.