Autonet Insurance has grown approximately fivefold over the past five or six years. Keeping up with the pace of such business growth is a challenge in itself, but Autonet was also grappling with a boom in corporate data, which was tripling in volume every year. As a result, the company’s IT was becoming increasingly unreliable.
“Disks were failing, throughput wasn’t good enough and servers were crashing,” says Nick Potts, head of IT at Autonet. “We were having hardware failures and really the choice was either to change something or to drown. I went through a period with no sleep. I used to go home, sit in my living room and just think about all of the things that were likely to have gone wrong when I walked into the office the next day.”
The company has grown at between 30% and 40% per year for five or six years as a result of the popularity of ‘aggregator’ websites, such as Confused.com.
However, while the aggregators have pushed a lot of business to Autonet, they have also compounded Autonet’s data headache with the level of customer data reconciliation and de-duplication that the company needs to conduct on incoming data in real-time.“The aggregator model in the UK has had a multiplying effect on the amount of data that we end up storing,” says Potts.
“In the past, ‘Mr Smith’ might just have called our contact centre and we will have put his details into our system once,” he explains. “Today, though, he might also go direct to our website, and as the website writes to a different database, that will store another set of records for Mr Smith. He might go to one of our other branded sites, which sits on the same web server, and do another quote and have another record stored.”
The company has 12 active brands – five for car insurance, and seven for van and commercial vehicle insurance. “So we could end up storing 13 sets of one customer’s details before he has even gone out to the wider market, such as Confused.com,” says Potts. In all, Autonet could end up storing more than 30 different records for Mr Smith’s car and van insurance renewal, with 90% of that data generated by aggregators.
The aim of the virtualisation project, therefore, was to improve reliability and enhance customer data management while simplifying the IT infrastructure.
Autonet started its virtualisation project in mid-2010, first rolling out the storage hardware over four days in October 2010. With the storage area network (SAN) in place, it then migrated its applications, one by one, over to a virtualised environment based on VMware ESXi Server.
“We deployed the NetApp system in October 2010 and put the first virtual server in shortly after that. Immediately, there was a massive drop in the number of issues that arose from downtime, system failure and restoration from backups. Indeed, we saw a steady drop in these issues as we migrated more and more of the data and servers over to the virtual environment,” says Potts.
The virtualisation programme enabled the company to reduce its physical server estate from 30 to 15, while at the same time mirroring applications and data across two fully redundant sites. Storage was consolidated in a NetApp SAN consisting of a NetApp FAS2020 and FAS2040 running on iSCSI, which provides similar high performance to fibre channel connectivity technology, but at a much lower cost.
One of the main benefits of the virtualised environment from Autonet’s perspective was the ability to focus its IT resources on the customer: when a client calls or emails, all their records, including searches conducted on aggregator websites, can be retrieved quickly and easily.
In total, the project cost about £120,000. “That sounds like a lot, but I could have spent twice that amount in conventional means and not delivered anywhere near the level of service that we received,” says Potts.
Furthermore, the virtualisation layer enables the same data to be read in different ways by different applications. Rather than having ten different copies of each customer record for each of the ten ways it might be accessed, Autonet can now store just one.