Finding the Goldilocks Zone: Using Enterprise-Class HCI to Power a Medium-Sized Insurance Business
In 1894, Grant Slocum—a farmer’s son—planted a seed. He founded the Ancient Order of Gleaners to protect farm families like his own. He declared the Gleaner motto as “prudens futuri,” which is Latin for “wisdom for the future.”
Today, the Ancient Order of Gleaners is called the Gleaner Life Insurance Society. We’re a not-for-profit fraternal benefit society and our members are our owners. We are accountable to them—not to Wall Street investors—and they all have a say in how we do business. We are especially proud of our conservative investment portfolio that puts people ahead of returns, and our emphasis on financial security and stability.
Fraternal Values and Personalized Service
Our commitment to these fraternal values informs the way we treat our 70,000 members, our hundreds of independent agents, our customer support teams, and our administrative staff. Gleaner has earned a reputation for personalized customer service. Our highly trained life insurance agents take a flexible approach to underwriting policies. We don’t run our members’ requests for coverage through a decision engine. Instead, we empower our independent agents to sit down with people and discuss their needs.
The personalized customer experience starts the minute we pick up the phone. When someone calls our 1-800 number, the Gleaner switchboard operator answers, “Hi Gleaners.” Instead of asking callers to navigate menus, tap in numbers, and respond to voice prompts, we provide a human touchpoint. We strive to make our members feel like they’re dealing with a small company, even though we’re a mid-sized business.
Our personalized front-end experience is only possible because a lot of technology exists behind the scenes. As Gleaner Life’s network administration supervisor, I oversee the IT infrastructure that helps us put our members first. My team supports about 100 internal users, our external independent agents, and customers who use our online services.
We need the right tools to maintain the levels of service our stakeholders demand, and that means enterprise-level computing. We may not require the raw power or the capacity of a multinational company, but we must have a system we can scale as we roll out new services and products to grow our member base. Plus, we have to do all of this on a tight budget with limited human resources.
Transitioning to Virtual Machines and Hyperconvergence
In 2015, our data center was nearing the end of its life. We were running two IBM chassis that housed an aging fleet of E-series blades. We’d maxed out our storage capacity, and everything was slowing down. It was time to upgrade.
Our blades were a step up from traditional servers, but Gleaner Life was ready to move to the next level, and so we started looking at virtualization and hyperconverged infrastructure. Our VP of IT, Arell Chapman, was an early adopter of VMware and nudged us towards virtual machines. He also wanted to streamline infrastructure maintenance and administration so that our small IT team could focus on projects that had a bigger impact on users and customers. The solution to his less-is-more approach was hyperconvergence.
The key benefit of virtualization is speed of deployment. Whenever we needed a new server under our old system, we had to order a new blade, wait for it to ship, and then spend days or weeks setting it up. The lead time between an initial request and the final installation was sometimes months.
With VMware, we can spin up and configure a virtual server in a couple of hours, but that was only half of the solution. Software-defined architecture can grind to a halt if the underlying hardware is sub-standard, or if it isn’t well-managed.
Under Arell’s guidance, our IT team more than tripled from five to 18 people, but we still lacked the human resources to have a dedicated storage specialist or a full-time LAN administrator on staff. We also didn’t want the expense or trouble of cobbling together a solution from four or five different vendors and then having to maintain and upgrade various interlocking components.
Hyperconvergence helped resolve these personnel issues.
Enter HPE SimpliVity
At the time, hyperconvergence was still the new kid on the block. The major players had already established themselves, but the technology was very much a work in progress. We looked at Nutanix, but we found a more developed solution: HPE SimpliVity.
Two features stood out right away: HPE SimpliVity’s integrated storage stack and its discrete hardware acceleration card. These two functionalities work together to optimize system resources, minimize I/O and network traffic, and to speed up backup, clone, and restore operations.
Combined with HPE SimpliVity’s intuitive user interface and automated workflows, these powerful features streamline data and network management. As a result, my IT team is free to focus on delivering new tools and innovation to better serve Gleaner Life’s internal users, agents, and customers.
Tackling Two Long-Overdue Projects
After we switched to hyperconverged infrastructure and virtual machines, we were able to shift existing and new personnel to projects that had a direct impact on Gleaner Life’s levels of service and on our bottom line. We’d been discussing this project for six or seven years: We had a very static website, but we couldn’t improve it due to underpowered infrastructure and limited resources. Before HPE SimpliVity, we were typically in network maintenance mode.
Another long-gestating project was the migration of our life insurance policy administration software to a modern object-based language. The story goes something like this: About 10 years ago, the company that created the system licensed it to us in perpetuity for a dollar. The only condition was that we continue to employ them to maintain it. A few years after that, they told us we were the only client still using this software, and they could no longer afford to keep on a full-time COBOL team. Arell hired those programmers, increasing our capacity, and we moved the development of the platform in-house.
This mission-critical system is over 40 years old, written in COBOL, and originally ran on a mainframe. These days, it runs on virtual machines and we maintain it in Micro Focus Visual COBOL. This new framework allows our developers to use contemporary tools and environments to code in this decades-old language.
We couldn’t have done this if we were still using traditional server architecture. HPE SimpliVity allowed our IT team to make this transition and become nimbler overall. My developers were able to roll out a customer portal that allows Gleaner Life members to check annuity balances, track payments, and manage their accounts online.
Translating COBOL to a .NET Framework Was More Cost Effective
It often costs more to maintain a legacy solution than to implement a new one, but we did the math. A new off-the-shelf policy administration platform cost upward of $15 million, which is 25 to 30 times more than the price of new HPE SimpliVity hardware. The dynamic nature of our hyperconverged environment allowed Gleaner Life to bridge a new horizon with Asysco Software. Asysco’s migration services converts our mission-critical application into .NET and SQL. Even after factoring in the salaries of our developers, we still come out ahead.
However, we couldn’t have moved forward with our COBOL to .NET project using our initial three HPE SimpliVity nodes. The bottleneck was I/O. That first deployment used mechanical drives, which proved to be a problem because this project was SQL intensive. We’d already upgraded our production environment to faster HPE SimpliVity nodes in the middle of 2017, but that wasn’t enough.
In the fall of 2019, we moved our second set of hardware to a backup data center and retooled our primary environment with three nodes that used all-flash, solid-state drives. We then repurposed the older nodes as storage for SimpliVity backups and as a “warm” DR location.
Under normal circumstances, our executive team would never have approved the $300,000 budget for new HPE SimpliVity nodes so soon after our last upgrade. However, this amount was little more than a line cost within the context of the COBOL project.
We’ve seen a substantial increase in performance. The nightly backup of our policy administration system dropped from five hours to 90 minutes. As a bonus, we got a faster production environment that also runs the 60 to 80 virtual machines necessary for Gleaner Life’s day-to-day operations.
The Inside Track
Customer support is another area where HPE SimpliVity shines. The company’s HPE Insiders online community leverages the wisdom of HPE SimpliVity users around the world—including CTOs and IT professionals like myself—to provide timely answers to technical questions.
Jenn Susinski, HPE’s Customer Marketer & Advocacy Manager, has the inside track on everything HPE SimpliVity. She connected me to industry peers and people at the company who addressed my concerns and walked me through the resolution of some crucial issues.
Jenn also invited me to HPE Discover, where I sat down with senior personnel at the company to get a sense of the future of HPE SimpliVity. I was very impressed with what I learned during those conversations and it was great to go back to my executive team and tell them that HPE SimpliVity was building precisely the hardware we needed to grow our operations.
These meetings helped me see the bigger picture and led to our most recent HPE SimpliVity purchase.
Backing Up to the Cloud with Cohesity
In July of last year, we started using Cohesity to back up our VMs to the cloud. HPE SimpliVity has excellent disaster recovery features, but we wanted an out-of-band channel in the event of a catastrophic failure that took out our primary and secondary data centers.
We looked at StorageCraft and Rubrik, but only Cohesity provided the cloud-based backups and recovery, long-term retention, advanced archiving, file management services, and scalable storage we needed. It gives me great peace of mind to know that Gleaner Life’s data is secure and that we’re ready to face any and every business continuity scenario.
In partnering with Cohesity, HPE extended the capabilities of an already robust solution, and helped us consolidate our data management across multiple silos.
Finding the Sweet Spot
When you’re a mid-size business like we are, choosing the right IT tools can be a challenge. Some are too small and do not scale. Others are too big and cost prohibitive. It’s not always easy to find the Goldilocks zone: the area that’s just right.
HPE SimpliVity is an enterprise-grade hyperconverged solution that allows Gleaner Life to compete with the biggest players in the industry. It also gives us the tools to deliver a level of personalized service that our members would only expect from a much smaller company.
With HPE SimpliVity, we are honoring a 125-year-old tradition of serving our members and their communities, and we’re using technology to put people first.