Sterling Insurance Group, an independent UK insurer employing 350 people, needed to change its application deployment infrastructure, built on Windows and running on Citrix Presentation Server, because slow performance was affecting customer service.
The firm offers a range of products and services, including household, commercial and creditor insurance. Since 1994, the group has grown to become one of the most successful independent insurers in the country.
Until recently, the organisation's employees relied on a business application that often responded badly to simple requests such as quotes, sometimes taking up to a minute to return the results.
Simon Hooper, infrastructure manager at Sterling Insurance Group, said the application, which was developed in-house, was struggling to cope with business growth. "Users experienced system slowdowns and when logging on to their applications, they were forced to sign on a number of times." In addition, the IT team did not have centralised control over user access, and individuals had to be set up separately, which was time consuming and laborious.
"Employees found it difficult to function efficiently, while the IT team spent a considerable amount of time dealing with support," he explained.
Managers were concerned that delays in generating quotes had started to affect the professional service for which the business was known, Hooper said. "The system took up to a minute to create a quote, and we could no longer afford that kind of delay."
The firm tried to improve system performance, but decided instead to replace the application with a customised off-the-shelf package and run it on a new operating system.
The insurer found Windows Server 2008 now gave users access to the application running on a remote client machine "seamlessly", so they didn't know the application was running remotely, a feature only available previously using Citrix software. Hence the insurer avoided the cost of a buying both Citrix and Microsoft licences for the new deployment.
Simon Ratcliff, Sterling Insurance Group senior server engineer, said, "Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services licences are about £55 per person. If we were to use Citrix we would be required to purchase Terminal Services licences at £55 per person and spend an additional £50 per person for the Citrix licences."
The new application runs from a central installation on Intel processor-based servers and is distributed to users without having to deploy it to each computer. Because Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services RemoteApp launches and runs as a application window on the users' desktops, employees can access the program with a single sign-on alongside their other applications as though it's running on the desktop PC.
Network load balancing features enhance application performance by distributing users evenly between the servers, in an effort to prevent system slowdowns. The IT team also uses the Reliability and Performance Console available in Windows Server 2008 to view statistics and alerts about how machines are running. Administrators control user policies, updates and security Active Directory services, first introduced in Windows 2000.
"Running on Windows Server 2008, we can customise each application to suit our individual requirements," Ratcliff said.
The implementation, which went live in April, went relatively smoothly, according to Martin Clare, principal analyst with Embrionic, the IT services firm working with Sterling Insurance. Only the single sign-on agent running on users' Windows XP desktop PCs needed a hot-fix from Microsoft, he said.
The operating system and application should now support commercial growth, Ratcliff said.
Quotation delays no longer occurred and users could work more efficiently and flexibly as a result of faster, more reliable access both in and out of the office, he added.
Sterling Insurance Group now expects the application to generate quotes in less than five seconds, a saving of more than 90% on the performance of the old system. The single sign-on for users and access to applications helps to close the gap between the internal and external user experiences.
Fewer user requests are expected to ensure significant productivity improvements for IT staff too, Ratcliff said. "The single sign-on means there's no second password to be reset, and there will be few technical issues due to system slowdowns. IT administrators can focus on more strategic activities."
Sterling Insurance Group can offer customers a more responsive turnaround of insurance claims and quotes. "We can eradicate embarrassing delays, boost relationships and secure customer loyalty," said Hooper.
The new system also enabled more flexible working, he said. "With Terminal Services in Windows Server 2008, users have the same access and performance on computers at home as they would in the office. Advanced security and control over our network gives employees greater flexibility and workplace satisfaction."
Software and Services:
Microsoft Server Product Portfolio
Windows Server 2008
Terminal Services RemoteApp