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GoCo Group backs Microsoft Azure to deliver ‘savings-as-a-service’ customer acquisition strategy

GoCo Group technology director Kieron Nolan explains the firm’s plans to migrate most of its price comparison platforms to the Microsoft Azure cloud in 2020

The price comparison website market is a crowded place, dominated by a handful of major players that are pushing for consumers to use their online platforms over their competitors’ to find the best deals in an increasingly wide and diverse array of financial products and utilities.

GoCo Group, which owns the GoCompare price comparison site, is among them, and has spent much of the past decade pursuing a buy-and-build strategy to expand its business and product range, as well as offer consumers new ways to save money.

Above and beyond its flagship GoCompare service, the group now boasts the utilities-focused comparison site Energylinx, consumer discounts site MyVoucherCodes and its energy tariff-switching offering, WeFlip.

These brands are collectively designed to help consumers save money, either through finding them better deals on their car insurance, credit cards, loans, and energy tariffs, or making it easier for them to track down retailer discounts, as part of what GoCo calls its savings-as-a-service proposition.

The “as-a-service” phrasing is synonymous with using cloud, but for GoCo, the move off-premise is one it is still negotiating as it works towards shifting most of the IT infrastructure underpinning its brands to the Microsoft Azure cloud in 2020.

A substantial part of the groundwork for this move has already been done, according to group director technology Kieron Nolan, as GoCo has already completed six months of work this year moving its disaster recovery systems to Azure.

A couple of “less critical” services were also moved across during this period, Nolan tells Computer Weekly, which means the firm will operate a hybrid cloud setup until the next phase of the migration gets under way in 2020.

“Although the entire platform isn’t live [in Azure] yet, what we have seen is that the performance of that platform has improved, and the customer experience has too, and the time it takes to switch over to our disaster recovery platform is greatly reduced to sub-10 minutes now, which is a significant improvement,” he says.

“That’s all been working brilliantly, so we have every confidence that we’re on the right track for switching over completely next year.”

“We have every confidence that we’re on the right track for switching over to Azure completely next year”

Kieron Nolan, GoCo Group

Given how well the initial phase of the project has gone, some enterprises might be inclined to seize on these benefits to justify ramping up the pace of their cloud migration plans, but Nolan says GoCo is committed to delivering the project in a calm, measured and methodical way.

“The web platforms are the business, and are key to what we do on a day-to-day basis,” he says, so the firm can ill afford to do anything without thoroughly planning and testing it all out first.

“We have to be really sure we are approaching it in the right way, and from there we are testing everything along the way,” he adds. “And it is only when we are at the point where we are certain that we are in a good place that we switch across.”

The initial phase of the migration saw GoCo’s 130-strong technology team working alongside representatives from managed cloud provider Rackspace’s professional services team, who were on hand to offer advice and support from an architectural and delivery point of view.

This collaboration will continue in the next phase of the project, says Nolan, because of the experience and insight Rackspace has already imparted to the GoCo Group tech team.

“Generally speaking, we don’t outsource technology, but what was really important to us on this project was having access to a partner like Rackspace that has done this kind of work before,” he says.

“They gave us insights into how to tackle challenges and make the most of opportunities other companies have had [which have done similar projects with them], so we didn’t have to learn all those lessons ourselves.”

Drawing on past experience

Rackspace is also well versed in how GoCo Group’s IT systems are set up and organised, given that it has been responsible for hosting GoCo’s infrastructure in its own datacentres for 12 years now.

Nolan says: “GoCo started out in 2006 and we started the engagement with Rackspace in and around 2007, as we got to the point as a startup where you are a serious brand with some real customers, and having the infrastructure [running the company] sat in the office was no longer the right thing.

“So we migrated initially from our office environment to their datacentres, and that is where the relationship all started.”

As the number of brands GoCo operates has grown, so too has its reliance on Rackspace’s infrastructure hosting capabilities, says Nolan.

“As we’ve acquired those businesses, we brought them into line with the group platforms and moved them over to Rackspace managed environments,” he adds.

It is a setup that has served the group well, but there are scalability benefits that moving to a cloud-based setup will bring that have made it essential to switch up its hosting arrangements, says Nolan.

For example, its flagship brand, GoCompare, garners about five million website visits a month on it own, and is prone to unpredictable spikes in traffic at a moment’s notice.

“There are peaks and troughs in traffic to the site, and there are a number of things that can drive that, from TV and media advertising, through to GoCompare being a recommended comparison site that people should use by experts on TV,” says Nolan. “We wanted to be in a better position to manage those peaks and troughs.”

Beyond elastic infrastructure 

It is not just access to Azure’s elastic, cloud-based compute capabilities that GoCo is looking to tap into. Its platforms are crunching through, and trying to make sense of, billions of data points generated by the activities of its customers, who are all in pursuit of better deals on utilities and financial services products.

While the company has traditionally focused on comparison services, the roll-out of its WeFlip service in October 2018 saw it take steps to make it easier for its customers to switch energy tariffs as often as they need, to ensure they are getting the best possible deal.

The service is automated and data-driven, says Nolan, and GoCo has already started tapping into some of Azure’s big data processing, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to support WeFlip’s operations.

In particular, it has been leaning on Azure Databricks, Microsoft’s Apache Spark-based big data analytics service, which users can build on to create their own AI offerings.

“When we started to look at AI platforms, it was obvious and made sense to go down the Databricks route,” says Nolan, especially as the move to Azure overall seems to have been something of a no-brainer for the firm.

Through its technology tie-up with Rackspace, GoCo could have accessed similar managed cloud offerings from Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud, but it opted for Microsoft Azure for a mix of legacy, efficiency and ease of migration reasons, says Nolan.

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“GoCompare traditionally was a Microsoft stack, and what we were clear on when we [talked about] migrating to cloud was that we didn’t want to have to re-engineer the entire platform,” he says.

“If we did, that initial six-month project would turn into years, and we didn’t want to risk the kind of timeline that came with that. And so we made a decision that the Microsoft fit was there and made it a lot simpler, architecturally, to migrate.”

As previously mentioned, the company has made a concerted effort in the past to bring all the brands it has acquired onto the same underlying platforms and stacks for consistency purposes.

One notable exception is the MyVoucherCodes platform, which is underpinned by a PHP stack running in the AWS cloud, but managed, once again, by Rackspace.

Apart from that, the firm now has a carefully plotted course ahead of it that will see it evolve the hybrid infrastructure underpinning most of its platforms for an all-in Azure setup.

But far from marking the end of its digital transformation efforts, the completion of its Microsoft cloud migration looks set to usher in a fresh wave of innovation at the firm, says Nolan.

“With the platform in Azure, over time – and where it makes sense – we will re-engineer parts of the platform,” he says. “There is a drive across the industry with open banking, for example, and we want some of our brands to take advantage of that.

“By having the platforms in Azure, it makes it much simpler for us to develop and integrate with third parties like banks and other financial services entities, which is a good example of the type of foundation this work will put in place for us.”

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