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Insurer's cloud application modernization approach gets real

Helvetia views its enterprise architecture from all angles to automate and raise efficiency on the back end, improve customer experience on the front end and secure data throughout.

If your company deploys microservices via cloud containers through an automated CI/CD pipeline, this article is not for you.

Helvetia Group, a Swiss multinational insurance company, began operations in 1858, narrowly predating the rise of cloud-native development. Helvetia's IT team must refactor legacy applications and figure out cloud services and SaaS options alongside in-house applications. It relies on enterprise architecture visibility to guide the overall application modernization approach, seeking competitive advantages and efficient business operations.

App modernization means cloud and more cloud

Cloud-focused application modernization is neither easy nor a sure bet. Helvetia's extensive application portfolio must accommodate enormous data requirements and compliance rules and be tailored to meet specific business stakeholder goals.

"We have a quite heterogeneous application landscape," said Tobias Vogel, enterprise architect at the insurance company. Core back-end systems run on mainframes, for example, and the move to modernize to Windows could take five or more years. The company also is creating containerized front-end workloads on the public cloud, loosely coupled with a stable back end.

Application modernization onto cloud services occurs along multiple routes. Helvetia, for example, developed a cloud-native front-office platform in-house, because the investment promises business agility. The company also adds SaaS applications where possible, in particular when custom development won't confer a competitive advantage.

With SaaS, sometimes business processes have to adjust to app functionality, not the other way around, but enterprises shouldn't let fear of change deter adoption, according to Sid Nag, vice president of research at Gartner. "Where there's a compelling reason to move to SaaS, ... it's really a done deal," he said. Gartner forecast SaaS revenues to climb from $80 billion in 2018 to $94.8 billion in 2019, then $143.7 billion in 2022. SaaS spending represents nearly half (44% in 2019) of the total public cloud services market (see the table).

Gartner cloud revenue forecast, 2018 to 2022

Nag broke the cloud approach to application modernization into four options:

  • lift-and-shift to consolidate with no effect on application operations;
  • refactor code to take advantage of cloud capabilities such as scaling and meter-based consumption;
  • rewrite applications to use serverless, microservices and containers; and
  • abandon an existing app to get the same functionality from SaaS.

Not everything rides the cloud wave to modernization, Nag pointed out. "Some applications are not candidates for large-scale changes and cloud migration because they're mission-critical or data sensitivity prevents public cloud adoption ... [or] there might not be a SaaS option available for necessary functionality," he said.

"Still we have a lot of paper and scanning," Vogel agreed. The goal is to ensure that customers get a modern experience where it counts -- convenient interactions with well-governed data on the back end, he said. For example, short-term microinsurance transactions happen quickly, often at a remote point of sale where the customer is on a mobile device, such as a ski weekend or bike rental.

Change is dangerous

Modernization must occur within the confines of IT best practices and can spark some resistance.

When applications move to containers, the IT operations team requires visibility after deployment, which might mean tool investments and retraining to work with container orchestration and multi-tenant cloud services, Nag said.

Data protection is another no-compromises area, especially for customers' personal information. Multitudinous data flows and stores exist through Helvetia's hundreds of applications in-house and on external cloud services. "We want transparency [into] where the data is hosted, given the fact that we're using more and more cloud services," Vogel said.

Application modernization tools and services

Helvetia's application modernization approach must account for all dependencies and revamp the interfaces from the legacy application landscape to new targets. The company uses LeanIX, an enterprise architecture repository tool, to provide visibility into the current state of applications' data and dependencies, depict the envisioned target and help derive a phased modernization roadmap.

LeanIX has good and evolving functionality and is easy to use, Vogel said. Helvetia has adopted its APIs for integration with other IT management tools, such as ServiceNow. Extensibility -- open APIs, webhooks and a store -- brings LeanIX into infrastructure and operations, CI/CD pipelines, documentation workflows and business decisions, according to the vendor.

LeanIX data view
Figure 1. Users can view data flow in the LeanIX application portfolio management tool.

Enterprise architecture tools, such as LeanIX, Software AG's Alfabet and Mega International's Hopex, displace simpler options, such as Microsoft Excel and Visio. The number of processes and technologies across the business and IT landscape is too complex to handle in just spreadsheets, said André Christ, CEO of LeanIX.

LeanIX reporting
Figure 2. Users can also view the enterprise architecture through the various reporting designs to fit their roles.

Project portfolio management capabilities enable Helvetia to find gaps and redundancies in its IT strategy. Business stakeholders and infrastructure and operations teams get a centralized gateway into the enterprise architecture. "They want ... to see which process is supported by which application [or] which market unit is using the application," Vogel said. The UI is a positive, but there's room for improvement in reports and visualization, he added.

A centralized view also supports risk management, Christ said. For example, the user can see all services that use a discontinued technology, then prioritize application updates based on how critical a particular business need is.

What we try to do is to generate an architecture vision ... so that we have clear targets on different application domains.
Tobias Vogel Enterprise architect, Helvetia

Enterprises with a cloud-centric application modernization approach like Helvetia's also should investigate cloud services brokerages, Nag suggested. These boast expertise in governance and public, private and multi-cloud options, as well as unified billing and a single management interface across heterogeneous hosting choices. He also recommended cloud cost tools to predict and track spending for business and technology initiatives.

Helvetia's application modernization efforts focus on efficiency and automation for the back end, UX and omnichannel accessibility on the front end and moving production workloads to public cloud. The company also sees ample uses for AI, such as fraud detection, with cloud-based processing power for AI and associated analytics.

"What we try to do is to generate an architecture vision ... so that we have clear targets on different application domains, [which] everybody agrees on, [with] roadmaps to how to achieve it and a strategic focus for each domain," Vogel said. And, as with every modernization project, they'll need skilled professionals to drive changes.

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