Modernizing with AWS

How SSP moved Windows workloads to AWS to save millions

Just because you’re moving to the cloud doesn’t mean you have to leave your favorite applications behind. Like many others, a global, insurance provider of technology solutions and software, chose to migrate and rearchitect their Windows applications to AWS. With this radical change, SSP cut software deployment times from months to minutes and saved $2 million yearly. Even better, AWS “just completely transform[ed] the spend in our business,” according to Jim Sadler, chief operating officer for SSP.

In response to customer demand, SSP needed to shift their operating model to accommodate usage-based pricing. This was a shift from the old, guaranteed annuity payment method the company had depended on for years. While this sounds simple, the change promised to be a “disruptive play” in the industry, according to Sadler.

To get there, SSP turned to AWS, which has been a “game changer” for SSP, says Sadler. “Compared to other [cloud providers], AWS offered the best uptime and range of platform services.”

Shifting to an on-demand business model

SSP provides software that insurers use to manage pricing, quotes, policy administration, and claims. More than 800 insurance brokers and 60 insurance carriers worldwide rely on SSP’s Windows-based applications each day to process insurance quotes and transactions worth more than $3 billion gross in written premiums.

Those same customers, however, increasingly demanded a different approach to how they did business with SSP.

For example, customers required dramatically faster service. Within the insurance industry, the typical time to deploy a piece of insurance software “might be a nine, 12, or 18 months project,” notes Sadler. “Now people are talking in terms of weeks and months, not months and years.” To get that speed of deployment, SSP needed an alternative to the company’s on-premises infrastructure that struggled to keep up with double-digit growth each year in the amount of transactions it processed.

Perhaps even more crucially, SSP’s customers wanted transaction-based pricing, something that was simply impossible with an on-premises datacenter approach. “We needed to change that part of our business or face going out of business,” says Sadler. In fact, just about everything with their traditional datacenter model made the economics of transaction-based pricing a struggle.

Cost alignment, for example.

“There was a substantial cost involved with buying, installing, and configuring servers, and we needed to focus on reducing costs while moving the business forward,” says Kevin Gaut, chief technology officer at SSP. “We’d run out of road on what we were trying to do. Without a change, we would simply have run out of space” to store it all, as Gaut highlights:

[We had] a huge number of insurance quotes flowing through our environment and we wanted to start to gather those and…create capabilities on top of that data. And we just couldn’t do that in our [on-premises] environment. We couldn’t physically store that amount of data. We couldn’t get into big data. We couldn’t get into the predictive analytics, which means we couldn’t get into machine learning….[I]t was the right time to pivot into the cloud.

Most of SSP’s software was delivered as a service. However, the underlying infrastructure to support those services ran within their own datacenters. This meant SSP consumed capital to build and maintain “some pretty sizeable infrastructure installations,” both in terms of the production service and disaster recovery capabilities. Worse, Sadler says, SSP invested in capacity before they could realize revenue. This hurt their profits, and tied up resources that “otherwise [could] be repurposed towards making even better software apps for our clients.”

Getting beyond lift-and-shift

Rehosting applications wasn’t going to be enough for SSP’s goals.  Gaut said, “We didn’t want to just lift and shift what we had today. We didn’t want to just move a solution that ran in one environment into the cloud and go, ‘Yay, we’re in the cloud.’” That would not have been sufficient, anyway, says Gaut. They expected transaction-based pricing to stoke significant demand, bringing large, somewhat unpredictable spikes in traffic.

Accelerating deployment

SSP chose to rearchitect their Windows-based platforms on AWS, citing our superior performance and range of platform services compared to other cloud providers. Among those services, SSP uses AWS Fargate, Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS), Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), and Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS). By using these AWS services, SSP went from months to minutes in deployment speed. Previously, SSP invested four to six months in a software installation – “lost time” according to Sadler. Now, this same workload takes 20 minutes with AWS, with a goal to get to 10 minutes.

Significant cost savings

SSP also relies on Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to store petabytes of customer data from their Windows applications, which lowers storage costs. But it’s more than a cost issue. “Storage is not differentiating for us,” argues Sadler, “and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a non-differentiating item makes no sense.” Instead, he goes on, “Using AWS to manage storage and the rest of our environment means we can spend more money on creating features and functions for the software, which is what drives our competitive advantage.”

Additionally, the way SSP had been paying for storage (racking up servers in their data centers) was at odds with how the company actually makes money. “Our flagship application is a rules engine that brokers and insurers can use to price different types of insurance products,” says Sadler. “At any given time, millions of quotes flow through this engine, but only a small number of them are converted to policies, which is how we make money. On-premises storage involved potentially high costs for something that doesn’t translate to revenue, which is why Amazon S3 works so well for us.”

Automation everywhere

Moving to the AWS Cloud helped SSP automate their pipeline by running their infrastructure as code, using platform services integrated with their software engineering tools to automate all deployments. This gives them the necessary agility to differentiate their business, notes Sadler. “Using AWS, and our own developed automation, we can deploy an entire environment, infrastructure and software, in less than 20 minutes from a standing start, instead of the months it used to take.” This speed helps the company reach new markets faster, without having to invest in creating data centers in Regions, like Africa.

Cost savings help SSP drive innovation

SSP annually saves more than $2 million by using on AWS services. Part of this savings comes from their 40% reduced Windows licensing costs by using Amazon RDS and Windows on Amazon EC2. SSP funnels this saved money into creating innovative new offerings.

“Running on AWS, we’re moving from being a software provider to being a market insights provider, and that’s a position we’ve never been in before. We see it as the next step in our continued innovation,” says Sadler. “AWS is helping us transform our business.” As the company goes forward, they’re excited to build “something fairly unique and something that we, as a business, can be proud,” says Gaut, while simultaneously setting up the company for customer success for the next 10 years.

More to come

To see how your organization can, like SSP, save money while driving innovation and improving performance, please continue to join me as I highlight companies on their modernization journeys onto AWS. As you do, I hope you’ll also ask the question, what’s your plan for moving off Microsoft Azure? Or off Oracle? Or whatever old-guard technology keeps you from modernizing to better care for your customers?

Please consider letting AWS help you assess how your company can get the most out of cloud. Join all the AWS customers who trust us to run their most important applications in the best cloud. To have us create an assessment for your Microsoft Azure applications (or all your applications), email us at WhatsYourModernizationPlan@amazon.com, and please consider joining the conversation using the #WhatsYourModernizationPlan hashtag.

To learn more on modernizing Windows Server or SQL Server, visit Windows on AWS.

Matt Asay

Matt Asay

Matt Asay (pronounced "Ay-see") has been involved in open source and all that it enables (cloud, machine learning, data infrastructure, mobile, etc.) for nearly two decades, working for a variety of open source companies and writing regularly for InfoWorld and TechRepublic. You can follow him on Twitter (@mjasay).