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UK insurance group Markerstudy saves £1 million by turning Windows machines into cloud endpoints

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood January 19, 2022
Markerstudy’s 1,000 older devices acquired through Co-Op merger are given new lease of life with the IGEL edge computing OS

Image of a web browser with the search query ‘insurance quote’
(Image sourced via Markerstudy)

Use of an edge operating system for cloud workspaces running on top of Citrix helped avoid a potential £1m in replacement desktops and laptops during a 2020 merger of two large UK insurance firms.

It also makes hybrid working extremely easy, according to the IT leader who would have faced that bill, Adam Miller. He said:

We were on the path for onboarding the new team out of the acquisition, just lining up moving an entire business from their office in Manchester to the floors we had nearby. We had lots of nice thin devices ready - and then 750 staff immediately had to work from home.

Miller works as IT Director for a group of Kent-headquartered UK insurance brands owned by a central company called the Markerstudy Group. It supports over 1,000 broker partners and more than three million policyholders with a wide variety of insurance products. In 2020, it claimed to have become the UK's fifth largest motor insurance provider.

Markerstudy reached that status after having acquired the insurance underwriting business of the Co-Op at the end of 2020. The company is highly acquisitive, completing its buyout of Brightside Insurance in April 2021. To make absorbing new team members as easy as possible, the company had already decided to go thin client with Citrix back in 2018.

It remains a user of that platform, and indeed has expanded its use by moving to the latter's cloud management service. But in 2019, Miller decided that central management of all the endpoints in its device fleet would be made even easier with use of an operating system designed for that class of device.

Difficult to manage and painful to support

This software, IGEL, is designed to run on any x86 chipset-based endpoint or device. cloudDNA - a local IT services group partner of the vendor working on the merger - had suggested its use would make connecting numbers of devices to cloud office workspaces faster, and perhaps also make it easy to manage big hardware estates across geographically dispersed sites. Miller said:

In our early thin client days, we weren't using this OS and were just using HO thin terminals. However, the bult-in operating system on the devices was clunky, difficult to manage, and a bit painful to support. That's the bit that is very difficult to manage remotely; if you're trying to push an update out, for example, over an internet connection, it wasn't very reliable and if it crashed you had to bring the device back and refresh it.

That's very unhelpful if you're trying to support a lot of remote devices, so we wanted to replace the operating system on those devices.

There turned out to be no better test of the tech than the combination of needing to physically move (and so provision with IT) these new onboarding colleagues from the Co-Op, as well as equipping them to work safely and securely from home.

At a group level, the company then switched on Citrix cloud functionality to transition all 1,500 call centre staff to normal and supporting customers from home. But for Manchester, Miller also used his new OS to support the Co-Op migration.

A key factor consideration here: security. Miller stated:

We hadn't done any large-scale deployments for people working remotely, but we had a technology to authenticate in so you could create a secure connection. We had confidence we should be able to push this out more widely, but we were at a crunch point where you then need to push out that solution across your entire organization. 

So, we had a quick ramp up to make use of our multi-factor authentication licensing terms that we have with our cloud supplier. Then, Microsoft Authenticator allowed us to rapidly push the devices we had in the offices for people to take them home, and for us to reconnect those devices via the cloud and multi-factor.

At ground level, in late 2020, as the buyout completed, the new Markerstudy staff went in batches to their new office at the city's Arndale Centre, took their equipment home, authenticated it, then were immediately online and ‘at work' again. He said:

The edge OS was a key enabler in that, as it's very thin. That made it easy for us to help set things up and then run all those devices from home over a secure internet connection. You're also running a Linux encrypted OS on your endpoint, so it's much safer.

An allied benefit was no cost in terms of the support overhead of thousands of Windows devices running remotely across the country. Updates are also easier than just using standard thin client, due to it being a very thin OS. He said:

Delivering updates out to the estate is quite efficient and getting more efficient with the next versions. So, I took on over 700 additional staff, but from an IT support perspective barely increased our support footprint.

No need for new desktops or laptops

This level of secure set up and easier management also meant that in a time of global chip shortages, the need to be environmentally conscious, and to save avoidable expense, Miller did not need to buy any more hardware for the expanded post-M&A workforce. He said:

We reprovisioned a lot of equipment we took from the Co-Op, which came in as part of the deal and was all Windows-based hardware. A lot of that was probably near the end of its Windows life. We just put the edge OS on all of it, and then either redeployed it out to either other offices, or to support work-from-home so it can run Teams and Zoom.

Now, we're in a position where we have equipment in the office and equipment at people's homes and then they can just move between the two as we need them to and provide them with a consistent working experience. It also meant that, as we're talking around a thousand desktops and laptops, I avoided a million pounds of potential new machine procurement.

This refurbishment strategy is now being used in the Brightside transition. Miller concluded that this will be a core part of all the group's IT tactics from now on:

That's a really big benefit, and I'm expecting that will carry on. As we go through future acquisitions, it'll be the same; I'll not buy additional kit unless I really need to.

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