Modernizing IT was slated to be a marathon, but at a crucial point, the coronavirus pandemic significantly accelerated the pace.
Much like training for a marathon, managing an IT infrastructure modernization project follows basic best practices. The right coaches, a skilled team, and a strategic plan are crucial. Add to that a pre-determined pace, test runs to vet the front runner’s approach, and consistent execution. Sometimes things go according to plan so crossing the finish line in the anticipated timeframe is easy. More often than not, though, races – and IT projects – include unforeseen challenges.
The Pekin Insurance three-phase IT modernization project was soon to be completed. The Citrix technology platform was in place and in a short time, remote workers would be empowered to work from anywhere, over any network, using any device. Then, in the home stretch, a significant challenge was thrown into the mix.
“The end of our initiative was in sight. Then COVID-19 began to dominate the news.” says Greg Wheeler, Information Technology Manager, Technology Shared Services, End User Computing. “Our CIO surmised that a government work from home mandate was imminent and that IT would need to immediately address this significant diversion,” Wheeler continues, “We still had to resolve the network and bandwidth issues from the original project, so this new requirement meant that we would have to run at breakneck speed to win a race against time.”
“When coronavirus hit the U.S., we already had a great deal of our new digital and cloud-ready infrastructure in place,” Wheeler comments. “We used the two weeks’ notice we had to tie up loose ends,” he says. The team transitioned 1000 Pekin employees, 350 offshore workers, and between 100 and 200 onshore remote managed service workers to the Citrix platform. Ultimately, approximately 1100 users moved their offices home. A skeleton crew of only 60 to 80 critical business and IT workers remained on-site.
“One of the biggest advancements we’ve made since everyone transitioned home can be credited to the Citrix Application Delivery Controllers (ADCs). They provide real-time network bandwidths measures, reports and metrics. Having this end-to-end management visibility was crucial as we navigated the IT issues relevant to the COVID pandemic,” shares Wheeler. “Our Internet service provider’s web console, on the other hand, routinely took two to three hours to provide current reports, so theirs were basically worthless. “
Steve Pfeiffer, senior engineer, who is dedicated to managing the Citrix environment, provides many anecdotes about how IT has helped end users with their home networks. Data from ADC has enabled him to prove that many of the issues encountered by users involve their own technology rather than corporate bandwidth bottlenecks.
“Thanks to Citrix ADM management of the Citrix ADC infrastructure, not only do I now have the data to back up the root causes of many issues, but also, I can even help users resolve issues that are unrelated to our corporate environment,” Pfeiffer says. “For example, while the user might have a stable connection, periodic heavy usage from other family members in the household might cause bandwidth issues that negatively impact the employee experience.”
It’s important to understand the significant modernization project that preceded coronavirus. It was a three-phase initiative that would ultimately form the foundation for how the future of work would look at Pekin Insurance. The goal was to implement a cloud-based digital platform, starting with a series of different tech investments -- in Microsoft Azure, Citrix technology, and then in Amazon Web Services (AWS). The company already had a significant investment in Microsoft technology.
Phase I involved temporarily fixing the on-premises data center infrastructure -- the gaps, technology, data, and more -- until that environment could be replaced. The team had determined that the on-prem environment was not sustainable.
Phase II was the start of the necessary move to the cloud. The group identified a logical focal point that needed addressing: moving Guidewire – the popular property and casualty insurance carriers’ industry platform. Core mission critical apps for business, business continuity infrastructure, and tools to keep the day-to-day business running also needed to transition.
Phase III would involve transitioning everything that was deemed beyond mission critical applications. Moving Citrix fell into this phase because, at the time, it was not considered a mission critical app. In the modern infrastructure plan, Citrix Cloud ultimately will serve as the management plane.
“Each of the two cloud platforms brings something to the mix. We are able to use Citrix to support developers who are working the code and writing the code, the DevOps professionals, and anyone managing nuts and bolts tasks in the back end,” notes Wheeler. “We also have the cloud infrastructure to support the apps that meet employees’ day-to-day business needs and enable them to collaborate.” He explains,
“We’re still getting things up and running, but our plan is that workloads will be located where the actual processing will occur,” Wheeler continues. “Citrix Cloud console will make management easy because it enables us to oversee just one management pane.”
Pekin Insurance also uses many Microsoft products and solutions in its environment. Microsoft 365 runs on Azure. Citrix and the other apps that run in Azure support collaboration and ensure great employee and customer experiences.
"Microsoft Teams is one very important collaboration tool we will use in conjunction with Citrix,” says Wheeler. “We will use Citrix to get to the systems from any device anywhere, but then we will also be using the Teams backend to actually manage content. The combination of Citrix and Teams is where the real benefit comes in: it’s fantastic that we won’t be managing disparate environments."
As part of its Citrix solution stack, the team has Citrix ADCs (SDX models), Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops, Citrix ADM and all of the components in Citrix Workspace except Citrix Content Collaboration and Citrix Analytics. The team also uses Citrix app layering.
The entire Citrix environment is managed by Pfeiffer and another individual whose time is split between Citrix and various functions in IT. “The automation and functionality that Citrix technology brings enables us to do more with a very small team,” Wheeler explains. “It’s also important to note that with Citrix, we have already decreased our maintenance and resources overhead.”
At this point, the race is ongoing for Pekin Insurance. The challenge is to capitalize on the capabilities delivered by the new digital environment and continue to excel at modernizing the infrastructure comprised of Citrix and valued business partner solutions. That will involve leveraging the work that’s already been done during the work from home phase.
The list of priorities to achieve in order to reach the finish line is long. It spans a number of milestones -- from making the transition to the cloud to seamlessly scaling the environment. It also includes reducing risk and ensuring that solid business continuity technology is in place. Adding more technology capabilities also is on this list. For example, thanks to the strong and long-standing partnership between Citrix and Microsoft and the anticipated benefits that employee-centric functionality will bring, Pekin Insurance is evaluating adding the other components of a full Citrix Workspace solution.
Most important, the team at Pekin Insurance is driving a change in corporate culture. Leading by example, the IT team is highlighting the fact that that embracing innovation and agile technology can ensure a win in even the toughest of races.