Field level employees are the lifeline of the insurance industry. When HDFC Life realized its already efficient sales force could bring in more success with a productivity enhancer, it turned towards hosted shared desktops (HSD). Presenting the behind-the-scenes story of one of the largest HSD implementations in the country.
If it weren’t for its industrious sales force, posting a 66.5 percent growth in net profit in a single financial year would have been just a distant dream for HDFC Life
. And getting there in a down economy is not a mean feat. That’s what makes the insurer one of the big guns in the fiercely competitive Indian insurance industry.
However, sustaining those high profit figures is as important as achieving them. HDFC Life’s SVP-Business Systems and Technology, Thomson Thomas realized this and decided to come up with a way to sustain the company’s profitable streak, through IT. He saw the potential to reduce the insurer’s IT costs, and at the same time, improve the sales team’s productivity by opting for one of the largest hosted shared desktop (HSD) implementations in the country.
Initiating IT Insurance
Back in May 2012, when the desktops used by the insurance giant’s sales force were due for a hardware refresh, Thomas had to decide what route to follow to accomplish it. Traditional refresh would have required upgrading desktop PCs on the hardware and software fronts, an endeavor that would be quite expensive.
There were two main factors that required addressing during this refresh: The need for reducing the costs and complexity associated with managing user desktops, and the need to maximize productivity through end-user systems.
“From a technology angle, we looked at options such as HSD, VDI, and Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) as part of the refresh,” says Thomas.
“From a business challenge point of view, we were facing a couple of issues related to information security and app performance.” There were some serious cases of non-adherence to security policies. For instance, one of their security policies required USB ports to be disabled at all times. This was not followed strictly at branch locations. And since two to three sales members were sharing a desktop, the threat of data leakage was high and had to be addressed on priority.
On the app performance front, there was a lot of anti-virus activity happening, mainly due to constant updates. This, coupled with the other apps running on those desktops, resulted in inadequacy of processing memory for users to process their activities at optimum levels.
We have seen hardware call reductions of almost 22 percent with HSD. We expect to see 46 percent cost reductions in support costs for desktops.
Choosing the Right Scheme
“The right solution for us would have to ensure that if xGB of RAM was assigned to a user, he should be able to use all of that memory for running his apps/work,” says Thomas.
One crucial capability HDFC Life expected in the solution was a simpler and more effective vendor management policy. The priority thus was to get an end-to-end solution—end-user device, servers, storage, and implementation—from a single vendor.
Thomas points out why some of the other options—DaaS, VDI and the likes—did not fit the bill. “When you take a service, there needs to be clear SLAs to ensure accountability, and in our evaluation, especially when the branches are spread out, the SLA on performance has a strong linkage with the network. Therefore, for the ideal DaaS setup, the service provider would need end-to-end ownership. But the DaaS service providers were not necessarily the best network service providers. This ruled out DaaS as it did not offer us any advantage in service levels or cost.”
So, the decision to go with HSD was based on the company’s analysis of user profiles. The user segment that needed the HSD implementation—in this case the sales team—consisted of users who only used applications via the browser. Thomas elaborates, saying, “As such, there was no requirement for say local applications with heavy CPU utilization, capability to modify OS system variables, admin access, ability to install own application, etcetera.” This, as a result, eliminated the need for a VDI solution.
All these factors, along with a satisfactory POC that showed an improvement over the earlier system and met current expectations, led to strengthening Thomas’ conviction that HSD was the way to go.
Installation in Instalments
HDFC Life Insurance implemented the HSD system over two phases, each phase seeing the introduction of 1,000 new units. The project was successfully implemented by December 2012, something which, as Thomas puts it, was made possible with the valuable help provided by Amit Bhide, senior manager; Ajay Vernekar, VP-Enterprise Services; and Thomas’ other team members.
With a sales force numbering around 11,000 members, the HSD implementation was focused on those members who did their work through desktops—a group called the ‘frontline sales group’, consisting of around 6,000 members.
However, there were a few important areas Thomas had to check in order to ensure the system’s effectiveness. As he himself puts it, the network plays a vital role in meeting the maximum potential of HSD. When conducting the POC, Thomas tested the HSD setup not only on the LAN, but also on the WAN in order to get a clear picture of how the network performed under different circumstances. Based on the network loads, various optimizations were carried out to allow for the HSD system to run as intended.
Nevertheless, Thomas reiterates that they really didn’t have to alter any part of their existing infrastructure to accommodate the new HSD system.
Benefits in the Long Term
One of the most significant benefits of the HSD implementation has been that unplanned downtime has been minimized and accelerated recovery is possible in case of OS
failures. “The user’s personalized stateless virtual desktop is accessible from a wide variety of devices and can be accessed securely over the Internet,” says Thomas.
The system has also helped in reducing downtime caused by unforeseen system errors. In the earlier scheme of things, fixing an error on individual desktops would take anywhere between four to 15 days depending on the availability of the required desktop component, thereby drastically affecting employee productivity. Under the new HSD system, it takes around four hours to get a new system to replace the faulty thin client—a substantial productivity improvement.
Moreover, desktop provisioning, which used to take around four hours earlier, can now be done in an eighth of the time.
“Earlier, we used to have local level IT servicing the desktops. The problem with this setup was that for each desktop, we needed a local engineer who would be able to service that particular brand,” says Thomas.
“Now I have zero mean-time to repair. If a unit goes off, I log in a call and four hours later, the new thin client is in place. In the worst case, I will have the new device in a day.”
The storage structure found in the HSD implementation also ensures greater data security. As Thomas explains, “In the HSD setup, there is a specific storage space assigned to users, so the data of one user is not visible to another.”
With the ability to centrally manage all the new systems, the IT team has been able to better allocate its resources to meet business needs, rather than having its bandwidth tied up in addressing issues on end-user systems.
Now Thomas is able to comfortably assign resources to perform other support duties for other business segments—such as having his IT team member support tablets provided to senior management, without the need to have an explicit contract to support these devices.
“We have seen hardware call reductions of almost 22 percent. We expect to see 46 percent cost reductions in support costs for desktops,” says Thomas, when talking about the observed cost benefits that amount to a total annual savings of around Rs 51 lakh.
“The target price we had for the solution was the price for desktop refresh, and we managed to keep the high-end solution at the same levels. So, there was no additional cost incurred. In fact, if we look at the savings mentioned above, the organization had an overall cost reduction as compared to a normal desktop refresh,” Thomas says. Shedding light on how this HSD implementation has impacted end-users, Thomas says, “We are now seeing a higher usage of the systems.”
Moreover, since the application is published over the Internet, the sales personnel can access the application securely online, thereby ensuring continuous availability of service to end-users in the event they are unable to get to the office.
He cites a recent Point of Sales (POS) system they launched as a case in point—an end-to-end system that lets sales members fill out online proposal forms to perform underwriting actions. Thomas mentions that the number of forms filled online, once the HSD implementation was in place, has increased over earlier times when the members used desktop PCs.
As Thomas says, “If the HSD system we implemented wasn’t user-friendly or effective enough, this POS system would have collapsed as people would have been complaining about how their systems were slow.”
“In fact, in March, 60 percent of new business login was happening through this online channel,” says Thomas. “I have zonal reviews that happen with my leadership team located across the country. The most prominent issue in the past one and a half years has been that of systems being slow. Now, we don’t have to hear any complaints on those lines,” he adds.
Thomas also reports 60-75 percent improvement in application response.
A rather soft benefit is that the storage space allocated to users, as it is now centrally managed, is not being ‘abused’, with the users’ saving their own personal files onto the system.
Thomas plans for another refresh this year—2,000 more HSD systems will be setup as well for the remaining desktop-using sales members. Thomas further plans to set up the HSD implementation in other sections of the life insurance giant. The firm is also currently involved in setting up a BYOD initiative for the sales force to help access work applications.
With the new HSD system in place, HDFC’s sales force is well-positioned to be able to deliver yet again. And Thomas can look back and say, “Sar utha ke jiyo.”