Many insurance firms are expected to take advantage of the cloud to handle their mission-critical operations over the coming months and years. Rebecca Lambert reports

The cloud computing market continues to grow at a significant pace. According to Gartner, by 2016 cloud computing will become the bulk of new IT spend, and, by the end of 2017, nearly half of large enterprises will have hybrid cloud deployments.

In recent years, many companies from all industries have taken the opportunity to leverage cloud computing, and, as a result, change the way they store large amounts of data, and architect, provision for and deploy applications. Some rushed to be early adopters – keen to take advantage of the chance to increase compute capacity or add capabilities quickly without having to invest in costly infrastructure, and instead pay for that infrastructure on a subscription, pay-per-use basis. Others have bided their time, waiting to see how the technology would develop.

The insurance industry, by its very nature, is risk aware. While a long-running user of IT and business process outsourcing, the industry has been perhaps slightly more reticent than other industries to embrace public cloud computing, at least initially. But this is changing – and fast. Insurance firms are already using public clouds for non-core office and support functions, such as e-mail, financials, HR and customer relationship management. According to the December 2013 Novarica ‘Hot Topics For Insurers’ report, more than half of insurers surveyed already rely on software as a service for these types of applications.

Others have taken the next step and are writing applications to the cloud, using cloud-based infrastructure to support their core applications – including policy administration, claims and billing systems. They are running their actuarial analyses against cloud-based high performance computing grids too. Even more are considering doing the same over the next few years. Novarica reports that around 20% of insurers have active or planned cloud pilots.

“The reality today is that many insurers are held back by their legacy IT infrastructures,” explains Tony Jacob, Microsoft’s managing director of worldwide insurance. “Much of their IT budgets go towards maintaining their core systems, and these budgets are being reduced. They have limited resources left over to innovate in areas such as distribution channels or new product development.

“The nature of risk and the regulatory environments are changing too, yet insurers often do not have the internal compute capacity to react to these factors,” Jacob adds. “For example, when it comes to quarterly close-outs, it can feel like Groundhog Day as insurers work long days, wait for hours for their models, and ultimately base decisions on risk and valuation data that may be 14 days old. The cloud, though – in this case, as a source of elastic compute capacity – is giving carriers a new opportunity, and one that’s just too good to ignore. We now ask insurers, ‘What would you do with quarterly close-outs that take less than half the time to complete, with near real-time data, greater accuracy, and millions of dollars less in infrastructure and process costs? What would that mean to your business?’”

Cloud maturity

Cloud providers have been doing everything they can to give their customers reason to trust in the services they provide and their ability to store data securely. Microsoft in particular has continued to make some significant advances to its public cloud platform, Microsoft Azure, to prove it’s a truly viable, world-class alternative to on-premise IT infrastructures for enterprises.

Security – always a big concern for those considering moving to the cloud – is one area that Microsoft has made huge investments in.

“We recognize how critical data privacy is to enabling our customers to move to the cloud, and Microsoft has been a pioneer in offering privacy protections for its enterprise cloud services,” the Microsoft Azure team said in a blog post. “We were the first to offer contractual commitments for customers subject to the European Union (EU) Data Protection Directive and US HIPAA laws, which call for safeguarding personal data, and have continued to strengthen data privacy through technical, operational and legal protections.”

Most recently, Microsoft’s cloud contracts have been validated by EU data protection authorities as they meet the rigorous privacy standards that regulate companies operating in EU member states. “This ensures that customers can use Microsoft services to move data freely through the cloud from Europe to the rest of the world,” said Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs at Microsoft on The Official Microsoft Blog. “Microsoft is the first – and so far the only – company to receive this approval.”

As cloud offerings continue to mature, industry regulators have also started to take cloud usage more seriously, and identify ways that insurers can take advantage of it and remain compliant. Now, it seems that the real risk associated with cloud computing is the opportunity cost to insurers if they choose not to leverage the cloud.

“Perceptions towards cloud computing are changing,” says Jacob. “Companies understand the value it offers, and they are realizing that this IT consumption model aligns with many of their business priorities – lower cost ratios, add agility, enter new markets, or introduce new initiatives to grow premium or improve pricing performance. The cloud allows them to respond quickly to changing conditions or opportunities in the most cost-effective manner.”

In the following months and years, as early adopters succeed and confidence rises, it is expected that insurers’ interest in the cloud will increasingly turn into deployments.

Cloud-based core systems

According to research by insurance strategic advisory firm Strategy Meets Action, 61% of carriers report that their current policy administration system does not respond to new market demands, which results in lost business opportunities. In addition, 60% report that their current system technology restraints are a problem for their business.

The Microsoft cloud is already being shown to help loosen the constraints. If used as the server infrastructure to support core systems, it lowers IT costs and can add agility. If used for pre-production environments, it can help insurers more quickly and cost effectively stand up new core systems. And if used as the platform for the core systems, it can help insurers get out of the software business and focus more on the business of insurance. In short, companies are using the cloud to build highly scalable applications without having to invest in costly infrastructure. “They’re moving from a capital-intensive approach to a more flexible, pay-as-you-go business model,” says Michael Witt, Cloud Products lead at Accenture Duck Creek, a leading provider of property and casualty insurance core systems. “The costs for running applications in Microsoft Azure are very attractive – and they’re predictable.”

In a cloud-enabled organization, business and IT project implementation timelines are dramatically reduced. This is because the infrastructure is available upfront and it can scale according to business needs. As a result, insurance companies gain the opportunity to bring new products to market much more quickly and, at the same time, have the lowest possible impact on IT staff and capital expenditures.

“One of the key areas that insurance carriers struggle with today is aligning their business and IT,” says Witt. “Moving to a software-as-a-service consumption model really helps tackle this issue. What they’re able to do is gain capacity with a predictable price for scalability. This helps them to successfully forecast business outcomes.”

Microsoft partners such as Accenture Duck Creek are now offering their core insurance systems via the cloud – and demand for this type of service is rising. Companies are realizing that they no longer have to make huge upfront investments to upgrade their IT infrastructures, and they are able to implement a solution that satisfies business needs without overburdening their IT department.

For those not ready to move their core systems to the cloud just yet, there is another option. “Insurance companies can also take advantage of the cloud to carry out all their pre-production application development, testing and staging operations,” says Jacob. “So even if they don’t necessarily want to run their core applications in the cloud, they can at least take advantage of its elasticity to spin up test environments before they go into production. This offers cost and agility benefits, and allows development teams to gain experience working in the cloud without going all the way to deploying core systems in the cloud.”

Risk analytics

Many insurance firms find the entire effort around quarterly/end of year close incredibly onerous. “To run the required simulations, businesses face a huge demand for computing power,” says Microsoft’s Jacob. “With an on-premise infrastructure or traditional hosting provider, these compute-intensive actuarial and reporting tasks can be a massive drain on IT resource and can be very costly to support, especially during peaks in demand.”

Because these tasks are only carried out a few times a year, many insurance companies have had to make the choice between whether to spend more on providing enough IT resource to handle peaks in demand or provide a level of capacity that is more cost effective to run on a long-term basis but cannot cope with usage spikes, leading to delays obtaining results.

“With IT budgets strained enough as they are, many businesses have had to compromise on computing power,” says Jacob. “This has a negative impact on the business in terms of productivity, but also on the quality of data used in risk assessments and for setting reserving levels. Imagine what a difference it would make if they were working with more accurate and real-time data. Could they optimize their reserving levels? How much money could they put back into the business? How much better would they be in the eyes of the regulators and in the markets?”

According to Cindy Saccocia, director of sales and marketing for Integrate at Milliman, an actuarial firm that provides both software and consulting services: “There is a critical need for insurance firms to have access to ever more computational capacity to address a growing suite of challenges, while satisfying all audit, governance and control requirements. Replacing old tools and protocols with cloud-based solutions delivers substantial benefits in cost, time and labor savings.”

“By taking their financial and actuarial models, and running them against high performance computing grids in the cloud, insurance firms have access to virtually unlimited computing power when they need it, and they can turn it on and off like a utility,” says Jacob. “This allows companies to handle the peaks and troughs of compute demand in a cost-effective and agile manner.”

This year at the annual IASA Conference in Indianapolis in the US, Microsoft will be exhibiting alongside its partners to demonstrate how the cloud can help insurers scale their business, drive innovation, gain actionable insights and connect their workforce – all while saving costs.

“As we can see, there are many ways that insurance carriers can take advantage of the cloud today,” says Jacob. “They can use it for non-core office and support functions, and development and testing, but in the coming months and years we expect to see more companies use the cloud to achieve a dramatic pay-off in their mission-critical areas too.”

Click here to read our interview with Microsoft’s Colin Kerr and Rupesh Khendry about how cloud can be combined with traditional analytics tools and big data technology to provide deeper risk insights.

Originally published in OnWindows. Finance on Windows is the authority on the use of Microsoft technology in the financial services sector. The magazine covers a broad range of topics such as core banking and the insurance value chain.