It’s common practice to hold periodic supplier reviews to ensure the best services and pricing available. Such was the case at Guaranty Fund Management Services (GFMS) in 2013, as they conducted an RFP process for disaster recovery and data replication services and chose a new supplier.
That cost-driven decision ended a ten-year relationship with Sungard Availability Services® (Sungard AS), and led GFMS on a multi-year journey with the new supplier, involving multiple failed DR tests, unmet SLAs and an unplanned platform change. Rekindling the teamwork of the prior relationship, GFMS rehired Sungard AS in early 2017 and achieved a successful DR test in just 12 weeks.
- Real-time data replication to the Sungard AS DRaaS cloud, mitigating risk of data loss
- Successful DR testing cuts the 4-hour RTO SLA in half
- With resilient IT, GFMS can support insurance consumers and preserve the industry’s reputation
- Fully tested and managed cloud-based disaster recovery as a service
- Backup as a Service
- Business Continuity — Workplace recovery site for 40 IT and business staff members
The fact that we have a proven, tested business continuity solution assures everyone that we’ll be there when we’re needed. We have winter storms here, and a hurricane just caused a major regional power outage. We have to be able to operate, and with Sungard AS we know that we can.
As DR tests fail, trust falters
Insurance guaranty associations are much like a fire department. They are only needed when there is an actual fire, yet they must stand ready to perform a critical function on short notice. “We’re only needed when insurance companies become insolvent,” says Dimitar Kotzev, vice president of IT at Guaranty Fund Management Services, “so one of our biggest challenges is to keep the fire station open and prepared.”
Years ago, when a company went insolvent, GFMS received truckloads of paper files in boxes that would fill its hallways. Today the insurance industry runs on imaging and document management systems, so GFMS now receives gigabytes or terabytes of data from the insolvent carrier. GFMS manages this data and issues payments to claimants and policyholders, drawing from each of its state-specific guaranty funds to fulfill the claim obligations of the insolvent carrier.
“We are a safety net, and a lot of people depend on the checks they receive from us,” says Kotzev. “Many of our claimants are older adults, collecting on worker’s compensation claims, and the checks are likely their sole source of income. At the end of the day, it’s our mission to send out that payment. That’s why business continuity is so important to us.”
GFMS hosts its production IT environment in its own data center at the GFMS main office in Boston. The environment includes virtualized servers supporting document management, imaging, and accounting applications, plus significant storage, networking and security infrastructure.
Many of our claimants are older adults, collecting on worker’s compensation claims, and the checks are likely their sole source of income. At the end of the day, it’s our mission to send out that payment. That’s why business continuity is so important to us.
GFMS relied on Sungard AS to handle its DR services for more than 10 years, and close teamwork between the two companies yielded annual DR tests that consistently met SLAs. In 2013, faced with budget pressures, GFMS aimed to get comparable service at a lower cost, and signed with a new vendor that committed to do just that. From the start, the new vendor had trouble getting the solution to work. The vendor ultimately proposed a move onto a different technology platform — putting a significant workload on GFMS staff. In weekly vendor calls, the GFMS team grew concerned with the vendor’s project management skills, as schedules slipped, GFMS requests went unaddressed, and crucial DR tests failed to meet RTO goals.
“I told our board that we would try to salvage the situation, to put more on our shoulders, to manage the vendor with added controls,” recalls Kotzev. “I thought we could make it work.” The GFMS team worked in earnest with the vendor to prepare for another DR test. “But it became clear that the vendor just didn’t have the management structures or procedures in place to learn from its failures or even successes,” says Kotzev. “When that DR test failed, we lost any remaining trust in the vendor, and we reconnected with Sungard AS.”
Combining the right people with the right processes
The GFMS association is accountable to its insurance industry members. Many of the largest insurers in the US are represented on GFMS boards, which monitor performance of the association and participate in major decisions. The boards were well aware of the DR vendor issue and supportive of the move back to Sungard AS. Without a tested and proven recovery solution in place, GFMS was exposed to risks that needed to be addressed as soon as possible.
“We didn’t need to look at other vendors this time,” says Kotzev. “We were always pleased with Sungard AS’ performance, and went back to them. Once we negotiated the cost and a few other clauses in the contract, everybody was in agreement, from the board to the president to the IT department.”
Next, Kotzev and his IT team met with their Sungard AS project team to confirm detailed technical requirements, establish a project plan and set an aggressive timeline. The teams worked closely to meet defined milestones both large and small.
Commitment key to a successful test
At the project’s 12-week mark, the Sungard AS team initiated its first disaster recovery test, right on schedule. Although the contract specifies a four-hour RTO, the DR test proved that Sungard AS could recover GFMS’ systems and data in just two hours.
Kotzev was pleased with both the test result and the team effort. “It was really nice to be part of a well-managed project and to see the way that Sungard AS operates,” he says. “We have a small IT team, so everyone’s a jack of all trades. Through this project, we gained not just disaster recovery and networking expertise, we also saw how to successfully manage a complex project. It was very helpful to our department.”
Kotzev welcomes the advances in technical capabilities that are part of this latest Sungard AS solution for GFMS — but he’s also happy that some things have stayed the same.
“I can see that Sungard AS has kept the same values in respect to people,” says Kotzev. “They are highly specialized and committed, and backed with a strong chain of command and good leadership. From the very first meeting with our project manager, I knew we were in the right hands. In project meetings when technical issues don’t have an obvious owner, Sungard AS people step up and volunteer, saying, ‘I’ll take care of that.’”
Confidence in a proven solution
GFMS relies on the Sungard AS Recover to Cloud service, with critical business data replicated in real-time to the Sungard AS data center in Philadelphia. The replication covers the GFMS document imaging system, as well as its claims and accounting systems. The solution is automated and scalable, able to accommodate spikes in capacity that occur when GFMS takes on a newly insolvent insurer. GFMS also performs daily backups to data vaults in the GFMS data center and the Sungard AS data center.
“It’s critical for the business to know that, no matter what, we can recover our data,” says Kotzev. “The fact that we have a proven, tested business continuity solution assures everyone that we’ll be there when we’re needed. We have winter storms here, and a hurricane just caused a major regional power outage. We have to be able to operate, and with Sungard AS we know that we can.”
If a disaster impacts the GFMS offices, employees can continue essential business operations from the Sungard AS recovery center in Marlborough, MA, about 35 miles west of Boston. The workplace is sized to accommodate critical GFMS management and operations personnel, and provides infrastructure and connectivity required to continue to run the business. The workplace is tailored to GFMS requirements, and is even stocked with special inks that GFMS uses for the printed checks it issues.
Kotzev notes that GFMS has eight boards of directors – one for each state association. “We’ve got nearly every insurance company represented on our boards, and they know that there is a guaranty fund system that works and protects not just the fund’s reputation, but the overall industry reputation as well.”