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Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield
Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield
Health Insurance Company Uses the Cloud to Reduce Mobile Development Time by Half
Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a health insurance company, wanted to provide custom mobile apps that its members could use to find credentialed healthcare providers and facilities and better manage their healthcare experience. After finding that the required resources to support these new apps were already engaged in other high-priority projects, Wellmark chose to build the back-end services for its new mobile apps on Windows Azure. The company’s use of the cloud has yielded several benefits, including a 50 percent decrease in developer effort and time-to-market, low up-front and ongoing costs, instant scalability, and superior reliability, while still maintaining desired security and privacy controls. In addition, Wellmark developers can now use existing tools and skills to deliver new business capabilities in new ways, faster than ever before.
"Whether we need to support new mobile apps or choose to move parts of our website to Windows Azure, we’ll always have all the scalability we need."
Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a health insurance company owned by its policyholders, provides healthcare coverage to more than 2 million members in Iowa and South Dakota. As an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, Wellmark is part of a trusted national network that covers more than 100 million people—nearly one-third the population of the United States.
Wellmark continually works to empower its members to keep themselves and their families healthy. To that end, in early 2011, Wellmark engaged 2010 Microsoft Enterprise Partner of the Year Sogeti USA to help plan and execute a comprehensive mobile strategy. The company chose to start by co-developing a custom app that members could use to research credentialed healthcare providers and facilities and to better manage their healthcare experience from their mobile phones.
The plan called for Wellmark and Sogeti to build versions of the app for popular smartphone platforms while Wellmark used its enterprise service bus to expose the data, which resided within a third-party credentialing application. However, that plan began to fall apart when Wellmark began scoping out its part. “We realized that the required resources were already engaged in other high-priority projects,” says Brad Hoyt, IT Innovation Manager at Wellmark, whose role is to determine how Wellmark can best take advantage of both existing and new technologies.
Sogeti suggested that Wellmark host the data on Windows Azure, which serves as the Microsoft cloud services development, hosting, and management environment. Windows Azure provides on-demand compute, storage, networking, and content delivery capabilities through Microsoft data centers.
“We found the cloud attractive for two reasons,” says Tim Peterson, Wellmark CIO. “The first is that we were already interested in exploring alternative delivery and hosting options to reduce our development cycle time and increase our business agility. And second, with the focus of the project on mobile devices as a way to improve member access to information, it made a lot of sense to put the data in the cloud—as close to those devices as possible.”
Wellmark also liked the benefits of Windows Azure. “We saw how Windows Azure was designed for the enterprise and how it was something we could easily grow into—not very different from how we build software today,” says Hoyt, referring to how Wellmark already does most software development on the Windows platform. “We took our desire to use Windows Azure to our enterprise architecture team, which agreed that this was a great opportunity to test it.”
Development Process and Timeline
Development of the back-end data service on Windows Azure—internally called the Wellmark Mobile Service by Wellmark—took six weeks, during which developers used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Premium development system. SQL Data Sync is used to replicate data from the credentialing application to SQL Database, which can support queries from any application through a library of web services that run within a Windows Azure web role.
Apps were developed for popular smartphone platforms, which Wellmark members now can use in addition to the company’s website, to analyze information on care providers and facilities. The apps also provide additional capabilities, including suggestions when a user misspells a provider’s name (implemented using the double metaphone functionality in SQL Database) and the ability to call Wellmark’s nurse hotline at any time.
Approximately 25 percent of the people who download the app immediately use it to find a care provider. “We’ve heard some interesting stories about how our customers are using the app,” says Peterson. “For instance, some people are using it to bookmark information about their kids’ doctors so that they can easily look up that information when filling out forms for sports activities.”
In April 2012, Wellmark requested a proposal from Sogeti to extend its investment in Windows Azure—to include working with Wellmark to enhance the Wellmark Mobile Service and to develop new services and apps. “As we continue building our own internal mobile app development capability and gain additional expertise on Windows Azure, we are relying on Sogeti as a trusted partner to help us maintain forward momentum,” says Hoyt.
Wellmark plans to use its new Wellmark Mobile Service to help users find a care provider on the company’s website, instead of using the third-party application as the website does today. The company is already pulling data from its Wellmark Mobile Service into other, internally developed applications that are used by customer service representatives and other employees. Beyond that, Wellmark is looking at transitioning other parts of its website to Windows Azure, as a means of putting key web applications closer to customers and ensuring their scalability.
Its use of Windows Azure enabled Wellmark to quickly and cost-effectively deliver compelling new mobile apps, which have received high ratings in their respective app markets. As the company finds additional uses for its Wellmark Mobile Service and develops new services in the cloud, Wellmark can rest assured knowing that those services will remain scalable and reliable.
By building on Windows Azure, Wellmark significantly accelerated the delivery of its new mobile apps. “With Windows Azure, we cut the time and effort required to deliver our new Wellmark Mobile Service in half,” says Hoyt.
Adds Doug Loots, Director of e-Business at Wellmark, “Not only did we conserve resources and accelerate time-to-market, but we also made the data more readily available to other enterprise applications.”
Low Up-Front and Ongoing Costs
With Windows Azure, Wellmark avoided any up-front investment in IT infrastructure, software licenses, and so on. Instead, the company can simply pay for the capacity it uses. “A pay-per-use model is compelling, especially as we work to streamline capital investments and reduce overall cost in the healthcare system,” says Peterson.
Adds Hoyt, “We’re already using our new Wellmark Mobile Service running on Windows Azure to support both member-facing apps and internal business applications, and the monthly costs are extremely modest.”
Instant, Cost-Effective Scalability
As Wellmark finds additional uses for its Wellmark Mobile Service and develops additional services on Windows Azure, the company can easily and instantly scale those services—again, without having to first invest in additional capacity. “We can immediately scale up if and when required, paying for additional capacity only when we need it—and just as easily give it back when we no longer need it, which will also lower costs,” says Hoyt.
Adds Loots, “Whether we need to support new mobile apps or choose to move parts of our website to Windows Azure, we’ll always have all the scalability we need.”
Superior Reliability and Security
The company’s use of Windows Azure will also help maximize service availability. With Windows Azure, which has a 99.95 percent uptime service level agreement (SLA), workloads are automatically moved within the Windows Azure cloud to support automatic operating system and service updates, with built-in network load balancing and failover to provide resiliency in case of a hardware failure. Similarly, SQL Database has a 99.9 percent uptime SLA, with every database hosted on it benefiting from built-in high availability, failover, and redundancy.
The solution also helps ensure security and user privacy in several ways. All traffic is encrypted using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), no personally identifiable information is captured, nor is any such information pushed from Wellmark data centers to the cloud. Wellmark regularly checks to verify that required security controls are in place and functioning properly.
“Hosting this kind of app in Windows Azure is as secure as hosting it in our data center because we push to the cloud only that information that we know poses no privacy risks,” says Hoyt. “In addition, we can rest assured that Microsoft will keep Windows Azure current with the latest security updates.”
Familiar Development Environment
Should Wellmark decide to bring development on Windows Azure fully in-house, it will already have the required tools and skills. “We already use several development tools, including Visual Studio 2010, so we won’t need to adopt or learn any new tools or skills,” says Hoyt. “Developing on Windows Azure will simply become an extension of how we work today—we’ll just deploy to the cloud instead of to a local server.”
Platform for New Business Capabilities
Through its adoption of Windows Azure, Wellmark can now deliver new business value faster than ever before. “Although our mobile apps weren’t hard to build, they’re very impressive,” says Hoyt. “Our customers are delighted, and in hallway conversations, several executives have conveyed how pleased they are with this as an example of Business Technology Services at Wellmark using innovative technology to quickly and cost-effectively meet a business need.”