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Aussie bets the house on Azure to build flexible, responsive customer-broker ecosystem

Buying a home is probably the biggest financial commitment that most of us will ever make.

In 1992, Aussie was conceived to help people make that leap; to provide advice and help the customer find the right mortgage for their needs.

Today, 25 years later, Aussie has more than 1,000 brokers who advise customers about which of the 2,900 mortgages available in the market could meet their needs.

It’s a fiercely competed sector, and Richard Burns, Aussie’s general manager, customer experience and technology, says whilst Aussie is the leading brand in the sector the company has its sights firmly set on continued growth and being the best.

To achieve that target the company needs to deliver a service that meets or exceeds its customers’ expectations, be able to respond swiftly to shifting market conditions, and have access to a technology platform that is robust, reliable and secure in order to provide uninterrupted support to brokers and employees as they perform their roles.

Burns explains; “Mortgage broking is still a very personal experience and the one-to-one interaction between the broker and the customer is critical.

“Technology is there to support the before, during and after interactions with the broker.”

He says that Aussie’s systems support clients as they transition from early investigation of the housing market all the way through to receiving the key to the door.

“We need a consistent experience to span all the different platforms that our customers might use – the website, social media, our contact centres, “he says.

Taking a leaf from Gartner’s bi-modal playbook, Aussie runs two distinct IT teams – one charged with overseeing infrastructure, hardware and workplace technology, the second a digital transformation team responsible for evolving the customer broker ecosystem.

Burns explains that the transition to Azure was prompted when Aussie approached; “An inflexion point. A lot of the systems required an overhaul, or the network was old – or just no longer fit for purpose,” which included being able to provide mobile support for brokers.

Mobility and security

David Pritchard, Aussie’s head of technology operations explains that; “Mobility is critical to Aussie. Every day our brokers work face-to-face with our customers in their homes and in stores across Australia. As independent contractors, brokers demand choice of technology platform and to be able to BYOD.  Aussie has to balance this flexibility with the imperative to protect the confidentiality of our customer information.”

To achieve that Aussie is implementing Azure’s Enterprise Mobility Suite (EMS) in conjunction with Office365 and Azure AD Premium which offers features such as Multi Factor Authentication (MFA) and Information Rights Management (IRM) to deliver Pritchard and his team with a rich management layer. Brokers can use their own devices and benefit from being fully mobile while Aussie enforces key security controls such as data encryption, password policy, security patch level and data lifecycle management.

“Having Office365, EMS and Azure applications delivered purely from the cloud, enables us to provide highly available, secure services to our brokers, without the dependency on legacy techniques such as SOE, VPN or Virtual Desktops – thus maintaining ease of use and enabling rich collaboration in native OS environments,” adds Pritchard.

One Drive for Business, offered as part of Office365 has almost entirely erased the use of USBs, as data is always available for brokers, while security remains under Aussie’s control and no longer at risk of being lost when a thumb-drive is mislaid.

The company’s adoption of Windows 10 and Surface devices has also been well received by employees for the flexibility and rich function now available to them with no compromise on privacy or security.

As Pritchard notes; “The ability to protect customer data in the field is a big step forward for Aussie, EMS is a key capability and demonstrates to our customers and industry that we take the privacy and protection of customer information seriously.”

Burns agrees that security and privacy was a key consideration when selecting Microsoft Azure.

“We needed a Tier 1 cloud provider with a great reputation that would continue to invest in security and understand the challenge we have as a financial institution,” he says.

Pritchard adds that Azure also makes deploying solutions much simpler. “The end result is that our internal IT teams spend more time working up the value chain – focussing on secure design and application hardening – rather than low value activity such as managing hardware, storage or network devices.  Azure’s logging and audit trail, along with mandatory MFA for admins, allows better control, visibility and non-repudiation of administrator actions.”

Innovation platform

Aussie believes that its ability to innovate is essential to its ongoing success. The transition to Azure means that the company is able to build and maintain multiple environments per application. This encourages innovation as it is able to reduce the risk of failed changes or testing with live data.

Pritchard says; “The other feature of our Azure design is a multi-layer network security model which would be almost impossible to implement or maintain with on-premises solutions.  This allows each tier (web, app, data, management) of an application to be appropriately firewalled with clearly defined and controlled data flows between the layers – that also provides application isolation, so an application cannot interact with another application unless it is specifically allowed.

“Leveraging backup and recovery services, operations management suite (OMS), and easily deploying web application firewalls (WAF) in front of web-based solutions has also been a quick win for us. Having access to deploy multiple solutions from security vendors within the Azure ecosystem has given us the opportunity to deploy the right solution for the right application.”

Today Aussie mainly uses Azure’s Infrastructure as a Service as it migrates applications, though Pritchard says Platform as a Service such as SQL Azure is where the company is headed and that the company is transitioning into a cloud first business.

The benefits continue to ripple from the move to Azure.

Having access to Microsoft’s Australian Azure sites, for example, also means Aussie has been able to cost-effectively build and run multiple pre-production environments plus high availability/disaster recovery (HA/DR) capabilities without the need for complex, expensive hardware in duplicated data centres.

The advantage is clear to Burns; “The major benefit is that it’s much easier to iterate and to be more responsive to customers.”

He says that the company has adopted Agile practices across the business as part of a company-wide initiative to foster a modern responsive workplace.

Supporting that Aussie plans to move as much of its compute environment to Azure as practical – transforming each application into a robust HA/DR model in tandem. Pritchard acknowledges that will first require some of its application vendors to become more cloud ready, cloud native.

“We will also investigate using Azure PaaS services such as Biztalk Services to enhance and modernise our Integration layer which is key to linking our various systems in near real-time.”

Pritchard says that moving internal applications onto the cloud, and decoupling services in order to take advantage of highly available geographically dispersed cloud, helps reduce cost (and risk) by simplifying workloads into their discrete functions, providing continuous integration/continuous delivery capabilities for applications that require it.

Aussie is also reviewing its on-premises backup routine with a view to replacing expensive tape infrastructure with long-term blob storage in Azure.

“Our medium-long term aim is to automate as much of our operations as practical – using tools such as OMS, and using techniques such as checking in our Azure JSON templates and NSG templates into our source-code repository – allowing us to build or rebuild environments quickly and reliably.”

This all feeds into the search for continuous iteration and innovation that Burns recognises is critical to achieve Aussie’s vision to be the best home loan provider on the planet.

The transformation that’s underway at Aussie doesn’t have a finish line. Azure allows emerging technologies and tools to be rolled out when it makes sense for Aussie, and in time to also deploy business intelligence and analytics solutions to make better use of its data and ensure that the services it offers clients always match their needs.

For Aussie this is just the beginning.