03. August 2020

At Helsana, the future is in the cloud


Cloud // Helsana has followed a cloud-first strategy for more than five years now as it seeks to harness the full benefits of this technology. The first major example of this strategy in action was the Helsana+
app. With its brand-new cloud-native architecture, the app is now future-proof. However, there are a few
things to consider in order to keep costs down when following this path.

Businesses can no longer avoid the cloud – it’s everywhere. Five years ago, when Helsana was choosing a new CRM system, as well as considering traditional on-premises solutions, we also looked at the Microsoft Dynamics 365 cloud solution.
We decided to go with the cloud solution. With hindsight, I feel vindicated that we were early adopters of a future-proof techno-logy. It wasn’t always an easy decision to make; in addition to regulatory concerns about data protection, we also had to overcome some technical hurdles. 
Nevertheless, we were certain that the future was in the cloud, and it wasn’t long before the opportunities and the amazing  potential started to become apparent. 

“Helsana is committed to a cloud-first strategy.”

Cloud-first strategy
Cloud, multi-cloud, IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, and many others too  numerous to name – every day new concepts and solutions were emerging that promised great leaps in innovation and doubledigit cost savings. But what approach were we, at Helsana, going to take? To prevent any uncontrolled proliferation of cloud solutions, we as a company decided to draw up a long­term cloud strategy. In it, we also set out measures that would support us in achiev-ing “cloud readiness.” 
At Helsana, we are following a “cloud­first” strategy: if an applica-tion has a cloud variant and the regulations permit it, we use it. The strategy also created new roles, such as cloud architect, which were needed so that we could develop and run cloud solutions.

The cloud means changing your organization
With cloud solutions, it is not about simply learning a new pro-gramming language. The languages are the same as before.  Instead, entirely new architectural considerations come into play. For example, there is no cloud solution that can directly re-place an existing network zone model that was designed for on­ premises solutions. 
To help us keep on track right from the start, we quickly set up the Shared Cloud Services team and later the Cloud Center of  Excellence. Working within the guidelines in our cloud strat­egy, the teams were well placed to tackle challenges at an early stage, such as the integration of cloud solutions into the existing application landscape. Thanks to our clear cloud vision, we were able to recruit highly motivated and talented colleagues who share in our vision of the cloud­first strategy and help make it a reality. This step was crucial in the successful structuring of the cloud solution.

Helsana+ back-end moves into the cloud 
Our reward and health app Helsana+ was developed three years ago as an on-premises solution and has proven very popular with our customers. The old back­end was not well equipped to handle the sudden influx of users, and its scalability was limited. With the long­term customer experience in mind, we decided to invest in a new back­end. In keeping with our cloud strategy, we wanted to develop the solution in the Azure cloud rather than simply migrating the existing on­premises solution into the cloud. We therefore opted for a native cloud application which would provide increased stability and scalability.  
Together with our partner ti&m, we began to develop the native cloud back­end for Helsana+ in 2019. We were able to launch the product at the beginning of this year. Developing a back­end on this scale, in the cloud, as a PaaS solution, was a new endeavor for us. 
During development, both the architecture and the scope of the solution changed several times, and we learned all sorts of things, such as which components from the Azure catalog were the most useful for our needs.

“Why do we need to make all these changes?”

What is IT doing, anyway?
Sometimes you have to take a step backward in order to take two steps forward. Our agile development methodology made it possible for us to review the solutions on a regular basis and adapt the architecture or components as necessary.
It wasn’t always easy for the project management and client to understand these changes, and the question “Why do we need to make all these changes?” was asked on more than one occa sion. In hindsight, however, the finished product has demonstrated that these additional steps were worthwhile. 
Today, the Helsana+ back­end is a modern, contemporary system which will keep both us and our customers happy for many years.

The cloud is a catalyst for DevOps 
The Helsana+ back­end uses a number of components from the Azure catalog. All of these components were set up by the project team and, for the most part, were developed further and operated by a product team. Using approaches such as DevOps has also allowed us at Helsana to address on­premises solutions. Cloud solutions substantially simplify these approaches. Devel­opers can structure entire environments themselves without factoring in major dependencies on other areas. What’s more, they can concentrate on development without needing to service the infrastructure themselves.

How much does the cloud cost?
The idea that a cloud solution saves money is raised in almost every discussion. In reality, this is a complex matter. That’s not to say that you can’t save on costs with the cloud, but the pricing models are very complicated. It takes quite a lot of time to understand the pricing at the outset. Added to that, in some cases there is more than one pricing model for each component. What this means is, ultimately, you can only correctly estimate the effective costs once the product is up and running. That is when you can begin optimizing and reconfiguring until the solution is efficient. Manufacturers such as Microsoft have a range of op­tions available via Azure Cost Management to support their customers with cost structures. They also make suggestions for optimization. Working with our license management team, we have set up routines to monitor costs. Utilization is also monitored on a daily basis, and scaled down where appropriate. The solution is now about 70 % cheaper than it was at go­live.

What does the future hold?
Cost reduction is a legitimate reason for switching to a cloud solution. However, the greatest benefit of cloud solutions lies in their potential. For example, the Azure Marketplace has a wealth of components that are ready for integration into your solutions, which can really speed up your innovation. 

“Helsana’s goal is to use the cloud to improve efficiency in bringing solutions for our customers to market.”

Since go­live, we have been finding new ways that we can ex-pand and enhance Helsana+ on a daily basis, and we believe that the opportunities are just going to keep on growing – especially in the area of artificial intelligence. This means we always need to keep our employees’ knowledge up to date. That will allow us to create a brand­new customer experience with a short time­to­market. Helsana identified the potential of the cloud very early on. Our aim is to build up our application landscapes and orga-nizations as an ongoing process. Thanks to the extensive knowledge of our colleagues, we are confident that the future holds success for us.

Arben  Nuhija
Arben Nuhija

Arben Nuhija studied Business Information Technology at HWZ Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Business Administration. He has worked at Helsana for more than 12 years, progressing from application developer to Head of the Health Platform. He was largely responsible for the development of the Helsana+ app.