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March 2, 2016updated 05 Sep 2016 7:58am CIO proves business value of analytics and machine learning with Microsoft Azure

C-Level briefing: Rex Johnson explains how the price comparison site is using cloud to bring self-service analytics into the business.

By James Nunns

In 2014 migrated all of its systems to the Microsoft Azure platform, and now that it is satisfied with the move, it’s looking at what’s next on the technology horizon, particularly provisioning big data for business use.

Whatever the next big step it takes it needs to benefit the business and enable agility. It is those two key factors that Rex Johnson, CIO, IT Director, says are the most important in making IT an enabler of the business to push it forward.

As one of the major price comparison sites in the UK, regularly gets up to 50,000 hits on its site a day and relies upon having up to the minute data in order to give the most accurate and reliable car insurance deals.

This area of the business is one that it is focusing on the most to improve, Johnson told CBR: "Now we are looking at how we need to provision for big data, what we need to do. In particular looking at just the business point of view rather than the tech point of view, so if we think there is a need to take things up to the cloud as far as our data goes then that’s what we’ll do and we’ll look at things like Hadoop and Spark."

That is something that the company will be doing this year but its focus is going to be on what is going to be the benefit to the business, rather than getting tech that may or not deliver benefits, particularly when that technology can be very costly, he said.

Johnson said: "One thing we are doing is trying to get more analysis of the data into the hands of the business side people, so making it more of a self serve element inside confused."

This will mean that people who are close to the products will be able to do more of the work themselves rather than going to a centralised team for answers. Johnson said that this will help them to react more quickly, make improvements and suggestions.

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"They’ll be able to do some of this data mining aspect without having to know a technical tool in-depth."

This is something that a number of vendors are looking at with the development of their analytics tools. Vendors such as IBM, Logi Analytics and Microsoft have all been targeting this area as users look for an easier on-ramp into the data analytics world that doesn’t require any heavy infrastructure upheaval.

Implementing the right tools can be a tricky business, so Confused typically runs proof of concepts on a few tools to help it figure out what is best suited to the task at hand.

Johnson said that it has found one that it thinks will do the job, although he declined to tell me what it is, he said that they are implementing it across a number of key people and seeing what business benefit there is.

One of the challenges he identified with choosing the right tool is finding one that offers more than just access to data and good dashboards.

"It’s quite easy to get a tool where you get good dashboards and access to data and all that, it’s another thing getting a tool where you have all of that plus you have the ability to dive deeper and deeper until you find something that might be of business benefit.

"I think that’s the overriding thing, finding something that will give business benefit rather than something that might be interesting," he said.

The process in doing this is quite fast; thanks to being a company that lives in the cloud it now takes maybe a few months of testing and using the tool in anger to see how quickly it can be spread throughout the business.

Testing and implementation is far from the last step though, the company has to look into the future to predict as a business what it will need.

Johnson said that this is because the landscape changes so quickly and because it has to try and mine intelligence not just from the data it gathers but also from data in other areas as well.

Although it is well and truly a Microsoft customer, having adopted its cloud partly because of already running its platforms, it also looks at other technologies and what is best in the market.

One of the benefits of being a Microsoft customer now though is its increasing move into the open source market.

Although being open source is not a key strategic factor in adopting technology, Johnson said that it is a good way for Microsoft to go, he said: "It’s not the overriding importance for us but we’re very glad that Microsoft is going that way. I think it’s absolutely the correct thing to do, to open your software arm to other vendors."

Johnson said that he thinks it makes Microsoft people a lot keener in the market space when making sure that their tools are the best on the market.

The main benefits that he sees as a lure to the open source path are that of business agility, ease of use and the implementation of the tool. Johnson said that he would certainly look at a SaaS based offering rather than having to deploy a solution on its own premises or in its own subscriptions.

"It’s a variety of things but overwhelmingly it’s the benefit to the business and the ease of implementation for the business.

"We have adopted non Microsoft tools within Azure, but we’ve also looked at things like machine learning in Azure and outside, but we found on the Azure platform we could get to things like that and start using them much quicker."

The elements of SaaS it uses from the Azure cloud platform are mainly the caching and transport layers, the caching layer is a software component that stores the results of an expensive request, usually in memory, so that subsequent identical request can be serviced more quickly. The transport layer is a division of methods in the layered architecture of protocols in the network stack in the Internet Protocol Suite and the Open Systems Interconnection.

The key benefits of going to Azure he said were the improvements in business agility, with this being typically held up as an argument for going to the cloud and one that rings true for

The comparison site has been able to create websites in-house in around three months from start to finish, something Johnson said would have taken a lot longer prior to Azure deployment. This was possible because there was a team available to do everything from create and manage servers to taking things up into live systems.

Johnson said: "so it’s bringing that DevOps role closer to us in certain parts of the business."

The CIO went on to say that he also believes the company has greater resilience because it operates across two data centres, one in Dublin and one in Amsterdam, this means that they are able to switch parts of the system in and out while also operating parts of the system in one environment or the other, or both in some cases.

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