General insurance may be the first thing Canadians think of when they hear “”Co-operators Group,”” but there’s much more to the multi-faceted company than insurance protection. Life insurance, financial services, property development and management, and investment counselling are also part of The Co-operators

Group Ltd., which, with assets of more than $5.7 billion and 600-plus locations, spans all 10 Canadian provinces.

Business diversity, however, translates to network complexity, says Kevin Hutchinson, the firm’s vice president of IT. “”We had between 35 and 40 different telco contracts that we were managing … with various states of currency on the infrastructure design that were not necessarily designed at once, but put together like a jigsaw puzzle,”” says Hutchinson.

Making it simple

Headquartered in Guelph, Ont., The Co-operators Group consists of several large companies including L’Union Canadienne in Quebec, HB Coseco in Mississauga, Ont., Sovereign General in Calgary, and Co-operators Life in Regina, as well as many smaller subsidiaries. Historically, the larger companies have each managed their own communications network through separate IT departments.

Not only were parts of those networks “”pretty old,”” says Hutchinson, but they also relied on the services of 15 different vendors. “”We wanted to decrease the complexity and at the same time rebuild our network from the ground up so that we would have better assurances of availability,”” he says.

Recognizing the need for tighter synergy, the company sent out a request for proposal, looking to consolidate its mismatched networks onto one. The result is a six-year, $66-million contract with Telus Corp. that uses a utility model to deliver data and voice services to all locations.

The goal, explains Hutchinson, is to define configurations according to office size and number of users, and then pay one rate for each configuration no matter where an office happens to be located. “”It became very critical to clearly define our service level agreement expectations,”” he adds, “”because now we’re managing on things like availability and response time.””

According to Tal Schierau, a project executive with Telus Business Solutions, The Co-operators is one of the first companies to move to Telus’s IP-based Next Generation Network (NGN) in place of the public Internet. Telus started developing its NGN, which can provide voice, data and video services over the same network, about three years ago.

By the end of the year, all 600 Co-operators sites will be moved over to the NGN network for data services and the company is expected to migrate to IP telephony in the future. Until then, Telus is assuming the voice network as-is.

Under terms of the contract, old equipment is being swapped for new — in some cases, offices were still on Token Ring technology — as The Co-operators moves to an Ethernet-based network that is well-positioned for converged voice and data traffic, says Hutchinson. “”We’re well motivated to do that as soon as we can ensure that the new data network is up and rolling without a problem,”” he says.

A common look and feel

For now, the data network is expected to facilitate information flow between the various companies since network traffic is dynamically routed for redundancy. Additional security is also provided to ensure the information passing back and forth between the locations is protected. Prior to moving to Telus’s NGN, the corporate network was only as strong as its weakest link, says Hutchinson, a vulnerability he says it could no longer afford due to recent privacy legislation.

With the main goal of its contract — getting diverse offices to look and act the same — accomplished, The Co-operators is now looking to Telus to provide the high availability and response times it has set out in its service-level agreements.

As Schierau points out, the move to a utility model is helping to fulfil those terms. “”It simplifies the whole model in terms of how we manage their network,”” he says. “”We’ve taken away the jigsaw puzzle and made it more easily managed.””

Meanwhile, The Co-operators group of companies is enjoying significantly more network capacity without additional expense, adds Hutchinson.

“”When we presented this to the board, we never presented it as saving money, but instead as stabilizing our environment.””

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