Your Resource for All Things Apps, Ops, and Infrastructure

Digital Transformation on Azure


AHEAD assisted a leading analytics organization that provides data and analytics solutions for credit unions to help improve operational excellence, drive growth, and enhance member experience.Their data management, visualizations, and predictive analytics turn insights into actionable and measurable results. The company collaborates with credit unions to effectively harness the power of data in new and insightful ways.

A Successful Launch

“We service 97 percent of the credit unions based within the U.S. marketplace,” said the company’s CTO. “We execute everything from the bonding of the credit union to insuring their members. One of the interesting things that’s happened over the past two-and-a-half years is that we’ve seen the industry changing and a lot of that is customer-driven development focused on a lean, startup-like mentality. We’ve heard credit unions say, ‘Help us through our data and analytics journey.’ We created this organization to do just that.”

In 2018–just one year after launch–the company’s end-to-end solution won an innovation award from a highly-recognized award competition for groundbreaking solutions within the credit union industry.

“The organization was formed in response to industry demand in the credit union space—and they truly are on the cutting edge of technology with their offerings,” said Derek Wise, Principal Consultant at AHEAD. “Their solution is the only one in the marketplace to bring an end-to-end offering to credit unions for true integration of data, reporting, and modeling—and the only solution provider offering data transformation strategy to turn those insights into action.”

Full Speed AHEAD

Three-Step Approach

Data is fragmented and IT infrastructure lagging. Big data is expensive to keep and hard to get at.

Credit unions often have an unclear picture of operations to make the right business decisions.

Credit unions have a lack of analytical talent and scale.

So, when the company needed to deliver a standardized, secure, and scalable data warehouse service, they turned to the experts at AHEAD to get started.

With legacy data center technologies slowing them down, the business needed to spin up new, isolated infrastructure on-demand to meet customer demand, as well as enhance security.

“The solution needed to be compliant with PCI, DSS, and NIST frameworks since it’s a service for the financial industry,” said Wise. “There were very specific frameworks that needed to be followed as we designed and delivered—and this was a mission-critical requirement. Auditing capabilities were another must-have, so we needed to automate delivery of the environment to streamline that process.”

AHEAD was no stranger to the parent organization of this analytics company, since the consulting firm had worked with their team for nearly eight years. The parent company already had a strong partnership with Microsoft and leveraged Azure in their environment, so it was a no-brainer to continue the relationship. Their alternatives? Either host the subsidiary’s platform at a third-party colocation site or execute a cookie-cutter, on-premises approach at the parent company’s data center, or onsite across their thousands of credit unions, which would’ve been a time-consuming and costly option.

“The quality of resources that AHEAD brings to the table is second to none,” remarked the company’s CTO. “AHEAD’s collaboration and relationship with Microsoft allowed us to form a cohesive team to drive business value,as well as advance us on our path to true digital transformation.”

“Another reason they chose Microsoft Azure was because of its scalability and availability, along with its extensive advances in SQL offerings moving toward Platform as a Service (PaaS),” said Wise. “Since the company serves credit unions throughout multiple regions, Azure was able to provide them with Disaster Recovery (DR) and failover to each of those credit unions, versus all of the traffic coming to one location.”

One of the benefits of working with AHEAD is feeling like we had someone that we could truly wpartner with. It’s clear to them that we aren’t just a buyer of technology. They gave us options and designed solutions for us that will allow us to not only meet our immediate needs, but our future needs from a business and technology standpoint.

CTO, Financial Analytics Company

Bridging the Gap

Deploying the cloud isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch—and a lack of standardization among IT environments throughout the credit union arena would pose a challenge.

“Before we migrated to Azure, we needed to deploy and leverage hardware at each credit union facility for their data center,” said Wise. “There wasn’t a consistent manner in which each had their IT configured: A particular credit union could be outsourcing IT or even utilizing another bank to deliver their IT services, so we needed to retrofit these data warehouses into their entire environment across the board.”

The client was also aware of the challenge this would pose, especially given the fragmented credit union ecosystem that they were targeting.

“The technology landscape the credit union industry is operating within today consisting of roughly ten key systems, and each of those different capabilities—whether it’s loan origination or mortgage origination—has different providers,” added the company’s CTO. “Each of those implementations has up to 30 percent customization per credit union, so when you start thinking about the 6,000 credit unions in the United States, that’s a very fractured and complex ecosystem to deal with.”

Time to deployment was also a huge pain point that the organization was grappling with.

“It was taking upwards of a month to deploy a data warehouse—whether that was in a data center or on-premises at a credit union,” said Wise. “We knew we needed to provide them with a fully-automated solution to speed up this process, especially given their offering is customer-focused with huge industry demand.”

Adding Advanced Automation

AHEAD’s Value is in the Stitching

Our clients have complex environments. At AHEAD, our unique differentiation is stitching together our partner platforms and products into holistic client solutions that address technical, operational, and financial objectives. This analytics organization harnessed some of the most powerful and sophisticated tools on the market.

AHEAD brought in its team of cloud engineers, including Solutions Principal Nick Colyer, who was no stranger to advanced automation and the Microsoft Azure platform.

“The company needed advanced automation to spin up entire Azure networks and services on-demand in an isolated way to meet their customers’ requirements for both speed and security,” said Colyer. “We also needed to integrate with the newer services at Microsoft like Dynamics 365 and Power BI to quickly import data into these data warehouses.”

Colyer added, “AHEAD needed to design a solution for a product that’s never been built before in a market that hadn’t existed, so this was new territory.”

Using a combination of Microsoft Azure, Chef Automate, Palo Alto Protect, Cisco Meraki, and ServiceNow’s ITSM and GRC capabilities, AHEAD was able to do just that: Create a data warehouse that acted as a single pane of glass and provided standardized data for all of the business’s credit union customers, all while adhering to the stringent compliance demands of the financial industry.

“The automated deployment was started using ServiceNow for a full audit and compliance framework to be monitored against,” said Wise. “Anyone can automate deployment of a cloud environment, but to originate it from ServiceNow, capture all of those attributes of what we were provisioning, and store them at one location was unique—and extremely powerful for the client.”

Partner Collaboration is Key

AHEAD is not only very knowledgeable in all aspects of technology, but they also gave us a choice. They didn’t just offer option A—they offered multiple solutions that could really fit our business needs.

CTO, Financial Analytics Company

Giving the company the tools and skill sets they needed for continued development was also critical to the implementation.

“The organization is growing by leaps and bounds, and their employee expansion is at a breakneck pace,” said Wise. “We’ve completed the design and initial deployment phases, so we’re now focusing on onboarding new clients and operationalizing their support. This company isn’t just a client; we see them as a partner and are committed to ensuring a smooth transition for new and existing team members. Having the right documentation and knowledge of the environment that we built for them is of paramount importance.”

Microsoft proved to be a powerful partner in the process and that collaboration was also critical in the project’s success.

“We help credit unions map their data into our industry-standardized data schema, and with AHEAD and Microsoft’s partnership, we’ve seen an entire digital transformation toolset come to life,” said the company’s CTO. “When you think about digital transformation and the notion of PowerApps and Common Data Service (CDS), this would’ve never happened before in the credit union space, particularly with so many data silos and disparate systems. Now, we have a single pane of glass where credit unions have seamless access to data impacting their customers. Pulling all of this together in one clear picture is game-changing.”

Deploying a first-of-its-kind platform was a challenge the AHEAD team embraced and it proved to be a valuable experience for all involved.

“We learned a lot about integrating ServiceNow to Visual Studio to Microsoft Azure, and became even more well-versed in new and upcoming Azure services that could come into play in this client’s environment and others,” said Wise. “We also further enhanced our collaboration between the AHEAD team and Microsoft. Every time you tackle a project like this, you learn what true collaboration looks like and this was a textbook example of that.”

Subscribe to the AHEAD i/o Newsletter