SOS International: Using Kubernetes to Provide
Emergency Assistance in a Connected World
“SOS has a very fragmented legacy,” with three traditional monoliths (Java, .NET, and IBM’s AS/400) and a waterfall approach, says Martin Ahrentsen, Head of Enterprise Architecture. With increasingly intense development in the digital space, “we have been forced to institute both new technology and new ways of working, so we could be more efficient with a shorter time to market. It was a much more agile approach, and we needed to have a platform that can help us deliver that to the business.”
The company decided to take a platform approach and look for a solution that rolls up Kubernetes and the container technology. RedHat OpenShift proved to be a perfect fit for SOS’s fragmented systems. “We have a lot of different technologies that we use, both code languages and others, and all of them could use the resources on the new platform,” says Ahrentsen.
Kubernetes has delivered “improved time to market, agility, and the ability to adapt to changes and new technologies,” says Ahrentsen. “Just the time between when the software is ready for release and when it can be released has dramatically been improved.”
For six decades, SOS International has provided reliable emergency medical and travel assistance for customers in the Nordic countries.
SOS operators handle a million cases and over a million phone calls a year. But in the past four years, the company’s business strategy has required increasingly intense development in the digital space.
When it comes to its IT systems, “SOS has a very fragmented legacy,” with three traditional monoliths running in the company’s own data centers and a waterfall approach, says Martin Ahrentsen, Head of Enterprise Architecture. “We had to institute both new technology and new ways of working so we could be more efficient, with a shorter time to market. It was a much more agile approach, and we needed to have a platform that can help us deliver that to the business.”
For a long time, Ahrentsen and his team searched for a standard solution that could work at SOS. “There aren’t that many assistance companies like us, so you cannot get a standard system that fits for that; there is no perfect match,” he says. “We would have to take a standard system and twist it too much so it is not standard anymore. Based on that, we decided to find a technology platform instead, with some common components that we could use to build the new digital systems and core systems.”
Sold on what Kubernetes could do, Ahrentsen zeroed in on platforms that could meet the business’s needs right away. The company opted to use RedHat’s OpenShift container platform, which incorporates Docker containers and Kubernetes, as well as a whole stack of technologies, including RedHat Hyperconverged Infrastructure and some midware components, all from the open source community.
Based on the company’s criteria—technology fit, agility fit, legal requirements, and competencies—the OpenShift solution seemed like a perfect fit for SOS’s fragmented systems. “We have a lot of different technologies that we use, both code languages and others, and all of them could use the resources on the new platform,” says Ahrentsen. Of the company’s three monoliths, “we can provide this new bleeding edge technology to two of them (.NET and Java).”
The platform went live in the spring of 2018; six greenfield projects based on microservices architecture were initially launched, plus all of the company’s Java applications are currently going through a “lift and shift” migration. One of the first Kubernetes-based projects to go live is Remote Medical Treatment, a solution in which customers can contact the SOS alarm center via voice, chat, or video. “We managed to develop it in quite a short timeframe with focus on full CI/CD pipelining and a modern microservice architecture all running in a dual OpenShift cluster setup,” says Ahrentsen. Onsite, which is used for dispatching rescue trucks around the Nordic countries, and Follow Your Truck, which allows customers to track tow trucks, are also being rolled out.
“The speed of the changes that cloud native software and technologies drive right now is amazing, and following and adopting it is very crucial for us. The amazing technology provided by Kubernetes and cloud native has started the change for SOS towards a digital future.”
— Martin Ahrentsen, Head of Enterprise Architecture at SOS International
The platform is still running on premise, because some of SOS’s customers in the insurance industry, for whom the company handles data, don’t yet have a cloud strategy. Kubernetes is allowing SOS to start in the data center and move to the cloud when the business is ready. “Over the next three to five years, all of them will have a strategy, and we could probably take the data and go to the cloud,” says Ahrentsen. There’s also the possibility of moving to a hybrid cloud setup for sensitive and non-sensitive data.
SOS’s technology is certainly in a state of transition. “We have to deliver new digital services, but we also have to migrate the old stuff, and we have to transform our core systems into new systems built on top of this platform,” says Ahrentsen. “One of the reasons why we chose this technology is that we could build new digital services while changing the old one.”
But already, Kubernetes has delivered improved time to market, as evidenced by how quickly the greenfield projects were developed and released. “Just the time between when the software is ready for release and when it can be released has dramatically been improved,” says Ahrentsen.
Moreover, being part of the cloud native community has helped the company attract talent as it pursues a goal of growing the ranks of engineers, operators, and architects from 60 to 100 this year. “They want to work with the cool, new technologies,” says Ahrentsen. “During our onboarding, we could see that we were chosen by IT professionals because we provided the new technologies.”
“During our onboarding, we could see that we were chosen by IT professionals because we provided the new technologies.”
— Martin Ahrentsen, Head of Enterprise Architecture at SOS International
The way of thinking at SOS International has also changed dramatically: “Since we have Kubernetes and easy access to scripts that can help us automate, creating CI/CD pipelines easily, that has spawned a lot of internal interest in how to do this fully automated, all the way. It creates a very good climate in order to start the journey.”
For this journey at SOS, digitalization and optimization are the key words. “For IT to deliver this, we need to improve, and that is not just on the way of using Kubernetes and the platform,” says Ahrentsen. “It’s also a way of building the systems to be ready for automation, and afterwards, machine learning and other interesting technologies that are on the way.”
Case in point: the introduction of the internet of things into automobiles. The European Commission now mandates all new cars to be equipped with eCall, which transmits location and other data in case of a serious traffic accident. SOS provides this service as smart auto assistance. “We receive the call and find out if an emergency response team needs to be sent, or if it’s not heavy impact,” says Ahrentsen. “The future world where everything is connected and sends data will create a big potential for us in terms of new market opportunities. But it will also set a big demand on the IT platform and what we need to deliver.”
Ahrentsen feels that SOS is well-equipped for the challenge, given the technology choices the company has made. “The speed of the changes that cloud native software and technologies drive right now is amazing, and following it and adopting it is very crucial for us,” he says. “The amazing technology provided by Kubernetes and cloud native has started the change for SOS towards a digital future.”