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Nick Hayman of Panel Quote on why Azure wasn’t the right idea

/ Case study
After an attempted migration to Azure went nowhere, Panel Quote needed a hosting provider who actually listened, and delivered.

If you’ve ever damaged a vehicle, or worked in automotive collision repair, or been part of an insurance claim after a car accident, Panel Quote was probably involved. It’s the industry standard software for New Zealand’s panel repairers and paint refinishers. Because we kiwis bend a lot of fenders, it’s a busy system.

As we heard from Director of Operations & CEO, Nick Hayman, Panel Quote is also a cautionary tale about enterprise cloud hosting. “It cost us a fortune to go to Azure because our provider didn't appear to know what was best for our software and our users,” he says. “The first conversation I had with Quintin at SiteHost was the most honesty I’d heard from anybody relating to servers in a very, very long time.”

We’ll get to that conversation soon but first meet Nick, and get to know Panel Quote a little better.

A 18-year-old startup

SiteHost: Hi Nick, how would you describe Panel Quote to a newcomer?

Nick Hayman: Panel Quote is advanced cloud-based estimating and shop management software developed for the panel repair and paint refinishing industry in New Zealand. It’s the only kiwi-designed system and it’s currently the most widely used, by around 50% of the industry. 

Our customers use Panel Quote to manage quotes, jobs and invoicing, courtesy vehicles, repair efficiencies, insurance claims and many other aspects of their business. We understand that we need to feed directly off the coalface of the industry, because it’s not just a ‘tack on’ to our business. It is our business.

We’re local, we behave ethically and honestly, and we know our industry. The software is logical and easy to use. People choose us for that, and for our friendly, helpful service. 

SiteHost: How long have you been running Panel Quote? 

NH: Panel Quote's been around for about 18 years now, and I came on board in 2013. I did sales at first, because I brought in industry knowledge. Then, in 2019, we bought out one of the previous owners.

How different was the business then?

NH: We were rapidly expanding, which we needed to do. The business was still very much in what I would call startup mode in the way that we were doing things.

Today I think we’re New Zealand's best-kept secret with what we've done with our software. I would like to think it would win awards for its clever, easy-to-use UI, given its complexity. There are so many facets to it.

What needed to change to get out of startup mode? 

NH: In hosting terms, we'd had many servers over the years, but the dedicated server that we were on with a previous supplier was getting old. We have quite high storage requirements and we were asking for extra drives to be added.

Meanwhile emails were coming through saying that this software is expired and there are no more patches, that sort of thing. It felt like this information was all designed just to scare us into paying more money for something else.

We had a number of meetings with our supplier to ask if there were vulnerabilities with our server but it never felt like we got a straight answer, other than being told to upgrade to Azure.

As you outgrew this old dedicated server, what new options did you look at?

NH: I was needing quality advice and information to make the best decision for our company and our users. At the time my knowledge about cloud infrastructure was limited. Thanks to SiteHost, that’s not true anymore. But, at the time, cloud-based terminology was being thrown around, like it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and your only option.

Our old providers pushed and pushed for an update to Azure, and we entertained those meetings. In the end we were sold 100% on this thing working, by their repetition of assurances. 

How did those assurances sound?

NH: The developers and I tried to go through and ask specific questions to extract certain information, but we weren't able to do so. It's almost like they didn't know the answers, but just assured us that everything would be fine. It absolutely was not fine.

The advice was basically, “This is what you need to do.”

Actually, it’s the quickest and dirtiest way to make a buck out of somebody. It was all about the sale. We were a big ticket customer because we're going to pay for extra storage and whatnot, so we were probably worth some bonuses to someone.

Requirements that the hyperscale cloud couldn’t support

Panel Quote is a relatively complex system for any host. In lightly technical terms, it’s a custom PHP development that needs a lot of storage. In a business sense, it’s a central support for an entire nationwide industry. For thousands of motorists, it has to protect their personal data.

Nick and his developers worked with Azure consultants who knew all this. But the solution they designed, and which Panel Quote paid for, never got anywhere near going live.

SiteHost: You mentioned that you have quite high storage requirements. Why is that?

Nick Hayman: In New Zealand’s automotive crash and collision repair industry, insurance claims are all handled digitally. Therefore there’s a requirement to store a lot - and I mean a lot - of photos. It's ever-expanding. Hundreds of thousands of photos are uploaded to Panel Quote every month.

So we’re very dependent on that storage.

Related article: Bigger, better, faster: Hard drive history, 2007-2023

And quite a lot of people depend on you, don’t they?

NH: Yes, we have a very demanding customer base. Our software has a responsibility to the industry that it supports, being one of the largest suppliers. Around 50% of the industry relies on Panel Quote to manage their businesses so there is no room for mistakes.

"Our customers use Panel Quote to manage quotes, jobs and invoicing, courtesy vehicles, repair efficiencies, insurance claims and many other aspects of their business." (Image: Artem Podrez on Pexels)

It’s not like an online t-shirt store. We can’t take our system down for two hours, or even ten minutes. There might be thousands of users doing something important at any one time - things that, if not done correctly, could cost their business money.

I believe that supplier relationships are based around trust. The Panel Quote software is entrusted with a particular company, now SiteHost, as are the livelihoods of those at Panel Quote and a horrendous amount of other people. They’re all sitting with SiteHost, let's be clear about that.

How do you maintain the trust and loyalty of so many customers?

NH: We've got a loyal, happy customer base like you wouldn’t believe. Our customer satisfaction survey results come back at around 9.5 out of 10

Part of that is because we're very, very on the pulse with things like page speeds. This is part of what our customers demand. And we couldn't get that performance out of Azure. We had to come to SiteHost to get it.

What requirements do you have when it comes to protecting data?

NH: When you’re working with insurance claims, things have to be correct. We don't have any room for loss of data. That would be a serious problem.

Data privacy and security are an interesting question too. Industry standards like SSL certificates, protection from DoS attacks, firewalls and all that stuff, are a given and SiteHost are all over this area. Then we have integrations with insurers that need to be at a certain level of compliance. Especially with insurance claims and other third parties data involved.

Storage, reliability, security…what else was on your checklist when you tried to get started on Azure?

NH: Our software is custom-built in PHP, so we knew it wouldn’t just be a flick of a switch.

In our meetings we were saying, “We've got a custom-built piece of software here. Are you sure it's actually going to work on Azure?“

And they’d say, “It’s okay, there is no reason why not. We have just taken on a big client, such-and-such, and they are not having issues. "

We went through this scenario with them three or four times. Then we started getting up and running on a custom-built Azure setup. 

"I just went around in circles for weeks and there was no one there who wanted to know about it - not even Microsoft themselves."

How far through that process did you get?

NH: We ended up in a situation where the software didn't work as well as it should. We couldn't get access to the Azure Portal either. I just went around in circles for weeks and there was no one there who wanted to know about it - not even Microsoft themselves. We had assumed that it would work, but in reality it was a joke. 

But we’d paid upfront and they kept sending bills. It ended up in limbo, sitting there for quite a long time before I finally realised, it just isn’t going to work. We had to stop the shenanigans.

It cost Panel Quote a fortune to try and go to Azure, because the supplier didn't appear to know what they were talking about in relation to our software, from our perspective. They just couldn't do it. We were never suited to the idea that you could pick up our software from here, put it over there and then, hey presto, it works. 

How long did you spend on this Azure experiment?

NH: About four months. Once you've been duped, you know you've been duped. 

It might have been a lack of knowledge from the supplier, or that the cloud itself didn’t actually suit what we were trying to achieve. In the end they tried to blame us, and we moved on. 

Related article: Clever companies are leaving the public cloud

That’s obviously a massive frustration for you and your developers, but were your customers affected?

NH: We're not stupid! Our live environment stayed on the old dedicated server during all of this. We only ever set up a development Azure environment. We couldn't even get that going, so our customers never got anywhere near it. 

We needed 100% confirmation before we moved. We can't justify downtime, we can’t say, “oops, we made a mistake that’s going to take two weeks to sort out.”

The move home to SiteHost

With Azure not working out and consultants not seeming to listen, Nick and the Panel Quote team sought another way off their creaking dedicated server. Looking for options based in New Zealand, Nick met with our Technical Director (and co-founder), Quintin. Their conversation was quite different to the ones he’d been having elsewhere.

Nick Hayman: In the first conversation I had with Quintin, there was the most honesty I’d heard from anybody relating to servers in a very, very long time. I'm being serious, you can quote me on this: it was the most honest conversation I'd had about server infrastructure with anybody. It was very helpful and it’s what brings us here today.

SiteHost: What was different about this conversation, compared to the supplier you were leaving?

NH: Rather than just, “she’ll be right, she’ll be right,” he’d say that something was going to be tricky, but that he’d look into it and deal with it. There was no over-promising. Finally someone wasn’t trying to upsell us. 

SiteHost earned a lot of trust from us straight off the bat, because Quintin was really honest. And SiteHost was able to just get on with it when it appeared that nobody else could. The message from Quintin was, “I know what I'm doing.”

How did you describe the situation you were in?

NH: I explained to Quintin that we’d taken over a company that had been handled by somebody who’s not here anymore. I'd come in to move this thing along and I had the most knowledge of anybody, but not when it came to cloud servers. 

We always look for good advice and we ended up with SiteHost because they wanted to do a bloody good job for Panel Quote.

It is important to get the right advice especially when you've got to make decisions on behalf of so many people and their livelihoods. After experimenting with SiteHost for a short time there were questions asked and we got answers to everything we needed to know at the time.

Why focus your search on local providers?

NH: There is a considerable difference between dealing with overseas companies and dealing with New Zealand ones. And it's our story, too: if any Panel Quote customer has a problem, they can talk to me directly. Sometimes that’s the only way to get things sorted. And SiteHost is practising the same thing. It's real, and hopefully it stays that way forever.

In terms of hosting, large overseas corporations are pedalling a product that maybe suits a decent percentage of the people out there. But we needed an organisation like yourselves that actually sat down and answered our questions properly, honestly and truthfully. 

"I know now that the cloud isn’t for everyone."

You’ve been clear that you aren’t a “server guy”, but what can you tell us about the infrastructure you’re running now? It’s not exactly an off-the-shelf Cloud Container server, is it?

NH: It's a massive undertaking and, so far, it looks like SiteHost has pulled it off. Our infrastructure was custom-built in part, as I understand it, to handle our humongous storage requirements.

There are things that we’ve asked for and which SiteHost’s made available to us, like load balancing - the ability to switch from one server to another. We’re getting the performance that our customers expect.

It’s good that SiteHost existed for us, because where else were we going to go?

You’ve abandoned a cloud migration, pushed an old dedicated server past what we’d call its usual lifespan, and finally completed a move to SiteHost. That’s a lot to go through! What advice would you give to someone whose current hosting isn’t working out? 

NH: I know now that the cloud isn’t for everyone. Just because something looks good doesn't necessarily mean it’s the way to go. There are potentially other ways of doing things. 

If I was to give someone a heads up on this, I’d be saying that if you want personalised service and spectacular support,  and outstanding knowledge, go to SiteHost. The support coming from SiteHost is like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I've been around for a while. I've seen a few different server companies, but I’ve never seen service like this before.