CIO Interview: Ian Turfrey, City & Guilds

The IT chief of vocational training body City & Guilds is generally positive about cloud computing – with some key qualifications

City & Guilds is one of the world’s foremost enablers of vocational education. Founded in 1878 by 16 of London’s livery companies, its aim was to ensure a steady flow of skilled professionals into the country’s technical trades. 

The organisation’s essential mission has changed little since. Now, though, it boasts around two million students a year working towards 500 different qualifications covering more than 20 sectors, delivered through some 8,500 training partners spanning more than 80 countries.

A pragmatic, business-led focus still pervades the culture of City & Guilds today, and is ably embodied by CIO Ian Turfrey’s approach to sourcing IT systems and services. Turfrey (pictured) has no belief-led bias that any one form of delivering what the business needs is intrinsically better than any other. “IT just needs to work,” he says.

What he does understand, however, is that the cloud – when packaged and delivered in the right way – can significantly improve business outcomes, both in terms of cost and agility. A case in point is his recent decision to switch from an in-house telephony system to a managed, cloud-based unified communications and contact centre solution (Icon Communicate) from service provider Azzurri.

I'm not going to move key line-of-business applications into the cloud until it's reliable enough

Ian Turfrey, City & Guilds

As well as saving the business more than £150,000 on managed voice services over three years (plus the considerable cost of supporting an on-premise solution), Turfrey says the system is also boosting the organisation’s business operations. 

“For example, it’s given our contact centre operatives, who handle around 10,000 enquiries a month, the ability to work remotely. Desktop-based softphones give people access to all of the system’s features wherever they are,” he says.

City & Guilds is also making increasing use of Microsoft’s cloud services for such functions as identity and access management, email, intranet and desktop video-conferencing. 

“We’re using a lot of the cloud functionality offered by Office 365, as well as doing a fair bit of stuff with Azure to augment some of our business applications,” he says. “I just look at it as an extension of my infrastructure that I can use securely.” 

Turfrey is also using a software as a service (SaaS) system to digitise all of City & Guilds’ previously paper-based content.

Weigh up the risk of cloud

Nonetheless, only around 20% of the company’s IT is currently cloud-based. 

You need to be able to turn cloud on and off and only pay for what you use

Ian Turfrey, City & Guilds

“I have to consider the level of business risk when deciding whether or not to migrate an application to the cloud. For example, if Microsoft has a bad day with my email, that’s manageable because I have a good archiving and backup solution. But if I’m looking at key line-of-business applications that are processing revenue, for example, I’m not going to move those into the cloud until it’s reliable enough, which often it isn’t,” he says.

Like many customers, Turfrey believes the industry needs to do more to address businesses’ cloud concerns. For example, pricing needs to be simpler and more predictable, he says. 

“Today, if you move workloads to the cloud and your level of data or throughput grows, it can actually be a lot more expensive than a traditional on-premise solution. To be more cost effective, you need to be able to turn the cloud on and off as you need and only pay for what you use,” says Turfrey.

Help needed to navigate the fog

He would also welcome more independent help and advice when it comes to choosing between different suppliers’ cloud solutions, ensuring they’re optimised and getting them to interoperate effectively. 

“We need more agnostic, independent experts who can understand and benchmark different offerings. People are still finding their feet in terms of how, say, AWS [Amazon Web Services] and Microsoft Azure work. It’s not as easy to understand as you might think. Cloud needs to be fully commoditised. It’s getting there, but there’s still some way to go,” says Turfrey.

That said, he understands that cloud computing in all its guises is likely to play an ever larger role in his business. He notes that even critical business applications such as SAP, which have traditionally always been run in-house, are moving inexorably to the cloud.

“It’s probably where we’ll all be going over the next 10 years,” he says.

“The IT department should no longer be the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the organisation. Instead it should be the service provider that uses technology to unburden the business to do bigger and better things. I just want to ensure the business has the best technology solutions in place to be as efficient as possible, while minimising risk and downtime.”

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