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Fostering a sense of community among employees spread across 80 countries, while providing them with a fast and efficient way to share documents, was the challenge facing vocational training charity City & Guilds in 2011.
The organisation wanted to make it easier for staff to work from home, which raised the prospect of a radical overhaul of its IT infrastructure, processes and systems, explains Ian Turfrey, City & Guilds IT director.
From a local perspective, the size of its operations in each of these territories poses its own challenges. For example, there are 12 regional City & Guilds offices in the UK alone.
“The challenge for us was we’re all part of a team and passionate about helping our learners – but how can we get a sense of togetherness when we’re so geographically dispersed? And how do we make it really easy for people to access all their information and systems wherever they are in the world?” he says.
“It’s no longer the case that everyone needs to come into the office, so how can we enable our systems so people can work from home? I can’t be in control of every piece of IT infrastructure globally, so we needed to enable local flexibility.”
Unifying global communications
To counter some of these challenges, the organisation moved several years ago to help its staff adopt a more flexible approach to working by deploying Citrix’s remote desktop offering, but the technology had its limitations.
“We used this so people could start accessing their desktop and documents from wherever they were, but if they were trying to access their desktop via Chicago, for instance, the connection was still going via central London. It wasn’t a great experience, but for the UK it worked very well,” Turfrey says.
The Citrix deployment introduced the concept of video conferencing to City & Guilds, as a means of opening up communication lines between workers in different locations. The organisation has since been built on this with Microsoft Lync – or Skype for Business, as it’s now known.
The move to Citrix coincided with the deployment of Microsoft Exchange 2010, which positioned the company two years ago to start moving more of its IT estate to the cloud, with the help of Office 365 and some third-party IT contractors.
“Because we were already on the latest technology stack, we didn’t have that legacy upgrade burden as we’d already done that when we did the Citrix implementation,” Turfrey says.
“We started small, with SharePoint Online and email, and it’ll take around another 18 months to move everyone off a shared network drive and onto SharePoint completely.
“Because we’d already been working a lot in Microsoft technologies, it felt like a natural progression for us to go with them – and we also get good discounts from them as a charity.”
The organisation uses SharePoint Online to share files between teams in different locations. Turfrey claims its introduction has markedly cut the turnaround time on some documents, while reducing the number of off-site meetings its project teams have to attend.
“We use Indian outsourcers to build some of our qualifications and assessments, and they share that work with our UK team to make sure it is of the right quality and standard,” he says.
“By collaborating online, the turnaround on these assessments has gone from weeks to days.”
The decision to migrate the company’s email system off-premise has freed Turfrey’s IT team from spending large amounts of time patching servers, which means they can concentrate on launching services instead.
“We still had outages with Exchange [when it was on-premise] but – whereas that may have taken us four hours to fix – if we have a problem with Microsoft, it’s usually fixed in 20 minutes now. The security around email is also a hell of a lot better than the security that we could provide here,” he says.
Overcoming the business technology challenge
Getting the board to buy into this point of view – and appreciate the wider benefits of cloud computing could bring – wasn’t easy, Turfrey admits, because it was difficult to come up with prospective financial figures around the benefits the shift in strategy could bring ahead of time.
“Our CEO is quite visionary and could see the benefit of what we were doing, but I also pushed some things through on my own profit and loss,” he explains.
“So, as we started moving and reducing legacy apps, I was able to use that money to reinvest in the new world of cloud. So it wasn’t just a case of saying, ‘hey, we need a million pounds to do this,’ because I was actually managing to do that within the profit and loss.”
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On top of this, Turfrey had to win over some sceptics in the IT department who weren’t convinced that cloud was the right way for the organisation to go.
“At first, all our infrastructure technologists were pushing back against it, and we had to do a bit of myth-busting with them. As we started to transfer and move more services, there was a degree of resistance as some thought their jobs might be under threat,” he says.
To get across the benefits of using cloud, he also embarked on a series of smaller projects along the way using Microsoft Azure. As an example, this has seen the company draw on the sharing capabilities of the public cloud platform to share sound files.
Next on the cloud agenda
To solidify the cloud plans, the next item on Turfrey’s agenda is securing a faster, more secure and private connection to the Microsoft cloud via the Azure Express Route.
This would allow City & Guilds to access Office 365, for example, without having to rely on a public internet connection.
The organisation is currently in discussions with several would-be providers – including Claranet, Azzurri Communications and Attenda – to see who can get it connected fastest.
“It really will become my third datacentre and provide a gateway for me to move more services to the cloud,” he says.
Leading the change
For other organisations considering a similar move to the cloud, Turfrey said investing in a third-party team of supplier-agnostic professional services experts is a good shout, as they should be able to advise them on how to go about it.
“Sometimes you have to spend to save money, so if you don’t have the internal capacity, I’d suggest contacting an agnostic provider who can look across the whole market of providers,” he says.
“Explain to them some of the challenges and they should be able to come back and explain what the right approach will be for your business.”
He says charities may feel under pressure to go for the cheapest available option, but that’s not always a strategy that works.
“That technology may not integrate well, and – in terms of what you want to achieve from an end user perspective – it often makes sense to standardise your operations on one technology stack. That’s why we’ve chosen Microsoft,” he says.
“The key thing is to get some advice and not to be scared because lots of other companies have done it and lots of other IT directors are embarking on their journey to the cloud now.”