Case Study: NATS delivers Office 2010, Visio and MS Project on virtual desktops

National Air Traffic Services (NATS) is rolling out virtual desktops as part of a wider change management programme.

National Air Traffic Service (NATS), the UK's air traffic control operator, is rolling out an ambitious virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) programme as part of a wider change management initiative.

Last year, the company handled 2.1 million flights and at Heathrow handles one plane landing every minute. The business is organised into five areas: airports, airspace, consultancy, defence, engineering and information, each run as different businesses.

Gavin Walker has worked at NATS for 23 years, and is now head of information services. He has spent the last five years on a programme to deliver IT as a true business service.

Five years ago, the company began a journey to virtual desktops, to modernise its Windows XP environment. The journey to VDI began with what Walker describes as a solid utility for IT. He started by establishing a foundation based on low cost, resilience, and a locked-down desktop, giving NATS a highly resilient infrastructure that drove down costs.

Walker asked analyst firm Gartner to help NATS make a "step change" in its approach to IT. Using Gartner benchmarks, Walker considered IT spending was under control, working out at approximately 2.5% of the company's £700m annual turnover - a £17.5m annual IT budget. 

"We have a big SAP system and have taken out tens of million of pounds of [IT expense]," he said.


Much of this has come from previous work moving from a single supplier to a multi-sourcing arrangement. The company now uses Serco, with Capgemini for SAP hosting, Amore Group for business applications, Attenda for internet sites, BT for wide area networks and Vodafone for mobile connectivity.

Walker wanted to make sure that IT could help NATS improve the business. "What I am providing is flexibility, giving [air traffic] controllers more choice," he said.

The result was NATS' Future Workspace project. It uses role-based identity and access management fed from an SAP HR system, and linked to Microsoft Active Directory, to provide virtual desktop roaming, where users can access their desktop from anywhere.  

The desktop is based on Windows 7 and Office 2010. Walker took advantage of the company's Microsoft Enterprise Agreement to offer staff the opportunity to purchase Microsoft Office 2010 for just £9.99 for personal use. He said 3,000 people downloaded the program, which has helped introduce the upgraded Office suite to the business with less training. In addition, it helped to identify power users.

NATS is also implementing an information management strategy and plans to deploy SharePoint for collaboration. Walker would like to build an app store, so users can self-provision software, based on their job roles. He is also looking to establish a chargeback mechanism for departments to buy services from the IT department.

Change management

Gartner was asked to challenge NATS to find a better way to run its IT with next-generation IT services. NATS talked to staff around the country about what they wanted from IT, what worked and what could be improved, in terms of the IT service outside air traffic control - controllers use conventional business IT when they are not in the air traffic control operations rooms. PC usage includes e-mail, reviewing and writing documents, filing expenses and running an application called First Brief, which controllers log into before going on a shift.

The controllers are light users of IT, said Walker. He also had to make sure the new approach to IT would work for people like the analysts at NATS, who crunch data, forecast traffic movement and look at the impact of snow and events like ash clouds. They tend to run number-crunching applications as well as bespoke software.

He said, "We interviewed a hundred people to find out their challenges, and came up with the Future Workplace strategy." 

He also made an animated video to show what the workplace would look like, and started the process of selling the idea to NATS staff and business leaders. IT projects are enablers but can fail because they do not get business buy-in. 

NATS' 35-strong IT department is non-technical. “We have a change management programme. The IT team focused on customer and change management. We want to understand how to add value to the business. As a result, all the outsourced contracts were written from end-user experience," said Walker.

Supplier management

Walker was in the fortunate position that the business was sold on the idea of the Future Workspace. He hired a company for the discovery phase of the project to run the IT due diligence NATS needed to identify potential problem areas early. This involved validating the infrastructure, assessing how people work with applications, the performance of the network and the maximum delay for login when users start up their PCs. 

"It used to take over five minutes to login. which is not practical when a controller wants to check e-mail quickly," he said. He promised the business service-level agreement for PC login of 15 seconds, and needed to ensure the planned infrastructure was up to the job.

However, Walker ran into difficulties with the supplier responsible for the due diligence phase.

He said, "There were a lot of issues with how the supplier delivered and we tried to address these." 

In the end, he decided  to use a different supplier, Point-to-Point: "When you work with suppliers it is about the individual. Sometimes the right people sell, but the wrong people delivered."

The shift to a different provider led to a five-month delay: "I had some difficult conversations with the business but they appreciated that the supplier had not delivered."

Rather than attempt to roll out the full Future Workspace, Walker used Point-to-Point to initially deliver a scaled-back desktop virtualisation system called Springboard. The project provides Microsoft Office 2010, Visio and Project to 100 key stakeholders. Walker said the users were chosen because they could work using just the subset of applications available through Springboard. He said they were also “difficult” customers, so could push the technology, and would be able to evangelise the benefits.

“Springboard helped us demonstrate immediate results and provided an indication of what the system would be able to do once in place,” he said.

Springboard was well received: “If someone doesn’t take-up the initiative, then it will never get used. Now, there is a massive pull from the business for Springboard.”

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