Natural Resources Wales takes to the cloud with Microsoft

The Welsh envoronmental public body adopts Microsoft cloud functionalities including Office 365 and Azure

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has started using Microsoft’s cloud applications including Office 365 and Azure as part of its IT transformation programme.

Once the environmental public body completes the cloud transition – it has set a deadline of March 2015 – it expects to reduce annual IT running costs to be £5-6m per year, rather than the estimated £12-15m of a similar-sized organisation.

The NRW (or Cyfoeth Naturiol Cymru in Welsh) is a public body created by the Welsh Government to replace Environment Agency Wales, Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales. The public body – which opened its doors on 1 April 2014 – protects natural resources in a sustainable way.

Legacy networks

The move to create one organisation from three left NRW with staff spread over the length and breadth of the country. The NRW employs 2,000 staff in 50 locations around Wales, all on one of three legacy networks when the organisation began.

Martin Britton, CIO at Natural Resources Wales, says that, while the public body went live with Office 365 on day one, the next big job was to get all staff off the legacy networks – some of which were consuming services from Edinburgh and England – and onto one cloud infrastructure.

NRW now has virtually no onsite infrastructure, after it put all staff onto the Microsoft Azure platform.

“From the outset, the key thing was being able to connect to a cloud system,” says Britton.

Britton says cloud connectivity means the new charging model does not compare to the large infrastructure needed to put an exchange onsite. The NRW has also managed to extract the management of the infrastructure, meaning the 60-strong IT team has much more control.

Microsoft Office 365

The organisation is the first public body in Wales to fully adopt Microsoft Office 365, which had everyone hooked up to the cloud on day one. Britton says this was built in about ten and a half weeks. He says that, when he joined NRW in December 2013, the organisation had much to do in very little time.

The entire organisation now uses the full Microsoft Office suite, as well as Windows devices to keep its staff connected while out and about.

In September 2014, the NRW gave its staff 650 Nokia Lumia Windows Phones. It has also deployed Microsoft Surface Tablets, as well as Lenovo Tablets running Microsoft Windows Mobile 8.1. All desktops use Microsoft Windows 7.

“The staff are taking to them really well,” says Britton. “They had BlackBerry as their old standard, and people appreciate the move to a smartphone.”

Mobile connectivity in Wales

Because the NRW is so disparate across Wales, with many people operating in the field, mobile connectivity is important. And with Microsoft’s enterprise mobility suite, the IT department managed to break down the old-fashioned attitude to security and mobile devices. Staff are now free to use their devices in the field to record notes when sampling rivers or attending pollution incidents and flooding.

“They all need to be connected,” says Britton. “Before it was a challenge – security fears meant they couldn’t necessarily connect to what they needed.”

Wales is not known for its ubiquitous mobile connectivity, but all devices are “connection tolerant”, meaning staff can do their work and write emails offline, and as soon as they regain signal, the device synchronises and sends the outbound messages. The organisation isn’t tied down to one network provider, but uses the telecoms company which provides the best connectivity for wherever employees are normally based.

The mobile devices use Microsoft Lync to take photographs or start a video conference call in the field. All desktops use this system, saving over £20,000 on internal conference calls in the last four months alone.

Apps in the cloud

Another large job for Natural Resources Wales was to identify the necessary legacy applications needed from the bodies it replaced. Britton says the IT team was tasked with going through 1,000 apps to decide what was needed, what the organisation could do without and which could be redeveloped. In the end, one app replaced 22 legacy applications, making it easier for staff to access functionality in the cloud on a smart browser.

NRW was also the first organisation in the world to deliver Esri GIS in the cloud. It uses geographical information systems (GIS) as mapping tools for noting instances of flooding, protected species and so on, to combine and use to analyse big datasets. Esri and NRW worked together to put this integral application in the cloud.

“They really wanted to have an exemplar,” says Britton. “So they changed service model and provided technology support.”

NRW conducts some application development in-house. It has a Microsoft Apprenticeship Scheme, which provides participants with a Microsoft qualification at the end. NRW currently has nine apprentices, with a further five available. It is the first scheme in Wales, and a number of the mobile applications have been built by apprentices using Microsoft tools. NRW uses SQL server, and the .Net framework for development as well as the Little Apps Factory tool.

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