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Natural Resources Wales uses Microsoft and mobile to unify departments

Natural Resources Wales won the Best Mobile Computing Project Award at this year's CW European User Awards. Find out why

In April 2013, a new government-sponsored body, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), was set up to merge and manage the functions of the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency for Wales and the Forestry Commission for Wales.

The agency’s remit is to ensure that the environment and natural resources of Wales are managed, enhanced and used sustainably.

Its key responsibilities are: to serve as an adviser to the Welsh government and to industry on environmental issues; to regulate and protect marine, forest and waste industries; to designate sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty, nature reserves and national parks; to respond to environmental incidents as an emergency responder; to consult on planning applications; and to manage woodlands, nature reserves, water and flood defences.

NRW CIO Martin Britton – who previously delivered a major Microsoft Office 365 deployment for 800,000 users in schools across Wales – says the motivation for bringing the three bodies together was partly logical – to provide environmental services from a single organisation – but also to save more than £160m over the next 10 years.

It was also important for NRW to build its system in-house, rather than outsource to a provider such as Atos or Capgemini – mainly for financial reasons, according to Britton, who says: “We couldn’t afford to pay someone like Atos a day rate for consultancy.”

The coming together of the three bodies posed enormous technical challenges to Britton’s team, particularly when it came to ensuring that all three were able to continue business as usual during the transition to a unified infrastructure. Britton describes the process as, in many ways, “a very brown and very muddy field”.

“We absorbed well over 1,000 applications, some bespoke, some off the shelf,” he says. “Our biggest challenge was around merging three cultures and three sets of technologies. On databases, for example, one part used Oracle, another part SQL Server, and so on.”

Different infrastructures

Also, four different infrastructures needed to be brought together. Two of them – belonging to the Environment Agency for Wales and the Forestry Council for Wales – were not even physically located in the principality and were housed instead in the two agencies’ UK bases in Bristol and Edinburgh, respectively.

With this in mind, NRW turned to Microsoft Office 365 and Azure cloud to underpin its services. At launch, this meant that all three bodies, working on four separate networks from 60 locations, were able to share a single document management system, intranet and email service.

“Office 365 really supported us through the transition,” says Britton. “No matter what network the user was on, they could connect to it and use their applications.”

Britton also adopted Microsoft Lync – now transitioning into Skype for Business – for unified communications and video-conferencing services.

Mobile workforce

With many of NRW’s employees frequently on the road, it was also important to help field staff and managers remain productive and contactable while on mobile.

To accomplish this, NRW chose Microsoft Surface tablets for its office-based executive and leadership teams, and ruggedised Lenovo tablets and Lumia smartphones for field workers, synchronising all of the devices with the Office 365 Cloud to receive email and manage documents.

“It made sense to give our employees Windows phones – they can manage them from the same console and use the same software, with a seamless link to security and the Office 365 document store,” says Britton.

With Wales’ mountainous terrain and sparse population outside its southern core, it is fair to say that mobile network coverage in the more rural parts of the country can be patchy at best.

To get round this and avoid costly network builds, Britton exploited some of Microsoft’s more connection-tolerant applications, such as Outlook 2013 and OneDrive, both of which enable users to work without a connection.

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“Now they can pull down documents from the cloud when in the office, update them in the field, and upload them when the connection returns,” says Britton. “They can make safer, more informed decisions based on the latest evidence, and save on paper documentation.”

Data mapping

NRW also claims to be the first organisation in the world to adopt Esri Geographic Information Systems (GIS) digital mapping applications via Azure to support its internal and public GIS mapping requirements.

This approach supports NRW’s strategy of centralising its GIS apps and data in the cloud to deliver a single source for spatial information.

This offers the potential to run its apps from anywhere in the world, on any NRW device, and enables GIS apps to be consumed by standard tablets and desktop devices, as opposed to ‘Power PCs’, because the GIS processing power is now abstracted into the cloud.

NRW now aims to go further still, creating further flexibility for its distributed workforce by producing new applications to help deliver its services, including resilient tools to forecast and respond to flooding better, for example.

Money saved

Racing headlong into the cloud to support mobile working has brought a number of benefits to NRW, chiefly helping to achieve its ambitious money-saving goals.

It has already removed the costs and workload involved in creating and maintaining its own storage and Exchange servers, and is also reducing its overall environmental impact as it needs less power to run and cool its systems – a key metric for a body charged with protecting the environment.

NRW’s framework has already driven down costs drastically. Britton says he is now delivering a full ICT service for less than £6m a year, compared with £12m a year across the three previous organisations.

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