Case study: How the Department for Education deployed flexible IT

The Department of Education has upgraded its ageing datacentre to the Azure cloud and Office 365, and rolled out Microsoft Surface devices

Two and a half years ago, Adrian Tucker, CIO for the Department for Education, launched a strategy to move the department’s IT from trailing-edge to leading-edge technology, which would involve a refresh of the technology stack.

At the Department for Education (DfE), the technology function provides core IT services such as desktop, standard service support and a tech helpdesk, ensuring maintenance is secure and expanding business capabilities to embellish systems. But the department used ageing technology. While this was robust, it did not allow full mobile access.

Given plans for an office move, Tucker seized the opportunity to rethink the desktop IT function and the role of the department’s datacentre.

“Our intention was to eventually move out of our London buildings,” says Tucker. The question for IT was what to do with the physical datacentre, which was coming up for renewal.

Given datacentres tend to be refreshed every five years, the timing of the technology refresh aligned with the DfE’s plans. “I was able to drive this at pace,” says Tucker. “We wanted to translate the tech available into something tangible as the department grew.

“Most IT directors will not create a brand new datacentre. The strategy in government is to move to the cloud,” he says. “We get better resilience, disaster recovery, and a datacentre that never needs replacing. So we took the opportunity to decommission things that didn’t need to move.”

Key to Tucker’s plans was deciding what remained at the department, and what parts of IT to migrate to the cloud. “We wanted to keep control of the datacentre in-house,” he says.

Collaboration key to meeting ambitious target

The strategy to move to the cloud is not unusual, says Tucker: “What was unusual was that we wanted to do it in 18 months.

“We knew we didn’t have all the skills we needed, so we drove a partnership with Microsoft and looked at the end-to-end plan.”

Success in meeting the deadline was down to the internal team and the suppliers, and the ability to work differently was very important. “We had an ambitious agenda and asked for a more collaborative approach,” he says.” I am not the expert and we needed to train my people to have a different skillset.”

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The suppliers had to go back to their board and change their models to enable the internal team to work collaboratively with them, and, from a procurement perspective, the IT team worked very closely with the DfE’s commercial team to ensure everyone understood the objectives and the model Tucker wanted.

The department ran a tender process and assessed Amazon Web Services (AWS), but Microsoft Azure was deemed a better fit.

Desktop IT reimagined

The department previously provided staff with thin clients to access applications running on a Windows 7 virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). It also provided BlackBerry devices for mobile email access.

The department considered migrating to Windows 10 VDI, but this option did not fit with how the workforce was changing.

“We had the opportunity to move our VDI to the cloud, but our desktop strategy is more about the future of our workforce,” says Tucker. “It is becoming increasingly clear staff are no longer in the office and there is devolution of power. People work in the field and need to stay in touch with schools.”

In the past, those who needed mobile access were given laptops instead of relying on the VDI, so for Tucker, the business case for moving off thin clients stacked up.

Having looked at all options, the department selected the Microsoft Surface hybrid device as its primary user computing device.

“We wanted a device that was quiet and light enough to move around,” he says. “The Surface provides pen annotation, which significantly reduces printing and allows people to collaborate.”

Keeping a high level of security

One of the benefits of the previous thin client setup was that no data resided on the devices, making the infrastructure secure. This level of security was needed on the Surface devices.

“We built security into the design and made sure the devices were suitably encrypted. All data is pushed into the cloud,” says Tucker, adding that the department ran penetration tests to confirm the devices were secure.

For the smartphone, he says: “We initially moved to BlackBerry Leap. Its big advantage was the ability to read PDFs on the move.” But when BlackBerry stopped producing the Leap, the deprtment looked at the Samsung Galaxy A5 Android device as a replacement.

The Knox encryption capability built into the Samsung Galaxy A5 allows the department to secure the device.

Sticking with BlackBerry Enterprise Software

Interestingly, the department chose not to change its mobile device management software. “We use BES 12 [Blackberry Enterprise Server] to connect to Microsoft Exchange.” BES 12, incidentally, supports Knox.

Software-wise, the department now runs Windows 10 and Office 365. For Tucker, there are three areas of functionality in Office of great benefit: “PowerBI could have a substantial impact for our analysts to look at how they do forecasting and analysis; Skype is on our roadmap for instant messaging; and OneNote is reaching a point of maturity,” he says.

Tucker also believes Yammer and Teams could be very useful, and he is considering installing Office 365 on the Android smartphones that are now being rolled out.

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