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CIO interview: David Southern, director of ICT, WWF UK

In his 17 years in the IT department at the WWF, David Southern has seen many changes – and the advent of cloud computing is one of the biggest

As UK head of IT at the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund), David Southern has seen his role change rapidly in recent years, with his traditional skills taking a back seat.

Today, Southern and his IT team of 12 spend much less time managing systems and the hardware that supports them, as a result of the organisation’s increasing use of the cloud and service providers. But that doesn’t mean he is sitting back in his 17th year with the conservation group.

“I think this is a really exciting time to be in technology,” he says. “It has changed in such a way that we do not have to do as much heavy lifting as we used to and I don’t have to deploy my engineering talent so much on managing tin.”

A cloud computing journey that began a couple of years ago has been a major enabler of this change. After a successful project to move to cloud-based storage as a service in 2015, Southern told Computer Weekly that he had acquired an appetite for cloud computing and was planning more.

Today, about half of the WWF’s applications are already cloud-based. Applications that remain in-house tend to be those that have been in the organisation some time, “which are not really cloud ready”, says Southern. 

He adds: “These include heavy-duty operational applications such as CRM [customer relationship management], finance and HR.”

This is one of Southern’s major challenges. “We want to move to more ephemeral, cloud-ready and lightweight applications, which is quite a big challenge for us because it requires the business to change quite deep-seated processes,” he says.

Part of the challenge, says Southern, is that he has to wait until the suppliers of these applications create cloud-ready versions. “We can’t just move our CRM to the cloud because we have to wait until the application owners have it in a state where we can do that.”

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This is a challenge when it comes to software from smaller suppliers, says Southern. “Most of the major suppliers are ahead of the game – it is your more niche-type suppliers that have applications that are not cloud-ready.”

In the meantime, the WWF continues to switch over to cloud services. It is currently replacing its on-premise datacentre as the hardware approaches its end of life. “We are looking at whether to replace on-premise with a hyper-converged computing solution or whether we will consume cloud services such as infrastructure-as a-service [IaaS].”

The organisation also switched from having its email hosted and supported by a service provider to Microsoft’s cloud, with Exchange Online. IT services firm Bluesource helped it migrate email to Microsoft Office 365 earlier this year.

This move not only brought the usual benefits of the cloud, but helped Southern with another challenge he was working on – General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance. WWF UK has a database containing a million supporter records including personal information, as well as other data such as staff records.

Southern says Exchange Online has some built-in tools to help with GDPR compliance. “One of my priorities is to achieve compliance with GDPR,” he says. “This is quite a big project for us, particularly in the area of making sure all our legacy data is completely compliant and clean.”

“The more that we move to software-as-a-service-type applications, the more able we are to deliver business-critical operational systems on any device anywhere”

David Southern, WWF UK

The WWF was in a fairly good position to start with because it had strong data policies, he says. “But one of the big challenges we have been addressing is ensuring that everyone in the organisation is fully aware of the obligations under the new law.”

But security and compliance go beyond the GDPR, and this has been a major focus for Southern over the past year. “IT security is something we take very seriously and I spend a higher proportion of my time managing risks to the organisation than I did 10 years ago,” he says.

A more “bread-and-butter” project, as Southern describes it, is the WWF’s upgrade of its wide-area network (WAN). It has recently reviewed and revised its WAN architecture to enable it to adopt more cloud-based services, and its WAN capacity has increased tenfold.

“The way the economics are now, we can do that and not incur any great cost,” he says. “This has also helped us with collaboration because we have to connect with our partners in some very remote parts of the world.

Increased choices

“In recent years, there have been a number of developments that have increased the choices we have. Mobile apps have allowed people to work anywhere, anytime, on any device.”

Southern says the WWF’s cloud push has supported this. “The more that we move to software-as-a-service-type applications, the more able we are to deliver business-critical operational systems on any device anywhere,” he says.

All WWF staff are provided with a laptop device and some have corporately owned mobile devices. The organisation uses a VPN connection to ensure staff can connect to core applications wherever they are.

“We have choices such as the ability to consume cloud services,” says Southern. “We work in virtual environments and we are much more scalable than we were before.”

So that’s cloud and mobile covered, but to complete the SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) stack), the WWF has to manage a huge social media presence and use business intelligence to tailor its service to those making donations.

“We have a huge social media presence and we are developing our web interface to make sure our supporters have a much more engaging experience online, with more focus on their individual interests enabled through business intelligence software,” says Southern.

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