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Scottish Government creates first-mover advantage by exploiting latest technology

The Scottish Government’s Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate takes ground-breaking step to move critical farm-subsidies application to VMware Cloud on AWS. The move is the latest step in inspiring dynamic culture across the public sector.

Scotland has 60 percent of the landmass of neighboring England, but just 10 percent of the population. Away from the cities, huge expanses of Scotland are given over to farming or forestry.

Responsibility for this comes under the Agriculture and Rural Economy (ARE) Directorate, one of the largest departments in the Scottish Government. ARE oversees rural land management, agricultural policy and animal health, among other areas, and pays out around €700m in subsidies each year to farmers and those managing the land.

ARE is also one of the most technologically advanced of all Scottish Government departments. It has been involved in numerous beta programs for global IT vendors and is developing a reputation as the destination of choice for IT graduates wanting to learn skills, access new technology, and deliver large-scale, public facing projects.

“Things move so quickly in IT that if you remain static you fall behind,” says Neill Smith, Head of IT Infrastructure, Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate, Scottish Government. “If there is cool, new technology out there, we need to understand how best to exploit it. I want my team to explore new technology. Curiosity has to be part of our culture.”

For Smith, a restless appetite for investigating new technology is only half the story. The thing that drives him forward is finding a project on which to deploy it.

Events as opportunities

Like others in the Scottish Government, ARE runs its own disaster recovery (DR) facility.

With the facility due to close, Smith faced the prospect of rack, stack and configuring ARE’s DR hardware at another location. This was an ideal opportunity to think differently.

“We were looking at a hardware refresh one year down the line and repeating the whole process. It would be an effort whichever way we looked at it, but could we make it an effort that created a modern way of addressing IT?”

The Scottish Government has a cloud-first policy. Smith’s plan was to test whether DR could run in the cloud. If it could, Smith reasoned, then this may prove to be a gateway to the use of further cloud services and provide a more flexible approach to managing different workloads. 

Creating a Proof-of-Concept to test viability

ARE’s relationship with VMware goes back more than 10 years. Smith says his team is comfortable with VMware technology, and it has a proven track record. This matters. Smith says vendor decisions are often determined on price, performance and the ease in which his team can utilize the technology.

ARE put together a team of four to run a Proof-of-Concept, including House of Brick Technologies, a long-term services provider and VMware partner. The aim was to check if it was possible to run DR in VMware Cloud on AWS. The team started by converting from a Solaris (SPARC) application to VMware and Linux on-premises, then migrating to VMware Cloud on AWS, and finally running a DR scenario. This was all completed within three weeks.

“Boy, was it doable,” says Smith. “We were able to execute quickly, with the skills we already had. Plus, it was the most cost-effective option. VMware Cloud on AWS was a no brainer.”

Sweating the value of VMware Cloud on AWS

Today, ARE is in the process of shifting its entire DR to VMware Cloud on AWS.

Smith says the DR use case lays the groundwork for phases two, three and four. “We want to run DevTest inside VMware Cloud on AWS as phase two; phase three will expose our developers to services within AWS over the Elastic Network Interface; phase four is to run workloads where they’re best suited, on-premise or in any number of cloud providers.

“Any cloud strategy is a work in progress, but it was clear there were concrete ways for us to sweat the value of VMware Cloud on AWS.”

The long-term goal, he admits, is a software-defined data center (SDDC): “We want infrastructure as code, greater automation, fewer human errors, tighter security, and a quicker end product. SDDC is key.”

Towards a more agile, efficient future

Smith says there are other ways of moving to cloud, and others in the public sector have taken different routes, but VMware Cloud on AWS is the most efficient for the directorate. “We could be five or six times more expensive running our application natively in the cloud. VMware Cloud on AWS means we’re not spending money wildly by going to the cloud.”

Clearly, a financial return is welcome, but Smith says the success of the project should be judged on the transformational impact it can have on the way IT is approached:

“We’ve recognized that the role of IT is changing – we no longer need to manage a physical environment. With serverless technology coming, that change is going to continue. Containerization and orchestration will streamline the way apps are created and delivered.

“The public sector doesn’t always move quickly. We’ve proved it’s possible.”


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