Public sector organizations don’t exactly have a reputation for pioneering innovation. The history of government IT projects is strewn with mistakes; they often end up going over their original budget and deadline, if they make it to the finish line. On top of that, restrictive procurement processes and a general atmosphere of risk aversion usually mean departments are chained to outdated technologies from traditional vendors.
It is therefore somewhat surprising to learn that a team from the Scottish Government has succeeded in building their IT infrastructure using cutting edge tools and techniques – more than many private sector organizations. Not only does this department use DevOps methodologies and cloud infrastructure, it also explores software-defined data centers, containerization, and custom servers.
What’s even more amazing is that this department is not in charge of technology or innovation, or even something as important as commerce or finance. In reality, the department in question is the Scottish Government’s Agriculture and Rural Economy (ARE), responsible for controlling animal disease outbreaks, maintaining animal welfare and providing subsidies to farmers. .
The person leading these demoulding efforts is Neill Smith, infrastructure manager for the ARE branch. Its 13-person team is a mix of government officials and entrepreneurs, and is split between traditional and virtual database administrators, developers, and system administrators. Their mission is to create and maintain the apps that Scottish farmers use to submit grant payment claims.
Mix and match
Smith’s infrastructure is a bit of a mix. Most of the department’s workloads run on VMware virtual machines running on custom Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) servers, but the department uses a wide variety of different platforms and technologies, including Oracle SPARC , Postgres, DynamoDB, AWS, VMware, Rubrik, Ansible and more.
“We manage a small number of [AWS] workloads, but they’re relatively state-of-the-art, ”he says. “One of them is 100% serverless, end to end. So, although we are still in our infancy in the cloud, we are not one of those traditional government services that have taken a virtual machine and converted it to an EC2 instance and moved on to ‘yes, the cloud’. .
Smith is currently finalizing the deployment of the software-defined network infrastructure, which he says is the last piece needed to complete the department’s software-defined data center model. This, he says, allows him to make heavy use of containerization and infrastructure as code tools like Terraform in order to implement micro-segmentation.
The management’s infrastructure is based on Pure Storage technology, and the container orchestration platform provider’s acquisition of Portworx last year has opened up some exciting possibilities, Smith said.
“The challenge with containers has always been data and stateless and stateless applications. And I was really taken by Portworx, because I [thought] “Wow, that almost solves that problem.” And it has so many other features, along with migration and disaster recovery, and it can go from an on-premises VMware instance to the AWS Elastic Block Store.
“So that’s something that we plan to do, hopefully around July or August, to get a proof of concept for Portworx and really play around with that. But it really opened my eyes, and the containers and their orchestration for us are now becoming more strategic because I can see the big picture and how it is adjusting.
One of the main things that attracts Smith to containers in particular is the portability and flexibility they offer, allowing him to run services in multiple environments without its developers having to rewrite the same applications multiple times. Google Anthos is attractive for the same reasons, and a proof of concept for Google’s multi-cloud platform is also in the pipeline in the near future.
The proof of the pudding
Multi-cloud deployments, serverless applications, infrastructure as code, and containerization are an incredibly forward-thinking battery of projects that any organization can undertake, let alone a public sector body. Smith attributes the progress he’s been able to make on these initiatives to the autonomy given to his team, which allows him to run small-scale proofs of concept for technologies he believes can provide a business advantage. Once it has proven its effectiveness, it can then show it to the company, gain support and move forward with confidence.
“I have the company membership, I have already proven the technology, I can put a cost around that, then I can go to finance and my boss, who is a senior official, and say ‘hey, see what we can do – and the company loves it ”. This is my technique. And it worked, and it continues to work. But I’m lucky – I have a team that’s self-sufficient, where we can go “hey, look at that”. And people say ‘love it’, and you’re like ‘awesome’. And then we can do it.
“In general what you find is that things start to go a lot easier, rather than going down the traditional bureaucratic route where it’s like going through mud, and it stifles you and stifles creativity. Then you end up saying, oh, we can’t do it because we’re going to wait for that meeting or that advice or that approval.
However, Smith’s role is not without its challenges. Even with a solid business case, he says, the cost and reluctance to adopt new technologies can be barriers. In some areas his team is also at the mercy of other departments who may not be as nimble and can introduce frustrating obstacles.
“We are very independent within the AER. We have our own hardware and we manage everything in our own VDI. However, when it comes to the network layer – so physical switching and firewalls – we have to hand that over to the central government as a segregation of duties. The challenge for us may be, we have to make changes quickly, or we have to adapt, and what we have to do is fall into our core system with SLAs. And it can be very tedious, where we can find it very difficult to make changes. “
Smith says he also faces some recruitment and retention challenges, especially when it comes to new skills. Part of the reason, he says, is the bad reputation public sector IT has for innovation and agility.
“Everyone wants to recruit AWS people, and it’s difficult,” he explains, “especially for the government. I don’t think we’re paying particularly badly these days, but it’s still not an attractive option. I always think when people look at the government it’s like, ‘yeah, they’re five years behind’… that’s the perception of the people. So it’s [challenging] be able to attract the right people.
Like any good manager, Smith says it’s the people who make up his team who really do the work of keeping the ARE leadership’s IT state-of-the-art. His job, as he puts it, is to give them the space and flexibility to make sure they’re as free as possible from the red tape and bureaucracy that typically plague government IT.
“My goal is to minimize operational overhead to let my guys do the cool stuff,” he says, “and that’s my only role is to make the environment and culture the right place to. that these guys excel.
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