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CTO Interview: How Oxfam’s cloud migration boosted donations and reduced costs

Thu 23 Jan 2020 | Nick Mitrovic

Oxfam’s Nick Mitrovic explains how the international aid organisation has seen real benefits from its cloud migration – letting them serve vulnerable people more effectively

“Unlike many other organisations, Oxfam can’t predict when the next disaster will happen and when we need to ramp up or deploy new systems” says Nick Mitrovic, CTO of the charity. Technology staff at charities, government bodies, international organisations and some private sector firms know this scenario all too well. When disaster strikes, a co-ordinated response is needed fast. “At any given time, on average, our teams are responding to more than 20 emergencies worldwide.”

This demand for rapid response to unpredictable situations was a large part of the reason that Oxfam decided to initiate a migration of the charity’s infrastructure to the cloud. In the past, the organisation’s IT teams found themselves continually fighting fires, while also dealing with the pressure to save money. The cloud just made sense: “Oxfam is very cost conscious as every pound we save goes to someone in need. With public cloud we pay only for what we use, when we use it.”

Oxfam completed their ten-month migration to Microsoft’s Azure in Dec 2017 and the results have been impressive. “In the first year we had 32 percent increase in regular giving, a 22 percent increase in online sales, our customer journeys in key applications were more than 50 percent faster and at the same time we managed to reduce our Azure costs by 20 percent.” Besides these headline figures, Mitrovic points to the deeper benefits of going ‘cloud first’: “it enabled Oxfam to be a more agile organisation and to develop new capabilities.”

Mitrovic will describe Oxfam’s successful migration in detail at London’s Cloud Expo Europe conference this March. What can similar organisations learn from the charity’s experience?

Cloud concerns

Organisations like Oxfam face a series of specific challenges when it comes to technology. The charity has a global mission, with country offices across the world as well as staff at disaster locations who all need to connect with a secure central IT environment. At the same time, they must run all the standard support technologies that any large organisation requires, such as HR, finance and logistics. Lastly, they generate income through donations and payment systems and a nationwide network of bricks and mortar charity shops.

Join Nick at Cloud Expo Europe, 11-12 March 2020, ExCeL London

Helping Oxfam reach its goal of ending poverty, faster
12 March, 13:45 – 14:10
Main Stage

In many ways, the cloud is the obvious solution for such a complex international organisation, offering the kind of scale, flexibility and availability Oxfam needs. However, Mitrovic explains that when Oxfam first moved to the cloud in 2017, “a strategy that relied 100 percent on public cloud was controversial.” Nevertheless, something needed to change: “Oxfam had a legacy solution based on hybrid-cloud technology across three data centres. This old solution was difficult to change and meet the changing needs of the organisation. The IT team could not deliver availability and the performance required by the organisation.”

Moving to the cloud wasn’t a simple choice however: “we didn’t take this decision easily and there was a lot of concern around performance, security, and privacy in the cloud.” Besides the technical side of things, there were also change management issues to factor in: “it was a large organisational change too so we needed to define the new target operating model with our IT team to make sure we had the right skills and processes in place.”

Eventually, Oxfam chose Azure as their cloud partner: “as it had the features needed to support larger organisations like backups or monitoring,” and they partnered with Rackspace for advice and guidance during the shift.

Practicalities of cloud migration

“The initial stages of the migration were the most complicated” says Mitrovic. The charity’s IT team needed to set up the new environment and “adopt the ‘cloudy way’ of doing things”, which was rather different to their established practices. “For example, we went from having only a few firewalls to one or more firewalls per application”.

Receiving a help from Rackspace to design the migration roadmap was important explains Mitrovic: “we first needed to build the new environment and consider aspects like new network layout, security, backups, monitoring, or resource group strategy. We then introduced some core systems like Active Directory and started migrating simpler, relatively isolated, systems.” This helped them understand how the new environment worked, before jumping headfirst into migrating more complex systems.

Mitrovic notes that an important aspect of a successful migration was the way the project was managed: “Agile and DevOps are in my mind absolutely critical for delivering a successful cloud-first strategy”. The Oxfam IT team used this approach not just for software development but also the release of different products or services in their cloud environment: “We can now have multiple releases in a day or week where previously this was not possible.”

They were also adaptable in the way they managed migrations and updates. For migrations, they tended to follow a waterfall methodology, whereas for systems which needed a redesign to become “more cloudy”, an Agile approach was effective. The Agile approach was also helpful when the IT team encountered obstacles in the migration “as we could reshape our plans or designs to work around issues or talk to Microsoft’s product team and try to influence Azure’s roadmap.”

New possibilities

One of the most exciting outcomes of the cloud migration is the new opportunities it introduces. For example. Oxfam’s Data Platform, for instance, contains over one billion records on which the charity can apply advanced analytics tools and better understand its beneficiaries and supporters. The cloud’s global nature also elevates reporting and understanding of field work. Another cloud-enabled innovation is a new humanitarian Data Hub where stakeholders receive a minute-by-minute analysis of the performance of aid programmes around the world.

“Thanks to the Cloud and DevOps model, all of this has been developed at a fraction of cost and time compared to our old solution” Nick says. And if this means that more of Oxfam’s donors’ money reaches people in the most difficult situations, the cloud is worth every penny.

Experts featured:

Nick Mitrovic

Chief Technology Officer


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