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Staffordshire County Council Azure Application Migration Delivery

With thanks and appreciation to the Staffordshire County Council (SCC) IT Teams; this write up continues from the original discovery project for their applications 'Starters & Leavers' and MASH linked here.


Following a successful application migration discovery project shown here; focus moved to the actual delivery project which is the subject of this post.


Following a review, it was decided that the A4S and SCC IT teams would concentrate on the migration of 'Starters & Leavers' an in house developed application hosted on on-premise Windows Servers running .net, IIS and SQL.


The Starters & Leavers application is built to handle the IT steps of the starter and leaver processes including (but not restricted to):

  • Creating and deleting user accounts

  • Adding and removing security groups

  • Assigning equipment and software


SCC is extremely motivated to migrate their applications into Azure and wasted no time in creating their temporary DevOps team to work closely with A4S and this resulted in a rapid project pace whilst maintaining strong controls.

A stated in discovery related post; working with the IT team at SCC is easy because of several key factors; 1) the IT team is excited and willing to learn more about Azure 2) the organisation has stated they have a cloud first strategy 3) the IT team are highly collaborative and enjoy working in the A4S online project management portal.


The Need


SCC have decided to begin migrating some of their on-premise IT systems into the cloud for several reasons that include:

  • Improved performance

  • Improved security and control

  • Reduced support overhead with potential operational savings.

  • Improved scalability and flexibility with the ability to scale up/down, out and in when needed

  • Greater control over deployments using tools such as deployment slots as well as integration into their existing Team Foundation Server (now known as Azure DevOps).

Starters and Leavers was selected as an application to migrate due to its low risk profile and lower quantity of concurrent users, it is also developed completely in house by the client's application development team.


Final Design Review


A4S and the SCC IT teams undertook a final review of the low level design document, it was at this point that the team decided to take a more committed and strategic view to migration and improved the design through the following changes:

  • Both application front end and SQL back end would utilise Azure PaaS offerings.

  • The application authentication would be re-designed to make use of cloud based authentication methods rather than LDAP.

  • An Azure Application Service Environment would be utilised to host the application to provide isolation, scaling and the ability to meet high memory demands when needed.

The updated design was approved through online review and was uploaded to A4S online project management tool for archive and ongoing visibility.

Senior management was fully engaged at all times during this process and it was common to receive steering, comments and questions within the project forums where quick response is provided. SCC IT were also quick to commit technical and project management resources to the project and quickly became engaged.

A4S produced design documents for the applications in scope and included designs for both non-production and production instances, where needed there was consideration for a cloud native approach and also approaches that strategically retained traditional elements of technology.


Our designs take into account the scalability and resilience needed, we also factor in security and will recommend various Microsoft Azure security technologies as best fit for the client need.


Non-Production & Production Instances


The project was split into two phases, firstly the deployment of the non-production instance where the majority of design iterations and lessons learned were undertaken. Re-designing and deploying the non-production application instance proved to be a valuable experience for the client's IT teams with staff being exposed to new skills and toolsets resulting in significant upskilling taking place.


Using a rapid amount of design iteration throughout the non-production instance deployment meant by the time the production deployment became underway; the new design, mature, settled and lower risk.

The use of an Azure DevTest subscription is used to keep non-production costs to a minimum.


Fully Automated Deployment


A4S where possible always utilise fully automated deployments through technologies such as Azure Resource Manager (ARM) templates.


The Microsoft YouTube channel includes useful ARM template videos for your review:


ARM templates can be used to deliver multiple solutions at scale with assurance that every configuration is consistent and not prone to human error during the actual deployment process.


For our client SCC; it's imperative that solutions are delivered using full automation this increases their ability to re-deploy quickly if needed using their existing TFS environment, this also meant that SCC IT team members were able to undertake practice deployments into their own development environments.


Application Environments With Security & Isolation


A4S want to ensure our clients are secure, we will include security elements in our designs ranging from Azure Front Door, integration into the necessary anti-virus infrastructure. Security for our client's applications and data are extremely important and is reflected in the design and deployed solution.

Isolated application service tiers allow the client to know that their data is truly safe from disruption caused by other environments, this choice is bespoke to the client and their application needs, alternative service plans can be deployed with less security and cost if needed.


Ease Of Migration With SQL Managed Instances


Azure SQL Managed Instances provide the client with the broadest level of SQL compatibility with all the benefits of a fully managed cloud SQL environment, this solution is a good fit for our client SCC who is potentially looking to migrate a large number of applications with the lowest migration effort possible.


For more information about Azure SQL Managed Instance click here.


Improved Performance


Testing scripts were used to measure various aspects of the new cloud hosted solution including performance, it became evident that a significant performance improvement was experienced of around 80% with load and query times reduced from around 5 seconds to 1 second and lower when accessed from on-premise via the client's VPN, this was when compared to running the same application on-premise.


Such a significant performance improvement is expected to bring huge benefit to the client, it should also be noted there are several applications potentially for future migration that will benefit from scheduled or demand based automatic scale up and down.


Running Costs


Close work was undertaken to fully understand the running cost of the environment, due to the isolated nature of the chosen solution running costs were seen to be cost effective for the longer term especially as it was estimated to be capable of running almost the clients full non-production application environment potentially eliminating around 80 servers.


To provide a meaningful estimate, the Azure Cost Calculator was used in conjunction with a review of the existing on-premise environment.

Monitoring & Alerting Using Azure Monitor


To ensure proper visibility and the ability to deeply understand performance metrics; Azure Monitor has been deployed with visualisations delivered using Azure Dashboards.

The client plans to integrate Azure Monitor with their existing System Centre Operations Manager environment (SCOM) using the Microsoft provided management packs that can be found here.

Azure Dashboards are used to provide the highest level of intuitive visibility, if you wish to see another case study specifically regarding a deployment of our A4S Monitor Platform based on Azure Monitor, Log Analytics and Telegraph then please click this link.


We recommend the use of Azure Dashboards and their graphs, charts and tables to present IT administrators with the necessary information to manage their new cloud based solutions.


Operational Processes For Knowledge Sharing


To support the best possible knowledge transfer to the client A4S produced some key Azure operational procedures that also factored in the clients existing IT infrastructure to ensure consistent practices when undertaking typical 'keeping the lights on' activities, these included (but not restricted to) the below:

  • Scaling

  • Software updating

  • Anti-Virus

  • Deployment

Management Report


At A4S we ensure our projects are fully reported to all stakeholders so they can make informed decisions, in conjunction with the SCC IT management team A4S produced a report to senior managers that could be clearly understood and be used to make decisions for the future. Jointly produced by SCC and A4S the report contained the following subject areas:

  • Project overview

  • Solution high level view

  • Costings

  • Azure insights gained

  • What went well

  • What could be improved

  • How to harness moving forwards

  • Lessons learned

  • Next steps

The report was well received, and we hope it will help SCC with their future decisions in relation to the cloud.


Team Knowledge Building & Empowerment


Throughout the project the need to upskills the client's IT team was taken special care of. Effective skills and knowledge transition helps to ensure the long term success of the clients cloud journey, A4S is committed to working closely with our clients and we utilise a number of methods to ensure our clients receive the knowledge and skills they need to succeed including:

  • Constant online sharing of assets as they're being produced, we take an iterative approach with frequent consultation rather than making stakeholder wait for the final product.

  • Routine iterative reviews of design documents.

  • A high volume of online conversation using our online project management portal.

  • Routine operational processes created that integrate with existing infrastructure solutions where appropriate.

  • Delivery activities undertaken with stakeholders attending shared Microsoft Teams meetings.

It became clear that members of the team undertook a significant learning journey as confidence and participation levels increases especially as the project moved from non-production to the production element.


Positive Use Of The A4S Online Project Management Tool


All of our projects are carried out with real time access to all aspects of the project, at any time a stakeholder can see:

  • Task progress.

  • Risks and Issues.

  • Decisions.

  • Meeting Minutes.

  • Budget position.

  • Schedule and actions.

On this project in particular stakeholders of all levels engaged in a timely manner and with productive and helpful contribution. By keeping communications all in one place we ensure actions, issues and much more are never missed.


Lessons Learned


Undertaking a lessons learned activity ensures partners and clients take learnings into future projects and this activity has been no different, lessons learned are documented and shared during and at the close of each project. Documented lessons learned are accessible to A4S clients only, so we have shown an overview only below:

  • Aligning a client's delivery capability to a DevOps practice including processes and toolsets greatly improves delivery speed, this can be implemented as a temporary solution or embedded with organisational change over the longer term.

  • Automated deployment techniques and toolsets ensure a better long term investment and ensure repeatability that can also assist in a disaster recovery effort.

  • Many on-premise skills remain critical for Azure deployments, solution design approaches such as Azure SQL Managed Instances can reinforce this need.

  • An embedded cloud strategy can improve the chances of success by ensuring cloud aligned technology, skills and solutions.

Conclusion


The SCC Head of IT Vic Falcus sees cloud migration critical to meeting the businesses strategic needs in terms of flexibility and scalability and entrusted A4S to assist in this journey.


We chose to work with A4S again because; during a previous project related to our Azure environment they showed their transparency and work ethic in a very positive light that built a level of trust with our teams.
Migrating to the cloud is a journey that we must understand clearly, we need to comprehend and manage risk, cost and also improve our internal skills to exploit the cloud, and to continue moving forwards at the right pace.
A4S at all times provided the solutions we needed for now and that also aligns strategically to our future needs, they were able to clearly show running costs to our management team and explain how they improve with greater adoption in the future. We found it extremely easy to engage with A4S at all times and they were always responsive to our needs

Vic Falcus, SCC Head of IT


We worked closely with various teams including Application Development headed by Rob Stevenson who stated:

"Working with A4S resulted in another well-structured and productive outcome, they worked extremely closely with our team members who greatly enjoyed working on the project.
A4S working practices make sure our teams remain engaged and focused on the task in hand, they're always on hand to discuss issues, when needed they're also extremely flexible to stay aligned to our needs as they change.
One of the most positive aspects of A4S delivery is their openness and transparency, we find this easy to work with and it's clear they bring significant expertise to the table whilst being friendly and helpful.

Rob Stevenson, SCC IT Development and Solutions Manager


Rawdon Smith fulfilled the client project manager role with aplomb and was hugely appreciated by the A4S team, at all times Rawdon was able to communicate, organise and help move blockers, on several occasions he brought a very level viewpoint to ensure the team moved forwards in a pragmatic and productive manner:


Being the first project I have worked on with A4S I was immediately impressed with their high levels of organisation and engagement with our teams, they were always motivated and positive with their communications and closely listen to our needs when a change in design was discussed and agreed upon.
A4S always engage clearly and manage tasks through to completion with high levels of quality partly because of work ethic and also because of their online project management portal that helps with task management and openness.
The project management provided by A4S was always of a high level, was engaging and relevant, the technical expertise provided by A4S was excellent and we always arrived at the right outcome.

Rawdon Smith, SCC IT Project Manager


As an integral part of the client's delivery team Richard Line worked very closely with the A4S teams, his swift and intelligent contributions contributed significantly to rapid project progress:

I have worked with many third parties in the past, but A4S have stood out both in the way they have run the project and at the technical level.
The project has been run in a very open and adaptive way. When I joined the project part way through I suggested ways that we could change the solution; this was taken on board and absorbed into the solution quickly and without fuss. Information and updates were prompt and always visible.
The technical consultant from A4S was one of the best I have ever worked with, always available for questions and became part of our team. He was both very knowledgeable, but also quick to say if he did not know the answer, and just as quick to find the answer.
A refreshing open company to work with, which made for an enjoyable and successful project.

Richard Line, SCC Database Architect



As the client Infrastructure and Change Manager; Paul Hewitt needed to be kept informed and consulted at the right times....

When working with A4S we know we'll be given the right information to make decisions when we need it, on this occasion a significant design change was made as soon as SCC made it clear we were ready to properly commit to our cloud journey.
The solutions designed always take into account our needs at a detailed and strategic level to ensure solutions designed and built now meet our future needs from a security, performance and resilience perspective.
A4S's communication is excellent, we particularly enjoyed the online social aspect of their online project delivery platform that keeps us engaged, informed and in the driving seat.

Paul Hewitt, SCC Infrastructure and Change Manager




A4S Jason Birchall A4S Managing Director greatly appreciated the positive feedback....


Working with the SCC IT team is an enjoyable process, they're committed to cloud transformation and have highly skilled team members who were made available during this project, they've been engaging throughout the project and were always quick to respond with any urgently needed information.
A4S would once again like to again thank the SCC IT teams for the opportunity to be part of this project and we look forward to further opportunities to work together in the future.

Many Thanks


The A4S Team


If you would like to learn more about this project or would like to find out more about A4S Cloud Solutions and our approaches to cloud application migrations then you can get in touch via email or Teams on jason.birchall@a4scloud.solutions, ring me on 07415 897953 or check out this link: Work With The Experts!