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Virtualization Lets Scotland Rapidly Modernize a Vital App

At the VMworld 2019 conference, a representative of the Scottish government plotted out how his agency virtualized an application and lifted workloads into the cloud in order to get quick results.

SAN FRANCISCO — The Scottish government is responsible for doling out nearly a trillion U.S. dollars’ worth of European Union subsidies to farmers every year. The process is subject to heavy, high-risk auditing, and it is not isolated from the fickle winds of politics.

And it also used to run on an outdated, unsupported technology stack that was, perhaps, on its way to becoming a big security problem.

But in three months, Scotland's Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate was able to modernize, stop using those unsupported technologies and bring the application into the cloud. At the VMworld 2019 conference, Neill Smith, the directorate’s head of IT infrastructure, detailed how his agency was able to overcome many of the typical obstacles that governments around the world face in order to quickly get off old technology.

It was a very fast turnaround time for modernizing a legacy government application — which handles payments to Scotland’s farmers — but the government had a few powerful incentives to pursue the move. One was a cloud-first policy, which means a political win for the agency if it can lead the way toward the cloud. Another was the punishments it would face should it ever fail one of its many regular audits of the disbursements it makes: The “disallowance” that follows such a failure is expressed in percentages of what equates to roughly $900 million (U.S.) each year, which would turn into a budget shortfall the government doesn’t plan for.

“Depending on the severity of that disallowance, that can turn into tens of millions and hundreds of millions of dollars in fines,” said Smith.

So it turned to House of Brick Technologies, which helped the directorate to update its stack and get into the cloud. The journey was one of virtualization, with an on-premise data center “talking” to a counterpart in the VMware Cloud, which is hosted on an Amazon Web Services center in London.

The legacy stack was largely based on Oracle, which presented some licensing challenges when it came to moving to a non-Oracle cloud. So the team created new virtual machines from scratch, migrated the data with Oracle Data Pump and migrated the application via direct copy. That was the easy stuff.

“Phase one was relatively painless,” Smith said.

A trickier part was getting the on-premise data center to talk to the VMware Cloud, which they accomplished with VMware HCX. Moving to public cloud often involves piles of minutiae — setting up data paths to the cloud and moving over workloads without breaking things, for example — but Nick Walter, a principal architect with House of Brick, said HCX makes that easier.

“It takes a whole bunch of just very obnoxious little drudge things that typically you have to set up to start taking useful production or non-production workloads into the cloud, and it just takes care of them for you,” Walter said.

Disaster recovery migration was also accomplished through HCX.

The result was, essentially, that the directorate was able to pick up a legacy system, put it into the cloud and move to a supported technology stack along the way that avoids a lot of potential security headaches. It relied largely on replicating the existing pieces, rather than making them cloud-native, but the result was a quick and efficient process.

And other agencies in the Scottish government are starting to take notice, too.

“It’s become a blueprint for us to move forward,” Smith said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.