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How Scottish independence has benefited Forestry and Land Scotland - at least from an IT perspective

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks September 15, 2023
Summary:
A spin-off of the UK Forestry Commission has improved the services it provides its trade customers, and started a major program of re-factoring and replacement of some 300 applications.

Trees and ferns Scottish forest view in front of Loch Lomond © IsabelPoulin - Canva.com
(© IsabelPoulin - Canva.com)

Forestry and Land Scotland sprang out of the UK Forestry Commission in 2019 as less of a `wholly-owned’ agency of the Scottish Government and more an independent organization operating as the managing agent of Scottish forestry and land management.

Its IT is now a managed service from Scottish Government, as Senior Digital Infrastructure Manager, Nick Mahlitz, explains:

We had to separate all the applications and data from the Forestry Commission. All our endpoints, all identities, email, Office 365 - we don't manage that, we don't administer that. We pay for that as a service to Scottish Government. We are not funded by the Scottish Government and don't rely on public funding. We generate revenue through timber sales and events. And therefore, we have opportunities that perhaps are not available to all the Scottish Government and other public sector agencies in terms of investment.

An important part of that investment plan was the first step of upgrading and re-thinking its business possibilities and the consequent upgrade of its IT infrastructure. It started independent life with two separate systems and data, and little idea of what was needed or the transition program required.

Around this point Mahlitz came on board. The main data center was Nutanix-based, but an on-premise installation was from a data center provider. They saw both cost and operational advantages in going to public cloud services. During that time a good deal of effort was put into developing graphics applications for such uses as forest planning and management. But then came a decision point – both hardware and software coming to the end of life. The decision was to go into the public cloud, on Nutanix, and do away with having infrastructure.

What, no infrastructure?

The Scottish Government has heavily invested in Microsoft and Azure, and not much in AWS, so the choice of public cloud provider was straightforward. Staffing might have proved a more difficult issue in that most of the existing staff were nearing retirement, yet had been responsible for developing most of the applications used and had valuable experience of the business needs. In addition, the initial idea had been to re-factor all those applications, a project that could take up to seven years to complete. Mahlitz recalls:

We looked at just a lift and shift, no transformation, just a lift and shift. A very casual conversation with Nutanix revealed that there's this product coming up called NC Two Clusters, where you can put the Nutanix layer inside of the cloud. So we did a proof of concept with Microsoft and Nutanix. We set up a new data center in the US using Nutanix and we joined it to our deep on-prem data center. I migrated production workloads of these very old systems and it worked.

Then I sat down with Nutanix and Microsoft and explored the sustainability and the costs behind this, and the management of all of this, and I struggled to come up with why you wouldn't do this as a priority plan.

The result was that, after starting the project in May, it was deployed in early July and is now running through a few months of testing till the end of this year when the data center contract ends. From then on it will be a cloud-based operation running Nutanix cloud clusters.

Most of the applications have been around for some 30 years, including the main ERP system, sales, and invoicing. Most of them are also in line for transformation and refactoring to exploit their new environment, though this can now be managed as existing staff (who know the applications well) are trained up on the additional benefits operating in the cloud and on Nutanix hyper converged infrastructure specifically, and new staff with cloud experience get to grips with the core business objectives of the existing applications. The organization has converted its licenses to Nutanix in the Public Cloud and is working on Azure. Next year's plan is to do the same but with another public cloud provide, says Mahlitz:

What we're doing is quite unique. We're taking an entire data center, you know, 300 applications, 30 terabytes of data, from on premise to a public cloud using Nutanix. It's very much a trailblazing kind of use case for the public sector, because in the public sector, nobody's taking a risk.

Running non-natives in the cloud

He is aware that, with working in the cloud, the ideal is to run native applications, particularly in terms of costs, but this is counter-balanced by the costs and time consumed in refactoring applications – or identifying and testing cloud native alternatives. By porting the legacy applications to the cloud, the organization gets performance and cost benefits, coupled with the opportunity to refactor or replace over a controlled timescale, and re-structure/re-train its staffing as existing staff retire and new more cloud-savvy staff come on-board.

It has not, so far, got into 3D modeling of its forests and other revenue-generating resources, but this is likely to come now services are getting established in the cloud. A `digital forest’ is likely to help with planning the rotation of types of tree grown, and management of what gets cut, when. Cut timber is stored at various locations across the total estate and local timber merchants are informed about stocks and take what they then require. A similar approach is used with the sale of deer carcasses, after culls. These are held in local cold stores across the estate, with registered traders collecting them as required, all of which is managed centrally and fed by information collected and processed in the field by forest rangers and lumberjacks.

Pilot schemes are now underway with the use of drones feeding information on tree health and signs of disease, using pattern recognition software, into the cloud data center, and from there out to the field staff. The same approach can be used to observe the numbers and health of the deer population.

Another pilot study is currently underway using the Starlink satellite communications network as the comms link between field staff and the data center. This is expected to significantly improve the ability of the field staff to work remotely, increasing their connectivity, and their ability to work out in the field for much longer periods without having to travel to a local Wi-Fi hub in order to connect.

And then there is Citrix

This is one of the areas of service development where Citrix then comes into play for Forestry and Land Scotland, not least because it offered a neat way to overcome a minor roadblock the organization had in work with, as Nick Mahlitz, explains: 

We had to deliver all our data or files, and our 300 applications, to an endpoint on a Scottish Government network that we don't administer or manage. So there was a challenge, because it costs around £2,000 per application to validate the endpoint. And of course, you've got to regularly keep up to date. It made sense that we validated just one piece of software, the Citrix client, on the endpoint. Now we can deliver as many applications as we want, regardless of the number of applications that then go through it, and we can stream applications from our Nutanix Empire via Citrix to anywhere in the world on any device.

The certification process is necessary, particularly on a government network, to ensure an application is not a security risk, is compliant, supported and patched. The network managers need to ensure that every individual application has got vendor support and should not offer any security concerns or vulnerabilities. This was a new potential cost burden, as before it left the UK Forestry Commission, it was part of the UK public sector, with a full-blown IT team and Digital Services Department to manage everything. 

This is now a key advantage of using Citrix, because it is a dummy client to each of the applications used. It operates as a separated isolated bubble, so it doesn't matter what is actually on the client, for it is within the isolated bubble and therefore cannot escape to compromise the rest of the Government network. In effect, all of Forest and Land, Scotland, is inside that Citrix bubble. In addition, the partnership between Nutanix and Citrix then plays a part. Mahlitz says: 

The interactions and interoperability between Citrix and Nutanix work very well, that's why we chose Citrix as the kind of VDI delivery mechanism. Citrix can scale up and scale down according to the need. I've now got double the amount of users on our services and the environment will auto scale up on Nutanix. When there's no one it will scale down. That's just wonderful to have. And in Azure it does the very same thing. We integrate that into Citrix.

Another advantage with Citrix is its ability to cope with poor connectivity. For an organization like Forest and Land, Scotland, this is an important capability as communications between field staff and base is its lifeblood, so poor or fussy WiFi can be very damaging to its business, and very disempowering to the staff. This is why Mahlitz has high expectations for the current pilot project with Starlink, and is already looking to expand it to other areas. 

This will also help with its large and growing fleet of tree management machinery, such as harvester heads. Not only can he now contemplate expanding the range of data collected from those machines – improving the real time data available for its wood dealer customers, but also adding predictive maintenance data to improve operational reliability and contracting out specialist work when needed.

He also sees the combination of Nutanix and Citrix as the backbone of the long term direction seen for Forest and Land, Scotland, the growth of renewable energy and greater sustainability over its whole estate. It is already working to restore and rebuild its peat bogs as a contribution to carbon capture, and is currently considering the wider aspects of land management and its contribution to renewable energy generation.

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