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June 22, 2021

Cloud migration saves NGO from infrastructure disaster

Millions of people around the world trust the certification issued by ICDL, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that provides training and verification for ICT skills.

The organisation, which offers 24 training modules ranging from basic skills to high-level coding and web design, operates in 150 countries around the world. More than 16-million people across the globe are involved with or alumni of ICDL.

In South Africa, ICDL has certified or is training more than 500 000 people. Courses, student histories, reports, certificates and more are managed from the NGO’s Cape Town-based operations.

Which is why it was a matter of grave concern when aging and poorly-maintained computer systems threatened the safety and security of  these records, as well as the organisation’s ability to function efficiently.

ICDL might have a big job to perform, but it’s really just a small company – 10 people in Cape Town, one each in Gauteng and Limpopo – and relies on funding that doesn’t allow room for unexpected expenditure.

“We are an NGO and our skills sets don’t stretch to managing and maintaining servers and databases,” explains Jenny van Niekerk, CEO of ICDL. “And we certainly don’t have the wherewithal to employ permanent staff members to do that for us.

“Which is why we look to partner with people that we trust, and rely on them to give us the correct advice.”

This is where Cloud-Fundis came into the picture, helping ICDL to make the switch from on-premise infrastructure to a cloud service.

Van Niekerk knew the NGO’s own systems were unreliable and in constant danger of crashing fatally, and she recognised that cloud computing was probably the best way forward. Hamish Whittal, data engineer, machine learning specialist and big data architect on AWS at Cloud-Fundis, helped to make that a reality.

“We embarked on our migration to the cloud early last year,” Van Niekerk explains. “When the announcement about the lockdown happened in March last year, we had already decided to move premises and had given notice on our Kenilworth offices.

“The announcement gave us the impetus to finalise the migration quite a lot quicker than we had envisaged, so we were up and running remotely when the lockdown kicked in. Because making the switch to remote working was so seamless, we haven’t seen the need to rent offices again.”

Migration challenges

Van Niekerk hastens to add that, although talking about migrating to the cloud sounds easy, it wasn’t that simple in practice.

“We knew we had to do it. We were running on aging infrastructure that was really shaky. For us to purchase new servers was a capital outlay we just couldn’t make as an NGO.

“We were also spending far too much on servicing and support of the old systems, where issues were continually cropping up and were just going to escalate.

“As an NGO responsible for ICT certification, we thought we had responsibility to lead in the adoption of new technology, so we decided the move had to be to cloud.”

However, staff members were nervous about the safety of their data, and there was a certain amount of education and reassurance needed to get everyone on board.

“So the first big hurdle in migrating to the cloud was the mindset change,” Van Niekerk explains. “The other big challenge was that there were a lot more technical issues than I had anticipated.

“I thought, as many people do, that if you had a database on your own server, you could simply move it to the cloud and carry on working. But it turns out there is quite a lot of configuration required to get it working seamlessly.”

Whittal points out that the ICDL migration was particularly tricky because the organisation was running on old versions of Microsoft Dynamics and SQL Server.

“The software had been pretty much untouched since it was installed – so there had been no upgrades or patches done.”

This meant Cloud-Fundis had to upgrade and patch the system before it could migrate the database and student records.

“We also found that there were inadequate backups, which caused a fair amount of concern,” Whittal remembers. “In fact, there were days when I thought we might lose this one.”

On its old systems, ICDL operated with a big file server that allowed staff members to save and share documents, and this had to be cleaned up and streamlined before being moved into the cloud. “We had to move to an economical setup, but still allow people who are sitting remotely from each other to connect and share data.”

Smaller issues that had to be ironed out included the details of connecting from home and backing up work.

“But the biggest challenge was that we had to keep the costs down,” says Whittal. “Organisations can find the costs running away from them very quickly if they aren’t careful. Out challenge was to keep the setup economical but still completely usable.”

On to AWS

The decision was made to migrate to AWS.

Whittal cites the cloud provider’s length of experience and flexibility as key reasons behind the choice.

“I knew AWS well enough, and knew they could do this for ICDL. From their history, we know they are safe, so the data will be secure.

“Plus, AWS continues to reduce costs, year after year, and that is important for an NGO like ICDL which needs to keep costs manageable.”

Van Niekerk particularly liked the fact that the cost model would move to operational cost (opex) rather than capital expenditure (capex) – and that Whittal is helping the organisation with cost-savings by sharing advice and tips.

“We have been so grateful to Cloud-Fundis for understanding our business and always giving suggestions for how we can improve our outcomes.”

Benefits of cloud

The benefits of the cloud migration were immediate, Van Niekerk points out. “First of all, it allowed us to work from home. From the first week of lockdown, we were online and fully operational. There was no change to the interface, so there was no learning curve.

“We are less affected by load shedding than we were in the office. Because we are all in different locations, the work continues even if one or more of us is temporarily down. There are huge benefits from that.

“And we not only saved money in not having to replace our servers, we are also saving on rent and utilities by not having a central office.”

Overall, the move to cloud has resulted in improved operations and lower costs for ICDL, Van Niekerk concludes.

“Sometimes IT people sound dramatic, but in our case it’s the truth: If we hadn’t done something when we did, our systems would have crashed and we wouldn’t have had the money to recover. Cloud-Fundis and the move to the cloud actually did save our business.”

About AWS

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the world’s most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud platform, offering over 200 fully-featured services from data centres globally. Millions of customers – including the fastest-growing startups, largest enterprises and leading government agencies – are using AWS to lower costs, become more agile and innovate faster.

About First Distribution

First Distribution is the leading value-added distributor in Africa. Our offering includes a product portfolio of global leading Datacentre, Cloud, Networking and Security products and services. This embraces hybrid solutions with access to any combination of on premise, private cloud and public cloud end-to-end solutions from multiple vendors. The portfolio, together with highly skilled staff to support and manage vendors with an unrivalled level of expertise, ensures that our partners have the key elements required for success. First Distribution additionally hosts one of the largest technology partner-to-partner networks in Africa allowing partners to extend the reach of their solutions across the continent.

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