Oxfam works in some of the world's most impoverished regions to bring aid in times of crisis and provide support to communities to help them grow.
The use of technology is perhaps not central to this mission, but it does power everything the organisation does and, under the watch of CIO Peter Ransom (pictured), is helping to improve the charity's operations and ensure that its funding goes as far as possible.
Ransom joined Oxfam over five years ago, having previously worked at organisations including the BBC, Centrica and British Gas, and oversees an IT shop that supports 8,000 staff across 120 offices in 90 countries.
Like many of his peers, such as those at Eurostar and The World Bank, cloud is now becoming central to Oxfam's operations, as it offers benefits ranging from cost savings to improved operations.
“We have 200 servers at the moment in various countries. If you think about the logistics of putting these servers in, it’s a real challenge. We have to get it past customs, have the right IT staff to install them and so on,” Ransom said.
“Furthermore, the clouds I can buy commercially are much more secure than the ones I can build, and I know I can never keep the investment up to keep them secure like a dedicated partner, so it makes sense for us.”
Oxfam is currently testing Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure to host its software, and Ransom explained that he wants eventually to "replace the tin" and run as much as possible from the cloud.
One deal Oxfam has already done in this area is with Box, signing a company-wide 8,000-user deal that proved itself enormously beneficial during a pilot phase.
“We tested [Box] with our Australian teams as they do a lot of work in the Asia Pacific region where there are often disasters, and they used it a lot for site reports - telling people what was in place after a disaster and so on,” Ransom said.
“With Box we can know that everyone is looking at the same report and that we can share it among ourselves and other partners and know we’re working from the same information.”
This is especially important as disaster environments often constantly evolve and the ability to update a document and know that people are all seeing the latest version saves a lot of the hassle of sending multiple emails.
The second benefit of using a single source for content is that it dramatically reduces the amount of bandwidth needed by the team on the ground.
“With Box they only need to upload the file once, rather than sending it many times via email,” Ransom explained.
Connectivity concerns, but situation improving
However, while the use of cloud tools such as Box is on the agenda at Oxfam, Ransom noted that it is not a panacea as the charity can’t guarantee that staff will have good internet connections, or any connection at all.
“The big challenge with cloud software is there's an expectation that you have an always-on connection, so some software really doesn’t work well, with high latency and packet loss,” he said.
“This is especially problematic for us sometimes because we pay for data use, so if we’re running an app and trying to send data and it's not providing anything of use, we’re burning data but we’re not able to operate.”
Despite this, Ransom noted that internet connectivity is improving in more remote parts of the world.
“We are seeing this change, particularly in Africa where there’s a lot of fibre going in to countries around the coast, and even inland there are now 3G and sometimes even 4G services.”
As these comments underscore, mobile device use is now key for Oxfam, like any organisation. Ransom explained that Oxfam has adopted bring-your-own-device and, interestingly, choose-your-own-device strategies.
“We’re just coming off BlackBerry and we’ve started to pick a few devices. We have Apple, Android and Windows. There was a massive discussion about whether it was right to let our employees have Apple phones that cost a lot of money,” he said.
“And I’ve come in and, maybe slightly differently for a CIO, said that there is no point resisting this and that we have to give people the tools they want to use.”
Ransom admitted that Oxfam buying iPhones for its staff could create negative publicity, but he is adamant that it’s better for staff to have the best tools for the job, rather than struggling with outdated or second-tier devices.
“We need, like any organisation, to work efficiently, and we need the right tools to do that. The challenge we have that most others don’t is our use of technology and public perception.”
Windows XP woes
Oxfam is looking to the future with cloud and mobile devices, but the charity is also grappling with tech from the past in the form of Windows XP, which remains in use on thousands of machines at the organisation.
This put Oxfam in a difficult position when the UK government announced earlier this year that it was ending its support deal with Microsoft for the ancient software.
“We were running under the government contract, although the government this year pulled out so that left us exposed,” he said. “It had a commercial impact for us as we had to find money for a deal which was offered.”
Ransom explained that Oxfam’s charitable status meant that Microsoft did offer a good deal with reduced pricing that softened the blow, but it still had a commercial impact.
“Microsoft was flexible about how we’d pay and gave us some phasing options, but ultimately we had to pay for support,” he said.
Oxfam is on a migration path to Windows 7 that should be completed by the new year, which Ransom noted will also set the company up for the longer
“Once we put [Windows] 7 in we’ll have all the infrastructure to do a [Windows] 10 upgrade quite simply,” he added.
Oxfam had to spend its own money in this area, but clearly perceives it to be worthwhile to ensure that systems are as secure as possible. Indeed, Ransom has made security a major tenet of his role since joining.
“Charities haven’t, until recently, felt the would-be target because they are a charity. But I came in from the commercial sector and I immediately changed this," he said. "There was no security manager when I joined and the first thing I did was hire one.”
Oxfam also carries out numerous security checks, including penetration testing and audits on staff and systems, and uses tools from the likes of BT, McAfee and Websense to defend itself.
Yet Ransom acknowledged that, as threats evolve, it’s almost impossible to guarantee absolute security.
“[Audits] just tell you that [your security] is good enough today, but who knows what will be around tomorrow?” he said, noting that this does cause him some real concerns.
“The thing that worries me most is if a sophisticated attack, from maybe a smaller government that we’ve gone after for something, corrupts our financial records. That keeps me awake at night.”
Furthermore, given the regions in which Oxfam operates, he acknowledged that the charity might well be a target for government espionage.
“I think if I thought we weren’t already hacked in some ways I would be naïve. I believe the major governments are able to look at our data and I can’t do much about that,” he said.
For Oxfam and Ransom, though, these are just part and parcel of the challenges that come with running the IT operations for a charity that operates in 90 countries across the world.
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