Practical Action is an international development charity which uses sustainable technology to help poor women and men around the world to support themselves out of poverty.
By using technology, Practical Action enables poor communities to build on their skills and knowledge to produce sustainable and practical solutions – transforming their lives forever and protecting the world around them. While headquartered in Rugby, the charity has its feet-on-the-ground in some of the most vulnerable countries in the world, where civil and political unrest, unreliable power grids and trade embargos are the norm. With each country suffering from its own unique political and economic challenges, this was a far cry from your usual Office 365 deployment.
The primary challenge for Practical Action was the deeply unreliable email communication between its offices around the world. In addition to its head office in Rugby, Practical Action has seven bases of operations around the world in Bangladesh, Kenya, Peru, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Sudan. With each Country Regional Office (CRO) operating its own email server in very difficult local conditions, communication simply could not be relied upon across the organisation, and central management of the email servers was simply not an option either.
Phoenix Software is certainly used to solving all manner of technical challenges in order to deliver a solution to its customers, but the diverse and challenging environments in which Practical Action operates presented a number of its unique hurdles to jump over.
- Unreliable power infrastructures – power supply problems are common to all of Practical Action’s Country Regional Offices, however none are quite as bad as in Zimbabwe, where the sporadic nature of the power supply would result in the local mail server being shut down at least four times every single day. In light of this unreliability the local team was required to shut down the mail server every night and reboot it manually each morning too, resulting in absolutely no email communication out of office hours.
- Civil unrest – occasional bouts of civil unrest can sometimes make it unsafe for Practical Action’s staff to attempt to access the office, so the ability to work remotely is critical.
- Trade embargoes – restrictions on the movement of goods can make the sharing of data difficult and would make the transition of data to Office 365 difficult.
- Limited Microsoft presence in some countries – Sudan domains cannot be registered with Microsoft Online Services for example.
The migration of a decentralised email system spread across eight countries is usually challenging enough, but the combination of these additional nuances created a particularly unique situation for Practical Action. Phoenix Software knew that the implementation would require a much more creative approach than usual.
Since Practical Action was already a licensing customer with Phoenix Software, it sought the company’s help to recommend a more reliable global email solution that could be managed centrally. Phoenix Software suggested a global Office 365 deployment that would replace each of the individual offices’ own local mail servers. By migrating to the cloud-based Office 365 solution in place of the local Microsoft Exchange Servers, Practical Action would benefit from a more reliable email service that was more secure, scalable and crucially would require no onsite management for maintenance or upgrades.
The initial configuration of Office 365 was completed over a three-week period, with most of the Exchange data migrated from the on-premise servers at headquarters to the cloud platform over the course of a weekend. Phoenix Software then physically switched one Country Regional Office over to the Office 365 per weekend until the whole organisation was live, in order to minimise any disruption to the critical life-saving work that Practical Action’s staff were undertaking in each country.
While the deployment itself was relatively smooth, operating in such diverse and challenging environments did present Phoenix Software with some unique challenges that it had never faced elsewhere. This included a challenging negotiation with Zimbabwe customs to export USB keys full of server data, the need to route email traffic via a different country due to a trade embargo in Sudan which prevents the activation of a domain registered in that country to work with Office 365, and even the difficulty of safely accessing the Kenyan office during a period of widespread political unrest at the time of the switchover.