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National Rail Enquiries entrusts AWS cloud with its precious Journey Planner

Journey Planner is used by roughly two and a half million people every day

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National Rail Enquiries is about to entrust Amazon’s cloud service with the Journey Planner feature that is used by over two million people in the UK every day.

The Journey Planner, first launched in May 2003, is used by passengers to find information such as when trains will arrive, how long a journey will take and if a desired train is running on time.  

The feature, which is very important to many rail travellers, is currently hosted across 200 physical servers in six diverse and ageing data centres. 

National Rail Enquiries told Techworld that Journey Planner will be gradually migrated onto Amazon Web Service’s (AWS) cloud platform after the infrastructure-as-a-service giant beat 11 other vendors in the tendering process.

National Rail Enquiries CEO Chris Scoggins said the organisation's job is "to answer enquiries from customers about train services" and to ensure that "more people go on trains and buy tickets, to increase revenue for shareholders."

The transition to AWS, which has been planned behind the scenes over the last six to nine months, could help the ATOC-owned business (Association of Train Operating Councils) save up to 33 percent per year on its IT bill, which was unwilling to reveal. 

"At the moment our [IT] estate has to be ready for 10 times more load which we use two or three times a year...basically, when it snows," he said, adding that enquiries can triple to seven and a half million a day during periods of bad weather even though the trains are "usually fine". The company incurs further costs because much of the technology it uses to power its services needs to be refreshed on a regular basis. 

"We’re saving money through the scalability of the service so we don’t need to pay for any more capacity than we’re using at any one time,” said Scoggins. “Also, AWS are launching new products all the time so we get the innovation benefit there." 

Scoggins also said using AWS will allow National Rail Enquiries to become more flexible. “Under our agreement with AWS it’s easy to take another application and pop it onto their architecture,” he said. “We can also take it off AWS and put it on someone else’s.”

The actual migration cost itself is not that great, according to Scoggins. "Obviously if you’ve got lots of in-house assets then that’s a different issue but we had already outsourced everything," he said. 

The Journey Planner will go live on AWS at the end of October. Initially, AWS will only take 10 percent of the traffic load, said Scoggins. “We’ll gradually ramp that up. When we’re satisfied over a period of some days that everything is working properly then we’ll do the DNS change to divert all the traffic direct to the AWS infrastructure," he said. "The customers won’t notice any difference."

In terms of traffic, National Rail Enquiries said the demand placed on its existing IT solution was likely to come under strain in years to come. The traffic for Journey Planner has been rising by 25 percent year on year but Scoggins there was a 48 percent rise.

This explosion in traffic is partly being fuelled by the fact that the organisation is rolling out its service across an increasing number of platforms, including iOS and Android smartphone apps, an iPad app and even a smart TV app. In total, three and a half million apps have been downloaded across all platforms, said Scoggins.

National Rail Enquiries has tasked AWS partner Smart 421 to manage its new cloud-based service because his relatively small team of 25 staff do not have the necessary experience. The company has also hired a consultant to help with the migration, something which Scoggins believes to be vital to the transition.

“One of the key parts of the AWS transition has been hiring someone on our team who is an expert on this stuff,” said Scoggins. “He’s only there on a temporary basis because once we’ve migrated, we’re established, and we got that expertise, on going in the Siam function we don’t need that capability. One of the difficult things is how do you construct the business model for such a migration. It’s beyond all our experience so he was critical.”

National Rail Enquiries first considered moving its online services over to the cloud three years ago but held back because it didn’t feel the rapid scalability was reliable enough.

“As of a year ago we came to the view that it’s all sorted now and one of the reasons we chose AWS is because they have the most experience and the best case studies in achieving those rapid scale ups,” said Scoggins.

National Rail Enquiries has added several other services to its portfolio since it was founded in 1996. 

Scoggins explained that the company will migrate both its real time train information system, known as Darwin, and its content management tool, called Knowledge Base, to AWS after the New Year. He also hinted that National Rail Enquiries was looking to introduce a shopping basked feature to the website by next April that will allow customers to add train tickets from multiple operator into one basket. 

With so many people using National Rail Enquiries’ services every day, uptime is essential and the company boasts that it has only ever had one major outage, which happened at the start of this year and lasted for 20 minutes.

Amazon on the other hand has experienced several outages that have affected big customers such as Netflix, Vine and Instagram.

“We think the way that we’re architectured across multiple AWS zones means that we are very well protected against those sorts of issues that have happened to some of their clients in the past,” said Scoggins.



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