Case study: How one firm is backing the browser for all its IT

The last thing Reed Online director of technology Mark Ridley wants to do is run a conventional IT function, delivering services in the traditional way.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

Jobs site reed.co.uk started life as recruitment agency Reed Executive's online operation. It had no IT function of its own — and the website's director of technology Mark Ridley has done his best to keep it that way, even though it's now a separate operating company.

Rather than spend on internal expertise and infrastructure, Ridley has implemented a browser-first approach to IT and wherever possible looks to the cloud and outside suppliers for services.

"We wanted to stay very close to the things that really gave us value and outsource the things that we felt other people could deliver better than us. While we were technologists, we weren't an IT function," Ridley said.

Of reed.co.uk's 250 or so employees, about 150 are involved in selling online recruitment products and services, with the vast majority of Ridley's technology staff employed on the delivery of reed.co.uk itself.

'While we were technologists, we weren't an IT function' reed.co.uk director of technology Mark Ridley

"They're split into a design team, which includes UX, creative and front-end design, a dev team that largely codes in C#, and a database team that work in SQL Server, and obviously there are supporting structures within that — very much an agile development house," he said.

"The reason we came back to delivering things through a browser — the browser-first mentality — is that it's key to bringing a level of flexibility to the business that wouldn't be there if we concentrated on delivering it in more traditional ways. And the benefit to me is we don't have to build up an IT team."

Ridley sees his responsibility as delivering core infrastructure services and ensuring the operation of important measures such as security.

"Then the team that are supporting the operations can be focusing on what makes the end users more effective. Essentially the things like patching a server at 12 midnight to make sure you don't interrupt things become the responsibility of an outsourced vendor," he said.

Renting specialist IT skills

Ridley cites website hosting as an example of an area where he has been implementing his approach to technology provision for some time.

"We didn't want to hire people who would be working 24 hours a day. There were also specialist skills that we could hire in from hosting companies — disk specialists, I/O specialists, SAN specialists — the kind of thing we would use very little of," Ridley said.

"When you can go to an outsourcing company, you can leverage these incredibly well."

Ridley joined Reed Executive straight from university in 1997, becoming one of four people working on the recruitment agency's nascent web operation.

He had picked up some knowledge of the internet while a student and started writing HTML at Reed before moving on to create the company's first web application, using ASP and VBScript and later SQL Server.

As the internet took off — and with it the site's free adverts — the costs and scale of the reed.co.uk operation grew over the early years of the new century. In 2007, Reed took the decision to spin it off as a separate subsidiary, of which Ridley became a director, and to move to paid jobs postings rather than free ones.

Light-touch IT operations

While the new company was in the process of hiring its own sales staff, Ridley took a decision that was an important step towards the light-touch IT operations he employs today.

"One of the first IT decisions I had taken as we started to take on our own sales staff back in 2007 was the adoption of Salesforce, mainly because at that time I really didn't want to be hosting servers internally. We have always been strong believers that we wanted to own the generation of strategic initiatives and the delivery of those," he said.

"As we were learning those kinds of things — how to outsource, how to manage supplier relationships and how to do procurement — it set a really strong tone for us about a lot of the things that we are finding now."

But the sales staff continued to use thin clients provided by Reed's corporate IT department, which also supplied phone systems, HR systems, finance and payroll, with the web company recharged a cost per head.

So the next major milestone in the reed.co.uk's move to a browser-based model came in January 2012 with a board recommendation to look at migrating away from corporate systems, including the Wyse thin clients, Lotus Notes and Oracle HR.

"A lot of these things were suitable for Reed's business, which is very geographically diverse with very similar roles. [But] we were one site with one premises, lots of working out of hours potentially — so a very different model. We were of a size — probably about 215 staff — where it seemed appropriate for us to look at our own systems," Ridley said.

So he went out to market and by last September had 21 vendors bidding for nine areas of functionality. These areas included HR — workflow, self-service and management reporting — finance from accounts payable and receivable to management reporting, email, collaboration, remote working, and device and identity management.

After running a number of trials with various vendors, Ridley succeeded in his goal of signing off the procurement process by the end of the year.

Among the products that reed.co.uk has chosen are SAP's Business ByDesign cloud-based ERP system and Google Apps, although Ridley says Microsoft Office will still be used in certain situations.

The planned replacement of the 150 Wyse thin terminals resulted in a lot of thinking about virtual desktop infrastructure and desktop as a service, as well as alternative approaches including a trial involving 10 users and Samsung Chromeboxes.

The browser-based approach gives reed.co.uk a number of benefits on top of flexibility, according to Ridley.

"The browser is very much the lowest common denominator of your technology stack: if you can consume it with a browser then we can support it, which means not only can we put PCs or Macs into our production team, we don't need to worry then about whether there's a Mac application versus a Windows application or a Linux application. We can just deliver it to you," Ridley said.

"It also then helps for how you work with a mobile workforce because, again, if it's delivered through a browser and you can make sure that access is secure, then there's nothing stopping you delivering it to a mobile phone or a tablet," he said.

"That allows people to go and work at their local cafes using a Wi-Fi hotspot, as long as the rest of the infrastructure supports the security and the access rights for it."

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