National Rail Enquiries (NRE) provides a centralized online service for Train Operating Companies (TOCs) in the UK. The company was created by a number of train operators in 1996, when the industry went to a privatized approach. Initially, it operated primarily by phone, taking 62 million calls annually. Now the service has transitioned to an almost wholly online provision that makes it easier for travelers to figure out schedules and get travel advice. NRE is a private company owned by the TOCs. Approximately ₤250 million in ticket sales pass through NRE to the TOCs each year, and the digital channels get more than 1 million visits each weekday, with more than 5 million apps downloaded to iPads, iPhones, and Android devices.
The NRE site provides a comprehensive online journey planning capability, including a pass-through to other sites to purchase tickets. As a company dedicated to helping make rail traffic easier for its customers, consistent service on its mobile site was imperative. Prior to signing on with Amazon Web Services (AWS), NRE operated two traditional data centers, each of which hosted more than 100 physical servers. To maintain consistent service, NRE maintained enough servers so that the site had the potential at all times to handle loads three to four times that of a normal day. The solution needed to be prepared for the kind of high-capacity loads that occur during rail service disruptions, such as heavy snows.
Because this overcapacity was the exception, rather than the rule, usage was often as low as 10 percent of the architecture’s potential. Jason Webb, Head of Online for NRE, says, “We weren’t making full use of the physical hardware that we had, because if there was a disruption on the rail network, then suddenly additional capacity was required. We had no flexibility to add in, so it had to be there from the start.”
The contract for the data-center solution was ending, and Gary Ashby, Hosting Strategy Lead, was tasked with helping to determine a new strategy: one that would be flexible, efficient, high-performing, and cost-effective. NRE used a single service provider that delivered all the elements of service, from application to hosting, and wanted a more commoditized model that would be more flexible. Ashby says, “This meant looking at how NRE could move to a multi sourcing approach, or breaking down the supply chain, looking at commodity suppliers, and understanding how best we could get more efficiency but maintain control over that supply chain.”
NRE looked at both infrastructure providers and IT consultants at the same time, and ultimately selected Amazon Partner Network (APN) Premiere Consulting Partner KCOM as a consultant and AWS for commoditized infrastructure provision. Ashby says, “It's a high variability service, and we have it set up across dual Availability Zones. We have a sophisticated mechanism for how we link to that; it's not just direct through the Internet; there's also a range of virtual private networks (VPN) and fixed line options into it using AWS Direct Connect.”
NRE uses the service for online applications with complex, heavy usage calculation applications in the background, running database and high intensity calculation engines, to calculate routes and ticket options. The number of servers has been reduced from 200 to around 140 virtual instances. The solution includes Amazon EC2, Elastic Load Balancing, and Amazon RDS with Multi-AZ deployments. It runs Windows Server using SQL Server.
The company uses Level 3 Communications to supplement the communication architecture, giving people the ability to connect via mobile phone and devices, in addition to connecting over the Internet or a VPN. The system is illustrated below. In Figure 1, the Common Interface Environment (CIE) controls all traffic and connectivity into the NRE systems from AWS Direct Connect, VPNs, and secure connections.
Implementation began in January 2013 with a test environment for the new service. An initial test environment became operational in March. From that time until October 2013, NRE worked to get the systems ready for migration, ensuring that the communication architecture was right. Ashby says, “Running the actual application in AWS did not take long to figure out. That was fairly simple. It was all the stuff around the edges that took the time. For example, connection to the rail industries’ central National Reservation System (NRS), which is traditionally hosted and requires secure, fixed link connectivity. It also requires connection to the TOCs and partner organizations that use NRE services through a range of fixed links and VPNs.”
KCOM helped the application provider that services NRE to transition to AWS. The consultancy also offers insight on how to best use AWS services and provides NRE with an integrated service desk and support. Ashby says, “Without KCOM, we would have really struggled. You need a good partner—someone who understands how this works and what to do.”
When problems arose during the implementation, NRE made use of AWS Support, as well as guidance from their AWS account manager. Ashby says, “They supported us through the process and always made sure we had the assistance we needed. They've helped us think through problems.” IT professionals within NRE also attended training that “helped them understand what AWS is, how it works, and the whole idea of commodity provision,” says Ashby, “including what you can do and how you can quickly get things up and running.”
Using AWS enabled NRE to save about 20 percent in infrastructure costs. The move has also helped NRE transition from a long-term CAPEX model to an OPEX model. Ashby says, “That allows that far greater flexibility and management of those costs.” The AWS pay-as-you-go model was also a benefit to the company, enabling the company to pay close attention to its costs to handle them as effectively as possible.
Using AWS also makes it easier to provision and make changes. Ashby says, “Using AWS gives us far more flexibility to set things up. It's a big benefit to us in terms of agility and being able to react quickly.”
The solution is still new for NRE, but it is already using it to test new features. Ashby says, “NRE can benefit from opportunities and advances in areas such as data management.”
NRE sees the AWS solution as very successful, particularly in terms of availability for its customers. On the day NRE launched the new system, the UK experienced its worst storm in 30 years. The load was 60 percent higher than the previous busiest day, but the service remained largely available, and site users were able to access the system throughout the storm. NRE’s adoption of the commoditized infrastructure has been so successful that other companies within the rail industry are looking at how they can adopt some of the same strategies.
“By using AWS, we’ve been able to reduce infrastructure costs by 20 percent and gained the flexibility to react dynamically to demand,” Ashby says.