National Rail Enquiries is one of Britain’s most popular travel websites, providing customers with a journey planning service, live train information and detailed information about the rail industry, including service disruption and station facilities information. 

With 11.7 million monthly unique visitors, over 500 channels and £250 million worth of ticket sales per year, one might expect the company to have a substantial in-house IT team, but the whole of National Rail Enquiries (NRE) consists of just 24 staff. 

This is because the NRE website has been outsourced ever since it launched in 2003. The main 'Knowledge Base', which runs the website, is hosted by NTT, the company's 'Darwin' real-time train running system is provided and hosted by Thales, and the 'Journey Planner,' which enables customers to plot a journey from A to B, is a developed by Jeppesen.

“When you're building from a clean base and you're in a fast-moving environment, why would you want to build an in-house team?” said Chris Scoggins, chief executive of NRE, in an interview with Techworld.

“We outsource everything so we don't need to worry about whether we need Java coders or C coders or whatever else. We just buy a managed service and we get someone else to to build the back end systems, the front end systems and so on. So our sole focus is on the customer and delivering what the customer wants in order to sell more tickets.” 

The only function that is not outsourced is the ad sales team, because ad sales agencies don't deal with such big websites, according to Scoggins.

“Everyone else that has a big website like ours does their own ad sales, therefore we've had to do that as well. We've just hired a mobile guy for mobile ads, so we've been very successful on the in-house web display ads and sales and management.”

Unlike traditional outsourcing, where a single supplier is responsible for integrating and managing the entire IT infrastructure, NRE has chosen to take a multi-source approach, whereby 12 different suppliers are involved in the operation of the website, and these suppliers all report directly to an in-house team of IT architects.

In this way, NRE is able to get a clear insight into the day-to-day running of the website and retain control, while ensuring that best-of-breed products are being used and updated, according to Scoggins.

“My philosophy is, if something goes wrong with one of my services, it's our brand that suffers; if one of our website pages doesn't work, it's our reputation on the line, so we need to be able to control the risk that impacts that,” he said.

“If supplier X isn't performing, we can swap them out just for the one bit they run, and we can contain the risk around that, whereas if you have one supplier running the website and he's got 12 sub-contractors then it's much harder to find out what's going on at the sub-contractor level.”

As train companies are classed as utilities, all of NRE's procurement is carried out under the Official Journal of the EU. This means that contracts have a finite length and have to be re-tendered every few years. Scoggins said that one of NRE's main criteria when selecting a supplier is how easy is it to do business with them.

“A lot of suppliers' initial view is that we're some sort of public sector organisation, and that we will procure in the manner that public sector organisations tend to do, which tends to mitigate against fluffy things like how easy you are to do business with. But we're not public sector and we're not fluffy,” he said.

“In a multi-sourced environment where everybody has got to cooperate for the greater good of NRE and our customers as a whole, there's no room for people that don't want to cooperate.”

NRE is now in the process of moving all of its IT infrastructure to Amazon Web Services’ public cloud – a project that is expected to be completed in October 2013. Scoggins described this as another move in the same direction.

“The point about Amazon is that it's commodity hosting. Having gone through the process of virtualising all our systems means that if we decide we don't want Amazon any more we just can roll out to another hosting company instead relatively easily and at relatively low-risk.” 

The company's decision to move to the cloud is based on the need to deal with peaks and troughs in demand. When it snows, for example, traffic volumes jump 10 to 15 times, according to Scoggins.

“The amount of capacity we have to keep on tap for those infrequent occasions is enormous, and of course the base demand is rising radically anyway, so we're making huge savings from moving to the cloud,” he said.

National Rail has selected Smart421 to integrate the service onto Amazon’s environment and manage the estate. It will operate a single point of contact service desk to provide support to National Rail for activities that include transition support, testing and verification of services.

Although NRE collates some personal data – usually limited to email addresses – the company regularly checks that no privacy has been breached. NRE does not hold details such as addresses, demographics or credit card information.

When asked whether NRE had any concerns about the reliability of Amazon's cloud services, Scoggins said that outages can happen anywhere, so hosting the website in the AWS cloud is no more risky than hosting it with any of NRE's other suppliers

“It's always a risk. The way we mitigate that is making sure that it's not hosted in one Amazon zone, it's across multiple zones, by having made sure in the procurement process that their communications links and infrastructure are fully resilient and there's no single point of failure in what they're offering,” he said 

“All of our services, even today in their current environments, are all in live-live configuration. Most of them are hosted in two data centes, each of which is capable of taking the full load and a lot more besides. And when one falls over it just automatically switches to the other.”

Scoggins said that NRE's record is 36 months without an outage on any of its services. 

One of NRE's big projects over the past couple of years has been improving the delivery of its mobile services. The company updated its mobile website in November 2011 and offers an app for Apple iOS, Android and Windows Phone. In early December 2012, more than 2.7 million app downloads had been registered. 

Most recently, the company made a deal with Toshiba to get its app pre-installed on all Windows 8 Toshiba devices from April 2013. 

Scoggins said that mobile accounts for roughly 40% of NRE's total customer volumes, and this is spread equally between the mobile website and the mobile app. The advantage of the app is that it works when there is low signal, offering the option to send a query via text message.

“There's 16,000 pages on the website, so obviously we can't cram all of those into the mobile site, so it's a constant balancing act,” said Scoggins.

“We're working with the app now on the next phase. So it's got four buttons across the bottom, and we want to expand that to see a second row, so that we can put more of the more popular features in there, while keeping it slimmed down and fast and easy to use.”

The National Rail Enquiries app is ad-supported and free to download. Customers can upgrade to the ad-free version for £4.99.

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