Mining giant builds future with a Microsoft cloud

Mining giant Fortescue Metals Group is just over 12 months into its rollout of Office 365 as one of Microsoft's Australian launch customers. Fortescue’s initial deployment of Office 365 to 2000 users in 2011 has now ballooned to 6000 staff and contractors, as their rapid expansion has propelled a huge growth in staffing.

The current focus of their Office 365 implementation is the rollout of SharePoint Online. At present a small audience of less than 100 is piloting the service. The plan is to move towards a hybrid SharePoint environment with some workloads set to continue to run from SharePoint on-premise.

Replacing an ageing SharePoint 2007 intranet with SharePoint Online will head the drive towards an up to the minute collaboration platform, to be known as the Fortescue Hub.

The initial rollout of SharePoint Online will concentrate on delivering basic intranet functionality with home page, news and events functionality, as well as My Sites for corporate profiles and staff/expertise search. This will be followed up in later releases to add personal storage for My Sites, and Team Sites for internal team collaboration.

Beginning with Lync Online, Fortescue executed an aggressive migration plan to move to Office 365 in 2011.

The company believed Lync Online was the easiest place to start because it had no similar solution in place. It also provided a way to ensure all the dependencies were working, like Dirsync (account management) and ADFS (Authentication), without risking existing services. 

Within 60 days of the company’s decision to move to Office 365, 4500 employees and contractors were using Lync Online and its real-time communications and collaboration capabilities, such as instant messaging, presence, PC-to-PC calls, conferencing, and desktop sharing. Whether at the office, port, mining site, or home, employees can instantly communicate with other employees.

Fortescue also enabled federation in Lync Online so its employees can easily communicate with contractors and partners who also use Lync. After Fortescue completed the Lync Online deployment, it migrated the Exchange Server mailboxes to Exchange Online.

CIO Vito Forte said, "Office 365 gave us an immediate answer to our scalability problem and negated the need for a sorely-needed upgrade to our Exchange 2007 environment, where provisioning would have been a nightmare.”

At some points, Fortescue were able to migrate 600 mailbox accounts a night. With Exchange Online, employees still use the Microsoft Outlook messaging and collaboration client to access their inboxes and calendars. When working remotely, they can use Outlook or alternatively Microsoft Outlook Web Access or access email from their mobile devices.

IDM asked Gavin Wall (pictured at right), Technical Architect at Fortescue Metals Group to reflect on the mining giant’s experience at the cutting edge of cloud computing.

IDM: How are users adapting to life in the cloud.

GW: “Our users have been doing this from a consumer perspective for years. The fact that facilities like SkyDrive and Dropbox are accessible and simply allows them to get a file across to another party, is driving adoption.  Really what we’re aiming to do from an IT services perspective is make sure the right way for our users to share information or work is the most convenient and easiest way.  By giving people their My Site up on SharePoint with their personal allotment of storage, we’re giving them a more convenient and flexible way to manage their own files, and it only flows on from there.

“We’re using our on-premise SharePoint 2010 Extranet for project collaboration, but people still have the comfort blanket of network drives to fall back on. 

“People are seeing the benefits of storing their documents up on their My Site or up on the team document library, so the approach that we’ll take is introducing them to this new and improved way of working with their documents. Really that’s part of what the whole New World of Work initiative was from the start – giving people better and more appropriate tools, making sure the way we’d like them to work is the easiest, most accessible and flexible way, rather than hitting them with a big stick and saying “you need to store everything in our document management system and you need to make sure you complete all this metadata” because this isn’t the natural way to work.

IDM: Are people learning to send links instead of attachments?

GW: “Yes, slowly.  Behaviour is changing because of email file size limits and our extranet, built on-premise with SharePoint 2010, which we use with third parties that we’re working with on capital projects.  We’ve got the right facilities for people internally to stop sending attachments but they’re so used to doing it they’re still doing it, so I guess there’s a little bit more work that we need to do to assist that change.

IDM: What is the desktop environment?

GW: “Our Managed Operating Environment (MOE) is built on Windows 7 64-bit with Office 2010. When Office 2013 becomes available anyone that would like to use or try it in advance of an enterprise rollout, will be able to use it via the ‘click-to-run’ or AppV application streaming.  That way they can give it a go and if they not comfortable with it, and want to go back to Office 2010, it’s still there on the laptop or the desktop so they can just go back to that same old experience.

“We’ve got a lot of gen-Y coming into the organisation, plus a lot of technologists that want to try the latest things.  Even some of the directors are using Windows 8 tablet devices so we’ve got a more than a few users that aren’t shy of new toys.

IDM How compelling does Fortescue find the Microsoft strategy to move towards a common interface on mobile and desktop?

GW: “Windows 8 is building that common experience and you’re seeing it across the phone, on tablets, PC, and even through Xbox on your TV. This familiarity makes people comfortable and it is a different tack to what Google and even Apple have been taking. 

“The type of work and life that I lead, it makes a lot of sense to me.  If I wasn’t provided a Windows phone through work, I would go out and buy one and use one anyhow.”

IDM: In the early stages of adoption Fortescue anticipated retiring about 30% of its server hardware – how did that work out?

GW: “Some of our Exchange accounts have not yet migrated to Office 365 purely because it’s difficult to schedule large mailbox users, as they’re typically also the ones that travel a lot. Trying to schedule a time to actually get them up into the cloud has been a challenge, but once we get all our mailboxes up in Exchange Online we’ll be able to reduce six Exchange servers down to a one.

“However, we’ve been able to meet this target through other initiatives. 

IDM: Are you using information rights management in Office 365 documents to control access and provide security?

GW: “It’s on our to-do list.  Particularly so that we can provide a really secure repository and working space for executives in SharePoint Online.  And it really lines up with what we are trying to do, which is more about securing the data. Once your data is secure you don’t necessarily have to rely so much on your endpoint device being trusted or not, so it really plays nicely with the whole bring your own device and being able to work from anywhere story.

IDM: Have you deployed any additional tools to aid with management of documents, emails and attachments in SharePoint libraries directly from Outlook and Explorer?

“No we haven’t – we’ve looked at them, but with some of what Microsoft is doing with the native clients anyhow, and things like SkyDrive Pro – it means that there’s less of a need for add-ins.

IDM: Are you looking at enterprise social media

“We’ve been working on a project with the graduate program at Fortescue, which involves us creating a graduate community on the SharePoint Online 2013 preview. The new community site template that’s part of SharePoint 2013 has a lot of reputation and other great functionality built in, so the more you participate in the community the higher your reputation levels go. This allows us to see who’s getting involved and sharing their experiences. Then when you couple that with the advances they’ve made with My Sites in SharePoint 2013 as well, you’ve got a great enterprise platform so you can follow sites, you can follow other people, you can post your activities, and you’ve got the ‘@’ references and the hash tag capability that people are familiar with from Facebook and Twitter.   So whilst other technologies such as Yammer have come up in conversation, we’ve opted to simplify our product set and stick with SharePoint, but I expect we’ll see some Yammer integration come to Office 365 now that it’s part of the Microsoft stack.  

IDM: Have you done anything special with enterprise taxonomy?

GW: “When you store documents in SharePoint a lot of basic metadata is captured at that point in time, and then the indexing process has ability to index the content as well.  I think to a certain extent the days of actually needing to define metadata are diminishing.  Taxonomy is to a certain extent getting out-dated, with little relevance to most worker types.”

IDM: Have you experience any difficulties with the fact that all data is hosted in Singapore?

GW: “Not since we realised one of our ISPs was routing traffic from Western Australia via the East Coast to Singapore...

“There are tools that you must run before you move the cloud that highlight latency and any network connectivity issues that you may have.  We ran the tools, but didn’t recheck when we moved too new different providers

“Once the traffic was routed direct to Singapore performance improved considerably

IDM: Did Microsoft’s decision to host the data in Singapore  create any issues for Fortescue? 

GW: “We did our due-diligence and involved our legal team here before we went forward with Office 365. The reality is the standards of Microsoft’s data centres are incredibly high, which really means that information is being stored at a higher standard than we could hope to achieve on premise.  

“But from a personal opinion, I think data sovereignty has become more of an emotive issue than a factual one recently.  There’s definitely legal and jurisdictional issues that need to be addressed and understood but it’s being used more as a scare-tactic, quite often by managed service providers and others that just don’t want to change, rather than a real blocker.  

“For Microsoft to actually run a data centre or a pair of data centres in Australia just doesn’t offer the economies of scale that would make it a sound business investment for anyone that is looking at a move to the cloud. By using regional data centres we can access those economies of scale.  

“We also wouldn’t want to see what has happened when it comes to purchasing software in Australia, where there seems to be this ‘Australia tax’ where we pay so much more than is paid in the US and overseas.  That’s definitely something else that I wouldn’t want to see happen just because Australia chooses not to change.”

The Business Systems behind Fortescue Metals Group

Fortescue’s main business systems are SAP erp and Proficy process control software from GE that monitors the vast quantities of iron ore trucked to sea ports on the coast of WA.  Existing document repositories include the Omega Project Information Management System (PIMS) and a hosted solution for drawings management, Bentley’s Projectwise Online.

All remaining documents are managed on network drives or in SharePoint, with policies and procedures that are managed in PIMS are published across to SharePoint for general staff access.

About a third of Fortescue’s desktops are still running Windows XP where applications have not been made compatible on Windows 7, or able to be virtualised via AppV and Citrix. 

Office 365 can be purchased in a number of different configurations, Fortescue chose a licence that includes rights to install Office on up to 5 machines per user to gain the greatest benefit from the suite’s collaboration features. Over 1100 corporate mobiles have migrated from Blackberry to Windows Phone 7.5 on Nokia Lumia 800s, although there are still a few hundred Blackberries in use for staff who travel overseas regularly, as RIM is kinder on global roaming data charges.

Before you embark on Office 365


  1. Ensure you complete an Active Directory Clean-up and AD Risk Assessment Program
  2. Use DirSync and ADFS to enable single sign on using corporate credentials
  3. Check you have sufficient Internet bandwidth and supporting infrastructure capacity
  4. Take the opportunity to get you get your Private Key Infrastructure in order
  5. Pick a tenant name that is acceptable to your business.
  6. Figure out what percentage of your users need a full E3 licence that includes desktop office apps
  7. Plan for a consistent search experience