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Robust, scalable and secure digital services delivered on demand for Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Agricultural exports have been a lynchpin of Australia’s economy since the earliest days of European settlement. Today’s farmers and agribusinesses face a complex web of export regulations, quotas, eligibility criteria, audits and real-time monitoring.

The Australian Government understands the importance of the agriculture sector not only to the economy, but to rural and regional Australia. That is why the government is supporting the sector to reach its ambitious goal of becoming a $100 billion industry by 2030. To help meet this goal, the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) budgeted A$500million in 2020 for its Taking Farmers to Market program, which is making a generational investment in digitally transforming the nation’s agricultural export systems.

Under this program, the government aims to modernise digital agricultural export systems to help Australian exporters remain competitive in the global marketplace.

One such initiative is providing a unified digital identity for exporters to manage all their interactions with DAFF. By 2025, DAFF plans for digital services that will allow exporters to:

  • manage their approved arrangements and show their compliance online
  • receive tailored export guidance
  • access real-time information on quota usage and trade quotas online
  • receive notifications on new and emerging markets where they already meet the eligibility criteria
  • use their compliance history to benefit from streamlined assurance processes.

However, developing and delivering the digital infrastructure for these new online services required a significant shift in DAFF’s technology approach.

“When I started in February 2021, the first thing my teams told me was this idea that with Taking Farmers to Market we’d be delivering code to production multiple times a day,” says Mark Sawade, Chief Information Officer at DAFF. “They also said this would break our existing processes and technology platforms due to our traditional release cycles using on-premise infrastructure.”

Mark Sawade, Chief Information Officer at DAFF

We needed to shift our mindset towards how to iterate and deliver value far more quickly, and learn and adjust and pivot and then build upon it.

Digital services infrastructure on demand

Implementing this flexible development model needed cloud infrastructure that would allow automated provisioning of services.

“The model for the department is understanding how we can democratise the delivery of digital services such that it’s not just done centrally by a single IT team, but that it’s done all over the organisation by teams of digital professionals,” says Sawade. “That required being able to automate the provision of a dev environment, a test environment, a pre-production environment and even a production environment for end-to-end service delivery and providing as much autonomy as possible to our digital development teams.

“But while speed is important, as CIO I also need to make sure that it’s robust, it’s scalable, and most importantly, it’s secure.”

DAFF went to market looking for an implementation partner to help with delivering this on‑demand infrastructure. It selected LAB3, a Microsoft Gold Partner with six Advanced Specialisations.

Sawade explains;

It wasn’t just about value for money, but also our confidence in LAB3’s ability to deliver, their previous experience in working with Microsoft and our other core partners in our vendor ecosystem, and their ability to work in a way that built capability within our organisation and our people. 

Bedrock for provisioning infrastructure as code

LAB3 implemented a technology environment it dubbed Azure Platform One (APO) using LAB3 Bedrock, an automated deployment of the Microsoft Azure platform built with the Terraform open-source infrastructure-as-code software tool.

“Azure Platform One was built with agile delivery at the forefront and security by design,” says Reuben Bettle, Director Federal Government at LAB3. “APO enables DAFF to operate in a cloud-first world – quickly, extensively and securely.

“APO is designed to scale because of the repeatability inherent with automation. It’s also compliant with government requirements; security measures are built-in; and these are consistent with meeting the Infosec Registered Assessors Program and ISO 27001 cybersecurity standards.

“With automation, DAFF can quickly develop and evolve modern apps on a cloud platform where innovation will be easier and more affordable. This places the department in a unique position to develop and deliver world-leading services for the agriculture industry.”

Fast, secure and highly available cloud services

Nick Woodruff, Head of Digital Trade Initiatives and Strategy at DAFF

The development and infrastructure models underlying APO have significantly reduced time to market for DAFF to develop and deploy new cloud services for exporters.

“Building on earlier bespoke work in a shared tenancy in 2021, we started working with LAB3 in November 2021 and our first production service using their solution on our APO platform was launched in June 2022,” says Nick Woodruff, Head of Digital Trade Initiatives and Strategy at DAFF. “The capability that we’ve been able to deploy in a relatively short amount of time has been really valuable, underpinning our agile and human-centred design approach that relies on getting working products into the hands of our exporters as quickly as possible, kicking off the feedback loop and rapidly iterating subsequent releases.”

The first application developed and deployed on the new platform was a certificate scanner that allowed importers and customs officials to validate the QR codes printed on export certificates.

“It’s really important that it’s secure and highly available, because, of course, when you export products to the other side of the world, they’re receiving them when we’re asleep,” says Woodruff. “Building the app and deploying it, we couldn’t have done it without that infrastructure in place, and it proved the validity of that platform.

And what it does, in terms of speed of delivery and reducing the amount of effort and time to get stuff out, is quite staggering.

Modernising legacy applications with an eye to future uses

In addition to developing new applications for exporters on APO, the department is migrating a range of legacy applications into the new environment.

“It’s not just brand-new digital services – we’re taking export systems that process over a billion dollars of business a week [and] putting them up into that platform,” says Woodruff. “Using Azure and the cloud, we can add security and availability to some of our legacy platforms without having to go back and re-architect them from the ground up.

“Then you think about traceability and provenance being a significant issue, to the idea of paddock to plate. So, the payload data carried with export certificates could also include traceability information or potentially integrate a whole bunch of other information flows. And the Azure stack allows us to do that.”