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BUI partners with SANBI to safeguard and streamline South Africa’s biodiversity data
Helping the South African National Biodiversity Institute to upgrade their IT infrastructure has been immensely rewarding – and fruitful – for all concerned.


BUI partners with SANBI to safeguard and streamline South Africa’s biodiversity data


500+ Employees



What We Did

Migration to the Cloud
Lift and Shift
In 2017 and 2018 government institutions around the world were hit by a wave of cyberattacks. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) was one of the victims. Instead of stealing phone numbers and bank account details, the hackers encrypted valuable fauna (animals) and flora (plants) data. Luckily, no data was lost as SANBI had backed it all up. But the breach was a massive inconvenience for scientists – and it didn’t look good either. “We had been contemplating moving our servers to the cloud for a while,” says Jeffrey Manuel, SANBI’s biodiversity information manager. “The attack forced us to take the plunge.”
A national treasure

With a tiny team and shoestring budgets, Manuel was tasked with safeguarding a treasure trove of invaluable digital data . The Compton Herbarium at Kirstenbosch, for example, contains over a million specimens spanning 11,000 Southern African plant species. At first glance the herbarium’s nondescript rows of locked cabinets are underwhelming. But within each manila folder is a painstakingly dried, pressed and labelled sample of an individual plant specimen. All the information captured from the specimen allows scientists to study geographically diverse specimens under one climate-controlled roof. With permission, they can even extract some DNA or remove a seed. “It’s like a living library,” says Manuel, “And it’s never been more relevant.”

The Compton Herbarium is just one piece of the puzzle. In total, SANBI collates and manages plant, animal, geospatial and ecosystems data from more than 20 different institutions provided by hundreds of individual contributors. It goes all the way down to exactly where and when each plant in Kirstenbosch may have been planted! “We aggregate a massive amount of data on behalf of the public sector,” says Manuel explaining that they endeavour to make this data accessible to the public wherever possible. Only very sensitive information, such as the location of rhinos or endangered succulents, is not shared with the public – but the processes behind these decisions are always transparent.

Over the years, SANBI has developed several tools to make managing biodiversity easier. One such tool allows customs officials to easily identify commonly smuggled species like succulents, lizards and scorpions. But because each tool was created on a project basis and on a shoestring budget, Manuel is the first to admit that there was “no coherence to the system.”
Necessity is the mother of all invention

Through the decades SANBI had amassed 11 unique websites and several tools that were hosted on dozens of different servers. Some of these were housed at SANBI’s campuses in Cape Town and Pretoria, while others were located at partner institutions around the country. This meant that Brenda Daly, SANBI’s biodiversity information systems manager, spent many a weekend performing manual backups.

The 2017/18 attack didn’t just spur SANBI to streamline its processes and beef up its security. It also prompted them to migrate all their publicly accessible data to a single website. They put the project out to tender, and after a lengthy process, BUI emerged victorious. There were two main components to the contract:
  1. Help SANBI migrate to the cloud
  2. Help SANBI manage their system better
The initial tender demanded a “lift and shift” of the existing servers, says BUI’s account manager Chevonne Abrahams. “But once our systems architects got involved, they swiftly realised this wasn’t the optimal solution.” Being a government body, SANBI had to stick to the original tender and Manuel is eternally grateful to BUI for finding a way to tweak the project specifications while sticking to the original budget. “BUI was super flexible,” he says. “In fact, the move to Azure resulted in some savings which allowed us to plan for a rainy day."
Putting it into action

The first step was to gather information about the existing application and build what solutions architects call the “landing zone”. This is the foundation phase that makes sure all the relevant networking, security, and governance mechanisms are in place.

Once this was completed. We then started with migrating of the Windows and Linux applications workload into Azure and securing the applications with the Azure Web Application Firewall.

Moving to Azure has made their system highly available, resilient and ease of day-to-day management. To give an example, backups now occur seamlessly, and data is restored within minutes… and they are able to access the system from internally using the existing corporate identity.
L is for loadshedding

The aforementioned rainy day came sooner than expected when Stage 6 loadshedding meant that some servers which were initially going to remain in situ needed to move to the cloud. “Luckily the savings achieved by BUI’s plan allowed us to move these servers without having to put out another tender,” says Manuel. “It’s really incredible to have a partner who’s willing to change tack to make things more efficient. The whole project has actually been cheaper than we expected.”

BUI was also able to help SANBI to fix a gremlin that caused external images to disappear from their site whenever loadshedding struck. They did this by incorporating the affected image galleries into the Microsoft Content Delivery Network (CDN) . And they’ve beefed up security and backups dramatically to ensure there aren’t any more breaches and data is recoverable.

There have been several other fringe benefits to the move to Azure. It’s allowed SANBI to automate many of its backup processes, so there are no more backups on the weekend. Moving to the cloud has also meant that SANBI employees have the option of working remotely – a massive boon, especially for scientists who are often in the field. But probably the biggest benefit has been the marked increase in productivity. To give but one example, it used to take SANBI five weeks to index their flagship biodiversity data portal … It now takes five days!
Onwards and upwards

The new public website SANBI Biodiversity Advisor is already live, and will be fully functional by March 2024. It promises to be a one-stop shop for information that’s held on 11 different biodiversity information management systems. “Our international partners were really interested to see whether we could pull it off,” says Manuel. “Australia has achieved something similar, but on a far bigger budget.” He stresses that SANBI would not have been able to make it happen without BUI’s help. “Our data is a bit different,” he says with a laugh. “Most service providers are more comfortable working with numbers than they are with non-standardised text fields and non-specific dates. But BUI has been simply amazing. I’ll definitely be giving them good references…”

From BUI’s side it’s been an honour and a privilege to do our bit to safeguard such an important national asset. “All of our clients are super important to us,” says Abrahams. “But it’s given me an extra special kick to know we’re playing a part, however small, in stopping species from going extinct and preserving our natural heritage for generations to come.”

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