AMES Australia Achieves Strong Remote Work Security with Okta

24

centres

400+

active remote users

2 weeks

to complete remote work transition

70+

external contracts and partners

  • Shifting circumstances
  • A regulatory conundrum
  • Flexible integrations
  • Remote success
Shifting circumstances

AMES Australia is a non-profit organisation that supports new arrivals to the country. Services include (but are not limited to) temporary housing arrangements, language courses, and employment services. The organisation’s primary focus, however, is on in-person education with some web-based training options. When COVID-19 forced AMES to move completely online, the organisation had to act quickly to maintain continuity for its students.

A regulatory conundrum

The organisation is required to meet a number of stringent regulatory guidelines. In order to satisfy these regulations, AMES needed a strong, reliable, multi-factor authentication solution that could protect a hybrid infrastructure—and the organisation’s built-in Microsoft solution wasn’t enough. Fortunately, AMES was able to purchase Okta Multi-Factor Authentication at a price that suited its lean non-profit budget.

Flexible integrations

With Okta MFA in place, AMES not only benefitted from a strong layer of security across its entire internal environment, it was also able to adopt a more agile approach to adopting new technology. As Okta comes with built-in integrations for over 6,500 on-premise and cloud-based solutions, it was easy to provide employees with secure access to remote work solutions like Zoom and Teams.

Remote success

The shift towards remote work went quite smoothly for corporate employees. However   helping teachers adapt was a little more challenging due to their inexperience with the new technology. The AMES IT team provided training and everyone was working efficiently and securely from home within a couple of weeks. Now, people have adapted so well that AMES plans to continue offering work-from-home options in the future—and some staff have already decided they’d like to skip the commute.

The transition to working from home was pretty quick. It took no more than two weeks to get 300 to 400 folks using Okta.

Aaron Khong, IT Project Director at AMES Australia

Benefits

  • Employees can work from home conveniently and securely
  • Learners can continue their courses with minimal interruption
  • AMES enjoys increased security and flexibility
  • Organisation is future-proofed thanks to vendor-neutral OIN
  • Maintenance costs are reduced
  • AMES is compliant with ASD regulations

Offering support to new arrivals

For almost 50 years, AMES Australia has helped new arrivals adapt to life in a new country. The organisation provides settlement and orientation services directly to people living in and near Victoria, and New South Wales. AMES also partners with organizations that help people in other areas of the country, like Tasmania and South Australia. In addition, AMES facilitates programs funded by the Australian government, like recruitment services.

The organisation’s core focus, however, is on education. AMES provides language courses, as well as translation services, designed to help new arrivals improve their English skills to the point where they can succeed in a professional English-speaking environment. The organisation also offers vocational training in areas like childcare, aged care, and kitchen operation.

“We settle folks, and we teach them,” says Aaron Khong, AMES Australia’s IT project director. “We support children by helping their parents find nearby schools and providing short-term accommodation. But it’s harder for adults because it takes them longer to adapt, especially if English isn’t their first language. Between settling them, teaching them English, and then getting them jobs, we really handle the whole package.”

Of course, all of this comes with a significant technology component. AMES operates across a number of brick-and-mortar centres, and on average, these centres feature three computer labs each, with 20 to 25 computers in each lab.

“That means lessons can be taught face-to-face, and then immediately after that, students can jump onto a computer and work on interactive language lessons,” says Khong. “Afterwards, the teachers can recap the lessons and assign homework.”

Many of AMES’s courses are also offered via web-based training, which allows people to log in from home via a tablet or computer. Ultimately the flexibility of AMES’s combination of in-person and web-based learning allows the organisation to serve a wider range of people, regardless of their location or technological aptitude.

Heavy regulatory requirements

Due to AMES’s heavy use of technology, the organisation is required to conform to the guidelines and requirements of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), a national security organisation that specialises in intelligence, cyber security, and offensive operations. As a part of its “Strategies to Mitigate Cyber Security Incidents,” ASD has recommended a set of baseline mitigation strategies called “The Essential Eight.” These strategies include controlling applications, patching applications, restricting administrative privileges, patching operating systems, implementing multi-factor authentication, and backing up data daily.

“It's very akin to ISO 27001, which is a security compliance protocol,” says Khong.

As a non-profit organisation, AMES didn’t have a large budget that would allow it to direct a substantial amount of money towards satisfying these regulatory requirements, so it needed to find cost-efficient options, including a new multi-factor authentication solution.

“We were already using the Microsoft solution when we rolled out Office 365,” says Khong. “It actually comes free with our Microsoft education package, but it didn’t work well with our gateway.”

Since AMES also houses content on servers and in the cloud, the ideal security solution would need to be flexible enough to protect a hybrid environment.

“That's really an important factor to understand,” says Khong. “Porting everything over to the newest technology isn’t always the way to go because it’s quite expensive to migrate some of this content to newer platforms. So it was a difficult task, simply because we’re a non-profit organisation.”

Flexible, granular security

After AMES began looking for new, flexible security solutions, Okta’s sales team reached out with information on Okta Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA). AMES was not only pleased with Okta’s clear communication and affordable prices, it was also impressed with the flexibility of the technology.

“Okta’s interconnectivity was strong, and I think it was a no-brainer to use Okta MFA, especially after we compared it with our other multi-factor tools,” says Khong. “It was a fair price, easy to use, provided options for tokens and physical tokens, and was completely configurable.”

Once AMES confirmed Okta’s ability to integrate with its gateway and completely satisfy the Essential Eight’s MFA guideline, the organisation decided to invest in the purchase. Next, AMES sent out information packages on MFA to all employees, followed by a brief grace period for enrollment. “Our goal was to enforce MFA for all remote users,” says Khong. “So after the grace period, we locked it in and made it mandatory.”

With all users signed up for Okta MFA, AMES could rest easy knowing that all its in-house apps and on-premises components like Active Directory and Netscaler were protected by a strong, flexible layer of security.

“We’ve now been working with Okta for more than a year,” says Khong. “We got it mainly so our corporate folks could securely access our internal systems.”

There are benefits for teachers and work brokers (employees who help connect new arrivals with employers) as well. Before COVID-19, they attended face-to-face meetings. Now, they’re able to attend meetings virtually--and securely.

COVID chaos

When COVID-19 entered the picture, AMES was faced with a whole new set of challenges, particularly when it came to meeting the needs of its learners and trainers.

“Before COVID, our learners would come to a class of 15 people, work on lessons, and then, probably, they’d move onto the next level,” says Khong. “Once they finished a particular course, the government would pay us for rendering those services. But then we were told to close our centres to avoid contact and to ensure social distancing.”

At the corporate level, AMES was ready for employees to work from home. But the individual centres, instructors, and learners weren’t yet prepared for such an abrupt shift. IT not only needed to quickly provide everyone with secure access to resources from home, it also had to distribute the necessary equipment.

This proved to be particularly challenging because while some people were in a safe, secure place with adequate technology, others were in more difficult circumstances. Some learners were transitioning between houses, while others didn’t have internet or computers. AMES adapted to these situations by providing portable wifi routers and loaning out computers.

Next, AMES began the process of providing everyone with the necessary software—and then extending Okta Multi-Factor Authentication to cover new solutions, and protect access for employees who hadn’t needed remote access before. “We have more than 400 active remote users,” says Khong.

After that, AMES focused on training employees to use remote work tools. For some people, there was a steep learning curve. “When we started to use Teams for collaboration, it was difficult for some folks,” says Khong. “But my support staff gradually helped bring them on board. The people who were accepting of the new technology were immediately efficient.”

Despite the challenges, there were a couple of factors that made the process easier:

“Our telephony was federated, which meant our call centre employees could work from home without an issue,” says Khong. “We rolled out Teams about a year and a half ago, and most folks were taught to use the tools. So that was quite easy to adapt to straight away.”

After running into a performance issue with Skype, AMES decided to purchase more Zoom licenses, which ultimately solved the issue. With over 6,500 pre-built integrations included in the Okta Integration Network, challenges like this are typically quick and easy to navigate--because Okta is truly vendor-neutral. In this case, AMES was able to integrate enterprise products like Zoom and Microsoft products with the same platform.

“By the end of two weeks, most users were able to securely access everything they needed to do their work through Okta MFA,” says Khong. “Our teachers just had to load the software on their mobile phones or computers and they were up and running. We’re closed, but we’re still conducting our lessons securely and remotely. That's the beauty of it.”

Once employees adjusted to the new work-from-home approach, AMES sent out an internal survey asking employees to assess their early and current experiences with the new technology.

“We discovered that not only has everyone started to adapt, they've become more efficient at solving problems because they’re more organised,” says Khong. “And everyone comes to our meetings on time because they've got nowhere else to go.”

A flexible future

AMES will always meet the demand for in-person classes. The organisation’s brick-and-mortar facilities are incredibly valuable for new arrivals to Australia who are trying to get familiar with their new home—and the services are even available to many for free, depending on their visa status. But the organisation is assessing whether or not it makes sense to have some employees working from home after normal operations are able to resume.

“A lot of people will probably fall back on the old ways,” says Khong. “But a lot of them know that the commute is a killer; it takes long hours in two directions.When we’re able to reopen in-person, there will probably be a combination of folks working from home and at the office.”

The organisation will continue to offer some lessons online, however. “Students will access the lessons through our Learning Management Systems (LMS), so that side of the business will grow more and more.”

As the organisation expands its online service offerings, Okta MFA will continue to play a significant role in securing AMES’s IT environment, especially as the organisation brings on new partners and adds new solutions to its IT stack.

“We’ll also look at ways to present our online content in a more modern and accessible fashion. Even though you can access our content through a web browser, the user experience may not be as good as it could be,” says Khong. “The modern tools we're going to use will be far more intuitive.”

Although AMES isn’t quite sure what this new interface will look like, or when the world will be able to get back to business as usual, the organisation won’t have to lose any sleep over cybersecurity. With Okta MFA, AMES now has the flexibility to adapt to almost anything—from regulatory changes to major world events.

About AMES Australia

AMES Australia is the nation's preeminent provider of English language and settlement services in Victoria, in addition to being a major supplier of specialist employment and training services in Melbourne and Sydney.

AMES Australia successfully educates and services over 40,000 people every year providing an extensive range of adult education, training and employment programs to a diverse client community.