Even before the current financial squeeze, the people at Basildon Borough Council in Essex were looking to reduce their overhead. Back in 2007, the lease on one of the Council's two main buildings was coming up for renewal, and the management was looking for ways to reduce office space. If possible, they wanted to avoid renewing the lease, and try to fit everyone into the main council building.
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One way of doing that would be to introduce hot desking and to allow more remote working, but that could only happen with a major revamp of the Council’s IT and telephone system.
Four years on, the number of desks has been reduced by more than 30%. Members of staff can log on from any free computer, and the Council is even thinking about renting out some of the office space it has created in the main building. A pilot project is also about to begin, allowing members of staff to log on to the work systems from home using their own computers.
The key to making this all happen has been a move from a traditional estate of networked PCs to a virtualised approach that has delivered greater flexibility and tighter management of security. Now, the data centre runs Citrix XenApp software across 15 servers, and all PCs are loaded with the Citrix ICA client and Sophos Safeguard software for data leakage protection.
Jason Mason, customer support and infrastructure manager at Basildon Borough Council, said the transformation has been dramatic. “There used to be PCs at every desk, and every application was installed locally. Even with some deployment tools, it was still a headache to replace a PC, and if someone wanted to move desks, it was a lot of work,” he said.
Using a virtual desktop has allowed us to seriously beef up our security.
Jason Mason, customer support and infrastructure manager, Basildon Borough Council
But while the reduction of office space was the initial driver for the changes, Mason said another virtual desktop benefit has been that security has also become much easier to manage. “Using a virtual desktop has allowed us to seriously beef up our security,” he said. “Part of the problem before was that a lot of applications needed local admin rights. As much as we were trying to be security conscious, removing local admin rights would have seriously restricted users, and would have created a lot more support calls.”
Now the users’ desktops are centrally managed and restricted, and no employee can load his or her own applications. It means IT can control which applications each user can access, and also enforce policy in other ways, using the local DLP software.
Software patching is also done centrally, saving both effort and network bandwidth. Patches are downloaded once and applied across the 15 servers.
This has given Mason breathing space to decide how the Council should proceed in the future. “We have a surplus of PCs at the moment, which gives us time to do a strategic review of what we want to do in the future,” he said. “We need to decide if we want to replace current client devices with new PCs, thin clients, or allow people to bring their own device. All those options are now available to us.”
With consumerisation of technology in mind, the Council is launching a pilot project to allow 30 members of staff to use their own computers to work from home. “It will allow us to reduce desks even further and possibly free up office space that could be rented out to local organisations,” Mason said.
Their use of desktop virtualisation will also allow the Council more security control over employees' home computers. “On client PCs, we lock down USB ports to stop people [from] copying files onto portable devices," Mason said. "And if home workers are using their own PC, we can also stop them [from] copying and pasting files from the Citrix session to the local device."
But, in the mean time, one of the effects of the virtualisation has been to free up the central IT department to take a more strategic role, rather than just reacting to events. “We used to spend too much time and effort on desktop support," Mason said. "But now we’ve had a drastic reduction in support calls. And our turnaround for calls is much better.”