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Rebuild and revamp: Housing association on benefits of ditching its legacy, on-premise tech

Bournemouth Churches Housing Association (BCHA) explains how ditching its 15-year-old legacy IT system has led to an uptick in the responsiveness and levels of customer care it offers

When taking care of the health and welfare needs of society’s most vulnerable groups, being able to offer fast, effective and responsive care is of the utmost importance.

And it is with this in mind that Bournemouth Churches Housing Association (BCHA) had cause to embark on a major upgrade of its IT infrastructure, to ensure its 500-strong workforce are primed and ready to offer a helping hand as and when people need it.

The organisation, formed in 1968, is responsible for looking after the housing needs of homeless and vulnerable people across the South of England, while providing them with opportunities to learn new skills and find work.

The not-for-profit organisation estimates that around 10,000 people benefit from its services each year, but – until around 2014 – its ability to respond efficiently to their needs was severely hampered by its reliance on “vastly outdated” on-premise IT systems and software.

“They were unreliable and we got very poor performance out of it,” James Muirhead, ICT service desk team leader at BCHA, tells Computer Weekly. “There was virtually no disaster recovery capability whatsoever. We couldn’t scale it up or down with the changing business needs, so it was very limiting.”

Particularly from a support perspective, as the organisation progressively struggled to find fixes for any technical issues that cropped up in its Windows Server 2003, VMware vSphere 5 and Citrix Presentation Server 4-based setup.

“We also had Neoware thin clients that were breaking regularly. We couldn’t get any of them new, so we had to keep paying £50 a time plus VAT to get them repaired, if they could be,” says Muirhead. “We had SQL server 2005 and Office 2003, which were out of date, and a variety of different business telephone systems, which featured a mix of IP, analogue and digital phones.”

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The setup was prone to outages, leading to regular periods of downtime, which affected the productivity of the BCHA team as a whole.

“People would have to wait up to 45 minutes of a morning to log on. That was one of the major issues we had in the past,” says Muirhead.

“It was very much a case of making do, and we wouldn’t be able to resolve a lot of issues. We’d just have to work around them rather than fix problems and make things work as they should.”

Dealing with difficulties

On the back of all these technical difficulties, the organisation commissioned its infrastructure provider at the time to conduct a review into its IT estate in May 2014, reveals Michelle Embling, business improvement and product manager at BCHA.

“Later on that year, our IT manager, who’d been with the organisation for about 10 years, left. This was another factor that initiated the change,” she says.

The review largely confirmed what the organisation already knew, in that a number of the systems it relies on to run its business were reaching end of life. BCHA started taking steps to address this towards the end of 2014.

These included inviting bids from potential providers, conducted under the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU), to assist the organisation with a full-scale revamp of its systems.

This included an upgrade of its existing systems as well as the deployment of new technologies that would allow employees to adopt mobile working practices, while freeing BCHA from the limitations of on-premise life.

Winning the deal

Managed service provider PMGC emerged as one of the frontrunners to secure the deal, having offered to replace the organisation’s ageing IT estate with an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and a desktop as a service (DaaS) setup hosted in its partner Navisite’s tier III datacentre.

“PMGC came first on price and second on quality, so we had an interview process between the two top-scoring organisations,” says Embling.

“We challenged them around some of the costs and they came back with some revised figures, and then PMGC won the tender after a competitive interview.”

From here, the two organisations took a staggered approach to upgrading BCHA’s IT systems, starting first – in mid-2015 – by first addressing the mobility needs of its workforce.

“We purchased a number of Samsung Galaxy smartphones, which were all enrolled on to a mobilde device management suite,” says Muirhead. “This gave us the ability to remote control, track and wipe the devices, as well as enforce password restrictions and application control.”

“It gives us far better data protection, because if someone puts in the wrong pin too many times, it’ll wipe the device and clear off any data from there, which is good when it comes to protecting the sensitive data relating to our vulnerable clients.”

Ramping up remote working

The migration also saw BCHA swap Office 2003 for Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 productivity suite in February 2016, which has contributed to making it easier for its staff to work remotely, says Embling.

“Our housing officers, and also our supported housing staff and floating support workers, can all now take advantage of mobile working because they’ve got iPads too, which means they get more front-facing time with customers rather than coming back to the office all the time,” she says. This, in turn, has also helped the organisation save money from a productivity point of view.

“Previously, some of the staff didn’t have smartphones, but now they can get their emails and access documents,” says Embling. “When we did the proposal to our board to make a business case for our systems, we assumed the change would generate one hour per week additional productivity for our staff and generate non-cashable savings of around £130,000.”

The shift from on-premise hardware to IaaS has made it easier for the organisation to ensure it is always running on the latest and greatest technology, says Muirhead, and that system uptime is assured at all times.

“We’re spending a lot loss time firefighting server problems now, which means we’ve got more time to dedicate to proactive support instead of reacting to major outages,” he says. “One of the biggest benefits is the disaster recovery provision. We had virtually none in our old infrastructure, and now we have significant redundancy available in the datacentre.

“If we have a primary datacentre outage, it will be possible to spin up servers in the secondary datacentre, because we’re no longer facing a single point of failure like we were,” says Muirhead. “The vulnerable people in the community BCHA supports through its work are also feeling the positive effects of its decision to upgrade its systems.”

An increase in flexibility

This is because the charity also operates 40 remote sites in the communities it supports that allow residents to access learning resources as part of its work to help get them back into employment.

“Users are spending less time waiting for systems to log in and have a lot more flexibility with the applications they can use, and they’re on the latest versions of Office, and a lot of the functionality in there saves them time,” says Muirhead.

“We did have a separate domain for clients to use, but that was on an old Server 2003 deployment with limited functionality. There was no audio, and if they wanted to do a learning course that needed narration or watch a web event, they couldn’t do that on the old environment.”

BCHA has just completed one of the final parts of the project, involving the deployment of a new housing management system, which would have been impossible to undertake without overhauling its existing infrastructure first.

“We needed to upgrade our infrastructure before we could upgrade that system, which has not been done for the last 15 years,” says Embling. “That’s helped us, and we’re also looking at rolling out a new HR system, which will be a consolidation of five or six different HR systems into one.”

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