Interview: Suffolk County Council CIO discusses why VDI works

Mark Adams-Wright is overseeing an IT change that is supporting a major transformation in the role of Suffolk County Council

Mark Adams-Wright, CIO of Suffolk County Council is a firm believer in making changes to the business gradually.

He is overseeing an IT change that is supporting a major transformation in the role of the council – from a provider of services to a coordinator of services.

Referencing Gartner's Sustainable Organisational Change Model, he says: “I'm very mindful that change should not be too much, too quickly."

Faced with an upheaval of council services and the need to slash costs, Adams-Wright began looking broadly at how IT could empower these changes. 

Work began 12-18 months ago, driven by a reduction in funding and changes in the operating model of the council. He says: "We are moving service delivery away from council.”

This means the council will become smaller, in terms of staffing. “It's about simplifying things, as the organisation shrinks, we won’t have a need for so many different approaches. 

"At the moment, I have a lot of buckets. Over the next 24 months, the number of lines of business will reduce dramatically.”

Since the overall goal of the council was focused on service delivery, Adams-Wright needed to re-engineer how IT would work within the new structure. 

The new-look council is taking on more of a commissioning role, where its primary function is one of contract management. This involves a different desktop strategy. He says: "It became apparent that flexibility and mobility are key."

Flexible IT has a direct bearing on costs – “The more people we can get to work flexibly, the less buildings we'll need," says Adams-Wright 

He is keen to move more services into the cloud. The council also offers a mobile website and provides apps that people can download from the council. However, Adams-Wright is not ready to build an enterprise app store for deploying desktop applications.

The road to VDI

Through an existing outsourcing contract, the council virtualised its datacentre servers in 2011, based on VMware.

The next stage was to rethink desktop computing. "We took tactical decisions to deploy thin clients to support an organisation that was seeing a shrinkage in the size of its workforce and changing the way of working." 

The company selected IT consultant Centralis in 2011, to develop the council’s desktop virtualisation strategy.

Centralis had worked previously with another council on desktop VDI and Adams-Wright selected the integrator to design the council's virtual disk image (VDI) to support its strategic growth plan.

He says: "Throughout the process, as we looked at the strategic perspective, Centralis was very well engaged with us. The company worked with us diligently."

Centralis deployed VDI, based on Citrix XenDesktop running on IBM severs with NetApp 3040.

Thin clients are cheaper and more flexible

Adams-Wright believes thin client computing is a good fit for public sector. 

As the project evolves, he says: "We will ramp up capabilities on Citrix XenDesktop to support up to 4,500 users, which will dovetail into our asset management strategy."

According to Adams-Wright, XenDesktop allows the council to separate the devices people use from the systems they need to access. He says: “In future, we will have devices that are system agnostic.”

At the council, the desktop PC refresh programme is based on the length of the warranty for the desktop and laptop devices. It is quite expensive to put a PC on a desk and we cannot get the best from desktop assets, given [where the] IT strategy is heading," he says.

Thin devices are more cost-effective. When they are deployed, Adams-Wrights says the cost of ownership is significantly less than traditional desktop PCs and laptops. “There is no need to keep churning desktops,” he says.

There is no need to keep churning desktops

Mark Adams-Wright, CIO, Suffolk County Council

Also, since the council is downsizing its staff, there is a cost associated with the PC asset that is no longer needed. He says thin client computing allows the IT department to manage the downward trend in people.

“Thin client computing allows us to slowdown [the desktop IT] refresh, so we can deploy the right kit for the right people over the next two to three years,” says Adams-Wright.

The first phase of the project, which is now up and running, involved bringing on-board 50 users from the primary care trust (PCT). 

This involves the IT department at Suffolk County Council providing at IT service for the 50 PCT staff. "We started with a Citrix implementation to support the tactical requirement of bringing the PCT people on board. We built out functionality to allow them to do their day to day job. But we designed the VDI for a larger site to support the council going forward," explains Adams-Wright.

He says the IT team already have 270 packaged applications ready to be deployed on the VDI.

Cloud-based IT

But Adams-Wright has bigger plans for the council’s applications. 

“Like any organisation, we have a litany of business applications people need to support,” he says. 

Having read Gartner's ICT debt of the organisation report, his plan is to “decompile IT” by rationalising applications. IT needs to follow business evolution, he says. 

“We will focus on the applications that are most valuable going forward. We will have staff who can live with a browser and Citrix. We will look at how they work, the web readiness of their applications, and what solutions and [IT] environment need, to augment our VDI.”

The council will also consider cloud-based applications – where appropriate. “From a cloud perspective, we are looking at products that are more mature,” says Adams-Wright. The council’s project management is already cloud-based.

But this is just the start – “We have a strategy based on a public cloud first approach.”

He says: “We have choices. I have an on-premise ERDMS [electronic record and data management system] which is under review. I would like one that is cloud-based. It is the same with business intelligence (BI). I’ll look at whether we should move data off-premise.”

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