Black Country Housing Group had an IT infrastructure that was beginning to struggle to meet the demands of the organisation, and we recognised that we needed to invest further to secure the long-term stability and efficiency of our IT. Having made some investments in new blade technology, we also wanted to look at how to capitalise on that investment as part of the new solution, as well as provide scalability so we can integrate other servers at a later date.
Operating with only a small internal IT team, we decided to bring in a specialist IT consultant who could help us develop our long-term IT strategy, as well as source an appropriate solution to meet our needs. Alex Freeman joined BCHG on an interim basis at the beginning of this year and began a review of our requirements to drive the development of our IT strategy for the next 2-3 years. The main objectives of our strategy then provided the basis for the implementation of a new solution:
- Supporting front-line staff to deliver excellent services by providing fast, reliable access to information.
- Delivering value for money, both through effective procurement and by enabling more efficient working.
- Contributing significantly to the group’s green goals.
- Enabling IT staff to be technically skilled, have an understanding of the business, and be able to support users in gaining maximum advantage from our systems.
Our operating environment has changed a lot and new technologies are being developed rapidly. This has created many new challenges for us:
- Growing demands on our ageing IT infrastructure resulting in an increasing amounts of system downtime, which affects the performance of end-users; IT uptime is critical.
- The changing needs of our remote and mobile workforce and the ability to manage job allocations to our engineers better because our communications infrastructure was no longer suitable for enabling real-time updates on jobs.
- Increasing demands on senior managers and non-executive directors’ time meant that we needed to find better ways of enabling our senior colleagues to communicate including virtual meetings.
During the review process, we also found out that many of the challenges we faced now were due to the IT infrastructure not being able to adapt and grow in line with our organisational needs. Therefore, a key requirement for the new solution was to ensure resilience and stability, as well as future-proof the business. It was also vital that the new IT infrastructure minimised our impact on the environment in line with our green policy.
Working with the senior team, Alex Freeman identified OGL Computer, an established IT supplier based in Worcestershire, to be our IT partner on the project.
The first phase of the project was to replace our existing Exchange email server and domain controller/file server to improve the user experience and reduce the level of IT downtime. This was done quickly and quietly with no impact on our staff during their working day, and the immediate improvements in efficiency have been excellent.
The second phase was to tackle the overall flexibility, stability and resilience of our core IT infrastructure. OGL Computers’ solution consolidated our 11 existing servers, retaining the new blade servers and reducing the number down to just three servers. This has reduced our hardware support, power and cooling costs, as well as reduced both our physical server and carbon footprints. OGL Computers also implemented a VMware vCentre centralised management system so our internal IT team can manage our entire server farm from a single console which has improved efficiency, performance and productivity, all of which are vital with such a small team. The use of multiple virtual servers transferring data over a high-speed LAN has resulted in a robust network which caters for any hardware failure, switching from one to another, with no disruption to the end-user.
In order to implement a disaster recovery strategy, OGL Computers installed an offsite backup server in another office with Veeam backup and replication software for the virtual servers connected to an external network-attached storage device so that files or entire virtual servers can be quickly re-deployed in the event of a disaster.
To further enhance our business continuity plan, OGL Computers suggested an innovative way of removing single points of failure by implementing dual storage area network controllers and chassis with RAID-configured hard disks, switching power and connectivity to ensure network uptime is maintained.
Despite the complexity and significant structural change to our IT infrastructure, the entire project was delivered with minimal disruption; equipment was installed during the day and data transfers took place during the evenings and at weekends to avoid any downtime for staff. The project was delivered within extremely short lead times and the innovative approach to the system has also resulted in us now having the latest virtual technologies which will support us now and into the future, and all within our budget.
We have already started to see some financial savings, but we expect these savings to be even greater over the coming years. Minimising our environmental impact is very important to us and we are now confident that our new IT infrastructure will be a great help in achieving this.
David Saunders is the finance director of Black Country Housing Group.