Housing Technology interviewed experts from Castle Computer Services, JMC IT and Waterstons on their views of how housing providers’ IT infrastructures are likely to change over the next few years and also to predict the ‘next big thing’ for new technologies.
Key IT infrastructure trends
Enabling seamless mobile working and, as a closely-related area, the ubiquitous availability of housing and tenant data, regardless of time or location, are the most significant IT infrastructure trends, followed by the ongoing focus on value for money and productivity gains.
Andrew Cruickshank, director of technical sales, Castle Computer Services, said, “Housing providers are looking at how they can mobilise their workforce, not just pockets, but potentially across the entire organisation, for example by adopting a hot-desk policy. One of our housing customers conducted an audit of its premises; the audit showed that its offices were running at 60 per cent utilisation. With the introduction of desktop virtualisation (VDI), this allowed our customer to rationalise the buildings that were needed and sell the rest. As a result, they gained a significant amount of income that they wouldn’t have been able to achieve without the adoption of VDI technology.
“I’m also frequently asked about cost per desktop per annum or cost per user per month, demonstrating that there has been a fundamental shift in people’s mind-sets towards looking at utility-based IT services. Our experience is that organisations want to offload their IT infrastructure in terms of the day-to-day management in order to allow IT teams to focus on strategic projects.”
Commenting on the blurring of the distinction between in-house and cloud IT infrastructures, in particular for mobile working, Mark Summers, head of technology sales and housing specialist at JMC IT, said, “IT infrastructure trends reflect the need to have the right solution available wherever and whenever required to provide effective tenant services. We’ve moved beyond simply deciding whether to install on-premise or cloud-based solutions; we can now use a single, interoperable platform with Microsoft Windows Server, Office 365 and Azure. This is a real ‘game-changer’ that will give housing providers the flexibility needed to communicate effectively, enable full scalability and drive efficiency throughout their organisations.”
Alistair McLeod, director, Waterstons, said, “With value for money high on the agenda of the regulator and housing providers’ boards, the emphasis for IT investment and management is to lower the total cost of ownership while delivering high quality outcomes, as seen by the adoption of virtualisation technologies, cloud-based services and the implementation of IT service management processes.
“There is also a cultural revolution, with the idea of remote and mobile working becoming much more widely-accepted than before, with the goal of reducing time spent in the office for field workers and more flexibility for back office staff. This means that the IT infrastructure, and more importantly control of data security, goes beyond the realms of the firewall, so IT departments may not have the same level of control as before, and they will need to be more creative in how they remotely manage devices and facilitate BYOD.”
Drivers for change
The issues determining housing providers’ adoption of new IT infrastructures are uniformly about delivering business value through a combination of lower costs of ownership, value for money and productivity improvements.
Watersons’ McLeod said, “Housing providers need to become more competitive as funding is reduced, which means they need to deliver IT infrastructures that are low cost, resilient and robust but yet can adapt and scale to meet changing business needs. The technology does exist to deliver this agenda and the IT director of the future needs to be much better at orchestrating IT architectures that are better aligned to the business requirements and flexible enough to change, without compromising security.”
The need for housing providers to make it easier for their staff to share data was highlighted by JMC IT’s Summers, who said, “Housing providers can be more innovative in the way they drive efficiencies within their organisations. One key area is making better use of shared data, for example with Microsoft SharePoint and OneDrive to collaborate on documents regardless of what device is being used. Using Azure and Office 365 allows organisations to scale out for advanced data interrogation and, instead of dealing with issues around IT infrastructures, they can focus more time and effort on providing better services to tenants.”
Cruickshank from Castle Computer Services said, “The key drivers are cost efficiencies and best value. It’s ensuring that every penny invested in the infrastructure can be demonstrable in the sense that there is a pay back over the period that drives efficiency for the business to allow investment in the next set of technologies that are coming to the market in the next 3-5 years.
“It’s important to note that the deciding factor for any VDI solution deployed is the mission-critical applications used within business. For example, if the IT supplier will not support a VDI technology, then the chances are that the project will fail as the support statements will not be robust enough for the IT director, finance director or chief executive to introduce that level of risk into the organisation.”
Social housing vs. other sectors
IT infrastructure drivers and trends in housing are generally thought to be the same as other public-sector organisations, such as government services and local authorities, but they lag behind commercial organisations in the private sector. This is partly to do with the underlying culture of most public-sector organisations, but mainly to do with private-sector organisations’ constant demand for business growth, profits and shareholder value through cost-savings, productivity gains and competitive differentiation.
Waterstons’ McLeod said, “The trends in remote and mobile working are similar to other public and regulated sectors who are also waking up to the benefits of flexible working as funding is reduced and investments are scrutinised. However, the smaller housing providers are still behind the curve compared with a lot of private-sector organisations, such as telecoms and utilities, professional services and manufacturing, although they are comparable to the construction sector, which has always been slow to adopt new technologies.
“In terms of value for money and total cost of ownership, this has always been scrutinised more in the private sector where the pursuit of shareholder interests means financial performance comes in for more scrutiny. The recent pressure by the regulator is a welcome dimension that is making housing providers think more strategically about IT investments and trying to align their IT infrastructures better to business requirements.”
Cruickshank from Castle Computer Services said, “I don’t think that these trends differ too much from other sectors. The traditional lifecycle of infrastructure was 3-4 years, but this has been extended to potentially 5-7 years, demonstrating that organisations are ‘sweating their assets’ longer to ensure they get the best pay back from that investment.
“And gone are the days where housing providers would send someone from the head office to fix a PC 200 miles away. We are seeing a shift towards the centralisation of data and infrastructure management, where the management of many more end-points can be done from a central console so that updates and patches can be done far faster and more efficiently than before.”
The next big thing
The IT sector is frequently guilty of ‘over-egging’ the future or making misplaced predictions of the next big thing. In terms of new IT infrastructures, the future focus for most housing providers is less about new ‘bells and whistles’ and more about using new technologies, such as cloud services, to make better use of their existing IT infrastructures and information repositories.
Cruickshank from Castle Computer Services said, “I see hybrid cloud becoming important as a future trend. Our experience is that some organisations are reluctant to put their data in the hands of another organisation but they are prepared to allow their infrastructure to be managed by a third party. Importantly, their data will reside on-premise at their offices, under their control, so in the event of a problem with that provider, their IP is protected.
“Device proliferation is also a big issue, as organisations need to be very conscious of data stewardship and leakage. I anticipate that if mobile technologies are not deployed properly with the right levels of security and authentication processes, there may be some challenges ahead in terms of data leakage.”
JMC IT’s Mark Summers said, “We believe the next big thing is already here: adopting innovative solutions now can both address housing providers’ immediate needs as well as allow their IT infrastructures to adapt as their organisation changes. We no longer need to take a ‘big bang’ approach through high capex investment in IT to prepare for the future. Instead, we can implement solutions now that can then adapt and scale both up and down in line with providers’ changing needs.”
Alistair McLeod from Waterstons said, “IT integration is still a major challenge, especially as digital information is on the increase and the way we store and consume it is constantly changing, and the ability to search across the enterprise and make connections between the data you have is still problematic.
“The cloud is an obvious growth area and it is beginning to mature, with the belated realisation that off-premise, cloud-based solutions are not a ‘silver bullet’. More organisations are beginning to appreciate the value of cloud services and I think we will see a better balance struck between on-premise services and supporting cloud-based services. Software-defined networking, or network virtualisation, is also starting to emerge, which reduces the need for physical network hardware and therefore playing to the hands of the low total cost of ownership agenda.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Andrew Cruickshank (Castle Computer Services), Mark Summers (JMC IT) and Alistair McLeod (Waterstons) for their time in contributing to this article.