With the government’s emergency budget now laid bare, housing providers must evaluate the impact of the economic changes and what actions are required to adapt and survive. While the market may have enjoyed relative freedom and flexibility under the previous government, housing associations, like everyone with a dependency on the public purse, will need to look at all parts of their operations to see how things can be done more cheaply and more effectively.
The National Housing Federation warned recently that around 150 social housing projects were under threat due to a £610 million hole in government finances. But many housing associations have already invested millions of pounds in sites for new homes that now face withdrawal. Pressure to source funds from other means has increased. Budgets like IT which have generally grown in recent years will shrink to accommodate these changes.
In the same way that housing projects themselves will come under threat from government cuts, so too will the technologies being used and implemented by associations to deliver effective services. A new NHF report said that, ‘social landlords need to explore ways of increasing revenues along with focusing on operational efficiency’, confirming that the recession and financial crisis have created a new operating environment to which the sector must adapt through innovation.
The government is not only stemming the flow of cash into critical areas however. In parallel, it is also increasing scrutiny on the value and return delivered by that spending. Accessible information will be part of its fight against waste and excess. As The Guardian and other media reported recently, housing minister Grant Shapps plans to shine a light on public salaries and remove the cloak of secrecy from government information. Further to this, woe betide any public-sector body that continues to suffer data security breaches like those experienced recently.
Justification on demand
Housing IT will suffer budget cuts but will also be tasked with increasing operational efficiency, delivering a kind of ‘justification on demand’ to the government and the public, and reducing security risk. Mindful of this, many IT departments will be turning their attention to the key areas of server virtualisation and cloud computing.
Server virtualisation enables you to reduce your capital investment in infrastructure hardware by creating a virtual operating layer between users and physical hardware. This increases the flexibility and scope of existing or new server resources. While rationalisation is advancing with pace at the server level, the desktop is also fast on its heels and coming under increasing scrutiny as an area for improvement.
Desktops vs. information interfaces
‘Desktop’ is perhaps not an appropriate description for what is really the ‘information interface’ for many staff within housing associations. A highly mobile and varied workforce needing secure, low cost and continual access to key software applications and information means that static desktops tied to specific users are becoming historic. This coupled with developments in cloud computing where core applications are managed away from the desktop, either by a third party or inside a private cloud, means that heavy use of personal computers is becoming less essential.
In my view, over 50 per cent of almost two billion PCs in use globally could be replaced with thin clients; these consume 90 per cent less energy, are over 60 per cent cheaper to buy, and eradicate 99 per cent of user-based security threats. A thin client is a user interface that relies on a server for processing and hosting of applications. Thin clients can now be deployed in a fixed or mobile environment, making them flexible for most user needs. The virtualisation of desktops and adoption of cloud services paves the way for thin clients as never before. It was once limited to massive numbers of light technology users in very large organisations, but these changes have opened the floodgates for any organisation to realise the cost saving benefits of ‘being thin’.
The NHF represents 1200 organisations employing some 150,000 people, suggesting that the average housing association employs around 125 staff. In many cases the figure will be lower. This puts the majority of housing associations in the small to medium enterprise category, for whom the benefits of thin clients have recently been proven. We teamed with Lancaster University to create a thin client total cost of ownership model which showed that organisations of between six and 100 employees could save over 50 per cent on desktop IT through PC to thin client replacement. For larger housing associations the saving opportunities are greater.
Loretto Housing gets thinner
Glasgow-based Loretto Housing Association has already benefited from thin clients. Ricky Donegan, IT support officer for Loretto Housing, said, “We’ve found thin clients ideal for our IT operation; they require little time to configure, are easy to swap out when issues arise and are perfect for hot desking. Plus there was no need to update virus protection on the units as they are unaffected due to their write-protect policy. The adoption of thin clients has saved us money and simplified our IT tasks.”
Lean times ahead call for thin measures and housing associations should evaluate the cost reduction potential of their desktop infrastructure.
Lisa Layzell is CEO of Thinspace.