Medway Council upgrades and virtualises its outdated IT estate

By Danny Palmer
29 Aug 2014 View Comments

Like many local authorities, Medway Council is not only feeling the squeeze of government cuts, but it's required to improve services at the same time.

In an effort to achieve this, the Unitary Authority set out plans for an agile working strategy, designed to increase efficiency while reducing costs, which led to the adoption of a virtualised desktop solution.

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"We wanted to be more efficient both in the way we manage the desktop environments but also in the finances for the council, so we wanted to find the most efficient solution for both," Moira Bragg, head of ICT at Medway Council, told Computing, adding that the move was also designed to support what she described as an agile working programme.

"We wanted to try to reduce our estate, which meant we had to get more people in the buildings we wanted to retain then support a more flexible way of working, which obviously virtualisation supported," Bragg said.

The council was also in dire need of software upgrades, with systems still running Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003. Shifting to a virtualised estate offered the opportunity to upgrade it all in "one fell swoop", said Bragg.

In order to prepare for the procurement of virtualised software, an analysis was carried out detailing the business case for the move and potential partners were taken through "a huge list of requirements to determine what Medway wanted" in order to ensure "the best solution" was selected for the council's needs.

Bragg told Computing how she examined Citrix's Xen Desktop, but then rejected it due to cost fears.

"At the time, we would have liked Citrix, but thought it was out of our reach financially because it's seen as the Rolls-Royce of virtualisation," she said.

However, discussions between Citrix and Medway resulted in the software provider offering its virtualised desktop solution to the council at a reduced cost, and following a proof-of-concept trial, the software was implemented across various departments, with staff ditching old desktops for a new thin-client solution.

Bragg said staff were given some training in how to use the new virtualised environment, but overall, she added, the transfer to the software was "quite straightforward". Indeed, she said, "a bigger challenge was for people moving to Office 2010", with staff so used to using an older version of the suite.

Despite a smooth initial phase, Medway still carried out trials to ensure the migration progressed smoothly.

"We carried out user acceptance testing," said Bragg. "We selected users from each group and observed them using everything they'd use in their normal environment to make sure it would work, so we could iron out any problems before they actually had the thin clients in their live environments."

"We really had very few issues with users having problems with the new technology," she added.

The move across to a virtualised desktop is only recent, but Medway has already felt some benefits, not least in terms of cost saving, and making it easier to consolidate both people and property. "One key benefit was we moved our Children's Services team - about 230 people - from three buildings into one over one weekend," said Bragg.

"It was much easier to move them on the thin-client technology and they have a hot-desking area in their new building they can share with 170 desks, and there's a lot of agile working in that team."

Bragg told Computing that the way in which council staff have embraced the new method of virtualised, agile working speaks volumes about its success.

"It was a coup for us, we had Children's Services singing its praises. Before we started everyone was very nervous. They had very old equipment but worried the change wasn't going to work.

"But actually we had an article in our newsletter saying how good and beneficial it was for them," she said, adding: "We've also seen benefits in energy saving," with the virtualised desktop and move to a single building both playing a part.

The smooth nature of the shift to virtualised desktops has left Bragg and Medway with no doubt as to the possibility of expanding its use in the council in future. "Future moves will hopefully follow the same process," Bragg said.

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