Royal College of GPs’ £1.5 million virtual makeover

When the Royal College of General Practitioners was planning to move its head office from a traditional building in London to modern purpose-built offices, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to modernise its IT infrastructure as well.

Indeed, Andy Smith, head of IT at the Royal College, knew that some kind of radical surgery might be required from the moment he joined, due to the lack of a clear IT strategy and the ad hoc manner in which the organisation’s hardware ‘estate’ had grown.

“We had about 36 physical servers, each running separate applications. So it was time to review how we were going to do our backups, manage our data and perform many other tasks moving forward,” he says.

That meant re-examining tasks such as data de-duplication, disaster recovery and business continuity planning (which had been minimal prior to Smith’s appointment) and email management, and to rethink the IT department’s operating model.

“We wanted to create a flexible environment. We also knew that as a college we were growing, but could not sustain our growth just by buying more square footage of office space in London,” says Smith.

Remote working

The idea was to migrate the infrastructure to a new virtualised platform that would enable staff to work remotely from home or in the field. Instead of having a desk, pedestal and PC in the office, staff have a Dell netbook that is stored in a locker out of hours. When staff arrive at work they take their netbook out of their locker, find a spare desk and plug it into the network and a monitor. Alternatively, they can work on their netbook anywhere in the country, or from their PC at home.

Virtualisation was a key enabler of Smith’s vision. The first stage of the project was to establish a virtualised back-end, based on two NetApp FAS2040 storage area network (SAN) appliances, and a VMware vSphere 4.1 virtualisation platform, coupled with Citrix XenApp to roll out standardised desktops to staff across the whole organisation.

At the same time, vCenter Site Recovery Manager was implemented for disaster recovery, while Citrix Asset Gateway scans remote connections when staff log in from outside the office to make sure the PCs they are using are secure. Softphone technology enables calls to be routed cost-free from the office to the PCs staff are using.

The core of the migration took place over 16 weeks in 2010. It involved re-examining every application on the servers in the data centre, virtualising all those applications that were going to be retained, moving data centres and deploying the all-new desktops to staff. Smith also used it as an opportunity to start a programme of standardisation for key software components.

The move to modern offices in Central London will finally be executed this summer, but the organisation’s IT infrastructure is ready. Indeed, the Royal College has reduced the number of physical servers it operates from 36 to just nine. This in turn has allowed it to consolidate operating systems, and the database and application software it supports, cutting licensing costs.

It now runs 96 virtual servers, and has also put together a separate test and development environment on the same systems to enable IT staff to build new applications more quickly.

The new environment did not come cheap, though – it cost about £1.5 million in total. Much of this came from completely new hardware, from servers to over 100 netbooks. The programme even included retiring some 100 printers and replacing them with just seven modern printers with FollowMe printing. This means that printers only print when staff go to the printer they want to print from and insert a swipe card in the specialist card reader, saving on both paper and toner costs.

However, ongoing IT costs are now about 30% to 40% lower, Smith believes. Savings come from lower licensing costs, lower maintenance bills and lower electricity bills, he says.  

Furthermore, backup windows have been reduced from days to hours, and the Royal College’s ‘recovery time objectives’ for getting servers back up and running when they go down has been slashed from days to minutes.

The Royal College had considered alternatives, such as cloud computing, but found them lacking. “We decided against that for many reasons, not least of which was that if we had done so, we couldn’t fulfil ISO compliance if we had our data in someone else’s cloud,” says Smith.

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