It has often been said that returning servicepeople may not have anywhere to turn for help after they have been discharged - especially if they run into problems adapting to life on 'civvy street'. That, however, is not true in the UK, where the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) charity, founded in 1885, provides support of various kinds to some 50,000 current and former members of the British armed forces and their families, both in the UK and abroad.
Like many diverse, growing and intensively managed organisations, the SSAFA was relying on an ICT infrastructure that was not keeping pace. But it didn't realise its systems needed an overhaul until this was brought to its attention by a reseller - Rochester, Kent based services and support provider Infotech Solutions.
Richard Allen, lead project manager at Infotech [pictured, above right], says that it had been working with SSAFA for years. Then, about three years ago, it talked to the charity about a road to a more efficient, affordable, scalable, fully integrated and supported IT setup.
"Their systems, historically, were built on a patchwork of different systems. This was to care for just London. And over the last seven years, their reach has gone global, effectively," he says. "So they had to put in more systems on top of their old ones."
That job would have been difficult enough. It was made more so by the spaghetti of different technologies already deployed, which was inefficient and wasteful of resources. There was also a selection of legacy systems, all becoming more expensive to support, especially as parts were becoming scarce. Infotech proposed replacement with a consolidated and virtualised infrastructure - reducing 18 servers down to 11 - and using a combination of offerings from the likes of Microsoft, HP, SonicWall and RSA Security.
"It was just not very flexible, so three years ago, we highlighted this to them, and then we put a proposal together on what we thought they should be doing," Allen says. "We were working very closely with the [in-house] IT team there, and they highlighted to us the technical difficulties as well as some of the business issues that needed to be addressed."
Life was getting especially complex for SSAFA, which, among other things, has set up groups that offer relatives of servicepeople - including reservists -- who have been injured while serving the chance to meet and share their experiences, information, and advice.
It runs a Ministry-of-Defence-funded health service with 350 health professionals offering treatment to servicepeople based in Germany, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Brunei, Nepal, and Canada. It also runs an adoption agency, arranges holidays for the children and carers of disabled servicepeople, and help for homeless ex-servicepeople. SSAFA also helps servicepeople who have ended up in prison.
Debbie Williams, IT manager at the charity, says she was "delighted" with Infotech's proposed solution.
"We have spent so much time and budget in the past establishing whether our systems could provide the functionality required and increased demands where new tender and projects emerge," Williams says. "The new virtualised environment will allow new software applications to be tested and evaluated quickly and efficiently, without the investment we are used to seeing. It will bring about real cost savings for us."
The services provider and SSAFA has been working directly with staff from HP and Microsoft as well as from distributor Computer 2000 on the project. Essentially, the new platform incorporates Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V with System Centre Virtual Machine Manager 2008, System Centre Data Protection Manager 2010 and System Centre Operation Manager 2007 with System Centre Suite Licensing.
The virtualised server environment, when completed towards the end of this year, is expected to be hosted on a single rack of 11 HP blades, with the HP4500 BladeSystem SAN which has disk-to-disk back-up. According to the vendor, this is cheaper than using pure tape backup and an offsite archive.
There are 250 end users, with London and remote staff served via virtual desktops. The whole is supported by virtualised disaster recovery replicating key London servers.
SSAFA's Williams says: "We are just over a year into the project now and the first two phases out of a total of seven were completed successfully. We are receiving positive responses from our users across Europe and the forthcoming phases will further expand the features and applications housed on the new infrastructure."
According to Infotech's Allen, the key to success was clear communication rather than fancy methodologies. And users are already benefiting, with administration and access simplified and easier to manage as well as more secure.
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