Features: December 17th, 2010

By Ewen Anderson

In an uncertain economy, our instinct is to make the best with what we have, rather than splash out on new products. Car owners are an obvious example. They eke out another thirty thousand miles from their old vehicle, patching her up at the garage every time she develops another rattle. The fact that a new car would save on fuel, tax and running costs – not to mention stress – is eclipsed by this determination to battle on grimly as before.

For local government departments likewise, the temptation is strong to do the best they can within the status quo, rather than searching for a better alternative. This is perhaps understandable after all, the public sector is facing severe cuts in funding, but the demands for services will remain as they are. Indeed, they may well increase as investment from the private sector shrinks.

Meanwhile, Westminster appears to have turned its back on local government, shelving long-awaited reform of the finance systems.

While councils may see their core responsibilities as to empty the bins and bury the dead, with everything else optional; citizens’ expectations in times of financial constraint are likely to be much more wide ranging. Recession and redundancy are guaranteed to drive folks back to the libraries, into the parks and leisure facilities, and into the offices of social services for support. The local community, resentful of perceived bureaucratic inefficiency, will not tolerate a hike in council tax to pay for any financial shortfall. In short, town hall chiefs are being asked to spin straw into gold.

In this cost-saving environment, IT services can appear as a soft target. As long as the support staff keep the lights on, says the jittery finance director, then we’ll get by just fine, no? We cannot risk making an expensive mistake, so it’s far safer to use sticking-plaster rather than wield the big broom, right?

This reaction is hardly a new or surprising one. Restrictions on capital expenditure, costly procurement exercises and short term cost considerations have too often got in the way of long-term efficiency and quality of service benefits.

Invest to save

But, just like the stubborn car owner who patches up his wheezing gas-guzzler, those authorities that carry on regardless are living in a false economy. Investment in new IT solutions will quickly save money and provide better services: the dream scenario for all electable councillors.

Desktop virtualisation is the key to this alchemy. Instead of running hundreds, or thousands of costly desktop PCs across a number of different locations, departments and operating systems, a cloud-based service can dramatically improve efficiency whilst saving money on power and maintenance. Virtualisation encourages hot-desking and flexible working, as employees can work from any client device on the system, so reaping further financial savings.

According to technology analysts Gartner, organisations can save between 40 per cent and 70 per cent on overall operating costs per user per month by implementing an application or desktop virtualisation solution. A separate study by the Butler Group found that organisations can save half their energy costs by switching to a virtual desktop, which also represents a substantial reduction in an organisation’s carbon footprint.

Aside from the financial benefits, the efficiency gains are immediately reflected in the day to day running of the system. Authorities are increasingly expected to “join up” departments – education, health and social services – and coordinate their response to changing workloads, funding and priorities. Central government’s decision to change roles and responsibilities between departments will inevitably increase the need for flexible, secure access to systems from new users, locations and organisations, with very little budget allocated to transitional services or support. Virtualising the desktop allows any system or data to be delivered without the need to visit or install software onto the user’s PC.

Delivering savings

Surrey County Council, for example, is profiting from a new desktop strategy for 8,000 users, ten per cent of whom are mobile. The Council recognised that its desktop strategy was becoming unwieldy and out-of-date and it needed to ensure that application upgrade and management costs didn’t escalate; it also needed a greater degree of flexibility. A new Citrix-based installation has allowed County Hall to replace more than half of its ‘fat’ 6,000 desktops across 300 sites with ‘thin’ hot-desk terminals. Centralising all the Council’s servers and file storage in one place has improved accessibility and productivity levels and met Surrey’s need for users to be more mobile, improve performance and to reduce power requirements and costs.

As well as this increased horizontal sharing, where information and systems are shared between different agencies, authorities are increasingly demanding vertical shared services, delivering a wide variety of different systems to similar organisations in different locations. These shared services can use desktop virtualisation to centralise delivery into a shared environment, where pooled budgets and resources can delivery economies of scale. It is often said that two can live nearly as cheaply as one (particularly if you cut out all the discretionary spending!) and this is equally true of running IT delivery services.

Some costs are unique and based on the number of users, but many can be shared resulting in real savings. For example, The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), the national housing and regeneration agency for England, provides staff with access to core business applications via a Citrix XenApp environment. One thousand users have been federalised by the solution. The flexibility and scalability provided by the Citrix environment is central to the Agency’s ICT Strategy.

Critically though, local government will seek to make savings wherever it can that do not directly affect jobs or impact adversely on service delivery. That means reducing accommodation and travel costs, and cutting spend on new equipment and maintenance wherever it’s safe and sensible to do so. Virtualised desktops can play their part here too, allowing staff to work from home, or any office with a client device, extending the lifespan of existing equipment and moving to a “swap on fail” for client devices. Taken together these measures can significantly reduce accommodation footprint through hot-desking, reduce maintenance and support costs and make staff more productive.

Solihull Community Housing Association, in collaboration with Solihull Council, deployed a Citrix XenDesktop Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) solution to support independent working for its duty managers. Located at specific sites across the borough, the duty managers previously logged into dedicated PCs at their respective location. Now, they can work from any site within the borough. Introducing a far greater degree of flexibility, the system allows registered users to securely log into their virtualised desktop from any location. In a stroke, the system increased overall workforce efficiency by removing the need for a duty manager to be present at every location all of the time.

These technology solutions may not be wired to spin straw into gold, but they can deliver effective and efficient IT services whilst reducing costs. Town hall chiefs who realise calculated investment can save money may find the time is right to trade in the spluttering rust bucket for a vehicle that will drive performance and savings for many years to come.

Ewen Anderson is Managing Director, Centralis Ltd. Centralis is a leading independent IT consultancy, specialising in delivering applications securely to their point of use. www.centralis.co.uk