Implementing remote working rapidly and affordably for an NHS Trust

As COVID-19 began to spread in the UK, this NHS Trust needed a quick and affordable remote working solution to enable non-clinical staff to continue supporting their colleagues while working at home to reduce the risk of spreading infection. By repurposing servers from another project at the Trust, Fordway designed and implemented a solution in less than three weeks with capacity for several thousand users, using technology that the Trust was familiar with and could manage from its existing suite of tools.


VDI had been tested but was not a priority

The NHS Trust operates two hospitals in the Home Counties and employs some 5,000 staff. It provides acute and community healthcare services from seven hospitals, with an additional central office that hosts a combination of IT and wider business support functions.

This Trust had been aware that it needed a remote working solution for its office-based staff well before the outbreak of COVID-19. It had been testing a VDI solution for several months, but a combination of business as usual, availability of staff and other IT priorities had meant that the project remained on the ‘nice to do list’. COVID-19 and the enforced lockdown changed everything.

Diverting existing equipment provided a quick and affordable solution

In 2019, Fordway had upgraded much of the Trust’s VMware estate to the latest version of software, which would enable it to support remote working in the future. However, due to hardware limitations, some servers could not be upgraded to the latest version. Fordway recommended replacing them with newer servers to enable a secure and consistent service but other priorities superseded this. Instead, the Trust asked Fordway to add install new rack servers and fibre channel switches to overcome CPU and RAM capacity limitations. This project was at the design stage when the spread of COVID-19 promoted a change of direction.

The priority now was to implement remote working for some 1,000 staff, enabling them to support their colleagues on the front line while avoiding social contact and thus helping to reduce the spread of the virus. This essentially meant installing a VDI system from scratch because, although VDI had been tested, it had never been rolled out or used for day-to-day activities.
Fortunately, the Trust already had servers available on site which had been purchased for the project to increase the VMware estate capacity. These were immediately repurposed so they could be set up to provide a dedicated VDI environment with new functionality to support remote working, running VMware View. The question now was: how many users could the Trust’s infrastructure support without bottlenecks or a degraded service?

Choosing familiar technology helped with rapid implementation

Fordway strategists worked with the Trust to calculate the total number of users that each server could handle, and the storage capacity required to enable each user to store data in their VDI instance and provide adequate performance to support them. They advised that the Trust would need an additional SAN to provide extra performance and storage to the server hosted VDI sessions, ensuring suitable user performance.

We recommended a Dell Compellent SC7020 array with 20TB high performance SSD, which they purchased, for three reasons. First, the Trust already used Dell Compellent for its primary storage and so was familiar with the technology. Second, in the future the new SAN could be reused to provide both primary storage and dedicated VMware View storage, thus removing the need for a future large-scale capital storage refresh. Third, a suitable array was readily available and delivery would not be impacted by the crisis.

Advance preparation meant the new SAN began operations on day of delivery

Whilst the SC7020 was being manufactured and shipped, Fordway’s VMware specialists worked alongside the Trust’s IT team to prepare the VMware View environment. This included assisting them to set up the Horizon agent on the Windows desktops to enable them to communicate with the server and creating gold (master) images for each department. They also configured the backend infrastructure, using VMware’s Instant Clone technology to create the large numbers of new virtual machines needed quickly and accurately.

Initial infrastructure was set up on the existing Dell Compellent SAN, so that the appropriate portion of configured disks (the LUN or logical unit number) could be migrated across to the new SC7020 as soon as it arrived. This also allowed small scale testing to begin across a range of departments to ensure that the builds met user needs.

As soon as the new SAN was delivered, Fordway immediately racked, connected and configured it so that it was able to begin supporting users on the day of delivery. This enabled specific departments to begin working from home immediately. To ensure there was no performance loss as user numbers were ramped up, both the Trust and Fordway used Dell Technologies’ Cloud IQ suite to monitor performance and ensure there was sufficient storage and sufficient IOPS to meet requirements. If available capacity became an issue, the two parties could quickly identify the issue and would be able to evaluate the available options and jointly agree on the best way to proceed. However, to date capacity has not been a concern.

A scalable solution in three weeks

Through Fordway’s work with the NHS Trust, they were able to implement a scalable remote working solution in just three weeks, enabling staff to begin remote working as soon as the lockdown was implemented. The solution uses technology that the Trust is familiar with, making it straightforward to manage using existing tools and enabling the equipment to be repurposed for other requirements in the future. Performance levels have been high and the solution has delivered exactly what the Trust needed: enabling specific departments to work from home to support their colleagues while avoiding social contact to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Technical resolution

  • Existing technology: servers running a mix of VMWare vSphere 5.5 and 6.5
  • New solution: VMware View, Dell Compellent SC7020 storage array with 1.92TB SSD drives delivering approximately 346,000 (based on 80% reads, 20% writes).
  • IOPS required: 100GB per gold image and 10GB per user, with each host utilising a maximum of five gold images and supporting 150-200 users.

Find out more about Fordway flexible remote working solutions.

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