Mental health charity Together For Mental Wellbeing has migrated its old server room to a virtual datacentre (VDC) hosted by Node4.
Funded by the NHS and local authorities, the charity’s services include community support, supported housing and 24-hour residential accommodation, advocacy, and assistance for those experiencing mental distress in criminal justice settings such as courts and on probation.
The migration, which had to be completed in less than four months, involved moving applications running on the charity’s physical server infrastructure to a virtual environment, and providing secure connectivity to certain NHS applications.
When he joined Together for Mental Wellbeing in April 2022, IT manager Hiten Patel conducted a risk assessment of the server room, which was in an outbuilding. He found that not only was the IT infrastructure quite old and some IT was unsupported, but the building the disaster recovery (DR) site was hosted in was actually owned by the NHS.
“We eventually ended up losing our DR site, as the building actually belonged to the NHS,” says Patel. “We basically had to vacate the premises.”
He admits it was quite fortunate that the main server room was located on a site owned by the charity, but as Patel recalls, the IT infrastructure in place was “kind of quite old”.
“The servers ran Hyper-V with various corporate applications and file storage,” he says, adding that there was no maintenance on the hardware and the firewalls were reaching end of life. “We would have to look at some sort of replacement.”
Charity IT modernisation challenges
Having worked at the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, and at Action for Children, Patel is accustomed to the challenges charities face in modernising IT that needs to be balanced with the funding required to help the people they support. Technology costs can be quite high, even for charities.
“I don’t think charities actually get a fair discount when it comes to purchasing stuff. It is quite expensive,” he says. “Do you spend money on providing the services for the people that need it or do you spend thousands of pounds improving your IT infrastructure?”
However, his risk assessment did ring some alarm bells in the executive team. “The actual server room was part of the residential service that we were providing. It was a risk in itself because there was no security in place.” For instance, he says, there was one instance when somebody accidentally turned off the cooling in the room.
With a team of only four, Patel decided that it would be more cost-effective to have the servers hosted in a virtual datacentre provided by Node4. The charity also uses some Microsoft cloud software such as Office 365.
If Patel had decided to purchase new server hardware, then this would also require support and maintenance fees and in-house skill for managing the applications. “I think there’s a bit of a trade-off,” he adds.
He also looked at the Microsoft Cloud, but says it worked out much more expensive “as an operating cost”.
Patel was also not confident that Microsoft would have a viable way to provide the connectivity the charity required into the NHS health and social care network. The old server room used virtual desktops to provide access – but at Node4, Patel has also provided VPN access.
Migrating to a virtual datacentre
In terms of migrating over to Node4, Patel says: “I was worried of the time scale, because there was going to be some building work also happening. We were extending our services and basically knocking down quite a large annex in the garden to make a bigger accommodation annex that would house more service users.”
Node4 was selected at the end of 2022, but the building work was due to take place around Easter 2023. “We basically had from January to to April to to get the datacentre migrate done, which is not a lot of time,” said Patel.
This migration was his fourth datacentre move, adding that it’s also the one that’s been completed in the shortest time span.
His previous three moves were basically lifting and shifting existing equipment. Lift and shift, he says, involves simply taking down the servers and bringing them back up at another site. The Node4 move required a substantially greater level of planning.
“If you haven’t got documentation and audits in place to know what’s what and how it all connects up together, then you’re in for a bit of an issue,” says Patel.
He adds that Node4 was his first experience of a migration into a virtual datacentre: “It was a bit nerve wracking in the sense that you know the time scales, but there was actually a marked improvement in performance on various applications.” This, he says, was probably due to the fact that the virtual environment ran on top of modern hardware.
Node4 provides the virtual datacentre environment in its Northampton site, with disaster recovery in Wakefield. “I believe they’re two physical datacentres, which can fail over,” Patel adds.
The new servers are also load-balanced to ensure optimum performance even during peak usage. In addition, the entire environment is protected by two fully customisable, enterprise-grade firewalls, giving the charity a much-needed IT security enhancement.
Patel says IT admin access is provided through a web portal to enable the team to make configuration changes to the virtual datacentre environment.
“These days, we access our IT infrastructure remotely via an easy-to-use portal. We can provision new virtual machines, change configurations, reboot servers and perform restores from backups – it’s a total game-changer” he says.
“Best of all, the mundane, time-intensive patch management, firmware updates and other infrastructure-related admin is now handled by Node4 as part of their managed service offering.”