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IGEL, provider of the managed endpoint operating system for secure access to any digital workspace, says that it is the major technology partner supporting the annual Crisis for Christmas campaign to help the homeless – the 12th year it has helped the charity.
Since 1967, Crisis has supported the most disadvantaged in society at Christmas, helping to get rough sleepers off the streets at a time when the nation is celebrating the festive period with friends and family.
According to Crisis’ research, 200,000 households are homeless in Britain today - not dissimilar to the number who visit the Glastonbury Festival each year - with rough sleeping expected to rise 76% in the next decade unless the government finally takes firm action to tackle it.
At Christmas, Crisis sets up residential and day care centres and offers various services – everything from medical, dental, financial, counselling along with social and sports activities. It also feeds people: over 31,000 meals are cooked using more than 200 tons of food.
The Aimar Foundation, a charity founded in 2005 with a mandate to help other not-for-profit organisations with their IT, has been Crisis’ primary technology partner for the past 15 years. IGEL supports the Aimar Foundation with technology therefore playing a vital role delivering the project.
COVID-19 forced a radical change in how Christmas services are delivered
In 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic drove a complete rethink about how the whole Christmas project is run, with the same approach to IT to be taken this year.
Chris Riley, the Aimar Foundation’s CTO and project director, explains, “COVID-19 prompted a thorough review and re-engineering of the whole IT environment. A range of new technical innovations were introduced, not only to guarantee a practical way for guests to actually contact Crisis for help, but to enable team collaboration and remote working. This was important to ensure help could still be provided in the event that one worker got sick and the whole shift then had to self-isolate.”
A unified communications and cloud strategy has been implemented using various components:
1. In the past, hundreds of IGEL OS powered endpoints connecting to Citrix virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) were installed in temporary Internet Cafes – quickly set up for the Christmas appeal. Guests could then access a hosted desktop running Microsoft Office to surf the web, send emails and communicate with loved ones, with Crisis’ operational staff also using the same equipment. After a hiatus because of Covid lockdowns, the Internet Cafes will again be set up this year at the various Crisis centres.
However, the Aimar Foundation has decided to migrate away from VDI given the price per desktop had increased year on year.
Simon Clark, the Aimar Foundation’s CEO and part of Microsoft UK’s customer success unit, says, “We could scale the solution easily, but the costs would have increased, too. We've taken a different approach; rather than having a desktop in the cloud, we’ve shifted to apps and data to the cloud and migrated to Office 365 and Teams for volunteers.
2. For Crisis staff, IGEL has again loaned its powerful UD7 endpoints which enable client apps for both Office 365 and Zoom to be run natively on each device taking advantage of the latest AMD Ryzen processor and 8GB of RAM. Put another way, the multimedia ready IGEL UD7 endpoints allow direct access to the Internet without the need for the additional cost of connecting to a VDI environment. This is a huge benefit for the Crisis volunteers. Teams means staff can collaborate and work together through the one platform whereas before it meant communication through email or numerous mobile phone calls.
In addition, all Internet Cafes this year will use pre-owned Lenovo mini-PCs, repurposed to run IGEL OS. They are supplied by Tier 1 Asset Management – a company that specialises in the ethical refurbishment of technology assets which supports the Aimar Foundation’s focus on sustainability.
3. For Crisis volunteers, a software-based VoIP platform from 3CX hosted by Gradwell Communications is being used, too. 3CX is a virtual PBX able to handle the call volumes between volunteers – avoiding the need for them to make expensive mobile phone calls.
The cloud delivers total flexibility for backend infrastructure
The Aimar Foundation has shifted the back-end infrastructure to Microsoft Office 365 and Azure with three separate tenants set up: one for the Christmas campaign only; the second for Crisis to use all year round for operational purposes; and a third dedicated to the Aimar Foundation itself. This is so that it can run its own applications, monitoring and management tools, completely segregated from data and applications hosted on the Crisis tenants.
Riley says, “An IGEL UMS server runs on the aimarfoundation.org tenant which sits behind cloud VPNs to ensure maximum security. This is a major benefit - the ability to use UMS in Azure to deploy a site from scratch in literally 3 or 4 hours with no requirement for a local server.”
Crisis has also updated its primary operational application – C-Log - which underpins the Christmas campaign and records all advisor interactions with guests. This has been migrated from Microsoft Access to Microsoft Dynamics 365 and has been integrated with the 3CX phone system.
Clark adds, “Each year, we always try to bring new innovation. We built a PowerApp to manage the whole logistics process. So, if one location wants black trousers in XL, this is ordered and delivered. It’s integrated with Teams and a big improvement compared to the old paper-based process such that we estimate a huge 60% time saving on order processing.”
In terms of printing, this has always been a challenge for the Aimar Foundation in terms of sourcing equipment at short notice, with practical problems then having to be solved such as whether the machines have a network card and the right drivers installed. To address this, the Aimar Foundation invested in buying its own MFPs over ten years ago which have recently been updated.
Riley explains, “Sponsorship by Konica Minolta – who kindly loaned us 33 Bizhub C3531 and C3831 machines – has introduced colour printing, with a hosted, Azure-based print solution from PaperCut now used, too. This allows guests and volunteers at all locations to send emails and/or attachments for easy printing as well as scanning directly from the printers to their email addresses.”
Moving forward, the Aimar Foundation will be look at how it can capitalise on the power and features of IGEL OS to re-purpose other hardware to be more sustainable and ‘green’.
Ian Richards, Head of Crisis for Christmas, says, “The logistical challenges are massive so the shift to the cloud really helps us: it’s an ideal technology approach given we set up services for a short period of time over Christmas and then turn them off in the New Year. Without the IT support we get from all our partners, particularly the Aimar Foundation and IGEL, we just wouldn’t be able to deliver the project like we do.”