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If you’ve been on the London Underground recently, you’ll no doubt have seen the large billboard posters advertising Crisis’ annual Christmas appeal to help the homeless, writes Simon Clark, CEO, Aimar Foundation.

Since 1967, the charity has been supporting 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.

Frankly it’s a tragedy that -- after 55 years -- this kind of annual campaign is still needed in a wealthy G7 country like the UK where it’s estimated today that 200,000 households are homeless.

That’s about the same number who visit the Glastonbury Festival each year. And the demand for help is only getting greater given the cost of living increases unless the government takes much firmer action to tackle it.

At Christmas, Crisis sets up residential and day care centres and offers various services -- from medical, dental, financial, counselling services to social and sports activities.  It also feeds people: over 31,000 meals are cooked using more than 200 tons of food.  (Founded in 2005, the Aimar Foundation is a charity with a mandate to help not-for-profit organisations with their IT. We’ve been Crisis’ primary technology partner for the past 15 years.)

A Crisis volunteer.

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.

The whole IT environment has been reviewed and re-engineered. A range of new technical innovations have been 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, we’ve decided to migrate away from VDI given the price per desktop has increased year on year. The solution could be scaled easily, but the costs would have increased, too.

A different approach has been taken; rather than having a desktop in the cloud, apps and data have been shifted to the cloud and migrated to Office 365 and Teams for volunteers.

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2: For Crisis staff, IGEL has again kindly 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.

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 our 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

We have 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 Aimar Foundation. This is so that we can run our own applications, monitoring and management tools, completely segregated from data and applications hosted on the Crisis tenants.

An IGEL UMS server runs on the 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 three or four 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. This was completed by An0 Technology Ltd, a cloud consultancy and managed services provider.

In his day job, Simon Clark, is part of Microsoft UK’s customer success unit. Outside work, he’s CEO of the Aimar Foundation, a not-for-profit consultancy helping charities with their IT.  Here he outlines the technology including IGEL OS, used to make the annual Crisis for Christmas appeal a success
Simon Clark, CEO, Aimar Foundation

Each year, we introduce new innovation.

For example, we’ve 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 a huge 60% time saving has been made on order processing.

Printing always been a challenge for us 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, we invested in buying our own MFPs over ten years ago which have recently been updated.

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, we 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’.

The logistical challenges around Crisis for Christmas are massive so the shift to the cloud is really helping; it’s an ideal technology approach given we set up services for Crisis over a short period of time over Christmas and then turn them off in the New Year. Without the IT support received from all partners, Crisis just wouldn’t be able to deliver the project like it does and we’re very proud to be the driving force on the project from a technology perspective.

You can donate to Crisis here.

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