Red Cross kicks off massive IT refresh

The Australian Red Cross has had it with "dumb terminals" and poor IT scalability from the 1990s, and is now using a huge grant from Microsoft to kick off a refresh of the organisation's IT.
Written by Luke Hopewell, Contributor

The Australian Red Cross has had it with "dumb terminals" and poor IT scalability from the 1990s, and is now using a huge grant from Microsoft to kick off a refresh of the organisation's IT.

Warren Don, the director of IT at the Australian Red Cross, told ZDNet Australia that the Red Cross is currently putting up with IT infrastructure that was designed in 1998 and implemented in 2001, likening it to an "old mainframe terminal".

The current system sees terminals tap into a virtualised Windows XP environment using Citrix, complete with a basic copy of Microsoft Office 2003 to facilitate productivity. As a result, computing power, processing needs and storage requirements are handled by the old server, which was built for a much smaller organisation.

Since it was built, the organisation has grown by 75 per cent, Don said.

"The architecture has not scaled well, and our ability to get the right info to our volunteers and case workers in the field is not what we would desire," he said.

In an emergency, case workers and volunteers need instant access to information at 300 different sites around the country, Don said, making the current IT system not fit for purpose.

"We deliver daily over 140 community services around Australia from about 300 locations. Getting info to and from these people is crucial to us."

Don had decided that it was time for a radical change in the organisation, but needed some help to get it off the ground.

That leg up came from Microsoft Australia, which today announced that it is giving the Australian Red Cross a $10 million software grant to kick start its vital service delivery enhancement project. Don said he is grateful for the grant, which Microsoft says is the largest it has ever awarded.

"It's actually a lifeline for Red Cross. We couldn't be more thrilled," he said, adding that the modernisation is something that staff members have been screaming for.

"There's a groundswell of demand from the business to do this to enable them to provide better service to vulnerable people. The demand is astonishing — so is the willingness. It's been trying to find the means to do it, and without Microsoft, it couldn't have happened."

The grant will see the Red Cross implement a bevy of Microsoft gear, including Sharepoint, Lync and a new Microsoft Office suite.

The grant was the kick start that the Red Cross needed to get its hardware-replacement program off the ground, as well. Staff will get new laptops that take advantage of the power on the physical system, rather than dialling in to a virtualised infrastructure. Don added that the Red Cross is eagerly awaiting Windows 8-powered tablets for their "instant-on" capability and the ability to link back into the suite of Microsoft software.

The Red Cross will next month bring a new datacentre online that gives the organisation access to a new private cloud that Don says will train the organisation to make the best use of that type of service before moving out to hosted infrastructure in the future.

There are currently too many problems with public cloud and other data-hosting offerings to consider moving the Red Cross' data over, Don says, with concerns including privacy of user information, data lock-in and security.

"For Red Cross, we're all about people and confidential information. We have to interchange and interface a lot about people, and there's no single provider out there with a solution for us. We're doing it in house, and as [cloud] matures we're positioning ourselves that we can go to a public cloud or a hosted cloud later if it makes sense," Don said.

The new Red Cross datacentre will come online within the next two weeks, followed by a new desktop-productivity refresh, Sharepoint deployment and the roll-out of Lync for desktop communications.

The Red Cross will update one business unit at a time with the new technology, and Don expects to be finished the organisation-wide refresh by 2013.

CEO of the Australian Red Cross, Robert Tickner, told ZDNet Australia today that the new IT project represents a huge shift in the way that the organisation views IT.

"From the beginning, the core mission of Red Cross has been to deliver humanitarian programs, not only in times of disaster, but everyday support for vulnerable people and communities.

"To keep our humanitarian programs operating, our investment in technology infrastructure has been set at minimal levels, which has meant our platforms have not kept pace with rapid technological change," he said. He added that the grant from Microsoft is the spark that the IT refresh needed to get off the ground.

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