The global pandemic has forced organisations across the globe to innovate and digitally transform their IT offerings as their workforces transition to remote ways of working. Trafford Council was looking to digitally transform its IT infrastructure, and Jon Thomson, Head of IT Operations at Trafford Council, tells us how it has been able to keep its core critical services up and running, regardless of where the team was based.
Trafford Council is the local authority of the Metropolitan Borough of Trafford in Greater Manchester, England. It is a metropolitan district council, one of 10 in Greater Manchester and one of 36 in the metropolitan counties of England. It provides the majority of local government services in Trafford.
Catalyst for change
Like many organisations around the world, Trafford Council was looking to digitally transform its IT infrastructure and was starting a Digital Transformation programme to make it easier for customers to access its services. By re-engineering and automating workflows, and streamlining customer interactions through self-service, the team at Trafford Council knew that Digital Transformation would transform the way it worked and the services it offered.
A key element of the preparatory work was to understand how its employees were accessing applications, when they were accessing those applications and critically, from which location they were accessing them – in the office, on the move, or at home.
In parallel, the team at Trafford Council was almost ready to press the green light on a Windows 10 rollout which, for most staff, meant a laptop upgrade and the option to work remotely more often and for longer periods of time.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with employees needing to work from home, the priorities for Trafford Council’s IT teams changed in an instant.
Jon Thomson, Head of IT Operations at Trafford Council, said: “IT is a key enabler for all of our services, but for some services it’s absolutely critical. Our number one priority was to keep our core critical services up and running, regardless of where the team was based. We had to mobilise those members of the team – and fast.”
How BlueFort helped
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a small number of Trafford Council’s team required remote access to the IT infrastructure via Pulse Secure’s Remote Access VPN. Peak usage was fairly low – on average around 200 people per day.
With nearly all of its employees now working remotely, Trafford Council needed a solution that provided access to around 10x more users than its current technology licence would allow.
In the months leading up to the initial lockdown, the IT and BlueFort teams had been assessing a range of potential alternative connectivity options, but all of that fell by the wayside on March 23, 2020.
“When in a code-red situation, you need a proven piece of technology that’s scalable and resilient,” said Thomson. “We had confidence and faith in the BlueFort team and the Pulse Secure platform. Neither had let us down thus far, so we decided to stick with what we knew – a technology that is robust, scalable and simply did its job.”
The first thing the BlueFort team did was to establish a Pulse Secure ICE (In Case of Emergency) licence for Trafford Council while they set up more permanent licences for the team to use. This emergency licence enabled Trafford to instantly address the dramatic peak in demand for remote access by supporting additional users on physical and virtual Pulse Secure PSA Series appliances.
With the lion’s share of the work taking place over what the team described as ‘a very long weekend’ within 10 days, Trafford Council was able to scale up to provide reliable resilient access for 2,100 employees with an average daily usage of 1,500 users.
What happened next
Throughout April last year, Thomson and his team at Trafford Council got to deploy laptops to staff within the council’s critical service areas and as a result, many of their users were fully set up to use the Pulse Secure VPN technology.
A key benefit of the Pulse Secure VPN is that it is very user-friendly, with many of the security checks happening automatically without the user even being aware. Given that Trafford’s staff have varying degrees of IT literacy, Thomson was keen to continue with a platform that employees were comfortable with and confident using.
With the UK facing regional lockdowns at very short notice, Trafford Council is confident that all of its users will now be able to work securely and efficiently wherever they are.
“Considering the unprecedented demand that BlueFort Security and Pulse Secure were processing for literally hundreds of users, we experienced minimal disruption,” said Thomson. “We were well supported by both teams and the result was that none of our critical services suffered and all our users were able to work remotely very quickly.”
Jon Thomson, Head of IT Operations at Trafford Council, tells us more about the implementation and the ways it has impacted business functionality.
Can you tell us about your role at the company?
I joined Trafford Council as Head of IT Operations to support the Chief Digital Officer in delivering the digital strategy and to develop our IT services we offer our customers.
My role focuses on how we can improve the IT service within the council. The impact of the pandemic on how we deliver our frontline services has meant our staff are working in a different way at different times and some with new technology. We need to make our services accessible so we can support our staff in the way they are working today.
Over the next 12 months, our IT service improvement programme will empower staff when they access our services, giving them easy to access support both digitally and through knowledge and allow them to track the progress of any services they have requested.
Trafford has a vision, desire and aspiration to modernise our council services, making them accessible to all our residents through a variety of channels we need to do the same in IT.
Why did you select BlueFort Security as the technology vendor?
We had confidence and faith in the product – it had never let us down. We did have one or two teething problems, primarily around how the platform took the temporary licences, which we had for seven to 10 days until the licence key was released, but things started to settle down quickly. We ended up within about 10 days – three weeks having an average of around 1,500 people connecting through our VPN Pulse platform, with no issues at all from the outset.
We had several options on the table but when you’re in a priority 1 situation, you need to move fast with a provider and proven product that’s stable, resilient and scalable. This was what we already had in place and it wasn’t the time to introduce unknowns. Other solutions may be proven, but we knew the Pulse platform and were already working closely with a partner we knew could deliver what we needed.
Was COVID-19 the sole initiator behind the need to digitally transform and how important is Digital Transformation for you as provider of the majority of local government services in Trafford?
The modernisation programme that has been underway for some time is underpinned by the Chief Digital Officer’s digital strategy. This involves both modernising council services and giving residents in the borough digital channels to access council services. I know from my experience that aspirations to digitise and modernise services also mean you have to look at your workforce as well.
When the pandemic came along, we set up various emergency groups. One was around the immediate needs of the council, but the teams were varied – encompassing everything from bin collections, to how the council was going to deliver critical services. IT was at the centre of this – identifying core critical services and what technology needed to be mobilised.
Our focus was to mobilise staff. We were already planning a Windows 10 upgrade and had an order of more than 1,000 devices, of which 950 were laptops or tablets. We were also able to source another 150 laptops and 100 Wi-Fi enabled desktops. With global supply chains impacted, the stock we had in place let us get around 300 devices out into the business quickly so we could support critical services. Then we started to see the demand on our Pulse VPN platform.
We were licensed for around 300 users but needed to deploy an ICE licence for short-term use of 50-60 days. This is designed for when serious things happen and was a good immediate fix, but it soon became apparent that we’d be working like this for a long period of time, so we needed a more permanent solution.
Did the implementation go ahead as planned and did you experience any downtime?
Before the pandemic, on a typical day we’d have 100-150 staff accessing the Pulse VPN technology. This was predominantly staff at home, but we might have the occasional social worker out in the field connecting through Wi-Fi too. Staff were also only connecting for a short period of time while they were accessing emails or logging into parts of the system.
When it soon became apparent that we would be working around this for a long time, we had two immediate priorities: getting hold of equipment so we could mobilise the workforce; and scaling the Pulse VPN technology.
Very quickly we started to see people accessing remotely from home and it getting to the point where we’d reached our capacity. We started communication with BlueFort Security to find out what our options were on increasing that capacity. Eventually, we took this right up to 2,100 but we were running on temporary licences for some time. This helped the mad rush of people connecting, but we needed a long-term solution quickly.
What are some of the key IT benefits that end-users are now experiencing?
We have a varying degree of IT literacy across the estate and it was all hands to the pump on quickly getting guidance pulled together. We had lots of people using laptops for the first time, so we’ve been able to give our staff some confidence in using the technology.
During the mad month of April, it was a bit unreal. All staff moved to home working wherever possible, so our focus on mobilising staff, giving them laptops and ensuring they could connect to the various services within the council – including key income generators. We were able to get devices into people’s homes and connect them through Pulse VPN so they could continue to provide those services. It was a reaction. For those three to four weeks it was about getting those critical services up and running. We can now get 2,100 people connected at any one time and see an average of 1,300-1,500 in any given day. We haven’t had a single blip since it’s gone live and have been in a position to support our council and critical council services – it’s one of the big success stories for us from a technology perspective.Click below to share this article