When the coronavirus began to spread in March, the staff at Hastings Prince Edward Public Health (HPEPH) in Ontario, Canada, shifted into crisis mode. It was all-hands-on-deck as employees reorganized operations to deal with a surge of questions from nervous residents.
“It was a situation where anything that wasn’t in support of COVID-19 response was set aside,” said IT systems manager Tom Lockhart.
HPEPH is a public agency that offers dozens of programs and services to citizens across Eastern Ontario. The IT department uses virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to allow staff to access electronic medical records (EMR) and other critical applications. As the coronavirus became a pandemic and the government ordered millions of office workers to shelter at home, Lockhart and his agency had to set up new ways of working. Creating a call center to assist the public was a major priority, as concerned people began to flood HPEPH with calls for information about COVID-19.
“We went from business as usual to having to ramp up a large call center in two days,” he said.
The technical infrastructure for the call center was already in place, but getting people trained to manage calls about a novel virus was a big challenge.
“We were pulling people in and training them to be a call center agent, which was new for most of them.”
How Virtualization Saved the Day
Meanwhile, HPEPH had to manage another huge shift: hundreds of staff suddenly needing to work from home. Fortunately, IT staff didn’t have to worry about giving remote access to sequestered employees. That’s because the agency had already replaced a client/server desktop computing model with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), now powered by Nutanix enterprise cloud software. This technology allows employees to use their computers anywhere and still access business applications and secure data. Rather than running on laptops or other computing devices, applications stream from HPEPH’s data center.
“The way we designed IT is so that we can deliver it from anywhere; we don’t have to have staff on-site,” Lockhart said. “There’s IT staff available to respond to requests, but it’s pretty much all virtual.”
IT maintains full control of applications and can update those applications centrally, so users don’t have to worry about such details. The environment is also far more secure than client/server because malware attacks don’t affect the virtual sessions, said Lockhart. He said having VDI in place allowed HPEPH to pivot from an office to an at-home workforce with little disruption.
“For organizations in a physical desktop model, I can’t imagine how you could deploy something like this in the amount of time we had,” Lockhart said. “I wouldn’t even want to worry about infrastructure right now.”