Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund (BHSF) is a non-profit employee benefits group offering health insurance and occupational health services to 4,000 client businesses and 304,000 policyholders around the UK. With 280 employees, it made £50.9m in revenues during 2019.
Nine months before the pandemic lockdown, BHSF had the foresight to review its business continuity practices. With the support of senior management, head of IT operations Richard Sower and his colleagues examined the company's procedures and quickly identified the lack of support for remote working as a potential issue.
The company had rented 20 desks at another business for use as a hot site served by a 10Mbit connection. Should disaster have struck, skeleton teams would have used them on a rolling basis in eight-hour shifts, decreasing its operational capacity.
At tens of thousands of pounds each year, the hot site service was far too expensive for what it offered. BHSF needed a more robust solution that wouldn't leave it struggling in a crisis.
The company also wanted to expand its business continuity capabilities with better support for remote workers logging into its infrastructure. It relied on a single SonicWall device providing remote access to its offices along with 100-licences for the SonicWall NetExtender SSL VPN.
With barely a third of its staff supported concurrently, it wanted more capacity. With just Sower, two technicians, and one apprentice supporting its IT operation, researching and creating an alternative solution in-house would have been prohibitively time-consuming and expensive.
The company turned to Probrand for help. For over five years, BHSF had used its anti-virus, patching, and remote support services. The managed services provider has helped BHSF through some sticky situations, recalls Sower.
In 2019, BHSF had accidentally deleted a large folder containing important healthcare data. It was having trouble restoring backups, and the disruption halted part of the business for a few hours. Probrand was able to fix the problem remotely.
Probrand also provides managed security services to BHSF, including Mimecast for email protection and retention, and a managed antivirus service.
These successes gave BHSF enough confidence in Probrand to ask for its help creating a robust business continuity solution.
Probrand upgraded the SonicWall firewall to offer more capacity for bandwidth and concurrent connections, along with better virus protection. It also added a second firewall to act as a backup for the first.
To support all of BHSF's workers at once, Probrand upgraded its remote access capability with SonicWall Secure Mobile Access (SMA) 8200v remote access virtual appliances. It protected BHSF with on-site failover devices for both the SMA and firewall devices. For even more resilience, it also provided additional failover capacity at its own data centre.
Probrand also helped BHSF resolve some key concerns over server accessibility and performance. The Fund had several virtual servers approaching their end of life, including Exchange Server 2010 and some Windows Server 2008 boxes. Its physical hosts could not support the new software, so Probrand helped it to repurpose some computers that it had been using as Citrix servers to host the upgraded software.
The location of its servers was also a problem for business continuity, recalls Sower. "Our head office isn't very big and the server room isn't well-equipped," he says, explaining that there was no fire suppression and insufficient access control there.
The company had planned to migrate three physical servers to its London data centre but it had to postpone the move several times. It underestimated the complexity of the move and its implications for network and security infrastructure, including VPN connections, access control lists, and subnets.
Probrand had advised the Fund for a couple of years as it planned for the move, but in September 2020 Sower and his team asked the company to get more involved.
"It was really Probrand that did most of the complex work for us," he says. "We have relied very heavily on their help."
Probrand and BHSF started rolling out the firewall and remote access expansion in February 2020, shortly before the pandemic would test the business continuity in organisations across the UK. The new, higher-capacity remote access system immediately supported 280 people working from home, Sower says.
Probrand also helped BHSF bridge a gap that could have put its business continuity effort at risk. It was halfway through a three-year plan to procure laptops for all its employees, and still needed to source 100 machines for its helpdesk and claims support team.
The IT team's procurement timeframe suddenly shrunk for 18 months to one, at a time when supply chains were tight.
"Probrand managed to source us quite a few laptops, even though some of the big companies were trying to buy everything that was moving," he says.
BHSF is now in a good position to continue working as the UK struggles with lockdown conditions. "There's no way we could have accommodated all 280 staff on our old VPN system," he says. "If we hadn't been able to get everyone working remotely, it would have been very difficult for the business to carry on."
Thanks to BHSF's own foresight and its partnership with Probrand, BHSF's IT will remain in fine health, enabling it to weather even the most unexpected crises.