My Way - IT at Comic Relief

For Comic Relief, deploying effective IT is no laughing matter, as its head of IT John Thompson explains.

E&T: Comic Relief has just upgraded its storage in infrastructure. How did this project come about?

John Thompson: Comic Relief has grown from a small organisation into something much, much bigger. In the ten years I've been here I've seen staff numbers multiply fourfold, and we now do a lot more campaign work. There are a lot of initiatives we're involved with, including Make Poverty History and Live 8, for example. Staff generate more information, which in turn requires more data storage. The storage requirements around the campaign rise exponentially every year, and more so because of digital assets.

E&T: Putting strain on your legacy storage set-up?

JT: We were running short of storage on our old HP server several years ago, and there was no easy route other than to replace it with something else which we didn't think had that much of a shelf life. So we started making piecemeal solutions in the interim to get round this, which resulted in using NAS boxes for specific purposes; but again this was just a stop gap as it wasn't a good enough solution to meet our long-term needs.

E&T: So what was your first step?

JT: When we looked at this 18 months ago, we weren't totally satisfied with what HP could offer. Out of the blue popped Compellent, [which], I must confess, I hadn't heard of; however, it came from a reliable source. We followed this up and it led to implementing a solution from them. It wasn't based so much on the fact that it was about half the price of the HP one, it was just that it met our perceived needs for the short- and long-term.

E&T: In what way?

JT: It was more sophisticated and easy to manage, which definitely proved the case in the time we've had it installed. With advice from our IT infrastructure supplier Fordway Solutions, we implemented VMware alongside the SAN, so we've improved storage and reduced the number of machines we use.

E&T: Comic Relief must be a pretty unique place to work. As head of IT, what are the considerations in your day-to-day work there?

JT: Well, I don't currently look after all our website activity; however, this is all going to change because the Web technical expertise staff are going to be amalgamated with my own team to form a single technology unit in the near future. What I do look after is all the internal information communications, so that literally means everything everyone uses - including the telephone systems - and that's a staff number of about 200 people.

E&T: All based in the same location?

JT: We're in a single building, but we also have two fund-raising staff in each of the three BBC regional offices across the country, and we obviously have a lot of people who are frequently working out of the office. Presently some of our key staff are out in Uganda, and other places in Africa on specific trips, and so they need technology to support them out there too.

E&T: So all the support issues that a medium- to large-sized commercial enterprise would have to deal with?

JT: With this in mind, we do have a wide range of technology at our disposal. You mention the word 'charity' and it conjures up this notion of us using dilapidated stuff that's well past its sell-by date - but it's very much the opposite.

We have to [have good technology in place] otherwise we can't operate as a business. Although we are officially a charity, many people see us as more of a media company.

E&T: From an outsider's point of view one presumes that with such big events for Comic Relief you'd have a spike of work at specific times of the year; is that actually the case?

JT: We have a campaign every year; alternating between Red Nose Day and Sports Relief. There used to be spikes, but there aren't anymore.

Even though we don't work 24/7, we only work five days a week, there is an expectancy that things are going to be available should people want to access them, regardless of what time it is, and where they are. As we upgraded with this project, there was no effect whatsoever on the network or on what anyone was doing. That suited us down to the ground.

E&T: With work constantly busy and people often on the move, how is your team split up and the work delegated?

JT: The current manager of the network environment works with another colleague focusing on servers and network switches, and so forth. We then have a team of three desktop support staff who look after the frontline element of people's needs, and deal out the jobs accordingly depending on whether or not they can resolve something.

E&T: What is their primary role?

JT: They cover everything related to IT: whether it is BlackBerrys, system problems, or installing a new telephone line or PC. Finally, we have three database administrators who manage the back end of most of our key systems, including the data warehouse with all our supporter data in.

E&T: Now that the servers, data storage, and space has been updated, what's the next challenge on the IT horizon?

JT: We are looking to migrate to Windows Server 2008 in the near future and [on the desktop applications side] we are just in the process of completing migration to Microsoft Office 2007. IT-wise, being left behind actually causes us certain difficulties when we're dealing with a lot of our corporate partners, in terms of information flow between various organisations, etc.

E&T: Anything else?

JT: There are lots of other things we want to do - I could talk about that for hours. We tend not to have time to do everything, as we do not just sit around waiting for problems to occur. We try to look forward all the time. Things can change so much.

Comic Relief founder and screenwriter Richard Curtis could suddenly have a brilliant idea, and our chief could turn around and say "fine, let's do it". Then it's a case of how we're going to get there via IT.

E&T: How does the IT function react to that way of working?

JT: That can be difficult and challenging, but invariably those issues are overcome one way or another and we learn from our mistakes - even though that's rare. We can't afford to! But we move on with the ever-changing business - it never stays still.

E&T: Do you and your colleagues have any contact with peers that have similar roles to you?

JT: Yes, but not as often as we would like. Many of my peers have met through contacts within Forway Solutions or Compellent itself, as they're either existing or potential customers. Some of the organisations are very similar to ourselves, such as the National Portrait Gallery.

E&T: Really? In what way?

JT: We're very similar in terms of what we do, how our IT works and what we've actually got.

Strangely enough I don't have much contact with others working in the voluntary sector, although there are groups where you can be represented as such.

One of the issues I've got is finding enough time to be able to do that.

E&T: You feel that more contact would be beneficial?

JT: Sometimes, yes. I would say recently yes, because there could well be things that are of mutual benefit to us, but which neither of us could individually afford to do. For example, something like disaster recovery; premises somewhere that we could both use. We haven't gone down that road yet, but these conversations can happen. The voluntary sector generally works together very well.

E&T: You've worked in both the public and the private sector, so how does working in the voluntary sector compare?

JT: In IT terms, the vast experience I gained was in the public sector. So, by comparison, you'd imagine the voluntary sector is a lot worse off in terms of the technology, but I would say its not: it could even be classed as the reverse. Also, the way we work differs. The problem with the public sector is there's a lot of bureaucracy.

E&T: And how does that compare to where you're at now?

JT: Within Comic Relief we are fairly self-sufficient in terms of our IT support, even though we obviously have many third party suppliers who help us when we need it; but, having worked for local authorities, some of my team members and myself have faced the issue of being outsourced, and we've never felt that it was a particularly good thing - not just for us, but for the authority and the customers. I think the voluntary sector offers you more in many ways, it is more challenging, it is not as rigid.

Red Nose Day 2009 is on Friday, 13 March

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