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How Plan Canada got the holistic network it needed

Big project, multiple teams, high stakes? Plan patiently and reinvest regularly, the NGO’s executive VP advises


Plan Canada technology

Plan Canada is an NGO, but we run it like a business—a tight ship that is accountable to stakeholders, donors and employees. With a multiyear revenue growth rate of 13%, and given the growth challenges all organizations face today, we wanted to maintain that success. The strong and consistent growth rates led us to outgrow our infrastructure and had to be revitalized and expanded to maintain our strong performance and innovation. Business continuity had become a problem—phones failing, networks going down and workarounds—and with our annual major donor initiative planned for November/December, we weren’t confident our network was stable and robust enough to carry it off.

In the wake of a January fire outside the building that shut down utilities and building access, we were already in the midst of building a new remote data centre to ensure business continuity in the event of any future disruptions. As we had also outgrown our current office space, it seemed like a logical extension, then, to go ahead and further invest in new infrastructure at the new office as well. In this way, we could achieve our business continuity plan while setting up the integrated, holistic network environment Plan Canada needed. While the business case for this was clear it was nonetheless essential to go through the discipline of making the case and ensuring we met the procurement requirements. Through consultations with staff, senior management, the CEO and the Board, we ensured we fully understood the requirements. We were able to build the business case that was transparent and yielded savings in dollars, operational support and environmental footprint, that balanced upfront costs with long-term advantages to maintaining the growth trajectory and would lead to improved staff productivity with enhanced technology tools.

Once we decided to proceed with the complete project, things went well—or as well as can be expected. There were a lot of players and a lot of teamwork involved. We were confident in Allstream’s ability to deliver on the networking side of the move, but we also had SunGard on the data centre side, as well different providers for both our servers and telephony. As an NGO, we’re under tremendous pressure to make every dollar count and be accounted for, and we felt that no one company could provide everything as cost-efficiently as a diverse vendor group.

We now have a data centre, an Ottawa location and a head office in Toronto, all of which are connected through the MPLS network. Most of our infrastructure is run out of the data centre, which offers Tier 1 uptime, and when we tested our continuity plan during rainstorms in July, the data centre never went down. Our websites and CRM applications run from the data centre and can failover back to our offices if necessary, and we have redundant, MPLS-based phone support in case the main system fails. Despite construction delays on the new facility, the network side of the implementation was up and running in about eight weeks. And once the facility was complete, there was very little training to do as it largely replicated the old system in terms of the user experience. Our users have been extremely pleased with the facility and all its technology. I’d say the lack of complaints would be a good measure of success.

Still, any project requires careful preparation, and this one certainly did. Give yourself plenty of time because you will need it. I’m always surprised at how long these things take, and that’s not a negative comment—it’s just the nature of the work. You have to establish circuits, implement infrastructure, do multiple levels of testing. Patient, careful planning will pay off in the end. The other way to ensure payoff is to keep reinvesting in the technology. You don’t have to spend huge amounts every year, but you need a continuous flow of infrastructure investment to stay up to date and ensure you understand current best practices. Employees, donors and stakeholders will assume the right level of infrastructure is in place—knowing and adhering to best practices will help you make sure that it is.

Download the full case study: Plan Canada – Enterprise-level networking is critical for NGOs committed to global social development

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