Councils are facing further cuts to funding, and many are being forced to carefully rethink how they operate key services in order to deliver savings. And IT is no exception.
Cloud computing holds the promise of more cost-effective IT delivery, and Peterborough City Council is one authority looking to Amazon Web Services (AWS) in particular to help realise these savings.
Amazon explained the benefits of its globe-spanning cloud platform at the AWS Summit in London, claiming that it is not only a more cost-effective way of providing services than building them yourself, but is more convenient, since customers can scale up or down as required and pay only for what they use.
Peterborough sees this not just as a way to cut its IT budget, but as an opportunity to overhaul how IT is used to support its workers and ultimately deliver services to residents.
"We're at the same point as most other local authorities where we're being hit by government cuts in funding, so working in the same way that we've always worked is just not going to be possible," said Richard Godfrey, assistant director for digital at Peterborough.
To this end, Godfrey and his team have embarked on a project to rebuild the council's IT infrastructure based around an entirely new operating model, making as much use as possible of cloud-based services and enabling new technologies such as Google Chromebooks to be used to access applications and services.
"We've rebuilt the entire council operating model, but it's not really a traditional transformation project because it's almost an IT-led transformation because we want the IT department to change from doing firefighting and patching to helping other departments change and deliver services," he said.
As part of this process, Peterborough is looking to migrate most of the servers it uses to virtual machines running on AWS, including the council's Citrix server farm used to deliver applications to end users, while introducing a new finance system based on the Agresso platform which is also hosted on AWS.
Meanwhile, much of the council's legacy systems are to be replaced with new ones running on top of the Salesforce developer platform.
"Now we've proved the concept with these, we've decided to go the whole hog and take everything we can and move it to the cloud," Godfrey said.
One of the additional benefits of moving servers to AWS is that the council is also able to reclaim valuable office space that has until now been used for server rooms, while cutting the energy and air conditioning needed to keep those servers running.
Part of the reason for rebuilding the Citrix server farm was to upgrade to a newer version of the Citrix platform that is able to support Google Chromebook devices, according to Godfrey.
Chromebooks have been attracting interest among enterprise and public sector bodies owing to their low cost and because the browser-based platform mostly stores data in the cloud rather than on the device, which can aid security. With Citrix support, users are also able to remotely access cloud-hosted Windows sessions and applications.
"We've had people out visiting residents lugging 3kg Windows laptops, and all they are really doing is collecting information to take back to the office. Chromebooks are much lighter and with Citrix you can have full access to all the apps you need," Godfrey said.
The choices that led Peterborough to choose AWS for its transformation project are varied. Cost was an inevitable factor, but not the only one, according to Godfrey.
"The ICT department is outsourced to Serco, which has a close relationship to SunGard, and the initial proposal was to move the IT estate into a SunGard data centre," he explained.
"But when we looked at the figures, we found that AWS could offer the same at a fraction of the price but with better scalability, plus a number of additional tools that AWS offers.
"We also wanted to end up with no servers at all, or as few as possible, so I don't want to be just moving them to someone else's data centre and having to sign a 10-year contract to make it cost efficient.
"All we've agreed with Amazon is a two-year deal, and you have the freedom to scale up or down as required."
The two-year term also matches up with the G-Cloud procurement framework, according to Godfrey.
With all these changes, the IT department at Peterborough is evolving to become more of a kind of an internal consultancy than a traditional IT team.
"We are transforming the rest of the council and there is going to have to be downsizing, so it's about how to transform that IT service," Godfrey said.
"In my view, it will become almost a commissioning service where we buy in software-as-a-service or infrastructure-as-a-service as opposed to doing that work ourselves, and end up with a much smaller team."
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