Newcastle City Council has opted for Microsoft's cloud products as a way to migrate from complex on-premise systems to digital services and free up IT staff.
Paul Calland, enterprise architect at Newcastle City Council, said in an interview with V3 that the IT overhaul was part of a move to simplify the council's infrastructure and allow employees to "do more with less" amid tightened budgets.
"We had a traditional on-premise infrastructure, as you would expect - Exchange farm, Windows Server, file share - all growing incredibly fast," he said.
"It was becoming overly complex with a massive server farm, reliability issues, third-party software and lots of points of failure. With the background agenda of having to save money, it was a case of needing to take control."
"The best solution for us at that time was to go a cloud provider and remove a lot of the day-to-day technical tasks that were consuming a lot of our time, and to concentrate our technical staff on more of the high-end intellect tasks that we thought were a better use of their time."
The move from legacy systems to the cloud began in summer 2014, as the council looked to shift from Windows XP and Office 2003 to cloud-powered alternatives such as Office 365, SharePoint and OneDrive.
Calland explained that 4,500 council workers had been moved onto Office 365 and a new email system supported by Microsoft Exchange Online within 14 days of starting the project.
Security and identification verification was shifted to multi-factor authentication powered by Microsoft's Azure cloud platform.
The cloud tools allowed the council's staff to work better together and share files and documents without needing IT teams to set up the necessary systems.
Jim Lowden, head of ICT at the council, told V3 that one of the drivers of this change was the pace of technology development in the consumer world influencing the type of services and products people want to use at work.
"As we developed our technology strategy, one of the things that we were noting was that people at home want a new experience all the time. People see new things coming in and they come into work and everything is behind [consumer technology]," he said.
Microsoft's cloud products provided workers with tools and services similar to the software they were using before the IT overhaul and at home.
This cut out the need to retrain less technical-savvy workers or deal with the disruption of adopting completely unfamiliar software.
"It needed to be a seamless transition. It was a case of we've got staff onsite with specific skills, and the more seamless we can make that transition the better. And we're in a position now where it's difficult to differentiate when you're on cloud and when you're on-premise from a user's perspective," he said.
Secure remote working
Newcastle City Council staff can now work remotely by logging into Outlook, Skype for Business and SharePoint through web-based apps.
However, Calland said that, in order to keep the council's data secure, workers can use these web versions of the Office 365 suite only when they are working remotely to prevent sensitive data being downloaded onto devices outside the council's IT boundaries.
"We're trying to be sensible and pragmatic about the level of controls," he said. "We want flexibility, we want people to be able to work from home and work on different types of devices, but we don't allow people to connect their traditional desktop applications or the Office 365 apps when they're off the corporate network on a personal device."
He also explained that the council is adopting a "cloud first" approach and the next stage of the IT transformation will involve the use of more cloud-based products, services and platforms to propel the council away from legacy systems and the delivery of services that require paper forms.
The IT team will look at the services that it can push into the cloud on a cost versus efficiency basis, and ensure that changes benefit the council as a whole and don't just remove the strain of systems maintenance on the IT team and its resources.
The council will also explore the use of Azure to run the development and testing of new digital council services in a cloud environment, rather than needing to set up and support testing systems onsite.
It will also explore the use of Skype for Business features that allow town hall-style meetings to be conducted remotely. Calland said that the council will look at adopting Windows 10 and Office 2016, and using business intelligence tools to make decisions based on insights gleaned from council data.
Newcastle is not alone in exploring the cloud. Essex County Council looked to the cloud to build on its IT mobility strategy.
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