City Council bets big on cloud – Box deal signed, Chromebooks on the way

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez April 9, 2014
Summary:
Peterborough wants its council employees to be able to access information wherever they are, not just at their desk

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A lot of the time the smaller you are, the easier it is to try new things to develop better ways of working. City Councils aren't exactly the enterprise behemoths that we often write about here at diginomica, but that doesn't mean that if one is doing something particularly interesting we shouldn't be taking note – often organisations of this size are the first to market and lead the way in tech adoption because they don't have a bureaucratic minefield to deal with. That's not to say that there aren't considerations, namely being cautious with public data, but it just seems that the smaller you are, the easier it is to get things signed off.

Peterborough City Council in the UK is one of those organisations. The Council is five years into a traditional outsourcing agreement with Serco, with six years left still to go, but it is refusing to get trapped into a mid-term slump and lock out innovation. Richard Godfrey, the man in charge of ICT Strategy at the Council, told me that he is planning a number of cloud projects going forward because he wants employees to be out doing their jobs and not chained to their desks because of technology constraints.

Godfrey explained:

“We have got challenges with budget cuts, which most councils are facing at the moment. We need to be more mobile as a workforce. For example, our director of social care wants her social workers to be out doing social work, not in the office doing admin tasks that go with it. Most of the stuff we are doing with the move towards cloud is to give staff all the information, data and systems they need at their finger tips wherever they are in the city. 

“The ultimate aim of our ICT strategy is that no person that works for the council is tied to a location because of technology”

Box first, but there's more to come

The Council's first steps into the cloud are with Box, the cloud-based content management and sharing system for the enterprise. Godfrey has plans to shut down the City Council's server room, to free up space, and he saw Box as the best answer to get this plan underway. At the moment the Council is still running early pilots with Box, which include employee personal drives (leave cards, flexi-sheets, personal information etc), but this will be extended to shared and restricted drives in the near future. Peterborough's five year SAN lease ends in February 2015, so Godfrey is planning to have the data migration completed by then for all 1,400 staff.

“A lot of the equipment we have pre-dates Serco and is currently sitting in our server room. It's now getting to 7 years old. Serco have got a partnership with SunGard and their proposal was to move everything into SunGard, but that doesn't really give me the flexibility going forward in terms of ICT and mobility, so we started looking at other cloud options at the same time. Data being one of the biggest expenses of data centre hosting, we started with Box.

“There's benefits in terms of not having to lease as big a SAN, but then you've got the additional benefits of not having to do the back-ups, the tape back-ups etc. Box's availability is also probably higher than we can provide as a council – so there's cashable benefits and non-cashable benefits.”

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Box CEO Aaron Levie

Godfrey said that Peterborough chose Box because of its enterprise credentials – ISO accredited, good SLAs etc – but said that when the topic of 'cloud' was approached, there wasn't much resistance from anyone internally. He said:

“Box have been working with us to comply with everything we need to comply with this end, but the person who runs governance and data protection for us in the Council actually leads the Box rollout and if they weren't comfortable with it, nobody would have it. However, it is an iterative process and it's not one size fits all – so when we get to children and social care data, we will probably have to do a more in-depth risk assessment of what the data is and where it is going. Whereas, compared to something like highways data, it's not high level information” 

Chromebooks and CRM are next

Once the data migration to Box is complete, Peterborough City Council also has plans to embark on a number of other cloud projects. Godfrey is already in discussions with a “big American-based cloud provider”, although he couldn't say which one just yet, to rollout out CRM and other apps that have been developed on said CRM provider's platform (I'm sure we can all guess which company it probably is). Not only this, but he is looking into ditching the City Council's iPads and deploying Chromebooks instead, which will run Windows via a Citrix thin client environment. However, there are plans to use Google Apps in the future and Godfrey is in discussions with Google partner Ancoris about the project. Another local council in the UK recently announced that it is working with Ancoris and also said it would be switching to Chromebooks following the expiration of Windows XP support. Godfrey said:

“We have had iPads and iPhones for about three years on the estate and I think everyone knows there are some limitations with them. The difference between the iPad and the Chromebook is that you can work on documents

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more easily – the iPad is great for having access to email and being able to read things that are sent to you, but if you actually need to do work they're not that good. 

“Because we are a Citrix thin client environment, with the Chromebook you can log on to our portal, come through and have your complete desktop environment. For now we would be using Windows, but we will be doing an assessment about whether or not we can move to Google Apps.” 

Verdict

  1. As I said in the intro to this story - it's interesting to see an organisation, albeit a small one, moving so rapidly into the cloud. Godfrey and the rest of the teams working on the projects at Peterborough have recognised the benefits they can get from cloud computing and they are making a go for it. Out with the old and in with the new (both vendors and kit). It's also interesting to note that this is the second council in the space of a week to discuss Chromebooks so openly after Windows dropped support for XP – new trend emerging?
  2. However, this is a local council with a seriously good fibre link, thanks to a recent initiative, and Godfrey did highlight that its cloud plans would not be suitable for a local authority in a more rural location. But it goes to show, if you have the connections and you want the benefits, even with sensitive public data, you can get there.