Bringing the cloud to local government

By GovTechReview Staff
Monday, 30 September, 2013

The floods and cyclones that attacked Queensland during 2011 reinforced the importance of disaster recovery for government bodies of all sizes.

They also, a year after the event, provided impetus for five local councils in the state to embrace cloud computing by adopting a targeted infrastructure program called GovCloud.

GovCloud is the brainchild of CEO Scott Wilkie, a longtime investment banker who created the organisation after a 2010 white paper for the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) spawned discussions about how emergent cloud computing could benefit local-government organisations.

Based on an American concept by the same name, GovCloud’s Australian iteration has quickly developed to combine local government- focused consultancy with solutions addressing cloud software, infrastructure, professional and disaster recovery capabilities.

It is this last capability – entitled Redundant Systems for Disaster Scenarios (RSDS) – that proved particularly attractive for the five state councils, including previously flood-ravaged Toowoomba Regional Council.

“Local governments have numerous issues and technology refreshes kill them,” Wilkie explains. “They have budget pressures and operational pressures, and particularly in the regional areas finding good skill sets is really hard. We concluded that these issues all point to a market segment that really needed help from someone who could step in at the governance, policy, and solution levels.”

Each council has its own technology issues, but Wilkie says GovCloud is already hosting Web sites for 45 of Queensland’s 73 councils. This proved a welcome relief for the many councils that found their systems overwhelmed by a surge in demand as citizens flocked to council Web sites for updates on the unfolding disasters. Many government agencies turned to alternative options like Facebook and Twitter, which have their own scalability models.

As councils look towards increasingly sophisticated solutions, one of the common areas of demand has been the desire to tap into cloud-storage models to help improve backup and DR capabilities.

Local governments are particularly keen, Wilkie says, for pre-built solutions that eliminate the integration hassles of roll-your-own solutions. “Councils are aware that a lot of what they do currently is not adequate,” Wilkie says. “They’re balking at the cost of doing DR that is basically like buying the same technology all over again.”

Cloud education

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges GovCloud faced was not to convince councils of the value of cloud computing – but to temper councils’ expectations of the technology.

“Cloud computing is a very, very active topic with senior management and elected members,” Wilkie explains. “They see it as a really simple and quick fix – and it is an extended education process. The majority of what we do at the moment revolves around helping them with particular situations where compliance, operations and technology refreshes are frustrating them.”

Recognising that the natural disasters of 2011 had pushed many councils to their limits, GovCloud prepared a proposal under which up to ten councils would embrace cloud infrastructure under the auspices of the federal government’s $27m annual Natural Disaster and Resilience Program.

As well as providing mirrors of council backups to improve DR capabilities, GovCloud has introduced a resilient email solution that mirrors council email into the cloud so it can be brought up immediately in the event of a disaster. This approach also ensures that traveling council members can be involved in disaster recovery even if they’re on holidays, as happened in several cases during the Queensland floods.

“Email is quite paramount during a disaster,” Wilkie says. “You can’t send documents or maps efficiently via social media, and we had a number of situations where mayors and CEOs were away and could take no literal part in disaster management planning.”

“This whole exercise is really focused on getting councils to think more progressively and in more detail about business-continuity planning all the way through to disaster recovery. Business continuity has not been a major priority, but we hope the cloud industry starts a lot of thinking and learning. Local government associations will be looking at the cloud as a way of helping their members, help themselves.” – David Braue

This story originally ran in the September 2012 issue of Government Technology Review.

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