Sunderland cloud implementation points the way for local councils

View of Sunderland University St Peters campus
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Here's a question for a local council leader: what do you do when your city sheds a quarter of its jobs in just 14 years?

That wasn't a hypothetical question for Sunderland City Council. The city had been sustained by jobs in ship-building and coal mining; employment that disappeared throughout the 80s and 90s.

The response of the city council was to draw up an economic manifesto that looked to build a recovery on technology. Specifically, the plan was to encourage a number of small software companies to take root in Sunderland. It was a move that could have been construed as revolutionary ten years ago but in 2012, those shoots are beginning to bear fruit.

Sunderland cannot be considered in isolation. The city sits inside a north-eastern area that has lost a good deal of its industrial clout and where a particularly high percentage of people are employed in the public sector, accentuating the importance of initiatives like the council's.

Indeed, the regional development agency set up a number of initiatives, including Digital City in Middlesbrough, Science City in Newcastle and Sunderland Software City.

Software City is currently home to 42 start-ups, envisaged as being in the vanguard of the move to regenerate the region. Tom Baker, head of ICT at Sunderland City Council says the aim is to create a community.” He says there are a number of aspects to this: placing graduates, support for local schools and, while financial help is limited, the council is able to open the right doors for venture capital support.

The software companies are also beginning to tap into local industry. “We're beginning to see linkage between software developers and the automotive industry,” says Baker (Nissan is a major employer in the region).

A key part of this transformation is the council's data centre. Built in 2001, it's unusually large for a council of Sunderland's size. “It was built at a time when there was a lot of talk about regional government,” explains Baker. While that didn't happen, its presence has been a handy factor in the transformation of Sunderland's ICT structure - “as if by magic” notes Baker, wryly.

With such a facility on its doorstep, the council was in an excellent position to execute on its vision and started casting around for a partner to work with.

But it wasn't straightforward. “The procurement was a very difficult process. We wanted a strategic partnership as there were several risks involved and we wanted a supplier who appreciated that,” explains Baker.

There was a certainly a lot of interest in Sunderland's plans from some leading vendors and the choice was a tough one.

As Baker explains, because the council was treading a new path in the UK, there was little know-how to draw on. "We had some excellent proposals but IBM was the one that stood out. The main problem for us that what we wanted to do was difficult to reference as no local authority had gone down the route we were going."

IBM did have some examples of similar projects with councils like Xuxi in China and Michigan. "Obviously there were a lot of synergies with their Smarter Cities initiative," says Baker.

Having plumped for IBM, the rollout of the new services began. Key to the whole transformation was the move to virtualised desktops for internal council staff and its external partners.

But first came the assessment of current resources. "As part of the process, we started looking at what was being used – that was real eye-opener," says Baker. "If we had an executive who wanted a laptop and we could see that it hadn't been out of the docking station for nine months, we could instantly save costs by giving him a Wyse terminal."

Baker says he also examined the range of applications being used throughout the council. "We saw a massive spike of Microsoft Office – which you'd expect – and lots of apps like SAP and Microsoft Dynamics – which you'd also expect. But there was a long tail of other applications. It allowed us to sit down with businesses and work out what apps were needed and decommission others." When asked how many applications there were that ICT knew nothing about, he simply says "a lot".

The rollout is well under way now and within a few weeks, Baker says the council will be at the next stage of its plans for applications and will be in a position to offer a basic service catalogue – the council's own version of the government's CloudStore."What's crucial for us is that there's a degree of automation and self-provisioning," says Baker.

The rollout of the cloud-based services has taken longer than expected something that Baker attributes to the sheer scale of the processes involved. But the council is already well advanced towards where it wants to be.

"It's not just a question of cloud services,” says Baker, “We could offer platform as a service or even infrastructure as a service."

As an example of how the cloud-based services will work, Baker points out that within the city there are several examples of voluntary groups and co-ops offering some form of social care. All of these have had their own IT functions, hosting social care rosters on their own servers. "But," he says, “most of them use the same piece of software. It will make sense for them to have us host it and save on their IT costs.

Baker is at pains to point out that this is not about the council going its own way. “This is very much a partnership approach. Training is a big part of the deal - my techies are delighted: they've never had so much training."

Sunderland aims to complete the desktop virtualisation process by the end of the calendar year, which will give Baker and his team a chance to take stock.

The interesting aspect of the whole process is the financial one. While the driver for such a comprehensive overhaul of the council infrastructure has not been driven by financial considerations , the transformation is not without financial benefits.

According to Baker, Sunderland council can expect to make cost savings of about £1.4 million a year over the next five years, not small change at a time of cutbacks. But there could be other financial benefits too, Baker says the council is having on-going discussions about the commercial considerations of the services that it's offering – to put it bluntly, how much profit can it make?

Baker says the final decision on that is very much up in the air but there are aspirations to work with the other councils in the north-east and with local fire services, police and health services. It hopes to be a partner for BT and the public sector network (PSN) too.

What's most impressive about the Sunderland project is the way that all the parts come together. While Baker talks of the partnership between the council and IBM, an even more important partnership is the one between the council executive and the ICT team.

It's not always the case that the management team and techies are on the same wavelength but Sunderland offers proof as to what can happen when they are. Baker says that some councils are already watching what they do with interest but Sunderland is also being more adventurous than many enterprises too - it seems there are going to be some interesting times in the north-east.


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