Stockton and Darlington Borough Councils turn to cloud to boost efficiency of central services

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Xentrall is a shared services public sector partnership between Stockton and Darlington Borough Councils in the UK.

Stockton had been using Agresso finance software since 2004. But the migration of the Darlington finance systems onto the software used by Stockton led to the joint venture, formerly known as the Stockton and Darlington Partnership.

Xentrall is now responsible for the provision of both councils’ IT and communications functions, as well as hosting their human resource (HR) and finance systems, where the Agresso software also now plays a key role in its ability to take on other, cloud-based customers.

Stockton and Darlington Partnership became Xentrall in 2008. It was initially just to acknowledge its existence as an independent entity, spun off by Stockton to host both its own and Darlington’s finance systems. But since the consolidation process was completed, in 2010, it has diversified the services on offer in response to requests from new customers.

Ian Coxon, head of transactional services at Xentrall, spoke to Cloud Pro about the situation that led the company to recently invest in cloud services to grow its business. He explained Xentrall still operates as part of Stockton’s public services and in compliance with its public sector regulations.

“We have an onsite platform running Agresso for Stockton and Darlington, which our ICT department manages and maintains,” he explained, adding the Agresso software is provided and supported by UNIT4.

“The shift came in 2010 and 2011, when some of the schools we provided Agresso for through Darlington Council became Academies.”

The Academies Programme is designed for UK schools to receive funding directly from central government to independently manage their own affairs rather than relying on local authority services and national curriculum guidelines. But Coxon said like other public sector organisations, these new academies needed to find suppliers that could help them lower costs and boost performance.

“Official approval of the business case to host these Academies on UNIT4’s new cloud-based Agresso service came from senior people in both councils,” he added. “The opposite of the business risk involved was of doing nothing and losing what were actually existing customers.”

In 2011, Xentrall signed a contract with UNIT4 to licence Agresso on a new cloud-based shared services platform. In operational terms, Coxon said this means the organisation now runs two instances of the software – one in-house and one hosted.

“In network terms, the instance of Agresso accessed by the councils according to the government-approved codes of connection,” he continued. “But when a school opts to become an academy, they are no longer part of the council’s network. So using the cloud version of Agresso was born out of our desire to retain these academies as customers, but provide the functionality in a different way.”

Using the UNIT4 service, Xentrall offers schools subscription-based finance, HR and payroll transactional shared services that include shared technical IT and operational support services.

Xentrall first discussed its cloud shared services initiative in April 2011 and, by the beginning of November that year, 13 schools had signed up to the services, with 10 of them already live. These academies are now benefiting from the functionality and flexibility of the Agresso Business World suite in the cloud. “We maintain it, UNIT4 provides the hosting and all the school needs is an internet connection to access it,” Coxon commented.

As the UNIT4 service is cloud based, it allows Xentrall to rapidly scale to meet demand, while the academies only pay for what they use. There is no capital outlay and no redundant capacity. And the flexibility of delivering Agresso in this way means that the cost of tailoring the software to each academy’s specific needs remains low.

Xentrall has signed up 26 academy customers to date, with four of these comprised of academies outside the local region served by Stockton and Darlington councils.

Agresso in the cloud is delivering the control and visibility of resources required much more efficiently than before, according to Coxon.

“The ability to bypass the council network has actually led to some improvements,” he explained.

“Before they would have to use some kind of remote access technology to use the council’s Agresso. But with the cloud, they simply access it via the internet. Many have reported a real improvement in levels of access and performance.”

Acting as a cloud technology distributor in this way has also benefitted Xentrall, according to Coxon. “The changes we’ve undergone are more to do with working with the Academies as individual customers, as opposed to the schools,” he reported.

“But we’ve had no problems with the service, because it’s UNIT4’s software, so they know what they’re doing. And there’s no kit at our end – we manage the service via the internet... We’ve created a whole new stream of work in terms of maintaining Agresso for the Academies. And we’ve bridged the gap between them and UNIT4.”

Looking ahead, Coxon said the organisation was confortable enough with the quality of its academy offering that it was prepared to diversify yet further using cloud-based technology.

“Technically, we can work with customers anywhere; internet access is the only barrier,” he concluded.

“We could provide a similar service to any other organisation, like a hospital or even another council, for example – anyone who uses Agresso.”

Miya Knights

A 25-year veteran enterprise technology expert, Miya Knights applies her deep understanding of technology gained through her journalism career to both her role as a consultant and as director at Retail Technology Magazine, which she helped shape over the past 17 years. Miya was educated at Oxford University, earning a master’s degree in English.

Her role as a journalist has seen her write for many of the leading technology publishers in the UK such as ITPro, TechWeekEurope, CIO UK, Computer Weekly, and also a number of national newspapers including The Times, Independent, and Financial Times.