Q&A: Hampshire County Council CIO Jos Creese reveals why the council has its own data centre and why software-defined isn’t top of his priorities.
Hampshire County Council has run its own data centre since 2009. With a 200TB disk capacity and more than 1PB of backup data, the Winchester-based data centre underpins services for public bodies ranging from Fire & Rescue and district councils to Age Concern and the police.
Aside from typical council back office functions, it supports a wide range of public service partners as well as all frontline county council services, from transport management to science research.
Hampshire shares services with neighbouring councils through the Hampshire PSN (Public Sector Network), and CBR spoke with CIO Jos Creese to discover how these infrastructure technologies are helping the local authority become more efficient.
Why was the decision taken to run your own data centre?
It was built as part of our main headquarters refurbishment project a few years ago, where we were looking to rationalise accommodation, introduce hot-desking and therefore much greater productivity for all our buildings. We had to move the existing data centre at that time and we looked at various options; this proved economically to be the most attractive one.
It gives us a much lower carbon footprint, and is integral to our new headquarters buildings, re-using 70% of what would otherwise be wasted energy in the winter months, recycling the heat from the data centre through the building.
What were the key data requirements you considered when setting up the data centre?
Clearly security is important. But so is responsiveness and availability – people depend on services being available when they want them in the form they want them. Cost is critical; being able to provide the IT infrastructure services at increasingly lower unit cost is absolutely essential in the current economic climate.
An advantage we found running our own in-house data centre service is flexibility around cost models. We are in control of our own destiny rather than being tied into supplier arrangements and that has helped us a lot with the efficiency drive. We share, use cloud, adopt open source or increased automation to adapt to changing business needs and reduce IT costs.
Sharing services can help cut costs in the public sector, but egos and differing priorities are often cited as stumbling blocks. What services does Hampshire share with other bodies?
Hampshire IT shares much of its IT with other county councils, districts, borough and unitary councils, charities, schools, as well as health, police and fire services. It’s partly about sharing best practice and reducing costs of IT ownership in the public sector, but also about enabling public services to be more readily joined up by using common infrastructure.
For example, we’ve had a shared PSN in Hampshire since 1999 – the first nationally. It’s now a partnership of 19 organisations, all of whom have a say over its priorities and how it develops. Sometimes you can make a meal of sharing things, so we’ve tried to keep it simple – it’s governed by a joint board, which meets regularly, and to be quite honest we do not have a problem agreeing.
It works like a cooperative model where the county council is the biggest shareholder, and you could argue we have the biggest say, but frankly if our partners think we should be doing something different, the chances are we probably should. It’s not for me to determine what the IT priorities should be for Southampton City Council, they know exactly how they want to use the services.
What services are you sharing?
Our biggest shared service is probably now around back-office services through SAP. This delivers a range of HR, finance and procurement services to all council employees, and will shortly include all schools, Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, Hampshire Constabulary and Oxfordshire County Council. [Called the ‘Internal Integrated Business Centre’, this is a self-service application users can access via mobile].
You can log on through your iPad or smartphone through simple and intuitive interfaces to change your details, enter expenses or change personal data – all in real time. From a school crossing patrol person to the chief executive at the other end, everybody uses it. Previously, only office workers would have had access via a traditional and clunky corporate SAP system.
And that’s resulted in consolidating the number of contracts with SAP?
Absolutely. The agreement we have with SAP is on that basis of sharing services with others on a single flexible contract. In the past everyone would have had the overhead of a separate contract, [eg SAP] – an overhead on suppliers and clients.
It’s my contention, and I think suppliers like SAP are seeing this, that it’s better if they deal with one lead organisation that handles the commercial risks and ownership of the contract, knowing that it’s enabling a whole range of smaller organisations who in total it would prove quite expensive to do business with.
Standardisation is another benefit. We need much more consistency in how we do common things, shared across partners. This does not preclude local flexibility and choice, but it does assume that variation should be in reflection of how the public need to access systems.
How much consolidation have you achieved through virtualising services?
We’ve virtualised as much as we reasonably can at this stage. Our ambition really is to consolidate and virtualise in order to reduce costs but also increase flexibility of the back office IT infrastructure. One of the challenges the public sector faces probably more than some aspects of the private sector is the diversity of what we’re supporting. We do so many different business activities that trying to create a common low cost infrastructure is not easy, which is why you end up with so many different applications, so many different access methods.
Our ambition is to streamline that as far as possible, and we have achieved this in many ways, for example in our widespread adoption of ‘thin client’ rather than PC architectures. That has reduced costs, reduced carbon footprint and energy costs, yet improved security of data and flexible working.
The problem is that while simply sticking things into cloud may be fine, if you end up with a whole patchwork of individualistic and independent systems that don’t talk with each other then you don’t know where your data sits anymore.
What interest do you have in new concepts like the software-defined data centre?
Frankly I’m really not convinced yet. The hurly-burly at the moment is ‘how can I deliver the best possible service to a disparate range of public organisations that increasingly need to work together at the lowest possible cost’? That’s where the innovation comes, not around data centres and software models per se. There may well be something in it but is it top of my worries at the moment? No.