The local government shared service benefited from its core infrastructure architecture during the pandemic
There are a lot of different views of what digital looks like in the public sector, and this can create a conundrum that can hinder efforts to use technology in transforming services.
It was a particularly complex issue for the Orbis Partnership, the shared service for Brighton and Hove City Council and Surrey and East Sussex County Councils, which had to meet the demands of the individual strategies and culture of each council whilst underpinning a common approach.
The common thread in all three was the need for a consistent approach in infrastructure and architecture to support highly available systems that could scale up quickly to meet rising demand on their platforms – as has been demonstrated in the response to coronavirus – and long term digital innovation.
Andy Grogan, head of enterprise technology at Orbis, outlined this approach at the recent UKAuthority online conference on Powering Digital Public Services.
The organisation came up with the concept of the core infrastructure architecture (CIA), a set of corporate tools for the three partners that enables each to develop its own strategy but using common platforms including the Nutanix hybrid cloud infrastructure (HCI), Cisco networking and Microsoft software. In addition, the partners used Orbis’s two tier 3 data centres, but ‘cloud bursting’ – shifting applications to a public cloud via Nutanix – when appropriate.
It amounts to a ‘cloud appropriate’ strategy and does not represent shared infrastructure, but an agreed approach to how the infrastructure is implemented.
Modular and flexible
“The strategy is designed to be modular and flexible to changes in the industry approach,” Grogan said. “What that means is that we are not always wedded to a certain technology; we have exit plans and diversification plans if something new comes into the market.”
Beneath this there are six conceptual layers – security, customer access, availability, orchestration, compute and data centre – that are continually monitored and represent a set of best in class technologies.
Orbis has also worked with cloud optimisation specialist Nutanix on creating the Data Centre X concept, with allows for services to be replicated and spun up across data centres in close to real time, and burst into the Azure cloud as needed.
This served the organisation well when the coronavirus struck, creating the need for a big increase in home working from all three councils at the same time.
Home working response
Orbis responded with a plan to invoke a triage system and cease all non-essential work on its infrastructure, and prioritise the needs of frontline workers in social care, education, health and blue light operations. It also protected the IT service from the virus by setting up key people to work from home, split those that could not between sites, and briefing key partners who could provide assistance to reduce the strain on staff.
Key elements of achieving all this have been a hyper-converged infrastructure, which enabled the organisation to deploy additional VPN services, the redistribution of deployment points within the data centres and distribution hubs, and network and security telemetry tools to support access to the VPN from home devices – with a relaxation of some of the usual security measures.
This made it possible for the three councils to quickly scale up their home working and maintain their operations in the face of the pandemic lockdown.
Grogan’s overall message from the experience was: “Don’t panic, have a plan, and don’t be afraid to take risks.”
He pointed to the overall benefits of the CIA approach as providing for: much higher availability of public facing and in-house systems; faster provisioning of technical infrastructure on-premise or in the cloud for digital initiatives or emergencies; a controlled self-provisioning of infrastructure for agile development teams; and a reduction in revenue spending on legacy servers.
“Basically, we build from solid foundations and go all the way up the stack until we have something self-healing, intelligent, aware, based on solid monitoring, with best of breed technology, and which is accessible and secure,” he said.
Andrew Puddephatt, director UK public services of enterprise cloud service provider Nutanix, reiterated the importance of the ‘cloud appropriate’ approach, and the company’s position that cloud should be seen as an operating model – with arrangements changing according to demands – rather than a final location.
He said the reactions of public sector bodies to the pandemic in quickly adjusting their digital infrastructure to cope with the emergency have shown what can be achieved.
“It’s amazing how necessity can drive real innovation and transformation at pace,” Puddephatt said. "Things we’ve seen in the delivery of new services to public sector workers and to digitally engage with citizens have been incredible.
“At times the public sector is accused of being slow to act but what we’ve seen over the past couple of months has been extraordinary.”
Video and slides from both Andy Grogan's presentation and that of Andrew Puddephatt at Powering Digital Public Services are available to view here
For more information on Nutanix visit https://www.nutanix.com/uk/public-sector or contact Andrew Puddephatt and the team below: