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Small city breaks new ground as service provider

For any city looking to offer other cities and towns IT services via a private cloud, here’s some advice: Make sure you have enough bandwidth to meet the needs of users.

That’s a lesson the City of Melrose, Mass., learned as officials branched out to offer cloud-based services to other municipalities. Melrose, a small city seven miles north of Boston with a population of 28,150,  hit a wall as the city’s IT department attempted to provide infrastructure-as-a-service via a private cloud to Essex, located 26 miles north of Boston, with a population of 3,504 people.

Melrose’s IT team spent the first six months of 2012 providing infrastructure-as-a service -- on-demand access to computing processing, storage, and network resources -- to Essex using commodity Internet connections and a variety of wide-area network aggregation and optimization technology.  

“Basically, we found out that it was not feasible to do infrastructure-as-a-service in that way,” said Jorge Pazos, CIO of Melrose.  Latency or delays in the network was the issue.  “Latency really killed us in providing these services,” Pazos said.

As part of Melrose officials’ plans to regionalize IT services and data center operations, the city built a secure, multitenant cloud that can host multiple communities. Ultimately, a regional data center or cloud hub could reduce the burden on each town to build and maintain its own IT infrastructure.  Regionalization also provides the city or municipality offering cloud-based services with additional revenue streams.

 “We were hoping we could get away with it for one or two municipalities, but eventually we knew we would have to do a direct connect model like Amazon Web Services, where you plug directly into data center-to-data center or location-to-data center, “ Pazos said.

Pazos’ team spent last summer researching potential telecom carriers and going through a bid process to bring in a carrier that could provide Multiprotocol Label Switching service. The city decided on Comcast’s Ethernet Network Service, which created a connection between Essex and Melrose’s data centers. ENS lets organizations connect physically distributed locations across a metropolitan area network as if they are on the same local-area network. The service provides virtual LAN transparency and lets users implement their own VLANs without coordination with Comcast.

Offering direct connections to Melrose data centers was part of the original plan, but Melrose had it scheduled out further in the deployment. “We were hoping we wouldn’t have to move to that as soon as we did,” Pazos explained.

Melrose’s IT team spent the latter part of the year rerouting and connecting Essex’s infrastructure onto the ENS circuits.  Melrose is now moving along with its offering of cloud-based services to the town.

Melrose has a solid and flexible cloud platform, a critical element in providing secure, multi-tenant IT services to internal agencies and other municipalities. Melrose’s private cloud is based on NetApp’s FlexPod, an integrated data center infrastructure that includes Cisco Unified Computing System blade servers and Cisco Nexus switches, NetApp’s unified storage system and VMware virtualization technology.

FlexPod is the underlying technology that allows Melrose to provide IT services to 18 sites within the city, including a variety of city agencies such as the public school system as well as police and fire departments. Prior to the implementation of FlexPod, each school had its own data center or, in the case of elementary schools, small-scale server rooms. By implementing FlexPod, the city consolidated the schools’ entire infrastructure into a single data center. A secondary data center is available for off-site storage and for recovery and business continuity.

Melrose is looking at a hybrid cloud model, a combination of a private cloud and a commercial cloud provider. In that scenario, the main data center would run on Melrose’s private cloud while a secondary data center offering disaster and business continuity-as-a-service would run in a commercial cloud provider’s data center. Melrose tested the hybrid waters last year with some pilot projects, Pazos said.

By moving city agencies to the private cloud, Melrose has been able to realize 40 percent savings in storage costs, Pazos said. Using NetApp multistore software, the city can create multiple virtual storage systems within a single physical storage system. The software lets multiple users share the same storage resource without compromising privacy and security. Information on one virtual storage system cannot be viewed, used, or downloaded by users on another virtual storage system. The shared services model is an entirely different way of managing technology and there is a learning curve for organizations providing the cloud-based services as well as the users of those services, Pazos said. 

For other CIOs who are thinking about going down a similar path as the City of Melrose, Pazos says: “Do a lot of the research upfront and have a good idea of what you are getting yourself into.”
“You really need to understand what a private cloud is and what a hybrid [cloud] is; if that is the route you are going to go down.” Understanding what technology is on premise and what is in the cloud is crucial, he said.

Melrose is partnering with other communities not to compete with cloud providers such as Amazon or Rackspace but to provide services to other towns at a cost savings, giving them the level of service they require, Pazos said.

Reader Comments

Wed, Jan 30, 2013 John

This is interesting. I still don't see how this saves money or why do it? Sounds like the city IT has spent a ton of time and resources getting this up and running. You are telling me all of the set up is saving 40%? Plus now you need to provide SLA to other towns... I doubt it. Bet anything Amazon, etc, would be better and cheaper and the engineers have a lot more knowledge. I just think it saves more time and money to go with a big player rather than a local city cloud. Lets face it most city and town IT don't have great reputations for getting things done well. City IT around the country is notoriously bad, just ask anyone in any city department trying to get something fixed. Interesting but I will stick with the cloud professionals. Also if you are going hybrid and trusting commercial carriers with replication of sensitive data in case of disaster why not just save money and trust them with all of it?

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