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Local government's cloud move cuts headaches, adds control

Nebraska's Douglas-Omaha Technology Commission (DOTComm) has improved operations and scalability for the Douglas County Board of Equalization by moving its outdated Java-based web application to the cloud.

Among the board's responsibilities is handling residents' protests on the assessments of their homes. After the county recently made changes to property taxes, the board saw record numbers of protests.  Residents often got error messages when they tried to file their protests because the system simply couldn't handle the volume, said Vijay Badal, director of application services at DOTComm. The website was powered by a decade-old Java application running in a data center that was not very secure or scalable, he added.

Badal and his team converted the website to a serverless architecture using Python running on Amazon Web Services Lambda and S3 services. "You don't have to worry about the hardware and the operating system," Badal said.  The cloud-based system "takes away all our overhead of spinning up new servers, running operating systems, doing patching and all that stuff. This was a big win for us."

During times of increased web traffic, AWS automatically spins up additional services to handle that load. "This is a huge advantage, so we are not getting those 404 errors," Badal said.

The decision to move to AWS was based on operational and financial considerations, said DOTComm CIO Derek Kruse said. "Ultimately, this makes the department's life easier because they're not getting angry phone calls" from citizens trying to file their protests, Kruse said. "Our mission at the end of the day is to try to serve our community and serve our citizens. If this is done right, they'll never know. A new citizen filing a protest will go in and it will be just like any other experience they have with a website in their personal life," he said. "That's how we know we've done a good job."

This single cloud migration is one part of DOTComm's larger plan to move all of its infrastructure, largely based on Joomla, to the cloud.

"Five years ago as we looked at that environment -- all those websites were hosted in our environment, which was very aged … it was down-level," Kruse said. "We were having denial-of-service [attacks], we were having outages, and it was very frustrating."

Rather than invest millions of dollars in new on-premise infrastructure, Badal suggested hosting the websites in the cloud and using third parties to update and maintain the code. Today, DOTComm runs about 80 sites of the 200 websites it supports on AWS and has a road map to migrate the rest. On average, it moves three to four sites per month to Amazon.

"They all run on a same version, same platform," Badal said. "They have multilayer security, they are secure, scalable, and then it's cut down costs significantly because we auto scale." DOTComm uses Google analytics to keep an eye on traffic from each and every site. "During peak hours, we scale up our services on Amazon, and during off hours, we scale it down," he added.

From a business perspective, the move is a boon, Kruse said. It has allowed DOTComm to absorb the costs into its operating budget, rather than charge them to capital expenditures. That "drip approach" to costs also gives the commission more direct control, he said.

"From a business perspective, from my perspective, that has been the biggest advantage of going to AWS," Kruse said. "It's more than just, 'We invested X and get a return of Y.' It's far more simple for us."

DOTComm was a finalist for Amazon's City on a Cloud Challenge in 2016 for its overall efforts and finalist again this year for its work with the Board of Equalization. "It's that movement up the maturity curve that we're really taking advantage of now," said Kruse, adding that it shows how the commission is now "more surgical in using specific services to maximize the cost-benefits ratio." DOTComm was able to take a really important function of  Board of Equalization "and make that operate even more efficiently than we could have in the past."

When DOTComm began planning for the cloud, it asked city of Omaha and Douglas County managers to list their most vulnerable assets so it could prioritize the systems that would migrate first.

"Everything's going to go eventually," Kruse said. "We're not just stopping at applications. We're looking at our entire storage environment," he said.  "We're looking at all different ways to continue to take advantage of what we think has been a really good win for the city and the county and the citizens."

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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