Last September Corby Borough Council went live with an online portal application that runs on Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) infrastructure.
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The EC2 virtualised server architecture can be accessed over a secure network, allowing organisations to operate applications and other computing resources remotely, ramping up and shrinking their usage as required and paying accordingly.
The online portal, MyCorby, enables the town's 53,000 residents to access a range of information and council services, such as council tax, benefits, housing, waste collection and leisure services, at their convenience and around the clock. Corby chose cloud computing because it offered the flexibility to support growing demand from the town's ballooning population, which is expected to double by 2030.
George Jenkins, corporate development officer at Corby Borough Council, explained that moving to self-service means fewer face-to-face meetings with council staff, and this helps to cut costs. The public sector's Society of IT Management (Socitm) has calculated the cost of a face-to-face meeting at £6.56, as opposed to just 27p for the same interaction over the web.
Jenkins added that the subscription-based cloud platform also saved the local authority a hefty initial IT outlay, allowing it to reinvest money into other service improvements for customers.
At the moment the portal is primarily accessed internally by council staff working in one-stop-shop service bureaus, but Corby expects the demand for self-service to grow rapidly among its citizens.
The online portal was developed in conjunction with Firmstep, which provides web-centric IT systems to one-third of local authorities. It was also the pilot for Firmstep's cloud-based government portal software.
Giles Mitton, Firmstep's chief technology officer, said that Amazon's EC2 offers scalability and reliability, allowing users to ramp up or shrink IT resources as required.
Amazon also has a datacentre in Ireland, with two additional fully-redundant facilities. This makes EC2 accessible to local authorities, which are not advised to send data outside the Eurozone.
The infrastructure behind the Corby customer portal is based on eight virtual server instances, the heftiest of which are two 64-bit 'extra large EC2 instances'. Each of these has four virtual server cores with 15 Gbytes of memory and is used to run Windows 2003 Server.
Firmstep operates encrypted SQL server 2005 databases for Corby Council, and uses Amazon's load-balancing capability. Static files are hosted on Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) facility.
The system also includes several Linux-based servers running applications written on the Ruby on Rails web application framework, and Apache for additional load-balancing. An important part of the cloud infrastructure is Firmstep's local integration module (LIM) which enables it to link directly and securely through the council's internal network and into its internal systems.
Among these are the council tax database and the Local Land Property Gazetteer database, which holds addresses and postcodes used to identify properties.
"The LIM allows two-way communications, and we are able to push data into their back-office systems as required. It is fully encrypted and authenticated, and the LIM component can be operated from the cloud, which tackles the problem of not being able to move Corby's entire infrastructure into the cloud," commented Mitton.
This level of integration allows, for example, self-service portal users to check when their bin collections are, and also get access to their council tax balance or benefit information, said Mitton.
EC2 has various levels of security built in, but Firmstep added further intrusion detection and other security measures.
For example, it configured the firewall so that only the ports that need to be open to certain hosts are open, and set the system to authenticate users as soon as they log in, attaching relevant permissions and restricting access as required. From Corby Borough Council's perspective, it sees cloud computing as the future, and is convinced that it can be used securely to run council services in a cost-effective manner.
Robert Hinde, customer first manager at Corby, also worked closely with Firmstep. "Attitudes towards customer service within local government are changing and technology is now seen as a key enabler in offering enhanced interaction with citizens," he said.
Corby's Amazon EC2 infrastructure
Eight virtual server instances in total, including:
- Two 'extra large EC2 instances'
each instance has four virtual cores with 15Gbytes of memory
64bit Windows 2003 Server
1,690GB instance storage
- Encrypted SQL server 2005 databases
- Amazon load-balancing
- Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3)
- High Performance I/O