Salford City Council has generated new revenue streams by providing cloud services to local SMEs, after increasing its data centre capacity with Cisco and NetApp infrastructure.

The council serves 230,000 citizens within Greater Manchester, with its IT department supporting its own internal operations, as well as a number of public sector organisations spun-off from within the council. It offers IT support to businesses using managed workspaces within the Landing - a council-funded, seven-storey building in Manchester's MediaCity.

As part of plans to replace its legacy data centre infrastructure in 2012, the council deployed three Cisco FlexPod converged infrastructure systems, creating a cloud environment with enough capacity to start offering services to businesses in the local area.

"We have about half a dozen local customers on our FlexPod environment, and then at the Landing there are 20 or so small businesses that use the managed workspace, so it is now delivering beyond the city council," said Jonathan Burt, corporate ICT infrastructure architect at Salford City Council.

The council provides a range of cloud services to private customers. This includes an infrastructure-as-a-service, offering virtual servers, backup and storage, software-as-a-service, such as email, unified comms and finance, as well as network services, and desktop-as-a-service using Citrix service provider licences.

The public cloud services has generated about £400,000 in the last fiscal year for the council, selling to customers such as a local credit union and two sports-related organisations.

"We hope it will grow. What we are really doing is learning. We have developed good relationships with the people we are working with now, and so we will be able to use those as case studies in the future," he told ComputerworldUK.

“We went live with our first organisation outside the city council with desktop as a service last week, enabling the move from a single site to two permanent and three part-time sites, whilst improving the speed of their desktop access and providing unified communications.”

Converged infrastructure

FlexPods are Cisco's take on converged infrastructure: an integrated set of compute, storage, and networking components with infrastructure management software that tends to be delivered to customers pre-tested and configured, allowing cloud environments to be set up more easily.

The council initially deployed a FlexPod at the Landing, with support from service provider ANS Group. This included NetApp FAS3270 storage with 80TB capacity, a Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) chassis and seven M2 Blades, as well as a number of UCS C210 M2 rack-mounted servers for media transcoding, and two Cisco Nexus 5548 Series Switches.

Following this, the council deployed a second FlexPod at its primary data centre, with 60TB storage, two Nexus switches, and two UCS chassis. One chassis contains seven B200 M3 Blades with 192GB of memory each, the other, aimed at providing a remote desktop environments, has seven B200 M3 Blades, each equipped with 32GB of memory.

A smaller FlexPod has also been set up at a secondary data centre, completing the replacement of its legacy EMC and Dell environment. All of the systems run VMware virtualisation software, with Microsoft Systems Center for VM management. All in all, the project cost close to £2 million, including five years’ maintenance.

"The advantage of the FlexPod is that while it is a converged infrastructure - it is also not very prescriptive. There are many configurations; you can choose your own management platform and so forth. Something along the lines of a [Cisco and EMC joint-venture product] VCE is a lot more prescriptive in what they give you," explained Burt.

"It is almost a blue-print which you can use to build a private cloud platform, which to us is actually becoming more of a public cloud platform."

Internally, the converged infrastructure is used to support a variety of tier one systems, including Active Directory, Exchange, SQL, as well as an SAP implementation. The council also runs a number of line of business applications, as well as using Citrix XenDesktop to its employees.

Multi-tenant cloud platform

In 2013, the council added Cisco ASA firewalls, which helped to secure the systems being run on its virtualised infrastructure.

"Together with the Cisco firewalls. the Nexus switching element allows us to do true segregation. So we can literally bring a customer in through our MPLS network, and drop them all the way through the platforms into the UCS network cards and straight into a virtual machine sat on the infrastructure, and they have no capability of transversing from that VM to another customer alongside," Burt said.

Although there have been a number of benefits of the FlexPod over the previous systems, such as reduced power consumption by consolidating down from 32 hosts to 10, Burt said that the flexibility offered is the main advantage. For example, by setting up a multi-tenant cloud, the council is able to respond to central government changes.

"There are a lot of changes in the public sector: a lot of reform and austerity measures. [The cloud platform] really allows us to not focus solely on the city council as a customer moving forward, but be able to support multiple organisations," he said.

"A lot of the public sector is spinning off mutual organisations, which are being contracted out. So having a platform to support all of those businesses is critical to us as a function moving forward."

Cloud platform challenges

Burt believes that, in future, more councils are likely to consider providing data centre and cloud services to private companies in future, but warned that it can be tough to make the transition.

"A lot have aspirations to do it, but it is very difficult going from internal IT function to being a full service provider, and you need a good platform to be able to deliver those services," he said.

"Given that they are also facing significant cuts to funding and staffing levels it is certainly going to be challenging, it certainly was for us, and we had a really good starting point."