Counting on the Cloud

Scott County, Minn., trusts the Amazon Elastic Computer Cloud with its disaster recovery data.
by | April 20, 2010

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

After experiencing much success with outsourcing its financial applications in 2007, Scott County, Minn., is giving outsourcing another go -- this time using cloud computing. In a trial, the county is moving its disaster recovery services to Amazon Web Services' Elastic Computer Cloud (Amazon EC2).

Kevin Ellsworth, the county's chief financial officer, said in a press release that the move to Amazon EC2 helps the county maximize its returns on its technology investments. It does so, he says, by taking the county's disaster recovery to the next level.

"The immediate benefits, God forbid we ever need them: Disaster recovery time moved from something like 48 hours down to eight hours to get [data] restored. Then our window where we lose data shrunk from 8 to 12 hours down to an hour," Ellsworth says.

Moving over to AWS was easy. But to understand what's happening now, we must look back to 2007, when Scott County was an Oracle shop. Back then, the county had three folks in IT mostly dedicated to "spoon-feeding" applications, Ellsworth says. The IT staff spent time putting in patches or conducting some of the base testing, instead of working on interfaces or public-facing Web services.

Then, because the county's IT department ran into a deadline with Oracle for upgrading -- and because it saw the cost to upgrade -- the county instead decided to send out a RFP. That's when it switched to Lawson and was fully hosted by Lawson Managed Services. Being hosted externally meant internal staffers no longer had to "spoon feed" the IT infrastructure, applications, security or storage -- they could be reassigned to different tasks, making the switch worth it even though it cost the county more money.

After switching to Lawson in November 2007, Lawson backed up all county data at its facility in Phoenix every 8 to 12 hours. So, had a disaster occurred, any data within that 8 to 12 hour window was lost. Recovery time for data that was backed up was 48 hours.

Fast forward to today: Lawson approached Scott County about having its disaster recovery services hosted using cloud computing. Part of what makes the deal so sweet is that the county is still contracting with Lawson -- Lawson has the deal with AWS.

Disaster recovery was always a requirement in the Lawson Managed Services contract -- Amazon EC2 is just a different means for them to meet the requirement. So day to day, Ellsworth says, nothing's changed. "Our CIO looked at [the proposal] and some of our tech folks, and they said it just matches so well with the direction we're headed in how we've been treating virtualization for many years," Ellsworth says. "So why not do it?"

And the fact that Amazon is such a trusted name helped too. When county officials and IT folks discussed the deal with a few Lawson reps, Ellsworth says the risk of using Amazon as a provider came up "and was dismissed very quickly, simply because of the name and that's their business -- and their business lives and dies by their own internal security."

Should a disaster happen, the county would now recover its data and applications from the Amazon cloud. The cloud updates itself every hour, so minimal information should be lost if something unfortunate happens. "It's a critical component, but you hope and pray that you'll never have to use it," says Ellworth.

Moving disaster recovery services to the cloud allows Scott County to assess how cloud computing might work for all of its data. And since the county's contract with Lawson's Managed Services ends this November, Ellsworth says county officials are discussing if they will embark on that move. "[Data] ported over nicely, we did our testing, there were no issues," he says. "So this certainly will be on the table for how we want to continue our Managed Services with Lawson for the whole thing in the cloud during the next three-year window."

If the county moves all of its data to the cloud, Ellsworth says he'd look for lower cost because the county would be entering into a variable cost mode, where cost changes according to the change in volume. "With the existing hosting environment," he says, "it's more of a fixed-cost environment with a dedicated server."


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