When it comes to betting on whether a city’s data is better served by being hosted in the cloud, Jacksonville’s money is all in — literally.

The River City moved its Financial Accounting Management Information System (FAMIS) to the cloud in August. The migration process isn’t new for Jacksonville, as the city previously moved a risk management system to the cloud. But FAMIS is the largest system to make the transition and officials say the move will save the city quite a bit of cash in the process.

Kenneth Lathrop, data center services manager for Jacksonville, said the city first looked at purchasing a new IBM mainframe for FAMIS, which was previously hosted on an onsite IBM mainframe emulated environment. The program that FAMIS was operating with could no longer be upgraded, which made the change necessary.

But after discovering a new mainframe would cost the city nearly $1 million, plus another $236,800 per year for maintenance and other costs, the idea quickly shifted to whether the price was right for a cloud-based solution.

That’s when the Northwest Regional Data Center (NWRDC) came in, Lathrop explained.

Located in Tallahassee, Fla., the NWRDC is a public organization and auxiliary enterprise of Florida State University that provides cloud services for a number of other governmental entities. By shifting FAMIS to the NWRDC’s cloud environment, Jacksonville’s costs dropped significantly.

Overall, Lathrop said that the most the city will pay for its hosting services with NWRDC is $105,000 annually.

“You’re talking [saving] over double the cost and that’s not counting ... the staff we would have to have dedicated to it in-house,” Lathrop said.

Connectivity a Concern

The project to move FAMIS to the cloud started in April and essentially is complete. One last task includes setting up a dedicated virtual private network (VPN) between Jacksonville and the NWRDC. Connectivity between the two entities currently is peppered with various network “hops” that FAMIS’ data passes through.

Lathrop explained that if one of those network hops failed, whatever transaction that’s occurring at the time would also fail. Although there would be an automatic resubmission of the transaction with FAMIS, having a direct connection from Jacksonville to FAMIS would make the process more seamless.

So the city is transitioning to the MyFlorida Network, which will provide that dedicated pipeline to the NWRDC. The network is hosted by the state of Florida.

Lathrop said Jacksonville is still in the testing phase and there’s no rush for the switch, primarily because there are no immediate concerns about performance and security. If there was a security concern, Lathrop said, the city has transitioned already to the MyFlorida Network.

Lathrop said that while the transition of FAMIS to the cloud was fairly smooth, there were still some bumps along the way. In particular, once FAMIS was online at the NWRDC, some issues popped up regarding its connectivity to Jacksonville’s procurement system, which remains onsite at the city.

He explained that when FAMIS was set up at the NWRDC in Tallahassee, the connection between it and the procurement system was being dropped and transactions wouldn’t transfer between the systems.

“The procurement system wasn’t able to detect the application not being here at the city anymore,” Lathrop said. “So that took a little bit, and we actually had to go back to the vendor that provided the connectivity software. They worked with us to upgrade the software and provide a series of patches that would resolve the situation.”

Increased Speed and Redundancy

With a system as critical as FAMIS, a crash could be catastrophic. But Lathrop was confident in the NWRDC’s backup procedures, calling its process much more efficient than what Jacksonville could do previously by itself.

When still hosted on-site, Jacksonville would have a nine-hour backup and wrap-up procedure of the data in FAMIS. The NWRDC does the same process in three hours and also has an additional offsite location where a secondary backup of the system is maintained in case of a failure.

In addition to IT staff being pleased with the backup procedures, there’s less maintenance — IT staff members are responsible only for maintenance of the application itself, not any of the hardware and connectivity.

Users of FAMIS have noticed a general increase in operational speed too. “The biggest compliment so far has been the speed,” Lathrop said. “[Users] are saying the processing speed of the application and response time seems to be faster.”

Future Moves

Because of the savings provided by the transition of FAMIS to the cloud, Lathrop said that Jacksonville is assessing whether it makes financial sense to do the same for other systems. He explained that Jacksonville has had preliminary discussions with Google and Microsoft about moving Jacksonville’s city e-mail to the cloud, but the numbers didn’t pan out.

After initial discussions, Jacksonville officials found that it was cheaper to keep e-mail on-site, but Lathrop said further analysis is needed to weigh the pros and cons.

“When we talked about hosting if off-site, the issue was not with the platform itself, but with how much data you want to keep archived,” Lathrop recalled. “Then the expense shot through the roof if you want to archive your data for 10 or 20 years.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.