Scott County, Minn., Dips Into Cloud Computing Waters

Scott County becomes the first public-sector user of Amazon EC2 for disaster recovery.

by / April 7, 2010

Before moving from Oracle to Lawson Software for its financial application hosting in 2007, Scott County, Minn., had three IT staffers solely dedicated to maintaining hardware. Hoping to increase those employees' value to the county's tech services instead of continuing their tedious tasks of managing servers, the county switched to an off-site hosted environment.

"We didn't want to babysit the hardware in our facility anymore," Scott County Chief Financial Officer Kevin Ellsworth said. "We're trying to squeeze all the dollars we can out of our technology investments."

It was the first time the county outsourced its hosting services, Ellsworth said. After doing so, the county realized immediate benefits. The IT workers were able to spend time developing Web services and creating public-facing applications for citizens.

Recently the concept of cloud computing -- a term used to describe anything involving the delivery of hosted services via the Internet -- sparked Ellsworth's interest after the county CIO brought it up. So the county moved its disaster recovery services to the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) in a trial run.

"We'd been supportive of the virtualization of technology for years now," Ellsworth said. "Working with Lawson and using virtualization technology, when the cloud computing technology became available, we decided to test [the Amazon EC2] cloud technology."

It's only been three weeks, but the difference is tangible. There is quicker data recovery (eight hours now versus 48 hours previously) and less lag time for transaction updates as far as recovery (one hour now versus eight to 12 previously).

If a natural disaster like a tornado were to hit, the county would lose about an hour of work time as opposed to eight hours, Ellsworth said. Some of the "neater stuff" he said, is the ability to test new applications without using a server for hosting.

The testing feature, Lawson Test Drive, allows users to test real products for up to two weeks using their own business processes and data before committing to the actual software purchase, according to a company press release.

And Scott County wants to help neighboring public-sector agencies move away from the business of maintaining servers. With a 94-mile fiber-optic ring connecting all county public agencies, the county can already share data and applications, Ellsworth said. But now it can add the city or school district and provide payroll services for them.

"It would be easy to expand our capacity and add them and do payroll for them," he said.

As far as what's next for Scott County, officials are discussing whether to move its entire financial application into the cloud, Ellsworth said. But there's a bit of time to mull over that matter because the county's three-year contract with Lawson Software expires in November. It will decide then whether to renew services and put its financial services into the cloud, Ellsworth said.

"We consider ourselves pioneers in virtualization and once we understood the benefits of having Lawson host our disaster recovery on [Amazon Web Services], we asked ourselves: 'Why wouldn't we do this?'" Ellsworth said in a press release. "This helps us maximize our returns on our technology investments."

As far as advice for other governing bodies considering cloud computing, he says keep an open mind. "Don't shy away from new ideas. It's cliché, but when the CIO approached me with the cloud thing, I said, 'What are you talking about?'" Ellsworth said. "But we have a remarkable IT group that will take those ideas and figure out how they're good and how we can make the most use of them with the resources we have."


Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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