Q&A with Suffolk County Council CIO Mark Adams-Wright

When Suffolk County Council sought to upgrade its network infrastructure two years ago, it did not simply want more bandwidth. It also wanted a network infrastructure that would promote Suffolk’s business interests and promote collaboration between public sector organisations in and around the county.

The MPLS network it selected, built by MLL Telecom and Customer Services Direct – a business and IT services joint venture between the council and BT Global Services – connects 300 council offices and 300 schools. It provides speeds of up to 100 Mbps, using a combination of copper, fibre optic and ADSL telephone links.

Rolled out in January of this year, the network has improved network performance while keeping costs the same. This has been especially beneficial in Suffolk’s schools, whose poor Internet connection had prevented them from accessing online learning materials provided by the government.

Importantly, the network has been built according to the specifications of the government’s Public Sector Network framework, and the council is now applying for PSN supplier status. As CIO Mark Adams-Wright, explains below, this means that other public sector bodies could benefit from the council’s investment by joining the network in future. Adams-Wright also believes that the network could act as a platform for shared services for Suffolk and its neighbours. For example, he hopes that the council’s business intelligence function could serve as a centre of excellence for the surrounding counties.

Information Age: How did you go about planning the scope of the network?

Mark Adams-Wright: At the same time as planning the network, we were thinking about the infrastructure for the county, and how to support its aspirations in terms of economic growth and development. At the time, we were thinking about how the network could support businesses, to encourage people to live and work here.

So the network was designed with that in mind. For example, the way we’ve architected the network means that you get upload speeds that are similar to the download speeds, because some of the interest we had was from design organisations and creative agencies, which are typically very upload heavy.

But this was before the BDUK [broadband infrastructure investment] scheme, which is going to sort some of the broadband issues outside of our network, so some of the considerations around opening up the network beyond the public sector have dropped away.

Does this mean that you have over-provisioned the network?

Not really. At Suffolk County Council, we’re doing a lot of work around cloud computing. We’ve already bought from G-Cloud several times and have cloud services running, and we’re currently looking at what to do with the desktop.

I have a view that systems should go to the public cloud first, then a private cloud if necessary, and only on-premise if they absolutely have to. We want to put as much into public cloud services as is sensible and acceptable.

That will use a lot of bandwidth, and now we are expecting our network usage to grow much faster than before. We’ve made sure that we have enough bandwidth so that if we do start to consume significant amounts of cloud services over the next couple of years, the network will not burst its seams.

Why did you select MLL Telecom?

One reason was the engagement model. MLL came along and made sure that they understood our business. They understood what we wanted to achieve and came out with some very robust ways of doing that that made really concrete practical sense. That’s something we took a quick liking to. We didn’t want to feel like a small part of a large machine, which it is very easy to do when you’re dealing with the usual suspects in the telecoms space.

In the design phase, they managed to articulate the benefits of the network in a way that really resonated with non-technical people. I could explain to politicians and councillors how our network would work and why, and that was down to MLL taking some very technical concepts and explaining it all in a sensible way.

How long did the project take?

Aside from some preparation work early on, it took about 18 months from the time we started until February this year, when we completed the deployment.

The disruption from the migration was absolutely minimal. We did as much of the work out of office time as possible, and we made sure that any outages were carefully managed. There was the odd time when someone would come in and things wouldn’t respond, but they were managed immediately and put right immediately. We had no complaints in terms of the roll-out process.

What have the benefits been so far?

From a schools perspective, the biggest single difference is the ability to access resources and data. The schools had been suffering from patchy coverage, and they couldn’t rely on their links to deliver some of the centralised resources from government organisations that could help them in the classroom. A lot of our schools are now beginning to realise the benefits of the resources that are now available to them, which is fantastic.

From a cost point of view, we tried to make sure that we got the right level of quality and the right level of bandwidth for the money that we had to spend. So what we’ve been able to do is manage the traffic in such a way that everybody is getting exactly what they need while keeping our costs neutral. So the improvement is either you get more bandwidth for your money or, in the worst case, you get more stable bandwidth for the same money. And that’s where schools are finding the difference – they didn’t really get it for less money, but because of the way we’ve architected it they are getting a much better service for no more money.

Enabling wi-fi

What impact has the network had upon your mobile strategy?

What it allows us to do is look far more searchingly at what we want to do around mobile. We have been able to move forward on a Wi-Fi strategy, and not just in terms of providing Wi-Fi for ourselves, but also for our partner organisations, and for the public. We’re a public authority; our buildings have a lot of public footfall. We’ve been able to move that forward very positively because we have the backhaul for it.

That then informs our mobile device strategy. One of the things that most councils struggle with is the cost of devices and keeping them up to date. We are now looking at what we can do around BYOD, and we have done some pilots to test the water.

What do you plan to do with the network now?

We are in a position now that we can think about encouraging other organisations to join us on our network. We ran a PSN introduction event in May and invited pretty much every non-commercial organisation in Suffolk that might have an interest in using the network. We had people there from districts and boroughs and from the voluntary sector. Obviously, most organisations already have some kind of networking engagement in place, but we were trying to make that people understood that the first place to turn when they were looking for something new would be our network and the PSN.

At the moment, there are at least two districts looking at what sort of costing it would come out at to move onto our network. None of them has moved to using our network in its entirety, but I believe that’s not too far away.

And from a PSN perspective, I am personally very keen to ensure that as many PSN-compliant networks talk to each other and leverage the value and the benefit as possible. I’m talking to the councils in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Kent who have the same level PSN accreditation to look at how we could share services.

I am hoping that we can get together as a group and look at which services we each do well, and which we do not so well, and see if we can find some genuine centres of excellence that could provide for all of us. At Suffolk, we have invested heavily in business intelligence while most other councils have either just started or still have it on their future roadmap.

We already have a service that runs quite a strong business intelligence framework, so if our networks are interconnected, there is no reason why we couldn’t provide a business intelligence centre of excellence to fast-track some of the councils that aren’t doing it yet.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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