The City of Berkeley Moves Ahead with Hybrid Cloud IT

A five-year IT transformation plan put the city in better control of its digital-powered future.

By Ken Kaplan

By Ken Kaplan May 04, 2022

The California city of Berkeley is vibrant and daring. It’s people-centric and progressive. The community values diversity and challenges the status quo. To live or work requires an open mind, teamwork and a bias for action.

“All of this forces us to be flexible and adopt change,” said Tom Ray, chief information security officer for the City of Berkeley. “That community feeling, that diversity, is in every aspect of our daily lives. It’s part of everything we do.”

When it came to advancing Berkeley’s digital transformation, the community vibe played a role in shifting the city to a modern IT operation. Increasingly city services rely on information technologies to function properly. Employees and residents want to use their mobile phones or personal computers to stay informed and get things done. To meet changing and growing needs, the city built a hybrid cloud IT system that can scale and evolve into the future. A system that can power remote workers and recover quickly from a natural disaster or cyberattack.

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Located in Alameda County, which is northeast of Silicon Valley and across the bay from San Francisco, Berkeley is named after the 18th-century Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley. It’s home to some of the world’s top educational and research institutions – the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The city of Berkeley is considered one of the most socially liberal cities in the United States, with a reputation for free speech and rapid social change.

Even though Berkeley has remained ahead of the curve in everything from free speech and social movements to civil rights and scientific breakthroughs, the city’s technology infrastructure became decrepit and problematic. City officials approved an ambitious 5-year, $35-million dollar plan to upgrade technologies that power critical public services.

After the plan was ratified, the IT team raced to find solutions that were economically and environmentally sustainable.

“We looked at things from 10 different angles, selected the right technology and services providers then put our plan into action,” Ray said.

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Ray said the IT team’s mission is to provide cost-effective, smart technology solutions to our business partners and community with integrity and commitment to excellence. Its vision is to provide excellent customer service through innovative and intuitive solutions, with a diverse workforce, which enables city operations to connect and deliver quality solutions for our community.

Over 120,000 residents – plus commuting employees and visitors – rely on city services each day. The city’s team of IT experts re-architected the underlying technologies that deliver digital services to police, fire, public works departments and many other smart city initiatives.

Ray said his team goes above and beyond the responsibilities of neighboring city IT departments. For example, Berkeley is one of the three cities in California that has its own Health, Housing and Community Services Department. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the IT teams provided video conferencing and teleconferencing for telehealth services, tele-testing for health hotlines and contact tracing.

The City of Berkeley IT team provides zero-waste services both residential and commercial, which is unique for a city the size of Berkeley. They also provide the active directory, email and phone system support six different library branches. Even the city’s 311-customer service call center is powered by her team’s infrastructure. The new hybrid cloud IT system allowed the IT team to develop and run a video inspection tool for the City Planning Department.

“After our five-year plan, we now have a private cloud that responded easily to remote worker needs from the pandemic,” Ray said. “It handles changing needs, is more fluid, brings up servers faster and is more responsive than our older system.”

From Hyperconverged Infrastructure to Disaster Recovery Plan

When Ray joined in 2016 to help with continuity and disaster recovery, he did some math and found they were paying more for technologies that were becoming less viable. One piece of hardware was over 30 years old. His findings helped make the case for moving to hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) powered by Nutanix, a technology he knew was being used by the CIO of Las Vegas.

By moving from traditional IT to a software-defined IT infrastructure, the City of Berkeley now runs on virtualized elements of conventional systems, including virtualized computing, storage and networking. which gives them to scale hybrid and multicloud resources to meet future needs.

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That first month, they moved all the major systems with 230 applications to HCI. They migrated the other systems in the second month. The new infrastructure now supports an upgraded 911 emergency response service, asset management and employee device management system.

“That went smoothly...without a hitch,” said Ray.

That encouraged him to add a new capability: creating an offsite backup system that could be controlled remotely.

“We had no backup at all when I joined,” recalled Ray. “We are located on the Hayward Fault and I felt that if an earthquake hit, it could damage our data centers.”

Before they moved to a private cloud-powered system, their data centers – for one reason or another – experienced an outage at least once a year. Each outage took one to two weeks to recover. Whenever that happened, Ray would announce: “We have gone to paper!”

“When we had an outage, we would have to check every console of every system,” he said.

They would check hardware, software, BIOS and firmware to see what failed. After pivoting through the litany of consoles, they checked for updates and cross-component compatibility on those updates.

“It took time to make the appropriate troubleshooting or installs, or both,” Ray said. “We had to contact the component vendors when something did not work or when we ran into a problem that we could not identify.”

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That’s when some vendors would point fingers rather than help solve the problem. This was not the level of reliability they needed.

“Our systems were not scalable at all,” Ray said.

For the past few years, their hybrid cloud-powered IT system has experienced 99.99% uptime.

Empowering Remote Workers

Everything came together in late 2019, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The first scaling stress-test of their new system allowed the city to go from supporting zero remote workers to more than 70% staff working remotely. Currently, they have about 700 remote workers using Citrix virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) running on the city’s private cloud.

The move to HCI also resulted in a 50% reduction in IT equipment space, cut about 60% power consumption and reduced IT employee workload by about one-third, compared to their previous system.

Ray said they beefed up data security, adopting a zero-trust approach.

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“We are going through these major system transitions across the organization,” said Ray. “If our infrastructure is not stable, it would be difficult.”

He said the new infrastructure gives him confidence and his team more time to plan for what’s next.

Ken Kaplan is Editor in Chief for The Forecast by Nutanix. Find him on Twitter @kenekaplan.

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