How Asheville became a model of cloud innovation

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When Jonathan Feldman came to the city of Asheville, North Carolina, in 2005, he was thrilled to learn the city already had a disaster recovery site for its IT. But when he learned it was just two blocks away, his mood quickly changed.

With the city located in western North Carolina and at the trail end of the Atlantic Ocean’s Hurricane Alley, its no surprise Feldman – a former military consultant and self-described catastrophic thinker – wanted something better, but also at a price the city’s 83,000 residents could afford.

“We had to not only think about the real estate costs to the city, but also the cost of a technology that we might only turn on a few times a year,” Feldman, the city’s chief information officer, said in an interview with StateScoop. “There is a truth that disaster recovery can be priceless, but it was something we needed to be smart about.”

Feldman was working on a number of plans to sure up the city’s disaster recovery, with the most prominent being co-locating with a city fire station, but that project was cancelled around 2009 and left him starting from scratch.

Coincidentally around that time, cloud computing was getting more use in the private sector and slowly making its way into government. Feldman, though, found himself in a position where he was sifting through various cloud providers that could not deliver exactly what he wanted, especially high levels of automation. It wasn’t until he was at a community day focused on cloud computing when he started asking the city’s growing entrepreneur community about what they used to run their systems.

“Since we’re government, its not like we were competing with them, so they gave me some insight into how their systems worked along with pass along some of their relationships,” Feldman said.

Fast forward again until last year when Feldman got a pitch from Cloud Velocity, an Amazon Web Services partner, which gave him the hybrid cloud he was looking for with high levels of automation.

“As soon as they said what they could do, you could see Jonathan’s eyes get real big,” Feldman said, referring to himself in third person.

As with most cloud conversations, Feldman said the biggest obstacle came within his city’s government around security. His answer was as simple as it was blunt: Amazon probably had a better security team.

“What I told our people was to bring in a third-party security auditor – the one that tags us for things every year – and if they find something that is egregious then we will scrap the entire project and remain friends,” Feldman said. “But if it worked, I told our guys to stop being scared and let the project continue. And of course everything went off without a hitch.”

So in the end, it took eight years to get the result he wanted, but Feldman found happiness in Amazon Web Services’ cloud. For its success, earlier this year the city took home one of Amazon’s Global City on a Cloud Innovation Challenge prizes. winning $50,000 in Amazon credits in part for being a leader in showing how other local governments can solve similar challenges.

“We’ll use the credits for a number of projects, including moving our ERP system to the cloud,” Feldman said. “This project has allowed us a lot of cost savings that can be moved to other areas of need. It’s been beautiful.”

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