Moving to the Cloud
By Bob Violino
Striving to increase efficiency and improve services at a time when budgets are tighter, state and local governments are turning to IT solutions that can help them meet their goals. Like many technology users in business, government agencies are implementing virtualization, cloud computing, and mobile devices and applications to help keep costs in line and deliver quality services to the public.
Virtualization—at both the server and desktop level—has enabled Iowa's Workforce Development Agency (IWD) to save money and improve services. The agency contributes to the economic security of Iowa's workers, businesses and communities through a comprehensive statewide system of employment services, along with education and the regulation of health, safety and employment laws.
Facing budget cuts at both the state and federal level, IWD was forced to reduce the number of its physical offices across the state from 55 to 19, but it still needed a way to provide services. "Even though budgets were being cut tremendously, the need to provide services was not reduced," says Gary Bateman, CIO at IWD. "Our citizens still need our services, and we needed to find a better way to provide those services."
The department had been providing virtual desktops to its employees for a couple of years, using software from VMware. When faced with losing physical offices, it decided to expand the use of the virtual technology to allow citizens access to services without the need to drive to one of the remaining offices.
To accomplish that, IWD teamed with public partners that already had Internet access—including libraries, places of worship, abuse shelters, National Guard Armories, and high schools across the state—to offer the same services previously available only in physical offices.
IWD began the rollout of virtual access points (VAP) in July 2011 and set a goal of deploying a total of 200 sites—with at least one in all 99 counties—by the end of 2011. The agency did more than meet this goal: It far surpassed it, with more than 500 sites and almost 2,000 desktops by year end.
When the agency started deploying virtual desktops to employees a few years ago, it encountered a problem managing storage for the new virtualized desktop environment. To solve the problem of data access bottlenecks and for easier management of data, IWD purchased a storage management system from NetApp.
"Having VMware coupled with the storage system from NetApp [gave] us the flexibility to react quickly when we needed to deploy VAPs across the state," says Jean Foshier, lead systems architect with the agency.
IWD is also benefiting from a server virtualization strategy that it launched more than four years ago using virtualization software from VMware and blade servers. About 85 percent of the department's Windows and Linux servers are now virtualized, and IWD has reduced the number of physical servers considerably, Foshier says.
The department is also expanding its use of tablets and smartphones to provide employees with easier access to applications and data from a variety of locations.
"VMware allows us to run a virtual Windows 7 desktop on an iPad and reap the benefits of mobility without the risk of storing data on the mobile device," says CIO Bateman. "This technology is allowing us to provide services to more people than was possible with physical offices."
Moving to the Cloud
Like virtualization and mobility, cloud computing is becoming a key part of the IT strategy of state and local governments.
In 2010, the city of Alexandria, Va., decided to move a number of IT services to the cloud, as part of an overall effort to streamline technology and tech support throughout the municipality, says Shelly Ryan, deputy director of Alexandria's Information Technology Services.
The city signed up for Microsoft Enterprise Agreement (EA), Microsoft's licensing program that enables organizations to choose either on-premises or cloud services. "It was a strategic move for us because previously we were under a Microsoft licensing agreement that did not lend itself to economies of scale," Ryan says.
In addition, the city was using three or four versions of Microsoft Office throughout its user environment, and it wanted to standardize on one version while moving to a hosted model. Having multiple versions of software "was a support and training nightmare," Ryan says. With its move to the Microsoft cloud, the city is now using one version of Office.
One of the most effective ways Alexandria is leveraging the cloud is for email management. The city had been using Lotus Notes Domino for email and collaboration for about 10 years. While the platform served a useful purpose over the years, it wasn't able to work with the Microsoft collaboration tools that the government wanted to use, such as Exchange, SharePoint, Live Meeting, instant messaging and Web conferencing.
The city used software from Quest Software Public Sector to securely move users' email mailboxes—including all historical email data—to the cloud. Alexandria now uses hosted services for its email and collaboration needs.
"We had a large amount of email data, and Quest developed a tool that allows us to take all of that on-premises data and synchronize it to the cloud in a very efficient fashion, so we had no loss of data and no downtime," Ryan says. "We moved 2,700 mailboxes in less than six months."
Alexandria's move to the cloud allowed the city government to adapt to budget concerns. "Given that we're a local government, we are [frequently] looking at budget constraints," Ryan says, and using the cloud rather than on-premises applications has enabled the government to avoid significant costs.
The city has seen cost savings and cost avoidance with the move. The savings comes through the elimination of about 15 servers and the associated support and backup costs. And by adopting the new cloud licensing model, Alexandria estimates it will avoid some $1.2 million licensing-related costs over a six-year period.
The new communications and collaboration features have improved worker productivity and efficiency, enabling city workers to better serve citizens through more rapid responses, Ryan says. People can connect more easily not only internally with other city employees, but externally as well. Many are using tablet devices and smartphones to access the new communications and collaboration features.
This improved connectivity, including Web conferencing, also enables more people to work from home effectively. By increasing the number of teleworkers, Alexandria can operate in a more environmentally friendly way, Ryan says.
There have been challenges during in the transition to the cloud and new email platform. One of the biggest was getting users to adapt to change.
"We had cultural issues that we had to address," Ryan says. "Some people liked the legacy email platform and moving was traumatic for them. We had to be diligent with set up, training and communications."
Regional Cloud Hubs
Such moves to the cloud are expected to become more common among government agencies. A new type of government cloud service has emerged that could significantly change the way state and local governments procure online computing services, says Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights.
Using "regional cloud hubs," one government agency offers computing services to other government agencies, McCarthy says.
"In many cases, moderate or even zero capital expenditures are needed to take advantage of cloud offerings," he says. "The solutions are either developed in-house or are commercially developed private clouds dedicated to government use and designed to meet specific government standards."
This evolution of cloud computing has the potential to trigger several "game-changing" consequences, McCarthy says. For the host facility, it can turn a government agency cost center into a revenue center. "By selling cloud solutions to other government organizations, host agencies can offset their costs," he adds.
In addition, local governments can buy cheaper cloud solutions than they might find on their own, and they might be able to reduce capital expenses, McCarthy says. "Cloud services already are replacing internal client/server as the main model for government application delivery," he states.