One is better than many

North Dakota Information Technology Department

Consolidating computer and network systems usually simplifies the infrastructure, but it is never simple to accomplish. However, for states that can weather the difficulties, consolidation often yields big payoffs in savings or better service, several state officials said recently.

Whether by choice or necessity, chief information officers in four western states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming—recently tried consolidation and lived to tell their tales at the Western CIO Forum, held earlier this month in Santa Fe, N.M.

The CIOs said they turned to consolidation to cope with a variety of problems. In some cases, CIOs have been forced by cost-cutting legislators to consolidate—or else. In others, the streamlining of information technology resources was a natural product of the CIOs' service-oriented thinking.

Sometimes the impetus for change comes down to a CIO's recognition that the status quo is not serving the state well. But often big changes like consolidation happen only with the arrival of a new CIO who decides to shake things up, said Thom Rubel, vice president for government strategies at Meta Group Inc., a technology consulting company. New CIOs, he said, can say, "'I'm new, and this isn't working, so we're going to try doing something else.'"

In North Dakota's case, lawmakers started the consolidation ball rolling. During the 2003 legislative session, they passed a bill that required the state's CIO to consolidate servers throughout the executive branch, a sweeping mandate that affected all e-mail, Web and application servers.

The lawmakers said they made their decision in an effort to save money on maintenance expenses and cut back on new spending. The legislation stated that an expected $1.4 million in savings had to be returned to the state's general fund.

After consolidating servers, however, officials found that the savings did not add up to $1.4 million, said Curtis Wolfe, North Dakota's CIO. But the consolidation strategy gave technical managers a base for developing performance metrics, he added. And with a way to measure performance, they have been able to improve IT services.

Months from now, metrics that document improved IT services for the state's computer users will be as important as cutting costs, Wolfe said.

Desktop computers are the next class of systems that the state's consolidators plan to bring under the control of the CIO's office.

Rubel said Wolfe's experience with legislative involvement in IT consolidation is unusual. Often when lawmakers make decisions about technology, they create more problems than they solve, he said. However, North Dakota has a relatively small government, and its lawmakers are more technology-savvy than most, which has helped ensure the success of the state's consolidation efforts.

In South Dakota, state IT officials began consolidating as early as 1996, after lawmakers gave them a big incentive: a drastic cut in the state's IT budget. At that point, officials were not consolidating systems to save money; they were simply trying to survive on less, said Otto Doll, the state's CIO. Doll began his tenure as CIO immediately after the budget cuts took effect. The funds that were cut have not been restored.

Dealing with budget cuts before having a chance to eliminate redundant systems and employees may seem backward, Doll said. But in the end, it was the reason consolidation worked as well as it did. "If you don't cut staff and money upfront, you never will," he said.

In Texas, the legislature has not been involved in statewide IT streamlining. But Gov. Rick Perry gave Larry Olson, the state's new CIO, the authority he needed to reorganize the Department of Information Resources. Olson has used that authority to develop a unified technology infrastructure for the state.

He has taken consolidation even a few steps further than others have. He has brought together all employees who manage the state's IT contracts into a single service delivery group. They are now looking for ways to save money by renegotiating and consolidating existing contracts, he said.

A desire for future—if not immediate—savings is a reason that some states choose to merge their computer networks. The Wyoming state government is decentralized, and agencies statewide are, for the most part, autonomous. But the state's CIO is trying to avoid redundant spending in the future by offering centralized services today.

Wyoming officials created a statewide Web portal for IT services, said CIO Larry Biggio. Members of his staff developed the backbone infrastructure into which all of the state's agencies can plug their software applications.

Although creating the portal required an initial investment of about $250,000, the state has already saved at least that much, Biggio said. Because individual agencies can reduce their infrastructure expenses, state officials anticipate further savings as more agencies use the portal,

he said.

Next, Wyoming officials hope to create a statewide portal for services related to natural resources. It will allow state agencies that provide permits and enforce regulations to operate under one system and one set of procedures, which, after all, is just about every CIO's dream.

***

Texas thinks big

In Texas, consolidation plans are part of a larger effort to develop a statewide information technology infrastructure for government operations and services. The infrastructure has five parts, each with a different focus. The initiatives are:

State Data Center System—to optimize procedures for managing contracts and maintaining data center facilities, servers, mainframes and storage devices.

Statewide Network—to develop a statewide management structure to allow optimization of agencies' telecommunications requirements.

Enterprise Applications—to consolidate applications that support the same or similar business processes within and among organizations.

IT Support Services—to deliver efficient technical support to users.

Governance Development—to establish effective decision-making and management processes.

Source: Texas Department of Information Resources

The 2014 Federal 100

Get to know the 100 women and men honored this year for going above and beyond in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above