Apr 03 2009

IT Advice for Austerity

Experts reveal IT initiatives that can help you squeeze the most from your budget.

Experts reveal IT initiatives that can help you squeeze the most from your budget.

State and local IT shops are dealing with an unprecedented economic triple whammy. The burst housing bubble, the credit crisis and the stock market crash have left the overall economy in shambles. As constituents lose their homes and their jobs, tax income has continually come up short, leaving most agencies scrambling to make ends meet.

In such lean times, many IT shops hunker down, cutting costs and trimming services. But that’s a mistake, according to several government leaders. Their organizations have employed technologies, such as desktop virtualization, Voice over Internet Protocol, green computing, thin clients and state-of-the-art data centers, not only to cut costs and increase efficiencies, but also to deliver new or improved services while generating revenue. Here are their suggestions.

1. Implement Anytime, Anywhere Computing

Florida’s Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program has 800 employees working in 65 offices spread from one end of the state to the other. Rather than build out its own network, which would have cost $1,400 a month per circuit, CIO Johnny C. White Jr. decided to implement Citrix XenApp. With XenApp, White hosts the agency’s applications centrally in Tallahassee and delivers them over the Internet to employees equipped with everything from PCs to mobile devices such as BlackBerrys.

In addition to saving on staffing and PC refreshes, the desktop virtualization setup has reduced the agency’s network costs by $450,000 a year. And when the agency moved from XenApp v.3 to v.4, which required fewer servers but could support more concurrent users, White was able to reduce the number of servers his group supports from 12 to six. “We’re actually supporting more users with less hardware,” he says. “That’s huge, when you consider it costs $3,000 for a server.”

2. Upgrade Telephony Infrastructure

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that in 2010, total state budget gaps will likely reach $100 Billion.

Faced with unreliable analog PBXs and limited to 87 analog lines for an entire county, Strafford County (N.H.) Chief Technology Officer Roger Smith knew he had to make a change. “Verizon couldn’t give us more lines,” he says. “We had places like the rest home and county attorney’s office where people were sharing four lines, when they really needed more like 100.” He decided to swap out the aging system and implement VoIP countywide.

Instead of paying upward of $15,000 per month for analog phone service, the new Avaya IP telephony setup reduced the county’s costs so much that the new phone bill, plus the lease of the Avaya gear and the expense of a new IP video-based arraignment system, cost just $10,000 per month. “We had $5,000 a month savings right off the bat and were easily able to get an ROI in the first year alone,” Smith says.

Now the county’s employees all have direct phone lines, increasing efficiency, and the new arraignment system has cut costs by eliminating the need to transport prisoners to and from court. “We have never had to pay for video arraignment,” Smith says. “It saved six man-hours per prisoner per arraignment, so it was a wash right from day one.”

Not only has the county saved money with VoIP, it’s also offsetting the cost of the system by providing phone services to other agencies. “We get another $3,000 a month from tenant fees, so right away we saw $8,000 a month in savings,” Smith says. “Even though the cost of incarceration has increased, VoIP let us lower the cost to the taxpayer while increasing service quality.”

3. Ease Remote Management

When it came time to refresh and standardize the state of Indiana’s 25,000 PCs, Paul Baltzell, director of distributed services at the Indiana Office of Technology, decided to bet on a new Intel chip, the vPro. The vPro-equipped PCs didn’t cost more, but they provided key capabilities. “It was like having a server Remote Assist Card built into the PC,” Baltzell explains. “It lets you do remote control, remote imaging, and it gives admins remote BIOS-level access, so they can get in there and work, even if the PC is on a blue screen. I have regional techs all across the state, as well as 20-plus here in Indianapolis, and the idea was if those guys could do a whole lot more from their desk, this is a win-win for us.”

The vPros worked as advertised, and even provided additional functions, such as the ability to reliably power off PCs remotely, which helps the state save energy costs. “So there’s a productivity gain in my guys not getting in a car and driving somewhere, the state workers have more reliable PCs, and over the four years of the hardware refresh, we saved just over $400,000 on power consumption alone,” Baltzell says.

4. Turn to ThIn Clients

As many as 39 states face budget shortfalls either in their current fiscal 2009 budget or their 2010 budget, according to The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Elected in 2000 on a promise to bring the Circuit Court of Cook County (Ill.) into the 21st century, new Clerk of the Court Dorothy Brown was dismayed to learn that the court system’s entire workforce of 2,300 employees relied on 3,270 dumb terminals linked to a mainframe by 56 kilobits-per-second modems. The court had money to purchase PCs in the budget, but on the recommendation of court CIO Bridget Dancy, Brown decided to go with thin clients, using Hewlett-Packard/NeoWare hardware and Citrix software.

Because the thin clients cost half as much as PCs, the court was able to offer its workers advanced applications while preserving money to invest in a new cashiering and case management system. And not only were the thin clients less expensive than PCs up front, they also required fewer refreshes. “We have some thin clients that have been out there for seven years, and we’re just now replacing them,” Brown says. “That was a big surprise. I thought they might last four years, which is double the life of a PC. But seven is amazing.”

Overall, Brown says, thin clients are the best-kept secret of the 21st century. “We increased services, efficiency and functionality — all while saving money,” she says.

5. Make IT a Business

In Iowa, CIO John Gillispie took a calculated risk. He designed and built the state’s secondary data center to support not only his own disaster recovery services, but also those of other agencies. While the move required more money up front, smart planning and a savvy mix of services has made the 3,600-square-foot data center an attractive alternative to other state agencies, which pay to offload their DR services to Gillispie’s group.

For example, Gillispie placed the DR center just 18 miles away from the primary data center, providing easy access for agency workers while ensuring the new center’s water, power and telecommunications services were separate from the main data center. He also took advantage of the fact that his is a state-run organization that doesn’t pay taxes or need to make a profit. “We can compete effectively for business and services because we have some built-in advantages that the private sector doesn’t,” he says. “Often, our prices are cheaper than the private sector.”

Today, the data center handles DR services for more than 20 agencies, including the state judicial department, the public pension plan and several community colleges. And while Iowa didn’t set out to make money on the plan, it has succeeded in keeping its operating costs level, even while providing new services. “We haven’t changed rates in either of our data centers in four years,” Gillispie says.

A Golden Opportunity

While the budget scenario may be disheartening, state and local IT managers should realize there are opportunities to be had.

“This is the time to look at how we’re spending our IT dollars, get really creative about it, figure out how we’re going to work together, and actually be able to demonstrate how IT can play an even more important role in state government,” says California CIO Teri Takai.

Save Via Shared Services

California CIO Teri Takai has her work cut out for her. Appointed in December 2007, she is faced with providing It services to a state whose budget shortfall for 2009 is estimated to be upward of $10 billion. With that in mind, she’s scrutinizing the current budget, making sure It projects are properly prioritized and examining ways to get state agencies to work together to share services and cut costs. “We’re looking at opportunities to share across the state the technologies and projects that we’re planning to do to see if we can do them more effectively and for fewer dollars if we do them together,” she says. “That’s a priority.”

She also says California is pursuing green technology projects, such as virtualization and web-based services, because they are not only good for the planet but also a boon to the pocketbook. “We’re looking at stepping up our efforts for self-service via the web to reduce the carbon footprint of our constituents and businesses that have to work with us,” she says. “If they don’t have to come to state offices, they can reduce their carbon footprint by reducing their travel time.”

In the end, Takai hopes to provide increased services across the state, while saving money. “If we can reach people more easily, then ultimately, we’ll be able to operate more efficiently — providing increased services while cutting costs.”