Slade Walter and Travis Brower guard against power outages in Castle Rock, Colo., with a high-end UPS.

Smart Spending

Governments find better ways to do more with less by sticking to IT projects that promise a quick payoff.

Travis Brower subscribes to the strategy of spending a little money now to save a lot more later.

After a power outage fried a critical server that cost $5,000 to replace, the IT operations manager and his staff at the town of Castle Rock, Colo., consolidated an inadequate patchwork of small uninterruptible power supply systems with one large, high-end UPS to safeguard the entire data center.

The new centralized UPS required an upfront investment, but Brower says it will pay dividends. Besides being easier to manage and more energy efficient, the UPS provides enough battery backup to protect the town's IT infrastructure from future power failures.

"We had to make it happen," Brower says. "Another power outage could degrade or even crash additional servers, and this investment saves us from having to unnecessarily spend more on server hardware."

Castle Rock's tax revenue has decreased in recent years, forcing its IT department to focus on projects that deliver a fast return on investment or substantial cost reduction. Across the country, state and local governments struggling with budget shortfalls must do more with less. Savvy IT leaders are using whatever budgets they have to pursue projects with long-term savings, says Shawn P. McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights. Such belt-tightening initiatives include consolidating servers, storage and applications, sharing fiber and deploying business intelligence software.

UPS Protects and Saves

Rapid population growth in Castle Rock has strained the area's power grid, resulting in occasional blackouts and brownouts. Lightning storms also knock out power or cause power surges.

These power fluctuations can abruptly shut down or fry IT equipment, resulting in downtime, lost data and expensive repairs. That's exactly what happened in January when a power outage destroyed the server that housed the town's water billing application.

At the time, Castle Rock relied on individual UPS systems for each server rack -- some new, others antiquated. If power was out for more than 90 seconds, some of the UPS devices didn't have enough battery life to power the servers until the town's generator kicked in, putting those servers at risk, Brower says.

$50,000 to $60,000
Savings Castle Rock, Colo., expects to achieve from reducing server purchases over the next few years

After losing the water billing server, the IT department was able to restore services within a few hours because the application was virtualized, but there was some data loss. Soon afterward, Brower worked with town management to upgrade to a high-end, centralized UPS that could protect all the data center gear.

"The server failure was the catalyst," Brower says. "I explained what the risks were if we didn't do this -- that this was a business decision and not an IT decision."

The IT department purchased a Tripp Lite 60kVA Smart Online UPS, along with a new transformer that separates power in the data center from the rest of the building, to improve reliability.

The new UPS system supplies the data center with up to 30 minutes of battery backup. Brower says the Tripp Lite device is more energy efficient than stand-alone models, so it lowers the electricity bill. Having a single device eases management, which in turn reduces administrative costs, says Slade Walter, Castle Rock's senior desktop technician.

In the past, when an outage occurred, IT staffers spent hours checking each UPS and server, making sure they were still operating. Now, with management software, administrators can remotely monitor and manage the centralized UPS. The time saved allows the IT department to focus on other important needs, Walter says.

"The new UPS has been phenomenal," he says. "We no longer stress and wonder if a UPS will fail or if hard drives will get spiked."

COOP Cuts Costs

For the town of Herndon, Va., a new storage area network and virtualized servers offer more than just improved continuity of operations. As a side benefit of the deployment, Herndon now has a consolidated data center that saves IT staff time and money.

42%
E-mail cost savings New York state will achieve by consolidating from six e-mail systems to one

Last spring, IT Director Bill Ashton purchased a two-node 7.2-terabyte HP SAN, VMware vSphere virtualization software and Vizioncore vRanger data backup software, allowing the IT staff to replicate servers and storage from the main data center to a secondary data center.

Ashton standardized on the HP StorageWorks P4300 Starter SAN Solution because it was affordable. The iSCSI-based SAN allows Ashton to use the existing Ethernet network instead of having to build an expensive Fibre Channel network.

The town previously had relied on direct-attached storage to house nearly 1TB of data. But this setup was inefficient: Some server hard drives were underutilized, while others were nearly maxed to capacity, forcing IT administrators to constantly juggle data from one server to another, Ashton says. Now with data centralized in a SAN, the town has ample storage.

"Our network administrator, who used to spend eight hours a week dealing with disk capacity issues, doesn't have to do that anymore," he says.

After installing the SAN, Herndon's IT department virtualized most of its applications over the summer. Two servers now house 10 virtual machines.

Virtualization has simplified server maintenance, which reduces IT administrative costs, Ashton says. Staffers no longer work off-hours to shut down servers and perform maintenance. Now they can move VMs to the secondary server during the workday, perform maintenance on the main server and then move the VMs back.

The server and storage consolidation has saved rack space, which reduces power and cooling costs. And if new applications are needed, the IT department can create new VMs without purchasing new servers.

Overall, the project cost about $60,000. Ashton expects to break even or save up to $10,000 by not having to upgrade to new servers over the next six years. "Our anticipated ROI is from savings in power and cooling and not having to replace the hardware during that time span," he says.

E-Mail Migration Eases Collaboration

Across the country, state and local governments are eliminating duplicate applications to cut costs and operate more efficiently. In February, New York announced plans to consolidate six different e-mail systems into a single system, NYSeMail, which runs on Microsoft Outlook and Exchange.

Consolidating servers and storage saves power and eases management in the town of Herndon, Va., says IT Director Bill Ashton.

Photo credit: Welton Doby III

The plan is to move more than 102,000 users within 18 months, and the state is on track to complete the project by summer 2011. The Office for Technology is working collaboratively with the 47 state agencies that are migrating to the e-mail system, says Dr. Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, CIO and director.

Over a five-year period, the effort will slash $30 million from hardware, software and maintenance costs, and power consumption, says Mayberry-Stewart. "My goal is to cut costs, but also offer more functionality," she says. "Having several e-mail systems, including some old, esoteric ones, it was a challenge to schedule meetings using different systems."

A single e-mail system with a global directory will allow New York's users to share calendars, schedule meetings and book meeting rooms, Mayberry-Stewart says. And for IT, having just one e-mail system to manage will improve security and lower cost of ownership.

Shared Backbones Boost Bandwidth

Some government entities share fiber backbones, which saves money and provides organizations with a high-speed network that they otherwise couldn't afford to build on their own.

In Hanover County, Va., the local school board had two strands of dark (unused) fiber on the county network that it kept for redundancy but wasn't currently using. Seeking ways to cut costs while improving services, county IT Director Kirk Baumbach asked if he could use the spare fiber to provide network bandwidth to six remote county departments. The school board agreed.

While the Hanover County Government Complex has fiber, six remote county offices relied on T1 lines that cost $500 a month each. Over the past year and a half, the county installed network gear to connect the fiber, and today the six departments have faster network access at no charge.

"Those facilities went from 1.5 megabits per second to 54Mbps, and it cost next to nothing," Baumbach says.

Business Intelligence Optimizes Resources

Some government agencies are using business intelligence to improve accountability, make smarter decisions and work more efficiently. The Georgia Department of Human Services, for example, is deploying business intelligence software to improve its performance with children at risk.

Last fall, the state implemented the Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (OBIEE) tool to analyze data from its statewide automated child welfare information system and generate detailed reports on how well the state is handling child welfare cases, says Venkat Krishnan, the CIO.

The state used to have more than 400 abuse investigations overdue at any one time, and now through a dashboard, the department's senior management can view the number of investigations that are overdue by 30 days. With the BI software, management can drill down by region and county, and even view a specific case that's overdue. This has led to a dramatic reduction of overdue investigations. Today, about 95 percent of investigations are completed on time.

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"It provides an eagle-eye view and keeps everyone on their toes. Supervisors know there is oversight at the highest levels," Krishnan says.

The OBIEE tool also tracks the state's compliance with "Every Child Every Month," a federal initiative that requires case managers to visit every child in foster care once a month. The program's goal is to reduce neglect and abuse.

After the first two weeks of every month and near the end of the month, the tool provides management with a report on each county's progress, so they can prod county directors who are lagging with their visits.

The technology is helping. Before, only about 70 percent of foster children were visited every month; today, more than 95 percent get monthly visits, Krishnan says. Using stimulus funds, Georgia is building a $2 million data warehouse and will use the BI tool for child support services. In the coming years, the state plans to use BI and expand the data warehouse to all the department's services, including eligibility services such as food stamps.

"It will provide us a holistic view of our clients," Krishnan says. "It will help us make better decisions as a whole department as opposed to making decisions at each division or program level."

More Money Savers

Government agencies also are pursuing these
belt-tightening IT initiatives:

  • Voice over IP: Sno-Isle Libraries in Washington used to pay toll and long-distance charges because library branches are far from each other. After implementing VoIP, calls are now on the internal network and free.
  • Remote desktop management: To save electricity, Castle Rock, Colo., plans to implement a remote management tool to shut off computers overnight. It will also save time by allowing administrators to remotely patch computers.
  • Desktop virtualization: Herndon, Va., is looking
    into virtualizing desktops and using thin clients as a cheaper alternative to traditional PCs.
  • Energy monitoring tools: Hanover County, Va.,
    measures the amount of power its data center
    equipment uses. This gives IT staff the necessary
    data to make the data center more energy efficient, which will save money.
John Johnston
Sep 24 2010