An aerial view of Juneau, Alaska, and the Gastineau Channel. 

Aug 12 2020

Q&A: Alaska's CIO on Boosting Cloud for Government Telework

Bill Smith shares success stories on ramping up VPN capacity and rapidly deploying tools to support work from home.

Alaska CIO Bill Smith took office late last year and began advancing his state’s cloud and digital transformation initiatives. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit his state, he was ready to accelerate some projects to support state employees who suddenly shifted to telework.

Accelerating those projects really paid off for Alaska. Smith tells StateTech how it was all possible, thanks in part to strong industry relationships, such as Alaska’s collaboration with Cisco.

STATETECH: Can you bring us up to speed on how your office works with partner agencies in Alaska?

Smith: We made the decision as the state, and the governor directed a couple of years ago for us to centralize IT. Up to this point, we had been a federated operation in terms of IT. We had a central IT organization that was really limited in scope to core network and telephony, and all of our departments could opt in or opt out of those contracts. 

As we were getting into the fall of 2019, our commissioner of the Department of Administration, Kelly Tshibaka, was really interested in completing the centralization journey. She brought in some external resources to do a statewide IT assessment and help us build a plan to execute the remainder of that work. I was brought on board, along with my deputy CIO, in late 2019. Her guidance to me was, “I really want you to focus on the organizational change in our IT environment.” The current assessment was complete. We had a plan put together that would continue our maturity in the centralized model and had a lot of great initiatives planned. And the world changed as we were getting ready to present the plan to leadership in the beginning of March. 

And so, we entered into this pandemic environment still partially centralized. And so that’s important for a couple of different reasons. One is the scope of what our organization, the Office of Information Technology, is responsible for and the ability we have to help out the departments. But also, the agility within the state is something that we’re still working on. In the beginning of the year, we kicked off a significant cloud migration of our server footprint within the state, but that effort was just taking shape. 

STATETECH: What’s the tech landscape like in Alaska while government workers are social distancing and working from home? 

Smith: Our team started looking from a core networks perspective at our throughput capability and really analyzing our network and walking the dog through the entire path to identify any choke points and make sure that we understood what our capabilities were. We realized that we had a really robust network. Our access to our network was robust, but we did have a choke point in our VPN connections. In our fiscal 2021 plan, we were planning to upgrade our VPN capacity, but we hadn’t done it yet. 


Photo: State of Alaska

Alaska CIO Bill Smith says the state rapidly expanded its use of cloud-based collaboration tools.

So, we immediately ramped up the planning and got our engineers engaged. We benefitted from the partnerships that we have with industry, Cisco in particular. Cisco is a major partner in our network. We started bringing in Cisco engineering assets to work with our engineers and our local ISP providers. We were able to incrementally increase our throughput capability to stay ahead of demand. 

But in the latter part of March, we were hitting 70, 80, 90 percent of our throughput capacity on a daily basis, with peaks up above 90 percent during the course of the day. It was making me somewhat nervous as the team was working through these issues, but we were able to stay ahead of the demand. As we caught up, the team focused on a longer-term solution. As a new CIO, it taught me a lot about the capabilities of my team. 

Toward the end of March, working with our ISP providers and Cisco, our engineers were able to identify a solution. Within a week, they were able to build, test and implement a new virtual appliance VPN solution that increased our capacity tenfold and immediately eliminated our concern about our VPN throughput. 

STATETECH: When you had to support folks using that VPN and working from home, what sort of things did you find that your people were using? 

Smith: As part of our modernization over the last several years, we did move to Microsoft Outlook 365. And so, we do have the Outlook 365 suite of tools that folks have been using. 

We really hadn’t fully implemented several collaborative tools like Teams and some others statewide. And that’s another little bit of big win for us. In February, I just briefed our commissioner on our team’s statewide implementation plan to provide that capability. My organization and some other small pockets had been using it and testing it. 

In light of emerging requirements, we received approval to go ahead and rapidly push it out. In a week, we had the state basically able to work on Teams. We had rolled a four-month project into a week. Within a couple of weeks, we had scaled to about 6,000 users. We partnered for a lot of virtual training to enable people to really leverage some of those collaborative tools. That’s just one example of how we rapidly pushed out some collaborative tools that we had been working on and were on our roadmap, but we were able to move them quickly. We also use Cisco Jabber for voice communications.

READ MORE: What does the path forward for state government IT look like after the pandemic? 

STATETECH: How is Alaska handling digital services for citizens, particularly when you’re not in your offices?

Smith: That has been very successful. Very early on, Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy and his senior leaders, our state surgeon and several others, started daily updates. They started a daily Webex experience, where they communicated directly to Alaskans. That Cisco Webex experience was great in that it allowed the authenticity of the senior leaders to come through to Alaskans. 

I believe it was instrumental in getting Alaskans on board with the need to make some behavioral changes early, while we built up our capacity to deal with the medical emergency. I really noticed that the trust level, in terms of the information coming out of the state government, seemed to be very high. People could see the data that our leaders were using to make their decisions, and it was very transparent. 

MORE FROM STATETECH: What kind of collaboration technology can help state governments rebound from a crisis? 

STATETECH: What does the new normal look like in terms of your IT requirements? Do you have a wish list? Do you see more investments on the horizon? 

Smith: I don’t really have a big, long list of things that we haven’t invested in that I say, “Oh, I wish we could do A, B and C.” It’s just continuing our current path. We started on the path for a large-scale cloud migration to move a lot of our server-based capacity to the cloud. We did that for a couple of reasons — the agility, the flexibility, the increased security, the ability to really leverage efficiencies and right-size our infrastructure based upon our day-to-day needs. 

All of those things haven’t gone away, and they’re still really important. The more we can accelerate our move to the cloud, the more functions we put in the cloud, the more resilience and flexibility we have. We’re no longer reliant on some of those legacy architecture limitations. 

I don’t see us, obviously, being completely based in the cloud. I think we’re going to be in a hybrid environment. There are things that really belong in data centers and onsite, but I want to accelerate getting that mix right and moving everything to the right location for it to be most efficient, most cost-effective and most resilient. 

Also, we had just been starting to focus on digitizing our internal operations. Because again, that lends itself better to flexibility and remote access. It gives us the flexibility to work in an office, to work outside of an office. It gives us the ability to really change the way we do business, whether it's because it works better, or whether it’s in response to an emergency. 

Alaska has a very robust IT environment within our private sector. We’ve been able to leverage some of those local partners, as well as the other partnerships with companies like Cisco, to move forward. It’s not fast enough for me, but it never is. We are moving in a very exciting direction in Alaska.

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