The Georgia Technology Authority (GTA) will save the state approximately $4.7 million over the next five years by using an open source website content management system and hosting data in the cloud.
In October 2012, Georgia agencies began using the OpenPublic distribution of Drupal, built and maintained by Phase2, as well as cloud storage from Acquia. This eliminated multiple servers and the costs associated with maintaining them. In addition to helping the state’s bottom line, the change also has helped limit the downtime of state agency websites.
Georgia’s online properties were previously managed on two separate versions of an older content management system, with agency websites spread across 20 different servers. With resources stretched thin, sites began experiencing stability and performance issues in 2011, which spurred state leaders to look at streamlining the system.
Nikhil Deshpande, director of GeorgiaGov Interactive, a section within the GTA that manages Georgia.gov, said transitioning to an open source platform and the cloud ensures state agency portals are operating at peak efficiency and able to withstand Web traffic spikes.
“Being a government, there are sometimes occasions where something happens and people go to your website to look for an update or whatever they need,” Deshpande said. “And in that case, if you aren’t able to sustain that level of traffic, then obviously you’re going to have an outage. So we needed to leverage the agility and instant elasticity that cloud hosting provides.”
If a surge of Web traffic occurs now, Georgia’s state agency websites immediately scale up capacity, ensuring uptime and better performance for users. The total migration project cost the state approximately $3 million.
Georgia’s old content management system developed stability issues midway through an update in 2011. The GTA halted the update, but that left a portion of the state’s websites on one version, and some on another. Given this less than ideal situation, the state decided to take a look at potential content management replacements, demoing a variety of proprietary and open source systems in May 2011.
According to Deshpande, what sold the state on Drupal was the number of federal implementations of the system and the Acquia Cloud’s ability to accommodate occasional large spikes in website views.
While the transition went smoothly, there were some early challenges. Deshpande said there were a few incorrect notions about open source that the GTA had to clear up. He explained that the biggest fear among state leaders and website managers was that open source wasn’t secure.
“We told them open source really means that the software is exposed to a high level of scrutiny from the entire community -- from the software developers, security experts, and everyone,” Deshpande said. “So actually it has a higher security threshold.”
The other challenge was addressing those state agency employees that were uncomfortable with change, particularly as it relates to updating content on individual agency websites. Georgia elected to do a “light switch” approach to the new content management system, so a lot of work went into making sure every agency was aware of the switch and what was required of them. Personnel were trained on the new platform over the course of a couple of weeks. The training sessions were conducted in three- to five-hour blocks.
At the same time, each agency website was given an updated design. While agencies had input on what their sites looked like and maintained an individual “look and feel,” certain elements and themes were maintained throughout all the sites to help enhance Georgia’s online brand. Approximately 60 state websites are now hosted in the cloud.
Despite the project’s success, the GTA isn’t resting on its laurels. The agency plans to optimize all state websites for mobile devices over the next few months. According to Deshpande, Georgia’s mobile traffic is multiplying on a daily basis. The state has seen a 600 percent surge in the amount of mobile users. Individual state agency websites are now seeing 15 to 40 percent of their traffic coming from mobile devices.
Georgia.gov has already been optimized for responsive design since it is managed by the GTA. But work still needs to be done with other stage agencies.
“You need to have content that is compliant to being responsive,” Deshpande said. “That is something we can control on our end on Georgia.gov, but now as we start rolling it out to agencies we are going to work with them to … deliver content to a particular device.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information on GTA's partners in this project.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.