It happens every day: Individual government IT departments across the nation upgrade technology to increase efficiency and productivity, only to come face to face with the high cost of such improvements.

For cash-strapped small jurisdictions, the expense of new systems leaves little choice but to maintain the status quo while watching enviously as others bask in the advantages of new technology.

What's a government entity suffering from chronic budget-deficit-disorder to do?

If you're Leon County, Fla., you turn to your neighbors in Sarasota County for a hosted, highly functional Internet-based budgeting and finance solution that costs nothing upfront and requires a downright cheap maintenance contract.

Two years ago, Sarasota positioned itself as a leader in government-to-government collaboration by acting as an application service provider (ASP) to other state and local jurisdictions.

Data Center of Attention

Sarasota County officials stepped into a platform-sharing role formerly performed nearly exclusively by the private sector. Ironically the transition was made possible by the demise of private-sector accounting giant Arthur Andersen LLP, the now-disgraced firm that was involved in both the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

For years, Sarasota County was the site of Arthur Andersen's huge data center, which serviced the company's 80,000 employees working around the globe. The center covered 5,000 square feet and included 300 servers, robotic backup tape capabilities, three terabytes of SAN storage and nearly 30 terabytes of overall storage, among other things.

As the former "big five" accounting firm began to crumble two years ago, Arthur Andersen officers sought to offset financial woes by offering their massive data center as a hosting and services provider. As the company truly imploded, however, they abandoned that idea and instead liquidated assets.

As luck would have it, Sarasota County executives were in contact with Arthur Andersen as a possible client when the hosting and services proposal still seemed viable. The erstwhile relationship meant county officials were among the first contacted when the company decided to sell the data center.

Sarasota County is fortunate to have "a forward-thinking administrative team," said county CIO Bob Hanson. County commissioners recognize technology's ability to increase service levels for constituents and staff productivity, he said.

Still, there were a few questions when Hanson suggested the county purchase the huge computing center. "Is this really a good deal?" elected officials wanted to know, and, "What will we do with this asset?" While many techies might recoil from such questions, Hanson said he understood officials' hesitation given budget concerns and the associated responsibility of stewarding scarce public funds.

Attempting to "sell" the data center purchase to citizens in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals -- from a company associated with those financial fiascoes no less -- also made county officials uneasy. In the end, however, buying the data center made the kind of fiscal sense no one could ignore. Hanson said that though commissioner questions slowed the acquisition process somewhat, it was never in danger of being completely derailed.

Best Buy

After purchasing the $12 million data center -- for just about $2 million -- the Sarasota IT team quickly positioned itself to offer services in four different areas.

oHosting: space, equipment and services around the operations of the physical space necessary to support a data center.

oApplication service provision: hosting applications services for budgeting, performance management, HR, Internet sites and the like.

oDisaster recovery and business continuity planning: hosting services on demand in the event of a natural or other disaster.

oRemote backup and data storage: utilization of network and robotic backup equipment and software technologies to provide protection of data assets.

The data center paid for itself within six months of acquisition, according to Hanson. Automated technology allowed Sarasota to reduce staffing by

Kris Middaugh  |  Staff Writer