Houston Lifts Off

Houston Lifts Off

by / May 1, 2002
The Texas city is aggressively targeting the digital divide with its SimHouston initiative, a partnership with a Houston company to provide city residents access to a suite of online productivity tools. The city's CIO, Denny Piper, who came from the private sector and has been on the job for 16 months, is also busy trying to bring VoIP and thin clients to the city's workforce.

Government Technology: Houston introduced SimHouston six months ago. What has the response been and how many people have signed up?

Piper: We rolled this out in October with no marketing or advertising -- other than just walk-ins at the libraries -- and we have more than 20,000 subscribers. The lion's share of those subscribers are students with documents and individuals creating resumes. Those are the two biggest things being stored out there in the disk space that we give folks.

GT: The company behind SimHouston is based in your city. Did that help you put SimHouston together? Did anything else lead you down this path?

Piper: Actually, it was a happenstance meeting with a person working with Internet Access Technologies that got us lined up with SimHouston. It had nothing to do with them being in Houston, but it has helped us move forward with the application. It just makes it sound even better having a homegrown, start-up company deliver this type of application.

Houston is known for lots of things, but there is a big technology aspect of Houston that people aren't aware of. As we move forward, that's going to be brought to the forefront.

GT: We've seen some counties and cities experiment with giving people PCs, but you went a different way. Why?

Piper: Most cities already give people the ability to use a device, but what this does is give you the applications and the thin-client perspective on the desktop, which nobody else offers. A lot of people can surf the Web. A lot of people have PCs. But they don't have the productivity tools in a thin-client mode that are hosted and managed remotely. It cuts down on the maintenance and the amount of downtime that an application has.

We've had less than six minutes of downtime since October on this application, and it runs all the time. You can be anywhere in the world and use the application.

We wanted to make sure that we delivered. You can pass out PCs to people, but if they don't have the applications and the ability to use the applications with the most current versions, it's not as productive for them.

GT: Has there been one theme in the feedback you've gotten from people?

Piper: A lot of the people who are using it are able to now store documents in a shared environment and share those documents with other people. Again, there's no maintenance. They don't have to worry about storage space. They don't have to worry about viruses. They don't have to worry about the most current version of an application.

A person who has a bicycle or who walks or has a bus pas can come to any library in the city and have access to the same technology that a person who works for a Fortune 500 company. We've got people coming with a resume written on yellow sticky notes and asking the librarian to help them write a resume so they can go out and look for a job. They haven't had that ability before, and that's who we're truly trying to reach -- the folks who haven't had the ability to use application software.

The librarians deserve kudos because they're the ones who have to support SimHouston, from a customer-service perspective, in the libraries.

GT: You speak of the importance of using application software, and it occurred to me that it's easy to think of the digital divide in terms of, "One group of people has computers and another group doesn't." But it's more than that, isn't it? It's knowing how to use the applications on the hardware.

Piper: Yes, because you can pass out hardware to everybody, but they'll use it as a doorstop. Until you get people knowing how to use applications, it doesn't do you any good to pass out PCs. This is very, very intuitive -- word processing, spreadsheet, e-mail -- it's basic stuff for you and me, but for people who've never used it before, never used a Windows-based application, it's somewhat confusing.

People seem to catch on to SimHouston very quickly.

GT: How many libraries is SimHouston available in?

Piper: We had it rolled out in 30 days; 470 PCs in 35 libraries. We put SimHouston in three libraries in some economically depressed areas on that first day. It's so easy to deploy, because the hardest thing wasn't getting the technology onto the desktop; it was making sure the librarians could answer any questions that came up.

We had to have training for all the support staff who really don't do this. They're librarians, and that's the part that [we thought] we were going to struggle with. But it seems to be working fine.

The problem we're getting is that people want more time on the PCs -- which is a good problem to have.

GT: When you look at the digital divide, are local governments in the best position to solve it? Do they have an advantage over state governments and the federal government?

Piper: I think so. Local government is the touch point to the citizen. People always talk about, "Well, state governments can do this. Or the federal government can do that."

People -- I don't want to say they don't care -- but they don't have that same touch point at the state or federal level that they do at the local level. People care about the grocery store they go to; the house they live in; the homeowner's association they belong to; the school their kids go to.

They touch the state once a year because they have to buy some sort of license. They touch the federal government once a year because they have to pay their income tax. The touch point at the local level is because, "I have a pothole in my street. Or the grass is too high. Or the dog is barking."

There's a multiplicity of reasons why people touch local government more often. Each local government entity is a little bit different, so if you try to [solve the digital divide] at the state or federal level, you're going to create too much of a generic model that doesn't fit everywhere.

The cultures are just different across the United States in the different locales. I believe local governments are better equipped at understanding the needs of the community, better than other levels of government the higher up the food chain you go.

GT: Is SimHouston in city offices yet?

Piper: We're going to be deploying the thin clients over the next six to 12 months in the city's infrastructure. That's where the savings is going to come from. We won't need to be buying PCs on every desktop anymore. We can buy Internet appliances that cost a quarter of what a PC costs. The network infrastructure to support an Internet appliance is much less. The hardware and software maintenance costs are much less. The total cost of ownership of a desktop will be driven down dramatically because of this new technology?

GT: So you're going to migrate all of your employees to these Internet appliances?

Piper: Not all of them, because you're never going to be totally without PCs. The assumption we've made is that we have a little more than 15,000 PCs deployed in the city, and half of those are only used for productivity-tools software. That's all people do with those PCs.

We've overpowered people. We've given them a Corvette when they're driving back and forth to church. They don't need that. There are people that use GIS or work-management systems that require that horsepower, so we're never going to be without PCs. But we think we can dramatically reduce the complexity of our environment and save a tremendous amount of money.

GT: Can you put a firm and fast percentage on how many people you can migrate off PCs? Are you looking at half?

Piper: Right now, we're looking at 50 percent, and I think it's going to be bigger than that. But we think at least 50 percent in the short term. Eventually, I think it will be a bigger percentage.

GT: Any estimates on the ultimate cost savings that Houston will realize with this migration?

Piper: We think we're going to save a little more than $7 million per year.

GT: Does that come strictly from license fees and just regular maintenance fees?

Piper: It'll come from hardware and software maintenance -- and when I say that I'm talking the breaks, fixes, moves, adds, changes, configurations and from people at the help desk, because help-desk support for an Internet appliance is much less.

The complexity is much less, and the network requirements are much less. We won't have file-and-print servers tied to the back end of these. We have more than 400 file-and-print servers now deployed throughout the city. Now, all we need is connectivity to the Internet, because all the business is transacted at the centralized data center, or the centralized server rooms.

And then the hardware costs; with a PC, the useful life of a PC is three years and costs $1,500. An Internet appliance costs $299.

That reduction in costs there, assuming 50 percent of desktops are migrated to an appliance, is a little more than $7 million per year.

GT: In this day, when budgets are a little tight, that cushion will be nice to have.

Piper: Exactly, and we think we can support the environment better within city agencies, and, at the same, time give three million people in the city free access to productivity tools. What a deal: You're going to save $7 million and give three million people access to those tools. It's a no-brainer.

GT: What would you tell other local governments thinking about going along these same lines?

Piper: Make the decision as quickly as you can. Don't procrastinate. Don't let the politics and the bureaucracy get you caught up in making these decisions, because it does. That's one thing I struggled with.

I came from the private sector, and every day I come to work, I just wait for somebody not to make a decision. It's painful. It's just that people aren't given the incentives to make decisions.

Some of the stuff we do is going to be wrong. We'll make mistakes. Maybe we shouldn't have pushed it here; we should have pushed it there. But, at the end of the day, we made progress, and that's all we're trying to do. We don't want to not do anything.

People are fearful because of doing things because, again, you can be wrong, and that's what I would caution people on. Take a chance. Be the first at doing something. If you're wrong, just don't do the same thing again. Move on to the next thing. Make calculated risk decisions.

GT: Is it difficult to sell a city council or a county board of supervisors on something like this?

Piper: Yes, it is. We're still in the process of doing that. I do it every day. But it's very difficult because everybody has a different agenda sometimes, and things get clouded with other issues. Whether it be a fire truck; a new fire station; or a new police station.

City [and county] government is in the business of providing police and fire service. That's why they're here. Everything else you get out of a city is a "nice-to-have." I'm exaggerating a little, because cities and counties do provide infrastructure -- roads, bridges and streets -- but, generally speaking, a lot of the things that government provides that people see are really "nice-to-have" things, as opposed to the true infrastructure issues or health and safety issues. That's why government is in place.

These things that we can deliver to citizens beyond the health and safety issues, I think it's a great opportunity; especially for the people that don't have the ability to do some of the things we're offering to them, and they never will.

We have statistics that show that kids by the age of nine years old who don't have access to either the Internet or to technology never catch up. So, once they reach the third grade, fourth grade, and they have a PC in the home, they're ok. But if they go to the fifth grade, and they don't get that sort of access, they never catch up.

That's the people we're trying to touch. People like you and me, eventually, maybe not this time but the next time, I probably won't buy a PC. I'll buy an Internet appliance. But right now, do I have the incentive to do that? Probably not. Do I like going out and buying the latest version of software when it comes out? No. Do I have great virus protection? No. If my PC crashes, is it backed up properly? No. If you get an Internet appliance, you don't have to worry about any of that. It's all done at a lesser expense.

We've come full circle. We used to be in a data-center centric environment. Then we moved to a client/server, three-tier architecture. We're moving back to a data center, if you really think about it. We've come full circle to where there's centralized servers pushing these things through the Web.

GT: Is that a natural evolution?

Piper: I think it is. It took us a while to get the applications and the compression technologies built to where we can do that. Everybody talks about broadband. Well, in some cases, you're never going to get that last mile built, so you've got to build the applications that can run in a thin-client mode.

You're never going to get that pipe big enough. So you've got to get to where the activity can be transacted in a centralized server environment and not at the local desktop. It's much less expensive and much less complex to be supporting one CPU instead of 15,000 CPUs. That's what we're talking about here: Do you take 15,000 desktops, 15,000 hard drives, 15,000 CPUs? Or do you take one that does the same thing?

It's such a common-sense thing, but the applications haven't been built in the past to do this. They're there today.

GT: You can apply the same approach to what you're doing with your phone system. Is Houston looking at a move to VoIP?

Piper: I'm talking on an IP phone right now. We're trying to make it happen. We made an announcement, and we're rolling it out. But vendor management is a difficult thing. We're saving a tremendous amount of money, but certain vendors make quite a bit of money in the current environment, and they're not going to make as much money in a later environment. We struggle with that.

This is another opportunity for Houston. We had a very disparate voice environment -- we had 27 different PBXs and 175 key systems -- and everything just grew up over time very decentralized. We have some economic-obsolescence issues associated with some of our voice infrastructure.

A lot of people can't cost justify VoIP right now -- just pure and simple going into a high-rise building and pulling out the old stuff and putting in the new. You can't do it. But when you're in a decentralized infrastructure and you have tons of public line cost and very expensive hardware and software maintenance on PBXs, you can justify it.

That's what we've done here. But there's winners and losers in that battle, and we're struggling with that right now. People don't believe that this is as good as it can be; they think I'm overselling it.

This is a $6.7 million annual save in our annual voice bill for Houston. It's a great thing, and I'm not even counting the applications that can be built on these phones. It won't be without pain, though.

I was the one of the first to be on VoIP because I want to feel the pain. There are issues, but they all can be resolved. But you can't resolve them until you try it.

GT: What's your timeline on deploying VoIP?

Piper: Twelve months, at the end of '02. December 31st this year, we hope to be done on 25,000 phones -- the largest governmental deployment of VoIP in the world.

GT: When you're selling this, do you use ROI as your chief selling point?

Piper: Exactly. It's all money. All I'm selling is dial tone. You had dial tone before, you're going to get dial tone again. You don't care how it's delivered to you, and I'm going to do it for less money.

But, really, that's not what this is about. That's how I'm selling it, because that's all an end user sees. What you're really getting is a single highway, with redundancy, that you can now build applications on.

But, really, all you're selling is, "You had a phone before, and you have a phone now." And I'm saving money every year. That's all people need to say. Everything else is going to be gravy. It's a scalable solution, no maintenance associated with it.

We spend more than $900,000 per year just on conference calls to Southwestern Bell. That will go away. Once we get down the road, we will no longer have long-distance calls. We'll call on the IP network. None of that's baked in there, but now we have a solution that can get us there.

The reason we can do it is because we have so many disparate systems. We have 43 voice-mail systems in the city. We're going to go to one. When you start taking that, by the pure magnitude of going to one system, you're going to save money.

You could save money by not going to VoIP, but why would you do that? We could go back to a centralized PBX infrastructure, but why? If you have the opportunity to do that, go to IP, why would we not do that, because you actually can see a bigger savings.

GT: Sometimes it seems that cities can make technological moves more quickly than states, and sometimes it seems like it's the other way around. What's your take?

Piper: It's on a case-by-case basis because it depends on the environment that you're in. I don't think you can generically say one moves faster than the other. It all depends on the executive sponsorship you get and how aggressive the CIO can be, because they're the ones who are driving it.

Also, the political environment that you're in: Are you in a mayoral form of government? Or a city manager form of government? Are you in a term-limited form of government? Or in a non-term-limited form of government?

Money drives everything. If you don't have any money, you can't do much. You can save all the money you want, but you've got to spend it to save it. If you don't have it to spend, you can't save it. It's kind of a Catch-22 on that.

It's truly driven by the leaders within the organization.

GT: VoIP is real new in the government sector. I know that Dallas was making the move?

Piper: Yes, Dallas is there; they'll have about 6,500 phones once they're done. Dow is doing it; they've got about 70,000 IP phones rolled out.

There's not too many public sector organizations doing it, but there are some private-sector companies doing it. I'm getting hundreds of calls on this now. Arizona called me; they're looking at it. A lot of people are looking at, "I'm putting 22 phones in. What do you think? I'm putting 50 phones in. What do you think? Do you think it's OK in a public safety environment? We're putting in a police station substation storefront, would you be comfortable in doing that?" Yes, I would.

Nobody is wholesale throwing out their old stuff and putting in the new. A lot of places can't justify it yet. It's truly a dollars and cents exercise. I couldn't sell this any other way: Dial tone for dial tone, and here are the dollars saved.

It's easier to justify the cost savings because we're so expensive in the way that we do it today. I wouldn't argue that if we centralized today, it may be easier to do it, but it would be harder to justify it because you'd be more efficient in the way you do it. There's more savings to be had moving straight from a decentralized PBX environment to an IP environment than there would be moving from a centralized PBX environment.

If we were efficient in our PBX space, I wouldn't even be looking at this. I couldn't get the cost savings.

GT: What's your observation on the CIO's role in general? Have you seen any changes in that role in your 16 months as a CIO?

Piper: I was the first CIO here. Generally speaking, CIOs are slow moving and mostly figurehead positions. I don't see folks making dramatic changes. I see people doing a lot of talking, but not a lot of delivery.

That's what I see. I've been to a lot of functions and talked to a lot of people. That may sound arrogant, but that's what I see.

I don't see people taking chances and risks. They're too comfortable in their jobs. They need to be willing to make calculated decisions and risks to try to deliver things. In the political and governmental space, that's not something that's rewarded. It can be personally rewarding to the person who does it.

It's the right thing to do. I think that's what government needs -- a big kick in the pants. I keep telling that I'm going to bring Houston, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. That's what our role is, until somebody tells you, "You know what? You're done here."

But that's OK. It's not about job security. It's about delivering solutions to problems that arise. It's as simple as that. If people want to come with you and help you do that, that's great. If they don't, they'll tell you their reasons why.

There's a lot of critics in government. Critics didn't put people on the moon. Solutions people did that. It's easy to be a critic. It's easy to sit back and question.

It's important that people do that, don't get me wrong, but there comes a point in time when decisions need to be made, and you move on. We don't do that in government, because it's a dangerous thing to do.

GT: That's what holds back a lot of governments, though.

Piper: You see a lot of speak, a lot of stuff, "Oh, that's cool and that's neat, and we're working on it."

But what have you delivered? What have you changed in the environment that you're in that makes it better than it was before you came? That's the question that people need to ask themselves.

GT: Do you think that local CIOs need to have as much power as some state-level CIOs that have been elevated to cabinet-level positions?

Piper: I would argue those are figurehead positions at the state level. You've got to own the money and the people that deliver the service. A lot of the CIOs at the state level set policy, procedure and architecture. That doesn't deliver the service at the end of the day. It's important to have all those things.

But if you don't own the money, you'll find at the state level that CIOs set all these policies, but nobody comes along. You've got very powerful departments and agencies, and those powerful agencies say, "That's great you've got this CIO. That's great he sets standards. That's great that he's got a centralized data center. I'm not going over there."

That's what you get. What has a CIO really done in that circumstance? You've got the biggest agency or department in the state, and they still do their own thing -- because they can. They're more powerful than the governor. The governor will come and go, but that agency will always be there.

You've got to truly centralize and make that IT organization go across all those departments, and it doesn't right now. They stick a CIO in and say, "Now I've got a CIO, and he or she is going to fix everything."

Well, he or she doesn't have any stroke. I'm generalizing, but, in most cases, that's what I see.

GT: Are we talking statutory changes that need to be made?

Piper: In some cases, yes. Even at the federal level, you've got agencies like that FDA or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and you might have a federal CIO, but they don't own any of those departments.

What needs to be said is, "There's certain infrastructure in networking computing services areas that are going to be enterprise-wide and owned by the CIO." Business-specific applications aren't owned by CIOs, or aren't owned in an enterprise-wide perspective. But, if you have a network, a desktop PC, a phone, things like that are leveraged across multiple departments, that will be centralized and this is how we're going to do that.

Again, it's easy to say that, but it's hard to do; very hard to do.

You don't have that executive sponsorship that you have in the private sector. You don't have a CEO who says, "You do this, or you don't work here anymore." You can't do that in government; it doesn't work that way. It works that way at Oracle, Shell or Texaco.

In government, it doesn't work that way.

GT: If you suddenly had the power to fix whatever you wanted with government, what would you fix? Would you fix the things we've been talking about?

Piper: I think you need to have somebody who actually runs the business of the government entity and who's held accountable that's not a politician. I don't know how you do that.

You need somebody who functions like a CEO. A governor isn't a CEO. A mayor's not a CEO. They call them that, but that's not what they are. You need that role somehow in government. Then, you need to figure out that technology doesn't drive these things; the business drives them. The technology is just an enabler.

They need to be at the table and they need to understand that they're in the business of paving a road, fixing a pothole, arresting a person, putting out a fire -- they're not in the business of fixing a PC or delivering phone service. That's something that they should have an expectation that somebody else gives them.

They need to get out of that business. But when you have all these fiefdoms, people that have been entrenched for a long time and aren't willing to change, you're going to struggle with that.

I think you've got to bring in some people who are willing to take risk; people who are willing to not be afraid to make decisions.

I think you'll get real change that way.