Oklahoma CIO Alex Pettit stands on the state data center’s raised floor and points to a mismatched row of server racks he calls purgatory. The jumble of equipment has been plucked from state agencies and dropped into the gleaming new facility in Oklahoma City — part of an aggressive IT consolidation that’s reaching its halfway point.

“This is how they come from the agencies as we consolidate them,” Pettit says, during a tour in late January. “We’ve got an IBM rack, a Dell rack, a Compaq rack. We bring them in as they are.”

Applications in purgatory are steadily being transferred to racks of new blade servers — Pettit calls this area heaven — where they’ll run on virtual machines and tap into shared storage. The formal migration process has been under way for about a year, long enough to bring equipment from 55 agencies into the central facility. Ultimately IT infrastructure from 132 state agencies will make the move.

Like most statewide consolidation efforts, Oklahoma’s initiative promises to cut the cost of running IT in state government. The move also aims to boost service levels by modernizing equipment and housing it in a state-of-the-art facility.

Oklahoma CIO Alex Pettit says consolidation has saved the state close to $90 million so far, beating the original projections. Photo by David McNeese

Located a few blocks from the state Capitol, the new data center will keep critical systems running regardless of what the state’s unpredictable weather dishes out. The building is designed to withstand a category EF5 tornado — with wind speeds in excess of 200 mph — and its massive diesel generators can power the equipment inside for about two weeks on 30,000 gallons of fuel stored at the facility.

But the new data center is only the most visible sign of the consolidation plan. The initiative also envisions broader use of shared services among state agencies. And state leaders hope to entice local governments into shared services partnerships, as well, starting with an effort targeting local school districts known as Open Range.

Pettit says the ultimate success of Oklahoma’s transformation hinges on the state’s ability to greatly expand its shared services strategy. So building and deploying those services will be a priority for Pettit’s Information Services Division (ISD), even as it rushes to push equipment from another 77 state agencies through purgatory and into heaven.

Oklahoma’s consolidation plan was launched by two state lawmakers: Reps. Jason Murphey and David Derby. Both are conservative Republicans who see tech-driven efficiency as a way to shrink government and protect taxpayer dollars. They’re also young — in their mid-30s — making them part of a new generation of elected leaders who are comfortable with technology and want to know why government doesn’t make better use of it. Together, they’ve been instrumental in moving Oklahoma out of the IT dark ages.

Oklahoma Rep. Jason Murphey chairs the House Government Modernization Committee, a forum for IT-powered reforms. Photo by David McNeese

Murphey, founder of a Web development company before his election to the House in 2006, chairs the House Government Modernization Committee, an organization with growing influence on how Oklahoma deploys technology to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs.

“It’s absolutely a great venue for addressing these types of issues. It’s created a culture of ideas and innovative concepts,” said Murphey, adding that the committee is a magnet for younger House members. “I do think there is a generational aspect to this, most certainly.”

Derby — another modernization committee member — grew up with PCs and video games. But he’s a somewhat reluctant IT expert. “I have a degree in forensic chemistry, and I’m now a pharmacist,” he said. “I went into this IT stuff kicking and screaming.” Still, he credits Oklahoma’s legislative term limits with opening the door to younger lawmakers with new ideas. “I think it’s a generational shift, and because of that turnover you get younger blood and you find modern ways to do things,” he said.

Derby says he and Murphey have formed an effective partnership on the committee. “This is right up Murphey’s alley — he’s an IT guy, so we tag-team. We have different sets of contacts, so we feed off of each other.”

Murphey and Derby have pushed multiple IT consolidation bills through the legislative process — starting with passage of Derby’s 2008 measure to hire a cabinet-level CIO and perform a statewide assessment of Oklahoma’s technology operations. It was Derby’s second try; a similar bill had failed the year before.

Ironically Derby says opposition to the bill came from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats saw the measure as a step toward shrinking government, he says, while Republicans accused him of trying to expand government by creating a new high-level CIO position. “Getting it passed was like pulling teeth,” Derby said.

With the bill finally in place, the state hired Pettit, former CIO of Denton, Texas, who led his city to a second-place finish in the Center for Digital Government’s annual Digital Cities Survey a few years earlier. Pettit launched an IT assessment which concluded that Oklahoma could save more than $100 million within the first three years of consolidation. The assessment, conducted by IT consulting company Capgemini, found expensive duplicate technology throughout the state government, including 76 financial systems, 48 reporting and analytics applications, and 129 email and BlackBerry servers.

Rep. David Derby, author of Oklahoma’s IT consolidation law.

Armed with those findings, Derby introduced another bill aimed at pulling systems and IT staff together underneath the state CIO and eliminating system redundancies. Although technology bills tend to fly under the radar, this one certainly didn’t. Passing the measure became a high-wire act after Gov. Mary Fallin called for IT consolidation in her 2011 State of the State address, making it an important part of her effort to close a $600 million budget shortfall.

“Those were some of the longest weeks of my life,” Murphey said of the fight to deliver the bill to Fallin’s desk for signing. “Agencies … very aggressively defended their turf and were willing to make all kinds of Armageddon-type predictions of what would happen if this reform did go through. We had to deal with those predictions one by one and address them.”

Those discussions led to some modifications, such as additional safeguards for law enforcement data. But ultimately the governor’s support for the measure throughout 2012 budget negotiations wore down opposition. The Capgemini savings estimates were another key selling point, Murphey added, along with the fact that Pettit was already onboard and ready to lead the consolidation effort.

“There were certain entities that could see the handwriting on the wall. So they were willing to bargain,” he said. “Anytime you have that level of attention being paid, some entities will hedge their bets that would otherwise oppose it.”

In the end, the bill had enough political muscle behind it to clear the House and Senate. Fallin signed the measure into law on May 25, 2011.

Steve Towns, Editor
Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government Technology,Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.