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Washington CIO Formulates Plan to Bring Cloud to the State

State CIO James Weaver envisions ways that cloud services and "as-a-service" models can replace legacy IT and help WaTech honor the taxpayer investment in the State Data Center while meeting agencies' needs.

Washington state legislators approved funding and had a data center built before the recession and cloud services both took off, but WaTech CIO James Weaver believes it’s time for the state to consider its options as legacy systems near end of life.

WaTech released its latest Dashboard, which is a quarterly report detailing agency measurements like customer satisfaction. Weaver joined WaTech in December 2018 after serving as CTO of Pennsylvania, a state that had outsourced its mainframe in the 1990s. A new facet of the fourth quarter report covering April to June is a service delivery category displaying the performance of the data center’s mainframe. Between August 2018 and July, the mainframe operated at an average of about 70 percent capacity.

“What we’ve been slowly doing, and I’ve been here now nine months in the role, we’ve been slowly making that evolutionary change to start focusing more about the value and the services and what we’re doing for our agency customers as opposed to it being about our agency, per se,” Weaver told Government Technology.

By establishing and working with various groups, in roles such as advisory, governance and IT architecture, Weaver said he plans to review methods to reduce the state’s dependency on the current mainframe. He said he wants to shift the state to a mainframe-as-a-service model, where an offsite vendor has the computation power and charges based on the usage. He said an RFP will be made public in the coming weeks to seek potential partners.

“Part of this is the transition of WaTech from today being a service provider to a service broker,” Weaver said. “It’s very difficult for us to compete for a lot of reasons, one of which is this wonderful building we’re in, this data center that exists here. As you look at what cloud providers can give, as far as price points go, how do we start taking advantage of that, but more importantly, how do we as the central IT organization of the state start being able to be the broker of those services and making sure that we have outcomes for the betterment of the Washingtonians and our agencies that are supporting the residents of the state.”

A point of contention in the state has been the State Data Center. A 390,000-square-foot complex with four halls to house mainframes, computer servers, and other telecommunications and networking equipment that cost the state about $255 million to build. Weaver said that, to date, only two of the halls have been built out and it is likely the other two will remain vacant.

“For the two halls that are currently populated and built out, we have sufficient capacity to sustain and actually maybe even bring in additional workloads if we wanted to or if those opportunities were there,” he said. “I’m not worried about maximizing or maxing out our capacity in the two halls.”

He said there are other ways to incorporate cloud services, while honoring the taxpayer investment in the facility. WaTech currently offers a private cloud for state agencies, which in turn pay for the service as part of a cost-recovery model. In fact, he’d like to expand the WaTech cloud to county and city governments across the state.

“Maybe they’re not quite ready yet to make a cloud journey and maybe in some cases having a government-to-government relationship might be in the better interest for them as opposed to engaging with a third-party cloud provider,” Weaver explained. “We’re going to investigate some of those opportunities to see if we can work more effectively with local government and potentially give them some capacity here in our data center as well to maybe do some things differently from their perspective.”

Weaver said that despite his goals to transition to the cloud, there will still be a need for the data center because its servers are used to store data and support legacy applications.

“I think as we’re looking at application modernization and being able to do things differently for the betterment of Washington, that’s our opportunity then to start reducing our dependency upon the current data center model,” Weaver said.

There are multiple paths WaTech could lead state IT down, he said, and the agency’s compass will be financial decision points, such as infrastructure nearing end of life. Sustaining WaTech’s current level of service going forward will require significant investments by the state Legislature or, alternatively, seeking out cost-effective methods to support Washington’s IT needs.

“In some cases, that’s a hard concept for some of our agencies to understand because they’re so used to doing it a specific way,” Weaver said. “There’s a change management culture component that has to occur here, as well, as we look at these opportunities to do things from a cloud-based perspective. As opposed to the more traditional [on-premise] model that we’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years.”

Along with realigning technology to best serve Washington agencies in the long term, Weaver has been reorganizing the agency’s staff to increase effectiveness and meet labor requirements.

The press release announcing the quarterly report highlighted that even while transferring $7.7 million and 130 staff to the Office of Financial Management (OFM), WaTech ended the fiscal year in the black with $5.42 million. Weaver said some WaTech employees previously provided direct application support for OFM and the decision was made to transfer them to that department.

“Candidly, I’m not necessarily in disagreement with that approach,” he said. “I think application maintenance and application development is best served by being close to the business and we are not close to the business. As a central IT organization, we are removed from the comings and goings and the occurrences at the agency level from a business perspective.”

The transfer of funds covered the cost for the employees and rectified the two agencies’ budgets, he said. The staff will now fall under OFM’s purview and budget.

Weaver said his other personnel challenge will be to ensure there is a place for employees as mainframe-as-a-service is explored after the RFP becomes public.

“I have a labor relations component to this because today, a lot of the staff who operate our mainframe environment are labor [union]-covered employees,” he said. “I need to make sure I’m doing my due diligence and working very strategically with our union and making sure that we are doing the right thing for our employee base as we look at this opportunity, but we do have a procurement action under development to finalize to get that out to the supplier community to start moving in this direction.”

Weaver said he has his sights set on mainframe-as-a-service, infrastructure-as-a-service and the cloud to modernize WaTech and to better serve Washingtonians. He said he believes that with a well-thought-out methodology, he and his team can bring the Legislature and other agencies onboard with his vision.

“I call it a very strategic tactical plan,” Weaver said. “Over the next three years, we want to start moving the state in some different directions for the betterment of the state overall. Not necessarily for us as a service provider.”

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.