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2012 Year in Review: Government Data Centers

A look at how government data centers changed the way we work and live.

by / December 14, 2012

Editor's note: Over the course of a year, we write hundreds of stories covering myriad topics. And at year's end, we attempt to make sense of it all. We looked for trends that had a profound impact this year — and that are likely to be even more influential in the future. We think our choices fit that mold.

In this Web series, we'll look at social media, which is steadily reshaping how agencies deal with the public; big data, which holds new promise for improving government performance; BYOD, cloud computing and software as a service, all of which are challenging long-held assumptions for how agencies acquire and use technology; and the emergence of chief innovation officers, which hints at eventual challenges to traditional organizational structures themselves. We expect these trends, which took root in 2012, to impact our work and world as we move into next year and beyond.

Year in Review Timeline ... continued

Government Data Centers: R.I.P.?

Government data centers haven’t disappeared yet – but a good number of CIOs are doing their best to get rid of them. Throughout 2012, CIOs made it clear that their first choice for new systems and applications is the cloud.

“The cloud is the only salvation the public sector has from an IT standpoint,” said Colorado CIO Kristin Russell at a meeting earlier this year. And her comments were echoed by a number of other state and local CIOs, who pointed to the difficulty of owning, operating and maintaining large complex systems. But CIOs weren’t just talking about going “cloud-first.” A growing number are putting their money where their mouths are.

In March, Minnesota finished moving almost 40,000 workers in more than 70 state agencies to Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 for email services and collaborative tools. Russell announced in October that her state had moved its 26,000-member work force to Google Apps for Government. In addition, Colorado is part of a four-state consortium – along with Montana, Oregon and Utah — that recently awarded contracts for shared cloud-based storage.

Meanwhile, Texas is making good progress on a retooled data center outsourcing initiative. State CIO Karen Robinson signed a series of multiyear data center services contracts early this year, replacing an outsourcing deal with IBM that was terminated by the state in 2010. And other jurisdictions are moving toward similar models or considering hybrid approaches that mix internal and external resources.

Activities like these have been underway for several years, of course. But in 2012, these approaches became much more pervasive. In some respects, the cloud – or at least a cloud mindset -- is now business as usual, rather than the exception.

“We’re seeing this slow evolution from a system-centric view to a services-centric view of the world,” says NASCIO Executive Director Doug Robinson. But that evolution won’t be without challenges. Robinson notes that many technology departments support themselves by charging other agencies fees for mainframe computing. If the data center cash cow disappears, they’ll need to develop new business models.

Another potential obstacle is reconciling this new services-centric world with rigid federal cost-allocation rules. Regulations tied to federal funding for state-operated social services, transportation, public safety and health care programs can make it tough to move toward elastic, on-demand services. “The color of money is still a big issue,” Robinson said. “CIOs could be a lot more flexible and innovative if they didn’t have those constraints.”

Of course, not everyone is intent on ditching their data center – but it’s still not business as usual. Speaking at an e.Republic event earlier this year, California CIO Carlos Ramos said the state is boosting its data center capacity in order to host services for struggling local governments. “The locals need some place to land,” he said, “especially for applications that deal with sensitive data.”

Likewise, Oakland County, Mich., CIO Phil Bertolini is doubling down on his data center. In February, the county announced a national shared services partnership with the National Association of Counties. Oakland County already provides shared computing services to 62 neighboring jurisdictions. The expanded program, known as G2G Cloud Solutions, will make those services available to counties, boroughs and parishes nationwide.

So, the government data center may never completely disappear. But in 2012, two things became clear: Agencies will operate fewer of these facilities in the future — and those that are left may look drastically different than today.

Read more 2012 Year in Review stories

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Steve Towns

Steve Towns is the former editor of Government Technology, and former executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic 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. Steve now serves as the Deputy Chief Content Officer for e.Republic. 

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