Bend, Ore., Keeps Pace with Unified Network

Explosive population growth forced the city to scale up operations, but the subsequent recession forced officials to search for new ways to deliver services.

by / December 2, 2013
Cisco routers stacked up before installation. Flickr/Rick Payette

Bend, Ore., is a beautiful place to live. It has a mild climate, it's surrounded by national forests and state parks, and it’s a paradise for aficionados of craft beer. There are jobs in health care, IT and the wood products industry. Bend is the kind of place people plant themselves if they have the means and opportunity, and when the economy and housing market were booming in the mid-2000s, people did. In fact, the city grew from about 50,000 people in 2000 to about 80,000 in 2007. Even after the market crashed, publications like CNN Money maintained that Bend would remain one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

The city’s reaction to an exploding population was to hire more employees to manage the administration of services, said Randy James, IT manager of the city. The city also scaled up its technology, with 400 percent growth in the number of servers, used to support new services like an asset management system for public works.

Hiring more workers to meet demand is a logical solution when city coffers are flush. But the advent of the recession left the city with a bunch of employees they couldn’t afford, and a large local population that was still demanding services, James said.

In 2008 and 2009, the city laid off about 90 full-time employees. But somehow, James said, they needed to find a way to continue delivering the same services and “continue moving the city forward. Our focus really became on analyzing administrative costs.” By cutting down the daily administrative work required of each employee along with related costs, they could open up more time for IT projects and continue offering new services to the public, rather than struggling to maintain service as they fought with their infrastructure.

In 2010, Bend officials identified a solution, combining disparate systems using a unified fabric-based network and server virtualization from BendBroadband Vault. Running 55 virtual machines on six physical servers – Cisco UCS blades – attached to two Cisco Nexus 5500 series switches meant the city was out of the network hardware management business.

“We’re not good at managing data centers,” James said. “We don’t have electricians on staff. We don’t have HVAC engineers on staff. We don’t understand the facility side of it and that prompted the move.”

That realization was crucial for the city, James said. “It’s really looking at the value you bring to the organization and where your core competencies are and focusing on those and looking for ways to stop doing things that don’t fall into that value or competency,” he said. The city found that asking why staff were managing a data center yielded no satisfactory answers. So they stopped managing data centers.

“It’s removing those things that are essentially commodities inside of IT and ensuring that my employees have the time to be in front of our customers, driving solutions that bring value to our customers,” James said. “Because we can’t hire more employees.”

Aric Ptomey, IT operations supervisor for the city, looked back on an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) failure before the upgrade as an example of an unnecessary struggle the city went through under the previous scenario. A vendor forgot a critical software upgrade after a new system was installed, he said, and as a result, the city was well over its power capacity, leading to an outage. Equipment was lost, time was lost, and the whole incident could have been avoided.

One of the biggest changes in a unified environment, Ptomey said, is that IT responsibilities are less distinct from one another. In other words, as the network’s capabilities become unified, so too do employee responsibilities. “Instead of one person taking on storage and servers alone and the network person just handling network, now what we’re doing is sharing those responsibilities among three people because it’s blended now,” he said.

James and Ptomey said it’s still too early to claim total victory with their new IT environment, but for now, they are pleased. The city hasn't experienced a single outage since the move, and they report that everything is more stable, more secure and simpler to manage.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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