When Jim Burns took over as CIO and head of Alabama’s Information Services Division (ISD) in September 2004, the state was plagued by inefficient and outdated IT systems. At the core of this problem was the fact that the CIO spot was an appointed position: Each of Burns’ four predecessors averaged less than 12 months in office, which resulted in very little continuity at the senior IT level.
“Every governor appointed a new CIO, and every CIO had his own agenda,” says one 30-year ISD veteran, speaking on condition of anonymity. As Burns recalls, “That turnover caused a lot of turmoil in the agency, and a lack of continuity in leadership prevents a lot from being accomplished.”
Now his mission is to upgrade and refresh the state’s technology to make it current with what’s being used by industry and government. It’s no small task, but Burns has already made significant progress: He reorganized the division, consolidated e-mail servers and migrated almost all state agencies to a shared wide area network (WAN) with a single access point to the Internet for all state offices.
One challenge of Burns’ job is that, in the state of Alabama, the CIO lacks direct authority over the IT departments of individual agencies. As a result, these agencies have a history of acting independently, resulting in separate and redundant technologies for networking, authentication, e-mail and more.
To correct this vexing situation, Burns began a campaign “to inject an enterprise approach into the state of Alabama that will be efficient, effective and secure, and will affordably allow collaboration among state agencies.” His first successful initiative was the WAN migration, which currently serves every state agency except two — and Burns is working to “convince” them.
To further enhance ISD’s shared Internet access solution, Burns added a content filtering solution to the WAN’s infrastructure. “Most companies and government agencies put content filtering on their networks years ago to prevent the user from going to inappropriate Web sites,” he points out.
“After I had been here for a few months, we had a request from our network shop for additional bandwidth,” says Burns. “When I asked them what kind of filtering we had, I was told we didn’t have any.”
Once the content filtering system was installed, network utilization was reduced by 10 percent, saving money that would otherwise be spent to buy additional bandwidth from the state’s Internet service provider.
On the heels of the WAN migration was an e-mail consolidation project that is already reaping benefits. When Burns took over as CIO, the state had 40 different e-mail systems spanning multiple platforms. The state of Alabama’s 28,000 employees lacked an easy way of e-mailing people in other agencies because there was no shared statewide address book. And some systems weren’t even connected to the Internet.
Burns’ team subsequently reduced the number of e-mail servers from 45 to five and is working toward instituting one unified e-mail system that uses Microsoft Exchange and the Outlook client. This migration provides a more efficient environment and offers users access to shared calendars, a global address list and enhanced collaboration capabilities. In addition to Webmail, the environment offers BlackBerry and Treo smartphone integration.
Even the simple things have been improved. “We can do those bread-and-butter things that government and industry did approximately four to six years ago,” says Burns. “We’re now catching up.”
ISD uses a billing model that charges from $4 to $12 per mailbox per month, offering agencies good value. Since ISD is a self-funding agency and not a profit-making endeavor, it can offer economies of scale that individual agencies couldn’t achieve on their own.
Some state agencies have been reluctant to migrate to the shared e-mail system, so Burns and his team have had to engage in some salesmanship. One selling point is the system’s robust and feature-rich nature; Burns doubts that individual agencies could possibly build their own in an economical fashion.
Burns has also devoted his attention to ISD’s failing mainframe and the state’s enterprise resource planning system that runs on it. The existing hard drive file systems were slow and expensive and put application performance and integrity at risk.
The solution consisted of moving to a general parallel file system (GPFS), which provides high performance by allowing data to be accessed over multiple computers at once. GPFS provides higher input/output performance by “striping” blocks of data from individual files over multiple disks and reading and writing these blocks in parallel. Other system features include high availability, support for heterogeneous clusters and hierarchical storage management.
The division is also in the process of migrating from old 200MB tapes, because of their small capacity. Data is now stored on direct-access storage devices and migrated using hierarchical storage management that relies on 20GB tapes and a StorageTek tape drive.
To further ISD’s commitment to an enterprise philosophy, the division was reorganized on a structural level. ISD is now organized like a typical IT shop, with an infrastructure group, a customer service group, a plans and policy group, a resource management group and an application development group.
The application development group, which creates software and Web sites for state agencies, won a 2005 Best of the Web award from the Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Government, for Alabama.gov, a site jointly developed with a private company named Alabama Interactive, based in Montgomery.
The application development group has developed more than 90 applications, many of which are citizen-facing, so that constituents can conduct state transactions, such as renewing hunting and fishing licenses, without having to go to a state office.
Although ISD has accomplished a lot since September 2004, there is still plenty to do. The state’s voice mail system is no longer covered by a service agreement, so ISD is replacing it with a unified messaging system that will be integrated into the e-mail system to allow voice mail messages to appear as e-mail messages.
Another major ongoing project is the development of a network directory solution using Microsoft’s Active Directory. This has created an environment for common messaging exchange and common user authentication for log-on, single sign-on and domain management. It will also facilitate implementation of the unified e-mail solution.
In addition, ISD is working on remote disaster recovery options for core agencies, such as a redundant mainframe co-owned by the Department of Transportation in Huntsville. (ISD is based in Montgomery.) The ISD data center also houses a Sun 10TB storage area network for remote data storage, and the division has built another offsite facility in Montgomery, providing individual agencies with storage that they can fall back on in emergencies.
Critical to Burns’ success in consolidating resources and improving IT services was positioning ISD as the state’s shared IT service provider. This means that, if any state agency needs something in the area of technology, ISD should be the one to provide it.
Yet, despite ISD’s success building and offering shared information technology services, the reception that Burns got last year when moving everyone to a shared network was varied. He refers to it as “the battle of the willing, the failing and the unyielding.”
Some state agencies eagerly jumped onboard and quickly reaped the rewards of the shared systems. Others, however, weren’t willing to participate until their systems failed. These agencies are slowly coming into the fold. And still others, particularly larger agencies with big IT departments, were simply unwilling to move to shared resources.
“We’ve had to do some hard selling and many times had to get some engagement from the governor,” Burns recalls. “He’s been supportive of us because it makes good business sense.”
Gov. Bob Riley was an early backer of the initiative for unified e-mail. “He wanted to send an e-mail to all state employees, and [was told] that was not possible,” Burns says. ISD’s e-mail consolidation initiative should fix that.
How was Burns able to successfully implement a shared services strategy despite the many reluctant independent agencies?
Burns’ strategy is to work with each agency individually, particularly the big ones. He shows them the benefits of moving to a shared solution. Sometimes, despite his efforts, an agency’s IT department remains unenthusiastic. When that happens, Burns goes above the IT level to the agency head and the governor.
What advice does Burns have for IT professionals who inherit similar technology challenges? “Engage your staff right away,” he suggests. “They’ve got lots of great ideas that they may not have been able to implement in the past.”
Burns also urges IT managers to work with their internal customers. “Always present the business case to them so that they can see that what you’re offering will help them do their jobs more efficiently and effectively,” he says.
With this enterprise attitude, Burns has been able to bring the state of Alabama a long way in a short time. In the near future, Alabama will not only be caught up with today’s standards — it might be setting the standards for tomorrow.
After Hurricane Katrina, the state government declared that all Alabama state parks were to be “homes away from home” for hurricane victims. The large parks were outfitted with trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but there were no communication systems for the families that moved in. Because the state parks were in rural areas, they lacked cell phone and Internet access.
The state partnered with BellSouth to run T1 circuits to each state park and set up networks with donated PCs that enabled the families to apply for benefits, send and receive e-mail, search for displaced relatives on Web sites, find jobs and look at real estate. Cisco donated the routers and switches that powered the network.
“We also received VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] telephone sets from Vonage with free local and long-distance service,” says Alabama CIO Jim Burns. “We placed them adjacent to the donated PCs and software donated by Microsoft, so the [families] would have a computer with Internet access and a phone. They were used extensively.”