Utah's hybrid cloud opens for service
CIO Stephen Fletcher looks to offer cloud services to local cities and counties
Utah completed a comprehensive, multiyear data center consolidation project last summer, reducing 35 data centers to two state-of-the art facilities. The move allows the state to reduce IT expenses and operate more efficiently. It also paves the way for offering cloud services to state agencies and smaller cities and counties — and other states as well. State CIO Stephen Fletcher recently spoke with GCN Senior Editor Rutrell Yasin about Utah’s cloud computing strategy.
GCN: How are you positioned to offer cloud services now that you have completed your data center consolidation?
Fletcher: As we did the data center consolidation, we very much understood what the costs of our services are, as well as what our metrics are. We have our rates, and we did them all on a cost basis, and we have published that. In other words, we understand what our service levels are as we are providing these services.
State IT diet: Consolidation, cloud and shared services
The political hurdle to data center consolidation
So we have the opportunity to take [cloud services] out to our smaller cities and counties that don’t have the means to be able to make the capital expenditures.
So we’ll be able to offer them hosting services. Rather than [the cities and counties] going to buy servers and data centers, we’ll host it for them at a reasonable price, and it is just part of their ongoing operations. That is being looked at carefully because it is a cost savings to those cities and counties.
GCN: Do Utah cities and counties have concerns about moving to the cloud?
Fletcher: There are some concerns going out to a public cloud, the main ones being security, ownership of data and where the data is located. And another one that is sometimes overlooked but just as important is transportability. If you go out to the cloud, you have to be able to either bring [data] back or give it to another vendor who might be providing services. That is a big consideration going forward.
So what our offering does for those cities and counties that might want to get into a cloud environment or experience some of the savings is, we already understand their security requirements.
We have to abide by the same [Federal Information Security Management Act] requirements for the federal government, [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] requirements for health, all of those security issues we already have to abide by. They are confident in the fact that we have a relationship with them. So that is more amenable [to them] than worrying about writing a tight, constrictive contract with some vendor — this is an easy one for them to take advantage of.
GCN: Are you offering these services to any cities or counties?
Fletcher: Not at this time. I think that they want to take time to look at it. The other thing they are waiting for is that we are going through a couple of requests for proposals: one for e-mail hosted services and one for storage potential in the cloud. We are collaborating with a few other states for our geospatial information system data [to determine whether we can] save some money by going to the cloud for some of our storage.
GCN: So you’re looking for a commercial provider to deliver e-mail cloud services?
Fletcher: Yes. Then we will offer that to city, county, government [and] education entities in the state that want to take advantage of that. A year ago when we were looking at this, we took a survey. We looked at our costs. We were providing it cheaper than those folks in the public offerings like Google and Microsoft. Now there has been a lot of competition in the market. Quite frankly, I don’t want to sound negative, but in order to get into the market, they are subsidizing their product. Google is subsidizing with advertising, Microsoft is subsidizing with software, IBM is subsidizing with hardware, some are subsidizing with long-distance services.
So we are saying if you’re going to subsidize it, that makes it even more important to make sure we have a transportability capability in our contracts so when they decide to make it a cost center, we will switch a vendor or bring it back in-house. So that is what we are looking at right now because we think we might be able to save some money.
We would go through the contract and make sure the security is proactive and then make that available to any government entity in the state that would want to partake of that.
GCN: So cities and counties wouldn’t have to negotiate any contracts, and all they would have to do is use the service.
Fletcher: That’s right. That is the plan. We can do the same thing with hosted services. We’ll take our data center, which we think is competitively priced and say, “Hey, we will offer whatever service you want such as [hosting Microsoft] Windows or Linux servers and provide it at a reasonable rate. I guess you can call us a hybrid [cloud]. We have a private cloud, but then we will have maybe some public offerings that we will include in this private cloud.
GCN: As you move into the cloud, what challenges are you facing? There are the traditional issues of data ownership, interoperability, portability and security. Do you have a handle on those issues?
Fletcher: I think we have a generally good handle on it. One of the next steps is finding more applications that can run on the cloud. It does not necessarily have to be a public cloud. It could be a private cloud or a regional cloud for government entities. One of the things that we are looking at is there are a lot of systems that the federal government requires each state to put in play: a Medicaid management information system, an unemployment insurance system, a disease control system, and the list goes on and on. Each state has to put one of those in place.
To me, that seems silly because the requirements are just about the same to develop this 50 times and put into each of the 50 states. Why can’t we have someone regionally host this thing and everybody use it? It seems like it would be a lot more efficient use of our development dollars. We are looking at ways to get these applications developed and deployed, so that would also save the states a lot of money.
GCN: Could Utah be one of those regional cloud providers?
Fletcher: Yes. Utah would be one of them. We have to get the federal partners on board. There are a group of southern states — North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, maybe Alabama — which are trying to do this with unemployment insurance, which is great. There are a group of states — Minnesota, Oregon, Utah, Illinois and West Virginia — that are trying to do it with their Medicaid systems. We are bringing this to the feds to say, "You’ve got to help us with this."
The way the feds [offer incentives] to the states right now is to split the funding [for these programs] 90/10. So everyone is saying, “Of course I’m going to let the federal government pay for 90 percent of it. I’ll just build a stand-alone one for my state.” That’s fine and it helps out the state, but it is not the most efficient way to deploy it. So we’re looking for things we can do to help accomplish this in more efficient manner.
GCN: Do you think this is something that will get started this year?
Fletcher: Well, we’ve discussed it all last year. We are looking for ways to execute on it this year. I think some of our fed partners have been helpful to put this in place, but it is taking a little bit of time.