Alaska (bymandesign/

Alaska's unique challenges in IT consolidation

The Last Frontier is centralizing IT operations under Alaska's newly created Office of Information Technology.

But consolidating IT in a sprawling state like Alaska offers challenges not found in other environments, the state's new CIO Bill Vajda told GCN.

Before the creation of OIT, IT decisions were made independently by 17 major executive branch agencies. This disparate management structure was created about 25 years ago when technology like the internet was just starting to be leveraged by governments, Vajda said. The technology wasn’t mature enough to be managed in centralized manner, so it made sense for each agency to determine how it would use these new solutions.

“That environment, that situation, went on for decades,” he said. “A big part of what the OIT technology transition represents is a move from that highly distributed environment to one where we take more advantages of economy of scale, we take more advantage of common platforms and [drive] the utilization of all of those assets higher.”

And while an IT environment that's dispersed across agencies is not uncommon, Alaska faces unique geographic challenges that other states don’t deal with. In the lower 48, IT managers typically worry about the “last mile” of telecom infrastructure, but in Alaska the middle mile is more problematic. Fiber doesn't cover the whole state, so signals must be sent by satellites over mountains to reach the fiber on the other side. When middle-mile infrastructure is limited, it changes how the state thinks about creating applications for government services, Vajda said.

“When you have very limited middle-mile infrastructure available that has to support regular business and residential users and schools and telemedicine and first responders and everything else, actually creating an application that doesn’t destabilize the availability of telecommunications for these rural communities becomes a real driving factor for how you design and provide those services,” he said.

Things could be changing, however.

Advances in IT are "a huge game changer for Alaska," Vajda said. Technologies like modular reuse, some cloud technologies and the “plethora of services” available online that no longer have to be built provide "a lot more flexibility in how we choose to design and implement systems supporting very large geographic space.”

The state is in the very early stages of the consolidation process, though, he said, so the exact IT infrastructure has not been nailed down. Vajda and his team currently are working on standing up the office itself and implementing the new management structure.

But the evaluation of commodity services -- processing, storage, disaster recovery, email systems, file sharing, office automation -- is also beginning.

The state will also be developing platform processing and storage requirements for the 17 government agencies and driving the state’s three data centers to a  “more consolidated and efficient footprint.”

Alaska is currently in the middle implementing the Alaska Plan, an effort by the Federal Communications Commission to improve fixed and mobile voice and broadband service, and is already seeing improved connections. Vajda said that new undersea commercial cables now connect the North Slope communities, and there are plans to improve middle-mile infrastructure.

The more that connectivity improves in the state, the more government services can be offered digitally, he said.

Connectivity in the lower 48 began when the telegraph companies bought the right of ways from the railroads and started building infrastructure. That didn’t happen in Alaska. But Vajda, a third-generation public servant, sees it as an exciting challenge.

“It’s such a fresh frontier,” he said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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