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Taking on IT challenges at California scale

California CIO Teri Takai on IT transformation, sustainability and Gov 2.0

Teri TakaiCalifornia has the eighth largest economy in the world. Its information technology infrastructure is immense, with thousands of staff, networks and complex legacy systems. After the boom and bust of the dot com era, California’s budget woes have also been immense, which has driven staffers to do more with less, a common refrain in IT departments during the Great Recession.

To learn more about how California is tackling these challenges, I spoke with its chief information officer, Teri Takai. Given Takai’s nomination by President Obama to be assistant secretary for Networks and Information Integration at the Department of Defense, her perspectives on IT are of interest to many observers.

After the jump, Takai explains what the term “Gov 2.0″ means to her and she talks about how California is taking on data center consolidation, green tech, scaling legacy systems and more.

Note: I conducted my interview with Takai in late May, and a lot has happened since then. Relevant background is included below. If you’d like to jump right into the interview, click here.

New capabilities for e-government have gone online at CA.gov, driven by the explosion of mobile and social media in recent years, along with reduced costs for storage and virtualization. Those trends have been matched by the escalating energy cost of data center operations and increased demand for e-services. In February, Governor Schwarzenegger issued an executive order to reduce the state’s data center space by 50 percent by July 2011 and to cut energy usage from IT operations by 30 percent by July 2012.

That executive order focused on standardizing IT governance and increasing spending transparency to improve management of California’s more than $3 billion IT budget. As Information Week reported in June, the state has made progress toward data center consolidation and cleaning up other IT operations. The status report posted on CIO.CA.gov in June is available here.

Last week, the Infrastructure Consolidation Program (ICP) established by the Office of the Chief Information Officer to carry out that executive order completed California’s consolidated e-mail security and encryption service, E-Hub. That said, there’s still a long way to go. Recently, an outdated payroll system came to light when the Governor attempted to cut the salaries of state workers.

While my interview with Takai predated that development, her replies, below, offer perspective on other areas.


What do the terms “Government 2.0″ and “open government” mean to you?

Teri Takai: Open government, to some extent, is a part of Government 2.0. We have historically talked about delivering services online rather than inline. We’ve had a concept, which has been around for several years, around “e-government.” The thing that’s changed dramatically from just a question of citizens getting access through a portal and citizens actually being able to receive services online is the explosion of mobile devices and new social media tools.

Many social media tools are starting to become almost commonplace. Normally, I’m not a great proponent of saying technology drives change. Business processes do. But I think that one of the interesting things around social media tools is that in many cases, the capability and ability to connect is actually found in business processes.

How is the state of California integrating green tech? What investments have had the most return?

TT: We believe overall improvements in the way that we do IT give us significant opportunities and improvements from a green standpoint. Right now, we’ve done a lot of basic blocking and tackling.

For example, we had a print operation at our data centers. We put software in that allows you to look at this stuff online. The management piece of that change was, rather than going out and saying to all of the departments, “Wouldn’t you like to convert over to using the software and viewing online?” we said, “We are switching you over unless you give us a valid business case why we still need to produce paper for you.”

When you take that kind of approach, it’s really interesting. If we had asked them to switch over, we wouldn’t have gotten much response. When we tell them they’re going to, the interesting thing is they just let it happen and we’re hearing very little pushback.

In terms of investments that have the most return, we believe that we need to be a part of reducing our data center footprint. We know what the statistics are, in terms of the amount of energy usage by data centers nationally. That’s not just a public sector problem but a private sector problem. We need to ensure that we’re using server virtualization, storage virtualization, and that we’re putting them into secure, purpose-built data centers. I’ve got more than 436,000 square-feet now. Only about a third of that is in what I call a true data center.

How do virtualization, server consolidation, data center efficiency, and renewable energies factor into California’s IT strategy?

TT: We have to address the executive order that the Governor signed around server virtualization, search virtualization and the movement into purpose-built data centers. In our large data centers, we’ve done reviews to look at where we could get short-term gains. Things like putting up plastic paneling and redirecting air conditioning.

The interesting thing here is that what we’re doing will make us more green and sustainable and it will be more cost effective, more secure, and more reliable. We don’t have to go after green as a separate initiative. It’s a part of our overall effort to make sure that we’re spending IT dollars wisely.

The piece that we haven’t spent a lot of time on yet is the renewable energy factor. We’re certainly using standard calculations and measurements around the savings that we’re getting. But in terms of actually looking into some of the next generation capabilities of energy, we’re not really focused on that because I wanted to start with getting these operational components accomplished first.

CA.gov now includes many different services. What’s been your strategy for building out the site and the program?

TT: The strategy is to continue to push not only the IT community, but to also push the program as an alternative way of doing business. We’re continually pushing it. We’re publicizing it. That’s what we’re doing externally to get all of California on board.

It hasn’t been any one single thing. We focus on the program areas to get business done. We focus on new stuff, getting it out and getting people comfortable with it. We’re trying to highlight all of the new things so that people don’t get used to just portals or just visiting a departmental website.

In terms of the infrastructure, I don’t know that we do anything terribly elegant. As we see the demand coming in, we adjust. It’s difficult to know when you put something out there what’s going to be a hit. When we put the website out for the stimulus, we had no idea. We’ve noticed that when we update the website, in particular the map, we get lots and lots of traffic. And then, of course, it tapers off.

Given California’s budget constraints, how are you maintaining or migrating from legacy systems?

TT: Despite our budget challenges, we still have plans to renovate and actually put in IT infrastructure for our corrections organization. We’re moving ahead with our enterprise ERP for financials. We’re moving ahead with our enterprise ERP for personnel. We are doing a major system renovation in unemployment insurance. While it’s not everything — and we still have a lot of legacy systems around — between federal funds and our legislature recognizing that IT is very important, we’re moving ahead, even if it’s slower than what we had originally anticipated.

Recovery.gov was moved to Amazon’s cloud, and that was a bit of a tipping point for an official .gov site to be hosted externally. But I’m guessing you won’t move CA.gov into Amazon’s cloud anytime soon. Is that right?

TT: That’s correct, but that’s “never say never.” We actually do a very small bit of hosting in the Amazon cloud. We’re constantly looking for the right infrastructure and where we should be going.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

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