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The Risk Game in Cloud-based Services

By Jim Hall, CIO, Ramsey County (Minn.)

Jim Hall, CIO, Ramsey County (Minn.)

Before I came to local government, I worked in higher education for seventeen years. Now as CIO at Ramsey County (Minn.) I apply the lessons I learned in academia to our work in government. One thing you need to know about higher education is that budgets are very volatile. In public higher education, the overall budget is usually set based on tuition and total student enrollment, which is affected by the dips and rolls in student enrollment and retention. Some budgets are also based on State contributions. And one “off” year can impact budgets for more than just that year, or more than four years. Depending on the size of your campus, an unexpected dip in student numbers could have lasting budget impacts up to ten years later.

"Leveraging the Cloud allowed us to lower our costs while expanding our campus services"

Working in higher education was certainly rewarding, but it was a constant challenge to meet a modern campus’ needs in the face of ever-shrinking budgets. In the seventeen years I worked in higher education, it was rare to see an increase in my annual budget. Most of the time, we had to “do more with less.”

As a result, we became very entrepreneurial in delivering solutions, and I learned to leverage new tools that allowed us to deliver value to the campus within limited means.

For example, for many years until 2010, I managed several departments that supported enterprise infrastructure and operations at a large university. We had a respectable budget, but I couldn’t rely on the same numbers every year. To support enterprise applications within a limited overall budget, we considered new options, including open source software systems. We found Linux delivered the same power and flexibility as the “big iron” systems, at a fraction of the price. We were the first to implement “Linux in the enterprise” at the university, and within a few years we began displacing our more expensive Solaris and AIX Unix servers with Linux, reducing our technology spend by a considerable margin. By the time I left the university in 2010, about two-thirds of our enterprise systems ran on low-cost Linux servers.

In 2010, I became the IT Director and campus CIO at a small liberal arts campus. Due to our relative small size of about 2,000 students, I inherited a small budget. Again, we looked to new frontiers to support our campus within limited means. We quickly moved many campus applications to the Cloud, reducing the technology footprint in our local data center, while maximizing our Return on Investment. And while my campus may not have been the first higher education institution to explore Cloud solutions, we were certainly among the first.

Almost immediately, we migrated our email and calendaring systems to Google Apps for Education, which included Gmail and the other Google Apps. Soon afterwards, we moved our home-grown academic alert application to a Cloud system. Other systems, including a database of campus committee meeting minutes, and a hand-coded website with over 40,000 objects, also moved to the Cloud.

Leveraging cloud allowed us to lower our costs while expanding our campus services. In off-loading applications to the Cloud, we were able to retire old servers and storage, reducing our maintenance costs. Support staff were freed to work on more valuable tasks. Our developers shifted from writing applications to providing integration services.

My vision in higher education technology was simple – if the service had become a commodity, we should outsource it to the Cloud. I wanted my staff to focus on the services where we truly added value. This alignment to “Cloud v Local” helped us to lower our Total Cost of Ownership, while remaining flexible to campus needs. And most importantly, we were able to operate within our means and “do more with less.” In my last year at the campus, we began to explore new ways to provide technology in classrooms and computer labs, leveraging new low-power computing devices like the Raspberry Pi, Google Chromebox, and Intel ComputeStick. Over the next four years, I expected to reduce our general-purpose computing costs by ten percent or more.

In December 2015, I moved from higher education to local government. As Chief Information Officer, I direct and manage all aspects of Information Services for Ramsey County, Minnesota – an organization of more than 4,000 full and part-time employees working at more than 20 separate locations. I work through governance to lead the vision, strategy, and governance for information technology in the county, ensuring alignment with the county’s vision, mission, and goals and industry best practices.

Former colleagues have asked me how local government differs from higher education. I tell them the two are very alike: local government has the same governance, committees, organizational structure, everything. It’s just labeled differently. But one thing is different in local government: we don’t embrace change like we did in higher education. In local government, our funding model is more reliable. Where higher education budgets were dependent on student retention and tuition, county budgets are largely a factor of the tax levy, so are more stable.

With more predictable budgets, the county hasn’t faced the same pressures to try new things. We can continue to rely on the same services and solutions next year, because the budgets rarely shift. We don’t have to look outside the way we do things. We aren’t pressured to “do more with less.” As a result, today’s government technology looks about the same as it did ten or fifteen years ago. It’s the same across other local government technology organizations. The back-office for local government often runs on Microsoft Windows. Most government applications run locally, and many of them are developed in-house. That’s all we’ve known, and we haven’t had a reason to change. I intend to change that, at least in my organization. In the year and a half that I’ve been here, I’ve worked with our technology teams and with governance to re-examine our purchasing decisions. Where we once feared the Cloud, we have begun to take our first steps to a Cloud-first future. In the last year, and where it makes sense, we’ve replaced several on-premises applications with Cloud systems. I expect over time, we will use more Cloud.

Today, we use Microsoft Windows on the desktop, but maybe that will change over time, too. As we continue to use more Cloud, delivered via a web browser, the desktop will become less important. There could be a time, perhaps in a few years, where the desktop won’t matter so much. That will be an interesting change for an organization that has used the same core platform since 1995. And it’s my role as CIO to help my county realize the new modes in technology, and to help shift us toward the future. This is a cultural change, so I don’t expect to see immediate results, but I’m confident that we’ve already started to move towards a mindset where we are open to new experiences, to trying grand new experiments. I think we’re on a path to “do more with less.”

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