Re-Thinking a Government's Data Center Service Delivery Model
As technology managers for the County of San Mateo, we have fascinating jobs. On a day to day basis, the Information Services Department (ISD) is responsible for supporting a very large and varied organization; there are over twenty departments and approximately 6,000 employees that support almost three-quarters of a million residents. With 20 incorporated cities, the bulk of the county is unincorporated with no one large city that dominates the populace or the politics. Being in the heart of Silicon Valley, we are a microcosm of the “digital divide,” with some of the wealthiest zip codes in the country neighboring some of the most underserved communities.
To reach our long-term goals, our CIO, Jon Walton, challenges us to not only understand larger technology trends, but to apply those within the context and constraints of our mission as a government agency. We recognize that compared to our Silicon Valley private-sector brethren, we are designed to be more deliberate and risk averse because we utilize taxpayer dollars and must serve all residents.
The Need for a New Data Center for San Mateo County
Like many public sector entities, we have many legacy systems, including those in our data center which were not originally designed for the scalability we need in 2015. Several years ago, we recognized that we were tapping the maximum mechanical capability of our facility, especially power and cooling. As one could predict, there has been an increased demand for cloud-based applications, a more flexible service delivery model, and a desire to partner more closely with our local agencies. Additionally, the County has a strategic push around more transparent “Open Data” to enable all of our departments to engage residents in newer and more exciting ways. Unfortunately all of these goals could not be met quickly or cost effectively with the technology and facility constraints of our old data center.
So, in many ways, the technical forcing function to replace our aging data center infrastructure allowed us to start a new process that could be customer-centric and better align with the overall County mission and strategy. We undertook a process similar to a way a private entity would design a new product or service model; starting with the customer needs. To do this, we assembled a team to start envisioning a plan. This was a cross-functional effort with members of our network, server, and project management groups as well as our departmental leadership and an overall program manager.
An additional challenge was that the County was planning for a new building which would be perfect for a new state-of-the-art data center. However, that wouldn’t be built for another several years in the future. Our technical needs and our customer requirements couldn’t wait. The team decided to relocate our main data center to a transitional facility, one designed to work for the next 3-5 years until we could move into the permanent space. Planning for a short-term space, in and of itself, created other challenges, one being to focus on a higher density design with a smaller footprint, approximately 1/5 the current size of 5,000 square feet, through virtualization of computing power, storage, network, and security. At the same time, we had to plan for scalability.
In researching short term solutions, we looked at a number of co-location opportunities; additionally, we researched temporary space via container computing as well as traditional building lease situations. We discovered that due to the planning of the newer future building and a retrofit of an existing structure, we were going to have to not only support a Data Center move but also a personnel and equipment move. Specifically, our Radio Services team and a utility space had to be moved due to the construction and retrofit. This ultimately led us to get very creative by choosing a Data Center space that would not only allow us to house a secure and modern data center, but also address these other needed moves. We partnered with a co-location vendor that had excess space in their facility that hadn’t been built out for Data Center usage, and this partnership allowed us to solve our three issues with one space.
“Our new data center takes a hybrid approach—a private cloud with a converged infrastructure, utilizing technology to build a scalable, modular compute/storage infrastructure”
Customer Needs Driving Technology Decisions
The primary driver of our technology decisions was how we could meet our customer needs now and well into the future; even if our customers couldn’t anticipate their own needs. We partnered with our customers to understand their storage and application needs, and to also see what common components existed among related departments in the County. This process was a pleasant surprise for many of our customers who were expecting IT to design infrastructure in the background and/or to dictate levels of support.
Even though more County applications have been moving into the cloud, many departments still needed to retain many of their own on-premise applications. So, our new data center takes a hybrid approach—a private cloud with a converged infrastructure, utilizing technology to build a scalable, modular compute/storage infrastructure. Our converged infrastructure allows us to either provision virtual servers in our private cloud or use hosted services depending on the need.
The Other Side of the Coin – The Network
The nature of what we were doing required more robust connectivity and redundancy within our LAN, our WAN, our main data center, and our connection to the Internet. The County had been constrained by a low bandwidth connection to the Internet that was becoming quickly inadequate to support today’s robust cloud-based requirements. A separate effort in upgrading the network then became critical not only to the success of our customers interested and utilizing cloud solutions, but for our own inter-site needs in supporting a new Data Center.
As our infrastructure, including the data center, became more distributed, it made our network that much more important. An enhanced network will enable us to build a private cloud, and choose the best converged infrastructure components, including computing power, storage, network, security, and virtualization. This “pool of virtual resources” creates a set of IT services for needed demand– the ability to create elasticity that changes (stretches or shrinks) with customer needs.
The Current and Future Benefits
When we move into our new data center later this year, we will be able to meet our customer needs better than ever before, create flexibility over the coming years, and set us up for the next transition after that period. Fundamentally, in addition to increasing availability and performance, the new data center design is about faster provisioning of IT services to our clients.
We know we are uniquely positioned to leverage the expertise around us to both better serve the public and to be more efficient with taxpayer dollars in the process. All of this will come from the relentless focus on the notion of “connections”–our mission to connect employees within the County government and to connect residents to their government. Fundamentally, that’s what technology is good at; it creates connections among people and between people and information, and it allows us to continually build and improve them. Our data center is solely just one instantiation of that notion.