L.A. CTO: We are actively upgrading city’s IT in the cloud
With more people employed in high-tech jobs (368,500) than any other metro region in the U.S., Los Angeles (population, 3,884,307) is an IT powerhouse. Leading the city’s team is Steve Reneker, general manager of the Information Technology Agency and Chief Technology Officer. He is spearheading several initiatives, including the development of CityLinkLA, which is a citywide initiative designed to make high-speed, high-quality broadband available in all areas of Los Angeles.
L.A.’s IT operation faces similar challenges to other city or county tech departments. For example, about 60 percent of the L.A. IT staff will reach retirement age within the next four years. More than half of the seven full-time workers at the help services desk have recently filed for their city pensions. Due to tight budgets, a lengthy hiring process and limited budget authority for hiring, Steve Reneker (photo below on right) is using student workers on a short-term basis to keep the city’s IT help desk staffed.
To help make its operation more efficient, the city is methodically embracing the cloud. In May, for instance, L.A. is expected to award a 10-year contract covering a new cloud-based municipal e-mail platform.
GPN spoke with Reneker recently about where the cloud fits in L.A.’s municipal IT strategy.
Government Product News: How is the city’s IT department structured?
Steve Reneker: We are very decentralized. We have 20 data centers out there, and it’s not very efficient. Our data center consolidation strategy calls for keeping three data centers for our private cloud apps, and moving everything else out into the public cloud environment. So over time, as departments need a technology refresh, the options offered to them will include various cloud environments.
GPN: Has your city department embraced the cloud?
SR: We have been moving some city IT functions to the cloud since early last fall. So I would say we have not seen any really significant changes yet. For the future, we certainly hope so.
We have probably seen a small percentage of change. For example, we just moved many of our city web pages to the Acquia cloud experience, which is a cloud-based hosting service and Drupal vendor-content management provider. We’ve seen a lot of improvement so there’s less complexity for our staff that we have to manage. We haven’t seen any reductions in staff in the process, however.
GPN: Has using the cloud helped reduce the server population in the Los Angeles city government?
SR: We’ve certainly seen some reduction in our server population, but we are still early in the process. Our IT unit is about 68 percent virtualized. We are spending a lot of time now going through upgrades on the Windows Server 2003 server operating system. The process gives us opportunities to either virtualize those environments or place them in the cloud. So we think there will be a large increase in migrations to the cloud over the next six months.
GPN: What will your agency be updating or upgrading to from Windows Server 2003?
SR: A lot of it depends on the application. We are obviously trying to move to Windows Server 2012, and in some cases to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, depending on the performance needs of the application. Some applications, we are finding, won’t run anything past Windows Server 2008, but at least it gets us to a supportable platform.
GPN: Does going to the cloud improve mobility for city personnel, especially mobile workers? We understand that through the cloud, city staffers can access municipal web sites more easily from a variety of different mobile devices, and that web sites are easier to view. Have you found that to be true among mobile workers?
SR: We have found that to be true. .. So many of our documents and applications are already in the cloud along with our e-mail and calendar. So staffers are really comfortable here with the cloud strategy from the office and mobility standpoint; being able to get to where they need to be from their smart device or a tablet or anything like that.
GPN: I used the city’s highly efficient MyLA311 service when I contacted you for this interview. Has the cloud facilitated the 311 upgrade and expansion in L.A.? Or is expansion via the cloud down the road?
SR: It is definitely down the road. But where we are seeing some impacts: MyLA311 is now replacing many of our work order systems out in the departments. So it’s automatically creating the tickets for the departments, and they are dispersing and processing the tickets, and then closing them out to the system.
But what that is requiring at the departmental level are field-based mobile deployment solutions. One example is our street services group that went to a third party that’s hosted in the cloud. Today, calls go through our MyLA311 system. Citizens report potholes out in the field, the street services group fixes them and reports back status updates.
We are doing the same with bulky item pickups. Today, crews now have mobile devices out in the field, where there are routes to pick up those items, and the crews can change their routes in real time, based on information that comes in on MyLA311. What’s more, they can correspondingly respond when those bulky items have been resolved and picked up.
I think MyLA311 and new technology is changing the dynamics of the way we do business. And we are able to complete upgrades more often in real time with mobile deployments, which in many cases are more easily done through the cloud. Those mobile deployments put the most up-to-date apps on workers’ smart phones.
GPN: How do you show the value of the cloud to top administrators of the city?
SR: I think in a number of ways. Number 1, using the cloud helps us by eliminating the need to request more budget dollars for things like server upgrades, hardware replacement, things like that.
A good example for us was when we moved our www.lacity.org/ website. It’s a high demand, high-hit website. We’ve now got it in the cloud, so there are no longer impacts to other servers that we host here in the city, because it’s all being hit externally.
We’ve also got staffers constantly monitoring our network, online and website security. We even had a denial of service issue that came up last month that was addressed immediately, so that freed up our staff that normally would be dealing with those crises on a daily basis.
The city’s cloud-based web hosting setup now has pushed those responsibilities onto the cloud providers and vendors. That frees up our staff, and it frees up our IT team’s valuable time.
GPN: Do you have any advice for local government officials on moving or consolidating city services to the cloud?
SR: We think it just makes sense. What we are finding is that most local governments like ourselves don’t have a hardware refresh strategy, because when budgets got tight, that was one of the first things to go, along with capital improvement programs.
So since those programs in most cases have gone away, going to the cloud gives IT departments a new strategy of how to deal with that dedicated line item per application. It automatically ensures that your data is backed up. In addition, you don’t have to worry about provisioning another disaster recovery service, because in most cases, depending on the cloud provider you choose, they have built-in disaster recovery services.
And then there’s the IT staffing side. We are not seeing a lot of local governments hiring more staff. We are seeing departments struggling to keep the staff they have, so, being able to re-purpose those where you have critical needs is extremely important.
GPN: On your LinkedIn profile, one of your specialties you list is developing business partnerships. What kinds of business partnerships can city administrators try to arrange as they move to the cloud?
SR: I think sometimes we haven’t really thought of all the strategies that are out there. One, for example, that is problematic for us is our backups. We consider buying tape storage or other archiving tools. We also ponder being able to leverage the cloud with storage environments to back up all of our data and do it in a secure fashion. These are some of the things that we try to work on. We try to figure out the vendors that are in that space, and are there other vendors that can meet all the different hardware and operating system environments that we have.
But in other cases, working from a business development standpoint, I think it is just important to work with our vendors. We present to them in the monthly meetings we have, especially with our key partners. We present areas of concerns and things that are problems to us. We work with the vendors to come up with innovative solutions to those problems. That is really where we have a big focus. Because, in a lot of cases, if it’s a problem for us, it’s probably a problem for many other cities out there, too.
GPN: We see some cities using Big Data to fine-tune their operations. Are you seeing cloud-based apps in the Big Data arena down the road?
SR: Yes, we are. We are using Socrata cloud solutions for our open data portal, so you could consider that as a big data platform. The one thing we struggle with is not being able to afford a lot of data analytic tools.
So I think to the extent that as we start putting more and more data into our Socrata platforms and building application programming interfaces, where we are providing real-time updates to the city’s Big Data, we’ll be working on our next big strategy. That strategy is hopefully trying to find cloud analytic vendors so that we can create better dashboards and do better analysis across departmental lines.
(GPN note: The city is actively working with local academic institutions to determine what Big Data tools make the most sense. Los Angeles has about 300 data sets publicly available on its controllerdata.lacity.org website. This is the site where the city hosts all of its open data sets.)
GPN: Have you off-loaded government services to the cloud? If so, what kinds of services?
SR: In the next six months, we will have probably four to six vendors that departments will be able to choose from. We hope to be able to have a portal for the departments to put in their application requirements, and be able to choose which cloud provider will provide them the lowest-cost service for what they need.
But we have moved or are starting to move things like our mainframe. That takes up a lot of our resources. So yes, we are starting to do some application migrations on a large scale, but not at the small-department application level.
GPN: You used to be CIO for Riverside, Calif. What’s the difference managing IT in a city of 316,619 vs. the L.A. megalopolis? Do medium and large cities exploit the cloud differently?
SR: I’d say so, because I think it’s a crisis for the larger cities like L.A., because we don’t have a choice. We are struggling to keep the lights on, and the cloud is giving us an option to provide some cost efficiencies and savings immediately. The cloud gives flexibility to larger communities.
I think, regarding Riverside, they’ve made some strong long-term investments, and I think the cloud is going to give the city some options–a new strategy to pursue–as those investments come up for refresh.
Michael Keating is Senior Editor at Government Product News, an American City & County sister brand.