Connecting state and local government leaders

How One Bay Area CIO Is Moving His County to the Cloud

San Mateo County

San Mateo County


Connecting state and local government leaders

Hyperconverged infrastructure has meant major savings for San Mateo County, California, as it bridges the technology divide between its disconnected and affluent cities.

Jon Walton was San Francisco’s chief information officer for four years when he took a new job down the peninsula in San Mateo County in 2012, going from serving one large municipality to a jurisdiction encompassing 22 smaller, economically diverse cities.

Struggling economies in some of the county’s more rural coastal communities, coupled with the fact San Mateo County hadn’t seriously invested in technology for some time, presented challenges but also fresh opportunities for innovation.

San Mateo County's CIO wanted to work with citizens on open data, hackathons and public Wi-Fi—taking San Francisco’s ideas and applying them to a slightly different ecosystem.

“In San Francisco, we could sort of take a brute force approach to solving a lot of problems,” Walton told Route Fifty in an interview. “We had twice as much money in a smaller area.”

Almost 47 square miles to be exact and Walton was familiar with all the right of ways and infrastructure. Meanwhile, San Mateo County’s ideas around transparency and cloud computing were solid, but rural residents might not have good cell coverage or unlimited data plans.

The county would have to figure out how to provide accessibility in non-urban, low-bandwidth environments for less—bridging the tech gap between those communities and more economically prosperous cities in the eastern part of the county.

Walton reevaluated the applications San Mateo County was then providing, finding old apps running on IBM’s AS/400 platform and GroupWise being used for email. He switched that out for Microsoft Office 365, and the county was first in California to adopt Workday for enterprise resource planning.

Many applications remain on premise for performance and manageability reasons, assuming a cost-effective solution is available, but San Mateo County’s supervisors and county manager “aren’t afraid to take chances” where new systems are concerned, Walton said—helpful when other governments constrain CIOs by requiring three references of similar products in California.

But it’s infrastructure that remains the real challenge for Walton and San Mateo County. The government manages about 200 facilities throughout the county and knew it wanted to move to the cloud, which requires a lot more infrastructure.

Dating back to the old cable franchise days, San Mateo County had dark fiber in the ground since handed over to cities and the county, itself. Using Measure K sales tax funds for infrastructure, that existing fiber is being retrofitted to connect government facilities and control costs.

Since the fiber is in the street, San Mateo County can put switches and firewalls at fire stations in communities the fiber passes through. Some cities like Pacifica are reevaluating whether they can keep paying for traditional services like police or 9-1-1 versus outsourcing to the county sheriff’s department.

“If that’s the case, and we’re directly providing county services within the boundaries of these mini-geopolitical entities, then having connectivity benefits not just the city but offers a backhaul path for government-to-government connectivity,” Walton said.

Seven cities in San Mateo County have opted for that more cost-effective, collaborative approach. Everything is encrypted and on internet protocol, so cities have enough space and aren’t stepping on each other’s toes, Walton said.

Governments tend to spend a lot of money on backend infrastructure, which consumes extensive resources with little customer return. That’s why the county began piloting San Jose, California-based Nutanix’s hyperconverged virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) three years ago.

Traditional data centers require networking, computing and storage supplied by separate vendors like Cisco Systems, WMware and Dell EMC. Nutanix consolidates all that infrastructure into small, stackable commodity boxes that can be added as governments go to scale enterprise cloud platforms.

The solution offers one-touch management from a single portal and virtualizes desktops and servers run from software-defined infrastructure. Agencies can choose to push or pull apps to or from a public cloud or establish private clouds on premise.

Consolidating legacy hardware means not having to predict years in advance how much hardware is needed and overbuying or reaching capacity too soon.

San Mateo County consolidated desktop services out of its clinics down to three or four racks of equipment, compared to around 40 racks of aging hardware at its data center. Keeping staff trained with different hardware in use in different places is tricky business, Walton said, and Nutanix’s VDI outperformed that of traditional vendors with respect to input/output operations per second (IOPS)—a storage measurement.

The county quickly moved from one node of Nutanix equipment to 74 nodes, purchasing them incrementally across its 1,200 virtual servers and covering all its original infrastructure.

San Mateo County's government runs on a two-year budget cycle, and Walton tries to make five-year plans. His team estimated the cost of continuing on with traditional servers and storage or building out a Nutanix solution and found the former would cost $15 million and the latter $4 million—a $10 million hyperconvergence savings.

Harder to calculate are the soft savings from improved uptime and resulting increases in customer satisfaction.

Thanks to replication infrastructure, the county’s disaster recovery (DR) now replicates between a small medical center and another, larger data center in Redwood. Should one center go down, service impacts will be minimal.

San Mateo County has dropped its cost-per-virtual-server, maintained its workforce, appeased its engineers with an easier environment, and hit all its performance API numbers for replication time.

Nutanix announced Wednesday during .NEXT Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center outside Washington, D.C. that its Enterprise Cloud OS will soon come as a full software stack with multi-cloud capabilities—a fresh take on the hybrid cloud.

For counties like San Mateo County that spread data and apps across data centers and DR environments, the move will allow for more diverse-yet-smooth deployments.

“Multi-cloud IT strategies require much more than today’s first generation hybrid cloud architectures, which force companies to provision and manage separate IT silos,” said Sunil Potti, Nutanix chief product and development officer.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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