Data center plan moves ahead

Concerns Raised: $180 million piece of project ignores state’s technology problem, says legislator

August 4, 2009 

A bond sale and formal groundbreaking are coming soon for a new state Information Services headquarters and data center in Olympia, despite recent criticisms that it might be a costly and shortsighted move.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat and software entrepreneur, says the state is making a mistake with the data-center portion of the project, which accounts for $180 million of the $255 million project cost. Carlyle said it ignores the biggest problem, the state’s aging pieces of information technology that do not have the ability to talk to each other.

Carlyle sent a letter on July 20 to Gov. Chris Gregoire, asking for a second opinion on the project, which had final approval by lawmakers as part of their capital-construction budget. The letter from Carlyle and Rep. Hans Dunshee, the capital-budget author, said the state could instead make use of privately run server farms likes those of Microsoft or Google in remote Eastern Washington or Oregon locations, saving money.

“My fundamental goal is to elevate the level of conversation in our state on how we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on technology,” Carlyle said in an interview. “This decision is a reflection of the fact we have not adopted a comprehensive technology policy. We have made this decision prematurely without consideration of the true long-term technological and financial implications.”

Bonds for the project are due for sale this week, and there is no looking back, according to Department of Information Services spokeswoman Joanne Todd.

Next week, equipment is to go onto the Wheeler Avenue site, east of Olympia’s Capitol Campus, marking the first major building project on the east campus since the early 1990s.

“Work will start then very quickly,” Todd said. “We’re scheduling a groundbreaking for the 20th (of August). We’re going ahead.’’

Todd and the state’s new DIS director, Tony Tortorice, threw cold water on Carlyle’s complaints, saying his approach would cost the state more in the short run. Carlyle’s idea of putting more data on “the cloud” — or in a way that is accessible by the Internet — is not practical for a lot of equipment the state is using, Tortorice said.

“It can’t happen at once. Server farms are lovely but we have more than that” to deal with in the state’s data-maintenance system, Tortorice explained. “This is much more akin to a corporate data system. Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser have done the same thing; they have moved their new corporate data centers closer to their headquarters.’’

Tortorice said the state has old mainframe computers and servers that need constant attention. The state also has 42 “raised floor” sites with data centers in Thurston County, and he hopes that within five years of opening the center in 2011 he can reduce that to less than 10.

Gregoire told reporters last week that she was willing to pull the plug on the project after hearing Carlyle’s concerns. Gregoire said she respects Carlyle’s expertise, took his suggestions seriously and had Tortorice check out the DIS plan when he took over in June.

Tortorice was initially skeptical, like Carlyle, of the state’s decision on a data center. But he examined the options and said the state would end up paying more to upgrade its computers and moving the way Carlyle and Dunshee suggested — at least initially. Gregoire also noted that Dunshee and Carlyle both voted for the project as part of the budget, and that Dunshee and Carlyle needed to convince their colleagues, too.

A legislative working group is already looking at the state’s IT management practices, and Carlyle said he is pushing for an independent evaluation of the state’s longer-term needs. “We are making this decision absent a comprehensive technological evaluation,” he said. “The state of Washington spends over $1 billion a year on technology. There is no oversight, no clarity, no management of that in an organized fashion.”

Todd said Carlyle is wrong. “That’s exactly what we are doing as we move toward government reform,” she said Friday. “That is exactly why Tony is here.’’

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