Government Technology

The Cloud Builders: Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, Mich.

The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. Photo courtesy of "Andypiper" / Flickr CC

January 9, 2012 By

In 2005, CIO Dan Rainey, newly on board in Ann Arbor, Mich.,  met Washtenaw County, Mich., CIO David Behen, who last year became Michigan’s state CIO. “During our first meeting,” said Rainey, “one of the things Dave brought to my attention was that we’re a block apart in location, we both run data centers, we both have IT staff — why aren’t we doing more together?”

Later, Washtenaw County’s administrative building was flooded. Officials begin looking at building a new data center. “And that was the opportunity,” said Rainey. In spring 2009 the city and county co-located their data centers. “Not long after that we built a new justice center,” said Rainey, “and as part of that new building, there was a space for including a new data center — raised floor, air conditioners, [uninterruptible power supply]: The things you really need to have in a modern data center. That’s when we moved everything together into this new data center.”

The data center is now physically managed by the city, but the county has full access to it. The arrangement has opened additional opportunities for shared services.

“We share a storage area network,” said Rainey. “We share an enterprise backup environment, Internet connectivity, enterprise content management system and GIS environment. We’re still operating as separate departments, but we’ve partnered on a lot of initiatives where it made sense. We put together an interagency agreement that spells that out. And when we wrote this agreement, we purposely used terms like ‘participant,’ so it’s open to any local unit in the county that wants to participate. And they’re not making a commitment to anything beyond, ‘We’re part of the conversation.’”

Subscribers and Providers

There are subscribers and providers, said Rainey. “The county is the provider on the SAN, and the city is the subscriber. The county leases it and we pay them for our half of it every year.” So the city might make a three-year commitment. But Rainey said jurisdictions should make sure they can do that type of leasing model before attempting it. For certain types of investments, like a storage area network or a large backup environment, you need to make sure you have both organizations agreeing to the financial commitment beforehand, he said. If one of the stakeholders refuses to appropriate funds, that could be a problem.

“If I want to be a provider of a service,” said Rainey, “I will approach the other participants and say ‘Hey, we have this new system we think we want to make available to other interested local units. Who’s interested?’ Then when they sign on as subscribers, we’ll talk about the terms around that specific service: the length of it, the cost for it, service levels around availability, who’s responsible for what — how you get out of it if you want to get out of it.

“The No. 1 rule,” said Rainey, “is to have an exit plan. You need an understanding of how you get into an agreement and how you get out of it. What are those expectations?

“Right now we have three agencies that are part of this interagency agreement: the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. So the three IT directors of those agencies meet monthly and go over how the services are working out. Are there issues or new needs? And what are we all working on? So we share our high-level plans too. If I think I might want to buy an intrusion detection service, I might ask, ‘I’m looking at this, is there anybody that would like to look at the same thing?’”

The partners are also coordinating on larger issues, like a Windows 7 rollout, application virtualization and more.

Return on Investment

“Together, the arrangement saved a lot of money," said Rainey. “Washtenaw County was looking to build a new data center, and that was a $2 million capital project that they didn’t have budgeted anywhere. So that cost was avoided. And then, on the storage area networks there’s a cost just to bring in a platform and incremental cost to add more storage to it, so it saved us a good $300,000 just on SAN and the backup platform because we collaborated instead of [Ann Arbor] and the county buying their own.

“We have informal agreements to provide backups to each other and the equipment’s all in one data center. So where we each have a single resource that has expertise, we’ll learn each other’s systems — like in our backup environment. We each administer our own backups, but the county person can go on vacation now because [the city’s] staff will watch. People would go on vacation, but they’d get called and hunted down; now that doesn’t happen, so it’s provided some relief.”

Another opportunity occurred with content management.  “We partnered with Hyland Software, which makes OnBase,” said Rainey, “an enterprise content management system. The county had that — they purchased OnBase probably in 2007 — and the city decided it was going to use that same product.” So Ann Arbor used the county’s same RFP, the same integrator, and worked with Hyland. The company licensed the city and gave the city essentially free access to the county’s infrastructure. All Ann Arbor had to pay for was additional seats that were procured. “That saved me at least a half million dollars in the last 18 months,” Rainey said. “Because if you’re going to do

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Chris 54    |    Commented January 10, 2012

What happens when you have neighboring communties offering similar products/services? IMO, it can quickly turn from a consolidation effort to a compitetion. What also happens to open bidding (from the private sector) when government works things out without them (not that it would be a bad thing) Just wonderin'

Dan Rainey    |    Commented January 10, 2012

I think that is a valid point. Our collaboration approach has been to coordinate and communicate with neighboring communities so that we all know what we're doing and what we're capable of doing. Also, I think that having more than one agency providing a service is a good thing because it gives agencies that want to participate, options. For instance, some agencies may offer services that are an exact duplicate of what they already provide, but that level of service may be too high (in price and quality) for a smaller agency to consume. I think that having some choice will accelerate overall shared services adoption, at least initially. As far the private sector goes, they are typically involved in the initial acquisition and/ need to be consulted before a service (like storage or software) can be extended. I believe it is in the best interest of the private sector to be supportive of these initiatives because more adoption directly benefits them. Dan

Scott Bade    |    Commented January 11, 2012

Chris, ImageSoft is the vendor providing the Enterprise Content Management solution to the County and City. I can tell you that they continue to work with vendors and use open bidding, however their approach reduces paperwork and bureaucracy from a contractual standpoint. Scott Bade President ImageSoft, Inc.

Phil Bertolini    |    Commented January 12, 2012

Under Dan Rainey's leadership the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County have created a partnership that can modeled in other communities. Michigan is in tough shape economically and these types of partnerships are necessary for government operations to survive. Congratulations to everyone involved!

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