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Cloud enables Arizona to run ‘government at the speed of business’

J.R. Sloan stepped into the role of Arizona’s interim chief information officer in 2019 as the state was undergoing a massive shift in its approach to technology.

A year earlier, Arizona had adopted a policy requiring its approximately 130 agencies and other entities to use cloud-based applications for IT operations. Like many large organizations, the state was grappling with legacy systems and a mishmash of technologies. Data stored in servers at 90 locations needed to be migrated online. Employees working in state datacenters had to be retrained to work with cloud technology, and the state set a goal of moving most agencies to the cloud by June 2021.

Sloan became the state’s permanent CIO in March 2020, just as the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. Over the next year, departments throughout the state moved operations to the cloud and implemented numerous initiatives using Microsoft Azure – from a system providing residents better access to pandemic unemployment assistance to virtual desktop infrastructure that enabled tens of thousands of state employees to work from home.

Head shot of J.R. Sloan, chief information officer for the state of Arizona.
J.R. Sloan

“A ton of work got done and a lot of it was completed during the pandemic,” Sloan says. “I think that’s a testament to the focus of our employees and our agencies that saw the value in doing this. They continued doing the work, even when there were a lot of other demands placed upon them.”

The state has so far moved 78 server locations to the cloud, including an old datacenter with a single power feed that Sloan says had four major power outages in the past five years and needed close to $30 million in upgrades.

“By simply working together on how we consume cloud services, we are currently tracking cost savings of $100,000 per month,” he says. “In addition, we have reduced facility and utility costs, avoided new equipment and storage purchases and gained visibility and control over costs.”

Microsoft is launching a new sustainable datacenter region Tuesday in Arizona, West US 3, that will enable state agencies and other customers to run Azure applications in a secure and resilient environment. Transform recently caught up with Sloan to learn more about Arizona’s cloud journey.  

TRANSFORM: When did the state’s migration to the cloud begin? 

SLOAN: The state really started its cloud journey going back as early as 2012, 2013. At that point, state agencies were starting to see what was happening in the private sector, paying attention to the value proposition of the cloud and starting to explore it. The Department of Administration took on a leadership role. We went farther, faster while other agencies were also doing their own explorations.

When Gov. (Doug) Ducey came in, one of the things he challenged us with was delivering government at the speed of business. How can we decide faster, respond faster, resolve faster and provide better services to our residents? Technology and automation have a lot to contribute towards meeting those challenges. This is where we need to bring forward technology solutions to support better business processes.

TRANSFORM: How has your department approached the cloud journey?

SLOAN: One of the focuses I have is to identify and encourage efficiencies and economies of scale by looking at where we as a state can adopt an enterprise approach. That could mean selecting a common technology. It could be selecting a common contract set to work from. It could be agreeing on standards of how we design and architect things.

Understanding where we are able to leverage the volume and buying power of the state helps us to best steward the tax dollars of our citizens.

TRANSFORM: Why is a cloud-first strategy important for the state?

SLOAN: State government is good at a lot of things when it comes to putting together services that can care for citizens and serve their needs. But I would say managing datacenters is not a core competency of state government. Our energies are better focused in other areas.

Partners like Microsoft are able to invest millions of dollars annually in leading-edge datacenter technologies and security and put much more into that infrastructure than the state would ever be able to afford to do. They make the investments so that we as a state government can be assured that the data and workloads we put into these hyperscale cloud environments will be available and properly protected. That provides us the opportunity to focus where we can add value.

Photograph of a Microsoft datacenter in the Phoenix, Arizona region.
A Microsoft datacenter in the Phoenix region.

TRANSFORM: What have been some of the main benefits of moving to the cloud?

SLOAN: A key benefit is moving from a capital expenditure model to an operational expenditure model. You only pay for what you use. We have more control over what our costs are, and we’re incentivized to get more efficient at what we do.

Other benefits are the inherent elasticity and scalability of these cloud environments. We’re able to scale as much as we need to on demand. We’re also able to shrink back – to right-size our utilization and our workloads on an ongoing basis. We don’t have to build out an entire datacenter for the peak capacity we might need based on what we expect. We’re able to work and consult with the expertise of our cloud partners to really optimize how we consume cloud services.

TRANSFORM: Tell me about a few of the state’s cloud initiatives that have been particularly successful.

SLOAN: The Department of Transportation created a portal for motor vehicle services that has brought really interesting and compelling things like a digital driver’s license that is now available to Arizona citizens, that they can carry on their mobile phones and is valid as an authorized form of identity.

They’ve created a system that includes both normal multifactor enhanced authentication and digital verification for doing high-trust transactions. So people can, with confidence and security, even complete a vehicle title transfer without having to go into a DMV office. For those times when someone does need to come into an office, they can set an appointment so they’re not just showing up and hoping that the line is short. These are the types of things that our citizens will value.

The Department of Child Safety implemented a new child safety management system. One of the key things achieved was mobile-enabling case workers – putting tablets in their hands so they’re not having to take notes, fill out forms and go back into the office and re-enter all that information. This is very much about enabling them, making them more efficient, and respecting them as workers to help them spend more time on task with their jobs while still fulfilling the important data-collection and data-entry needs. 

TRANSFORM: How has the move to the cloud benefited Arizona residents during the pandemic?

SLOAN: One example is our Department of Economic Security. We saw our unemployment insurance claims go from around 15,000 per month to well over 2 million, and that happened very rapidly. That was something you couldn’t really plan for. Even if you thought you could plan for it, building out the necessary capacity ahead of time would have been very expensive, and that’s a sunk cost.

Having our front-end web servers and our mainframe in the cloud, we were able to scale up to meet the demand and we weren’t dealing with some of the challenges other states had with their systems. I think Arizona was really served well by its leadership in moving in this direction.

TRANSFORM: How will Arizona benefit from the new datacenter region Microsoft is opening there?

SLOAN: Obviously it’s a huge investment for Microsoft to make in Arizona and its economy. For the things that we’re doing with Microsoft Azure, having the datacenter physically here will make those workloads run faster. Also, the investments that the state makes with Microsoft and its cloud circulate within the Arizona economy. I think that’s a great thing. A cloud provider making those kinds of investments definitely benefits Arizona, both from a technical and an economic perspective.

Top photo: The Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix.