Storage: It’s really about filing cabinets

“Why don’t governments just hurry up and automate these processes?”

It’s a constant refrain, heard at service counters in government offices across the country, usually from frustrated folks who have spent their day crisscrossing town and filling out forms for something as simple as vehicle registration.

When it comes to improving service delivery, many government organizations are at a disadvantage. Conventional pen and paper processes may be unsophisticated, but they’re entrenched within government cultures because they have worked reasonably well for decades. In addition, a sweeping transition to e-service systems appears on the surface to open a Pandora’s box of data security, privacy and cost issues. It’s enough to make even the most seasoned IT professional break out in a cold sweat.

Fortunately, this was not the case for Service New Brunswick (SNB).

Service New Brunswick was created in 1995 after a series of province-wide public consultations revealed a common desire for consolidated or “single window” government service delivery. E-government wasn’t a new idea in New Brunswick, but the SNB team knew that elaborate amalgamation projects rarely live up to their original objectives. Across the country and around the world, many of today’s government IT infrastructures consist of an intricate mix of incompatible systems that can be hamstrung by the slightest technical oversight. SNB’s system was no exception to this and, although the public had spoken and was looking for improvements, the task would be easier said than done.

With government credibility on the line and the public openly calling for a new system, Service New Brunswick chose a calculated, evolutionary path with three goals in mind: consolidation, data protection and cost minimization.

Streamlining a fragmented system

New Brunswick is comprised of a mix of almost 40 communities, primarily rural. Before the launch of SNB, this represented dozens of government offices scattered throughout the province, each with its own IT system. For many constituents, interacting with government required a significant time and travel investment for something as routine as a motor vehicle renewal. The solution lay in web-enabling government systems so that citizens could access services from any Internet connection. SNB faced these issues head on by investing in a new server system and, recently, by adding an enterprise level storage system to create a central online database of service information. By linking rural offices via – a secure, one-stop-shop for services to people regardless of their location – the public has quick, online access to information. Gone are the days of driving around town or standing in multiple line-ups to fill out simple applications.

SNB’s main principle is to offer a simple and always available means for the public to interact with government. SNB chose to create an online system that would complement, rather than replace, existing over-the-counter and call centre services. Moreover, it chose to enhance the system by establishing a third and final tier of data access for staff and the public. SNB’s “always on” storage infrastructure, built on a Sun Microsystems network of servers, storage and software, acts as a secure, electronic filing cabinet. It ensures that personal information such as addresses, Social Insurance Numbers, and customer information is housed electronically in a safe location and is always within arm’s reach of authorized government staff whether they are in Dalhousie or five hours away in Saint John. With the information in digital form, any member of the public who requires assistance can walk into any office or call SNB TeleServices and get the same level of quick, streamlined service.

Establishing a common storage site for data in this way also created an opportunity to save money by “trimming the fat” from the system. With government offices acting as satellites connected to a main database, dozens of costly servers with underused storage devices performing duplicate tasks could now be consolidated. What was previously a group of 35 high performance servers, each hooked into its own storage device and a tape back-up system, now connects to a single, enterprise level storage area network (SAN). By reducing the overall volume of IT storage systems and drastically reducing often overlooked operating costs such as utilities, storage tape, and person hours, SNB’s system maintenance costs have dropped to 38 per cent of what they were two years ago.

Heightened privacy and data protection

While connecting government through the SNB system created a more convenient network for information sharing, it also produced some challenging security issues. In 2005, SNB handled more than five million transactions for New Brunswickers, ranging from driver’s license renewals to applications for hunting licences to new business registrations; 35 per cent of them were processed online. Consequently, in addition to being the conduit to government for 750,000 people, SNB is also the custodian of massive amounts of sensitive public and personal data. Better management of the growing repository of data would be driven by stringent privacy policies and SNB’s powerful storage technology.

The introduction of privacy legislation such as PIPEDA, and New Brunswick’s own POPIA, have resulted in an exponential increase in the amount of data an organization like SNB needs to keep under electronic lock and key. SNB developed several internal data protection policies that classify information according to its level of sensitivity. Anything deemed sensitive is reviewed by records management staff and filed accordingly. Information that must remain private is secured on the storage device, while publicly available data occupies a more accessible location on the system.

SNB expects to have almost nine terabytes (9,000 gigabytes) of data stored on its systems by this summer and the demand will continue to grow as new services are rolled out. Ensuring that this growing body of information remains accessible will continue to present challenges, and so SNB opted to work with Sun Microsystems to ensure that the province continues to make good on its commitments. Combined with SNB’s own data backup and retention policies, the Sun solution, comprised of servers running on the Solaris operating system and storage arrays, offers optimal utilization of storage resources and extremely fast access to information. Staff have real-time access to electronic documents or reports resulting in faster processing and positively impacting the pace of public service delivery. Based on SNB’s needs and Sun’s technology roadmap, SNB hopes it will always have the high-performance storage capacity it needs, making it easier to evolve over time.

Finally, keeping this all under wraps is a sophisticated software control. With electronic versions of public records housed securely on SNB’s storage system, it is easy to restrict access to only authorized personnel through varying levels of secure user sign-on privileges. These added levels of security provide the public with assurances that their private information will remain private. 062782

Dorothea Foley is Director of Information Technology for Service New Brunswick.