State keeps paying for mammoth data center mistake

There’s plenty of blame to go around for what might be the state’s biggest blunder of the 21st century: building the palatial 300,000-square-foot Department of Information Services complex at a cost of $255 million.

The project’s purpose, back in 2009 when this decision was made, involved saving money by consolidating all of the state’s data centers spread around the county and providing office space for multiple state agencies.

The state needed to vacate the failing General Administration building, and it needed space to create the Heritage Center (another grand idea that fell victim to the recession).

Existing data centers did not meet the power, cooling or seismic requirements necessary to provide what is now an essential part of business. The benefits of consolidating data centers, and housing data in-state for security reasons were obvious and reflect a time before outsourcing became the business norm. Plus, the project would create jobs.

It all sounded good four years ago, but instead of creating savings, the project is costing the state millions of dollars.

The mammoth Department of Enterprise Services and Consolidated Technology Services, the two new state agencies created in former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s government restructuring, have consumed most of that top-quality space, and are paying a higher square footage rate for the pleasure. No savings there.

A report prepared for state lawmakers just months before the project’s 2011 completion revealed the state’s technology experts grossly overestimated the data center’s space requirements. The report indicated that the 50,000 square feet set aside for the data center totaled about 10 times what the state needed. No savings there, either.

An oversupply of cheaper server farms and data center facilities in the state and around the world thwarted early efforts to lease the vacant data center space, and that situation doesn’t promise to improve anytime soon. No off-setting revenue on the horizon.

That leaves state lawmakers with the task of carving an additional $25.1 million out of the 2013-2015 biennium budget to cover the lease payments – money that should be spent on education, health care and public safety.

State officials created a sketchy plan, flawed from the beginning and a victim of bad timing. The Legislature failed to provide critical oversight at the start – when it mattered the most. Nobody seemed to have any inspired foresight about the future of computing technologies.

It’s important to note that nobody had a better plan at the time, including some lawmakers who voted for the project, and later criticized it.

With the advantage of hindsight, it’s easy to see how we got into this mess, and the reality is simple: Taxpayers own an expensive albatross.

The important question now is how should the state move forward.

Suggestions so far have included moving some of the state archives from a small former bomb shelter and a health and occupational-safety lab into the building. If the state could provide cost-effective data storage for cities and counties, and perhaps other states and nonprofits, that might at least generate some revenue for taxpayer relief.

Those ideas sound good, but probably won’t generate $25.1 million. We suggest state officials and lawmakers responsible for this fiasco charge up their thinking caps. Quickly.