Q&A: Paul Cosgrave, Head of NYC IT

Paul Cosgrave, commissioner of New York City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), gave the opening keynote address at VSLive! New York in Brooklyn today. Cosgrave was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in June 2006, and is largely responsible for the City's PlanIT effort,which aims to streamline the IT implementation process. After his keynote, Redmond Developer News Executive Editor Jeffrey Schwartz sat down with Cosgrave to talk about the City's approach to software development.

How has the city's approach to software development changed in recent years?
My agency was created in 1994. Back then it was aimed at centralizing data center and network services. Until the start of the Bloomberg administration, that was the focus of the agency. With the advent of newer client server and now Internet technologies, there's been much more demand for development, so we created our own development organization to create centralized services like the 311 (phone-based municipal services access line) and and other services that we provide.

But more and more the other agencies realized they needed those types of services as well. With the expansion of the Internet in the last 10 years, there has been tremendous growth. It has grown 20 to 25 percent in the last couple of years. We grew probably 20 percent in 2006 to 2007. This year it flattened out because of the economy, but the demand has been pretty insatiable for these services.

The Internet is really changing development in a huge way -- things like SOA have moved into the forefront of the things we are trying to do and to provide services across agencies. For a lot of the kinds of services people need, historically they'd go to one agency, but today it's multi-agency. For example, you might have to get a birth certificate at the health department to prove where you were born, which may qualify you for services at other agencies, such as the human resources administration, which might give out food stamps or something like that. So we are trying to make it easier for people to do business in the city.

How would you characterize where you are with SOA today?
We've been working in the SOA world for almost two years. We have a major offering we provide the city agency called Data Share that allows agencies to access one another's data without having to rewrite systems entirely, but rather just use various Web services. I'd say we're at the middle stage of phase 2. Phase 1 was just building the ETL type services, and now we're enhancing it more. But we are still in the early stages.

Paul Cosgrave; Photo (c) Jeffrey Schwartz
Paul Cosgrave: "As long as the technologies are compatible with more of a data sharing model or a SOA type of model we are trying to build, we will be fine. With .NET we just want it to be compatible with our SOA direction."

What is the basic platform?
We have worked with BEA and WebLogic.

Where has Microsoft fit in that picture?
It's interesting, the central organization has been more of a Java shop, so we have not done a lot of development in the .NET world, but many of the smaller agencies have, and now we're building up a .NET group as well, so it's growing. We are finding it easier in many ways to build in the .NET world than the Java world, so we are expanding our use of Microsoft.

What changed?
People's knowledge. We've seen that we can put things together. I think there was a tendency to believe that we needed to be in the Unix-Java world to build robust things and we're now realizing we can do that in the .NET world as well, and it's easier to build in the .NET world. We are also heavy desktop users of Windows and Office, and more and more some of the collaboration tools.

Do you envision staying on Office or do you see moving to some of the open source alternatives?
We are experimenting with the open alternatives. To be open and honest, we are looking at it because there are some cost issues, but I don't think we are ready to take the plunge yet.

Why is that?
Conservatism. More than anything else, we want to make sure that we won't be leading the City into a position where we can't support something.

What is your view of Vista?
We are a slow adopter. We have some places we are experimenting with it but we are not convinced the cost of upgrading is going to justify a major changeover. That's not to say we're not using Vista, but we haven't made a major shift.

What's your take on all the buzz about cloud-based services?
I would put it in the category of things we are tracking but not making any moves in that direction.

What was your reaction to Google's entry into the browser market last week?
Interesting. We are IE across the board. A decision to change has to be based on some cost efficiency, I don't see this providing any cost efficiency. It's also hard for me to see any major features that we don't already have today.

Can you talk about the new open source project you announced last week?
It's a partnership with the City University of New York, Red Hat and Intel, and it's really to look at open software in new ways. We've been using Linux on our mainframe environment for quite some time and we have some Unix-developed systems that are being migrated to Linux, so we have a lot of interest in Linux as an operating system. What we want to learn more about is Linux as a way to support some of our virtualization efforts. We've been using primarily VMware in our virtualization, which is primarily server virtualization. We are trying to learn more about virtualization at the desktop but we are just experimenting with that in the labs.

Is this partnership aimed at virtualization per se?
That's just one area. All of the agencies, the city, the state, and the university are all faced with the same problem today, and that's that we need to do more with less. Both New York City and New York State are going to face significant tax shortfalls in the next few years, so we have to look at this, it's clearly potentially a lower cost alternative. But we like the idea of having this lab to find out if they are capable of scaling before we dive into it, given we have to support 300,000 employees.

Microsoft clearly is becoming aware it needs to respond to efforts like this. In wake of their Interoperability Pledge earlier this year and their focus on working more closely with the open source community, do you feel they are in fact living up to that promise?
I can only comment on some personal experience. On my PC at home I have OpenOffice and it's compatible. I would suspect that they have no choice because open source is becoming more and more popular.

It's interesting that your .NET development is increasing, yet you are also focusing more on doing open source. How do you see that playing out?
To a large extent, we allow the agencies to do what's in their best interest. We are moving more toward what I'd characterize as an enterprise architecture type of structure, but it's pretty obvious that there's a cost of swinging one way or the other. One agency that has been totally committed to .NET is our department of environmental protection. If that agency, or any agency, is more comfortable building in that environment and their people are trained in that environment, it's pretty hard for us to tell them they've got to do it some other way.

We've had a fairly open policy there trying to keep people reasonably moving in the same direction. As long as the technologies are compatible with more of a data sharing model or a SOA type of model we are trying to build, we will be fine. With .NET we just want it to be compatible with our SOA direction.

The architecture plan will ensure that?
Yes, but I must say we are in the early stages of that. We are not where we need to be. It's a high priority, but we are moving in that direction.

How much do you see development shifting to .NET?
It will depend in some cases on individual preferences. In our own organization we are more Java oriented, we probably will not shift as quickly. I think the larger agencies will probably be more focused on Java and even traditional mainframe techniques, smaller agencies will be more interested in doing .NET just because they can train their work forces quicker. Also we use what we call COTS (commercially of the shelf) software. I'd say we are 70 percent packaged software, so that dictated more than anything else.

Presumably Web-based government is fueling much of the application development growth?
On the customer service side, it's becoming more and more obvious we need to continue moving along. There's a lot of interest in Web 2.0, which really takes you into a new range of capabilities. We're not doing very much of the social networking type of things. We are somewhat engaged in looking at things like wiki technology and social networking technologies might help.

We have a lot of people engaged in the client management. We have to get those folks, particularly on the human services side, where they interact better across agencies. There's a big need, so we're looking at using some of these social networking things. A lot of our social services are actually delivered to not-for-profits that are government agency sponsored, so how we engage more interaction on a portal basis between the not-for-profit world and the government is also pretty critical -- we're seeing a lot of Web 2.0 thinking going into that.

In general most of our development on the Web is what I'd coin Web 1.5, which is not just providing data but transactions. There's a tremendous need for transaction systems developed on the Internet.

How do you see virtualization playing out?
We are very committed to having this huge reduction in both our energy usage and our cost of data processing. We are finding in our data centers [that] what we're running out of today is power. Our main data center was geared for mainframes, and the kind of servers and technology tends to run hotter and faster, so power both in terms of the machines as well as power to air condition them is becoming a constraint these days. How we can continue to grow processing services without consuming more energy is a major direction for the city and the Mayor.

Besides its new browser, what role do you see Google playing in your infrastructure?
I think where the big Google-Microsoft battle is going to be fought is software as a service, and it seems smaller organizations want to get at that capability. In our case the more we scale, we consolidate more of our data centers, the better the cost savings to our agencies. Our goal is probably not to get into software as a service with either of them, but to try to drive down our own internal costs of providing the services.