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Rollout Nearly Complete, FI$Cal Eyes New Ideas, Solutions

The agency is responding to high use and data levels for its long-awaited accounting program — happy results, but ones that may necessitate additional work.

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Having rolled out nearly all of an enterprise-level online system, officials with the Financial Information System for California (FI$Cal) are still adding finishing touches — but, seeing unprecedented use and data levels, they’re looking at what’s next.

The agency has implemented about 98 percent of the functionality for its long-developing accounting program, agency Director Miriam Barcellona Ingenito, told more than 50 attendees Tuesday at the Techwire Member Briefing in Sacramento. An unexpectedly positive response has enabled new levels of financial transparency, a goal, but has brought challenges as well. Among the takeaways:

• FI$Cal, which dates to 2004 and began development in 2012, aggregates information from the state controller, treasurer and Department of Finance into “a single source of truth” capable of communicating significant financial information at one glance, its director said. Today, 152 departments use FI$Cal; nine that had enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems before FI$Cal’s launch have been deferred but will be brought on board in the next few years, she said. FI$Cal is currently doing gap analyses with these agencies, which include the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the Department of Water Resources, to identify features it may need to add to mirror their functionality.

“I don’t expect to bring these on in a year, which is when we brought on most of the other departments, but over a couple-year period, because they will double again the size of our users,” Ingenito said. Roughly 8 ½ percent of about 235,000 state employees, or 20,000 people, use FI$Cal today. The agency, its director said, does “$2 trillion worth of banking for the state of California annually,” with half a trillion in accounting in its system so far; and about $300 billion budgetary expenditures reflected.

That 98 percent functionality doesn’t include “the remaining cash book of records,” which FI$Cal expects to transfer from the state controller’s legacy system this year. This, Ingenito said, is “the last piece of the functionality we set out initially to build,” and the agency has shouldered the maintenance and operation of its system since January. The budget for FI$Cal’s new system topped $1 billion this month with a $145 million increase that swelled it to $1.06 billion. It also gained a project deadline extension to July 2020.

• About four years ago, FI$Cal’s database had “64 gigabytes of data, which I could carry on my thumb drive,” its Chief Information Officer Subbarao Mupparaju said. But today, that database hosts 11 terabytes of data and is still growing — an amount of information he said is “three times larger than the second-largest state in the country.” FI$Cal will replace its Cisco Nexus 7000 switches with Cisco ACI (Application Centric Infrastructure). Once that happens, likely within the next couple of months, Mupparaju said the agency “will probably buy more bandwidth” to maintain systemwide performance. It faces a similarly large-scale infrastructure question on storage, which nearly all systems share — and they encounter storage slowdowns due to database backups or data transmissions.

“I want more isolation. So, I am looking for a hyper-converged infrastructure where our critical systems do not depend on the network for storage. And we are looking at a Web services software upgrade,” Mupparaju said, indicating officials want to build more environment in Amazon Web Services — but must solve network bandwidth issues if they hope to transmit data on the terabyte scale.

• In January, the agency stood up an IBM Watson-based chatbot, FI$Bot, for logged-in internal users. It can now answer roughly 300 questions — many concerning procurement — which the CIO said he believes is “two to three times larger” than the number public-facing chatbots answer at other state departments. But one of his dreams, the CIO said, is to deploy a voice-activated chatbot to automate user tasks like uploading requisitions. A deployment isn’t close, but the department is exploring technologies, including “something like Alexa” that might perform processes behind the scenes.

“A chatbot integrated with back-end robotic process automation will be more efficient for the users,” Mupparaju told Techwire in an interview. FI$Cal has implemented a robotic process automation platform using Blue Prism, he said during his presentation.

• FI$Cal is also looking at solutions to converge its security architecture to point solutions, with the hope of providing multiple services to give positive enforcement of compliance controls and speed up audits, the agency’s Chief Information Security Officer Eric Harrald said. One of the biggest challenges in compliance audits, Harrald said in response to an audience question, is consistently applying controls “across the board,” to around 150 Linux servers — each with 10 to 200 local accounts and individual management. Multiple audits and assessments don’t bring economies of scale in the current environment, the CISO said, but an updated toolkit could fix that.

“Whereas with those tools, I can just run the report, hand it to them and be done with it. So that’s what I’m looking at," Harrald said. "I need that flexibility so I can use my time and my staff’s time to do more innovative things and keep the state’s financial information secure and not spend all our time answering audit questions.”  

Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.