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Nation's Largest Municipal Electric Utility Works to Build Resiliency, Modernize

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is poised to begin a "rotational" return to the office as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic wears on, its chief information officer said during a Techwire Virtual Member Briefing. The department is also working to make its IT infrastructure more modern and robust.

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Despite the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, the nation’s largest municipal electric utility continues to push forward on key technology initiatives, its IT leader said Thursday during a Techwire Virtual Member Briefing.

In a conversation with Alan Cox, e.Republic* executive vice president and Techwire publisher, Louis Carr Jr., chief information officer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, discussed the agency’s imminent return to the office from wholesale telework, ongoing projects and the future of its mainframe. Among the takeaways:

• Carr partnered with Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross on work enabling “most” employees to telecommute when the pandemic took hold, leveraging virtual private network (VPN) and remote desktop protocol (RDP) to make that happen, “a couple of orders of magnitude larger than what we were doing a few months ago,” he said. The department provides water and power for more than 4 million residents of Los Angeles and the Owens Valley. LADWP also experimented with Adobe products to get signatures and keep its processes going, with its purchasing team taking a lead there.

The department, which has around 11,000 employees, will start rotational office shifts on Monday, with the goal of staff returning to the office one day a week amid a focus on safety and social distancing – and the likelihood of no more than 25 percent occupancy at a given time. However, given the nature of their work, the CIO said, some staffers – like himself – had to come to work almost every day. Members of LADWP’s network operations center and cybersecurity operations teams had to remain in-house as well as a “skeleton” desktop support team – and the team responsible for printing 50,000 utility bills per day. Should case numbers significantly worsen, however, the department is prepared to return to telework en masse.

“So, from an IT perspective, we continue to work on strengthening our infrastructure and making it more resilient. We’re in the process now, even though we upgraded some of our Internet connections, we’re in the process of increasing that by a factor of 10,” Carr said. From our perspective, we see going forward, the need for more Internet bandwidth because of other things that we’re looking to implement over the next few years.”

• LADWP clearly differentiates between operational and informational technology, the CIO said, noting that separations exist “intentionally.” However, the two sectors do collaborate regularly, including on technology standards to put the agency on par with the private sector. The department will also be leveraging contracts that Carr and his staff were able to get approved by the LADWP Board of Commissioners.

• As to whether cloud technologies may play out differently for organizations in the future or whether there may be more use of cloud technologies based on what IT leaders are learning now, Carr said his department’s chief information security officer described its posture as “cloud smart.” LADWP is not “cloud first” like some agencies, but is trying to choose solutions that can empower its business without generating too much risk. That’s important, the CIO said, because LADWP is regulated by national organizations – the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) – making its reliability and information security crucial.

• Like the state of California, LADWP’s 2020-2021 Fiscal Year budget year begins July 1. The department’s big challenge, Carr said, has been to keep its budget numbers “flat” for the next two years. However, while a few IT projects may have been pushed into the future – and the on-premise deployment of some technologies temporarily paused because people aren’t on-premise – the agency has worked to build “additional redundancy” in Internet connections as well as better reliability and bandwidth. LADWP’s board did recently approve what Carr described as “a bench contract for some cybersecurity services,” and the department intends to engage with vendors on initiatives “around better asset management” and other things.

• LADWP will release a Request for Proposal (RFP) next month for what it estimates will be a $200 million project, seeking a systems integrator “to plan, design, develop, configure, test, install and deploy” software as part of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. That said, the department today still runs its financials on an IBM mainframe, and has its own mainframe and data center – despite the city having moved its mainframe business applications to the California Department of Technology’s State Data Center in Rancho Cordova. Carr said he estimates the department will be on mainframe “a few more years.”

*e.Republic is the parent company of Techwire.

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