CitySmart Blog

Wednesday, March 06, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

One of the areas where cities often challenge our recommendations is hardware replacement. Over the years, we’ve seen many cities keep servers and workstations long past the time those machines should be replaced. Understandably, servers and computers are viewed as such expensive investments that many city managers and finance officers want to see them used up for all they’re worth.

However, rather than maximizing your investment, aging hardware is actually negatively impacting your bottom line. That’s why we urge cities to follow a hardware replacement lifecycle and plan for the replacement of servers, desktops, laptops, and other IT hardware. But we’re still often asked, “Why do you need to replace a computer after only 3-5 years?”

Here’s why.

  1. Natural wear and tear. Servers and computers take a beating. Unlike even cars or air conditioning units, IT hardware usually runs non-stop, all of the time. And just consider your own desktop or laptop. How much work do you perform on it? How much software do you download onto it? How many videos do you watch? How many web conferencing meetings do you attend? The list goes on. Plus, think about the wear and tear from carrying around a laptop constantly, banging on the keyboard every day, or letting it sit around in a typical volatile work environment. From this natural wear and tear, your hardware weakens over a period of years, slowing down and then ultimately failing.
  2. Intensified software and program demands. Even if you take pristine care of a server, workstation, or mobile device, it will still eventually slow down and become unbearable to use in only a few years. Why? It’s not the machine. It’s new software, more sophisticated websites, and higher end videos and graphics. These technology evolutions are gradual, and once a new norm is established 3-5 years after you bought your hardware, you’ll notice your machines seem to become slow, creaky, and useless. Times change, and your hardware can’t (and won’t) change fast enough.
  3. Support and warranties disappear. If you use Microsoft XP, mainstream support ended almost four years ago. Microsoft Vista’s mainstream support ended last year. Microsoft operating systems are just one example of how disappearing support is a clear sign of aging hardware. If your current servers and workstations cannot handle modern operating systems, new accounting systems, or even current Internet browsing, you are losing productivity and lowering employee morale. If you have more sophisticated hardware, you’ll begin to notice after many years that warranties expire and replacement parts are no longer made by the manufacturer.
  4. Storage and memory limits. For both servers and workstations, another sign of aging hardware is reaching limits to your storage or memory. Buying additional storage or external hard drives as a stopgap is just putting your hardware on life support. You need more modern, robust hardware that accommodates your current storage and memory needs. Otherwise, your hardware begins to slow, your work is constantly interrupted by “creative” uses of storage and memory swapping, and your machine eventually is unable to handle your workload.
  5. Basic graphics don’t work properly. Photo albums, videos, interactive maps, GIS software, and other graphic-heavy uses of your hardware become more and more difficult on aging hardware. Similar to the evolution of software and the Internet, the norm for graphics keeps improving over time. Instead of low-definition four-minute videos, we now have high-definition 1 hour videos. Instead of early map applications like Mapquest, there is now the sophistication of a Google Maps. City software—especially for public safety, GIS applications, and citizen services like City Council live videos—requires that modern graphics work, and work well. Aging hardware cripples your use of videos, Internet applications, and graphic-heavy software.

If your hardware is showing some or all of these signs, it’s time to think about replacing it. But re-envision how you justify the cost. You’re not just buying really expensive hardware and hoping to get as much life out of it as possible. Instead, you’re investing in a 3-5 year asset, and you need to plan and budget for replacing this hardware.

If you’d like to talk about hardware in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, February 28, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

A traditional phone system might seem as tried and true as, well, a city. However, you might also have noticed people have become less attached to landline phone systems, especially when you consider the mobile and smartphone revolution. Part of the phone technology revolution includes VoIP—or Voice over Internet protocol.

VoIP works just like your traditional phone system, but through the Internet. In the early 2000s, VoIP was considered an interesting yet second class citizen compared to the traditional phone system. But now that high-speed Internet access has become more prevalent and VoIP technology has improved, VoIP is often a better choice now than a landline phone system.

Not convinced? In our work with cities, we’ve often surprised them when a landline to VoIP transition introduces higher quality calls, service, and features. Here’s what we tell cities when they are considering the switch.

  1. You may still need landline systems for particular departments. First, understand that VoIP is not a fit for every single phone line into your city. You may want to keep providing traditional landline phone systems for sensitive departments such as public safety or 911—either as a primary system or as a redundant backup. For example, in a bad thunderstorm the city may lose power, which causes your VoIP phone system to go offline. In that situation, it helps if calls coming into the city are routed through a traditional landline phone system that stays up even with a loss of power.
  2. Your costs immediately go down. Quite simply, VoIP is cheaper than traditional phone systems. The old telecom companies have invested a lot of money in phone system infrastructure. That equipment’s sole purpose is to provide phone services, and it’s expensive. Instead, VoIP rides upon existing high-speed Internet connections, so the infrastructure overhead is not as high. Cities that want to slash their budget often experience a significant savings when switching to VoIP.
  3. You are no longer tied to a monopoly. Do you like dealing with the one giant company that provides landline phone services in your city? Do you like being helpless when they decide to raise rates or charge more for services? In contrast, there are lots of VoIP providers all competing for your business. That provides you more options and also helps lower costs. Unlike monopolistic phone companies, VoIP providers are also not geographically tied to your area.
  4. Access your phone service like you access your Internet—everywhere. Just like a phone provider is tied to your geographical area, your landline is tied to a specific physical location. When you switch to VoIP, you can access your phone system from anywhere, just like you would access any Internet applications remotely. Your VoIP or IT vendor can often help you set up easy-to-use remote access via your mobile phone, using an app that allows you to use your office phone line remotely.
  5. Utilize included features, not paid features. While traditional phone lines certainly have a lot of features, you have to pay for them. In fact, that’s how phone companies make a lot of their money. The way VoIP developed, those kinds of services are not a big deal and are very easy to build into an Internet-based phone system. Long distance becomes meaningless. Voicemail, caller ID, 3-way calling, call waiting, and any other standard phone features are a given. And with VoIP, you even get extra features such as voicemails that can be played as sound files in your email inbox, conferencing features that usually would require conferencing software, and even video chatting features. All included.

While the traditional phone line might still seem to have some advantages (and in some cases remains necessary when certain departments need to be accessible when power goes out), those advantages do not add up as a business case in light of the momentous benefits of VoIP. With cities looking for any place to cut their budget, considering VoIP for the bulk of your phone lines is a great way to both cut costs and also increase the quality and service of your phone system. Cities that have switched to VoIP rarely go back to a traditional phone line.

If you want to discuss in more detail, give us a call. We’ll be using our VoIP system!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

When setting up your city’s online payment system, your payment processing needs to meet certain standards. All online payment vendors are not created equal, and you don’t want to be caught with a major security flaw or the inability to accept payments from your citizens. Whether you know it or not, your online payment system will be judged against the experiences your citizens have every day with services ranging from Amazon to Netflix.

If you fear that equaling the standard payment processing features of such companies is expensive and out of reach, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Most basic yet essential online payment processing features are available in widely used, cost-effective vendors. While many features exist in modern online payment services, we’ve distilled the five most important aspects you need to look for when considering the processing piece of online payments.

  1. Accept payments from electronic checks and major credit cards. For major credit cards, Visa and Mastercard are the bare minimum. Including American Express and Discover will pretty much cover everyone. In addition, there needs to be an easy, secure way for people to pay with electronic checks. A good online payment vendor not only provides this level of payment coverage but also serves as both the merchant account (accepting payments on your behalf) and the payment gateway (sending payments to banks or credit card companies).
  2. Set up ongoing, recurring payments. For convenience, citizens should be able to set up ongoing, recurring payments. For example, most people have the expectation of paying bills monthly. Setting up automatic monthly payments makes it convenient for citizens and great for cities. People are less likely to forget paying when it happens automatically, and that means more money, paid on time, for cities. Good online payment vendors should include this feature, and the setup should not be overly complicated or cumbersome.
  3. Secure sensitive payment information. That means your online payment vendor needs to demonstrate how they are securing, encrypting, and protecting your payment data when citizens submit it online. Security involves everything from how the network is set up and configured to business policies like which members of your city staff have access to payment data. Be especially aware of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, known better by its abbreviation PCI DSS. If you are accepting online payments, you need to be PCI DSS compliant. If you have the right vendor, they will be compliant and pass this test annually.
  4. Protect yourself against fraudulent transactions. Notice we said “yourself.” When someone commits a fraudulent transaction at your city, the citizen will not be liable, the credit card company will not be liable, and the bank will not be liable. You will. Having weak user authentication, weak credit card payment data requirements, or weak website security will open you up to the risk of being penalized for fraud. Simple things such as making sure your website contains identify verification and encryption to asking for a credit card’s Card Security Code can help protect you and your citizens against fraud.
  5. Tie reporting into your accounting system. Online payment processing data is important for your financial records, and you need to have a vendor that can integrate the online payment data with your accounting system. This helps you keep track of revenue coming in, revenue yet to be collected, and delinquent payments. Integrating helps you create better reports, since you’re not having to manage two different systems and try to reconcile one set of data with another. A good online payment vendor should be able to provide this service to you.

With these five online payment processing basics secured, you will have no problem providing these services to citizens. Leverage your online payment vendor for some of the most important industry standards such as providing merchant account and payment gateway services or making sure you’re PCI DSS compliant. Online payments grow more complex as time goes on, and you don’t want to risk a major security lapse or lawsuit by trying to do it all yourself.

To talk more about online payments, please contact us.

Friday, February 22, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

Through our work with cities over the years, we’ve often encountered accounting systems and have had to help support them, interface with them, and grow accustomed to them. These experiences have also offered us opportunities to compare systems between different cities, understand which ones work better than others, and what successful ingredients are needed to make an accounting system work on a technical level.

While we do not sell accounting systems, this subject does get brought up enough times that it affects the way we approach our technology implementations and services. City accounting systems, like any technology, usually suffer from aging hardware and software, poor setup, or just being a wrong fit. Here are some things to watch for from a technical point of view when you’re evaluating your current accounting system or looking at new options.

  1. How long does your reporting take? If it takes many days or even weeks to produce a report, you may have an inadequate accounting system. Old accounting systems and software tend to not process information rapidly or well. With accounting demands always growing more complex, you may not want to be in a position to spend an eternity creating a report when more modern systems can produce your required data in minutes or seconds.
  2. How much manual work do you need to do? Do you have to create Excel spreadsheets and import data into your system? Do you punch in too much data manually, and repetitively? If data entry is eating up loads and loads of city staff time, you are most likely using an inefficient accounting system or software. Modern accounting systems help automate a lot of data entry, and all data should be easily tracked and managed inside the system without having to use Excel or manually import data.
  3. Is your data high quality and usable? Data trapped in old accounting systems tends to be poorly entered and maintained, which means when you need it, it’s not there. Largely, this can also be a business process issue. The way you collect, update, and maintain your data is your responsibility. But that responsibility is not helped when you have a poor accounting system that does not give you great capabilities to update and store your financial data.
  4. Does your data connect well with other systems? It’s not unusual when your accounting system needs to connect with other software or databases within your city. Over time, bad accounting systems tend to be siloed or (worse) jerry-rigged to connect with various databases, leading to a huge mess if you need to pull a report or get audited. Modern accounting systems usually offer flexibility in integrating with common city systems (such as online payment systems).
  5. Is your accounting data backed up? This aspect is often overlooked, for example, if you use a very old accounting system that sits on its own server separate from your network. If your accounting system server fails, how long will it take until you are back up and running? If a disaster hits, what is your recovery plan? Even more so than other software, your accounting system contains some of the city’s most important data. You need a robust data backup plan in place that’s tested and audited in order to ensure that your accounting system runs continually despite any technology failures or disasters.
  6. How effective is your support agreement? If you’re currently using an accounting software vendor, are you knowledgeable about what your support agreement covers? Keeping up with the details of your accounting software support agreement is essential for making sure that your vendor is addressing any technical issues in a timely fashion.
  7. Are you running the latest version of the accounting software? We are surprised to find cities often using outdated versions of accounting software when there are current upgrades available. Many times, cities have their hands tied because the cost to upgrade is too expensive. If accounting software vendors release new versions frequently, that can be a bigger problem. Some vendors even require cities to buy new hardware with software upgrades. Modern accounting software should provide cloud or hosted versions to keep upgrade costs low and prevent the need to constantly buy new hardware.

While these concerns only scratch the surface of the technical depth behind accounting systems, hopefully these questions start you thinking about the state of your accounting system. Since accounting systems are such an important part of an overall IT environment, it’s always helpful for us to urge cities to consider upgrading their system if their current one seems to be inhibiting the way a city reports and collects financial data.

To talk about city accounting systems in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, February 21, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

The Tribune 4.1 release has been completed and tested, and Sophicity.com has been running on it now for weeks. Our release date is Friday, March 1.

This release includes:

  • Page View Default for Content Editing Ability to specify at the page-level the default view of Basic or Advanced for content editing. In Tribune 4.0, the default view was set to Basic. Now in Tribune 4.1, the default is set to Advanced for backward compatibility with previous versions of Tribune. This default can be overridden at the page level with Tribune 4.1.
  • Virtual Page Template Tribune webmasters can now add new pages to their websites themselves without requiring assistance from their IT staff or Sophicity. Instead of requiring a new physical file to be added to the web server for a new page, multiple pages can now share a single virtual page template. This virtual page template can be specified when adding a new page, so that the page can then become immediately available for adding content.
  • Main Menu Management For the websites that are using our standard site map and navigation menus (i.e. ComponentArt sitemap XML), Tribune 4.1 introduces the ability to manage the site’s main menu navigation from within the Tribune UI. This means that Tribune webmasters can now add, update, and delete menu links to their website’s main menus themselves without requiring assistance from their IT staff or Sophicity.
  • And, additional minor enhancements and fixes…

The next release will have:

  • Cutesoft Upgrade We will be upgrading the WYSIWYG control that provides the content editing capabilities for the Summary and Detail fields on the Story Management Detail screen. Note: This is the page and control where you spend most of your time in Tribune adding content to your webpages.
  • Server Upgrades We will be upgrading the servers for our Tribune hosted customers.

Our ETA to deliver this next release is April.

On the radar to come:

  • File Manager Allow you to perform general file management tasks easier (e.g. upload files, delete files, reorganize directory structure, etc.)
  • Broken Links Reporting Provide you reporting that identifies links that are broken on your website. Over time as the content on your website changes or other websites you reference change, the links you create may become broken. Broken Links Reports will alert you.
  • And more, such as mobile friendly pages, mobile friendly administration, slideshows, image gallery, recycle bin, spell checking, archiving, virtual forms, virtual products, etc.

As always, as you have recommendations for product features you would like to see, please contact us.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

Today, there are more data backup options than ever. Consumer-grade data backup software has boomed and gained widespread adoption, and enterprise-level data backup grows more complex and sophisticated—and confusing. With so many options, it’s easy to believe a cheap option might protect your city or that an expensive solution means it’s a fit for you.

To help you sift through your data backup options, we will discuss five key questions you must ask when evaluating your current data backup solution and looking at new options. We have spent many years helping cities with data backup, and cities unfortunately often settle for less—not realizing that their important data requires backup that ensures quick recovery and true disaster recovery.

  1. How fast can you recover your data if your server fails? If your server fails—right now—what will happen? How fast will you be able to retrieve and use the data that was backed up on that server? In many cases, cities use manual methods like tape backup or external hard drives. Since ordering hardware can take a long time, it could be weeks until you can load that data onto a new server. A city’s data backup system needs to recover data as soon as possible.
  2. How fast can you recover your data if the absolute worst happens? Think tornado or hurricane-level disaster. What happens if City Hall is destroyed? Many cities do not have a true disaster recovery plan in case of a major disaster. If their hardware is destroyed, that’s it for their data. Modern data backup systems can help cities establish an offsite data backup plan so that data is stored in the cloud or in a data center very far away. When a disaster hits, new servers and equipment are sent to a designated emergency site and cities can get up and running within 24 to 48 hours.
  3. Do you know for sure that you can recover? Let’s say you have a data backup plan that you think meets the above requirements. You feel that you can recover easily in case of server failure or disaster. Or at least that’s what you’re told. We don’t mean to sound like fearmongers, but we’ve seen so many instances where cities were told they had a data backup plan—but when they actually lost data, they could not restore it. At least quarterly, whoever manages your data backup solution needs to both test and audit it. This is why the cheaper consumer-grade data backup solutions often turn into expensive disappointments later. Especially for a city, you need to make sure your data backup is tested and actually works in case of disaster.
  4. Does your data backup software cover almost everything? While even the best data backup solution cannot guarantee covering every single possible piece of hardware, it should at least be flexible toward a variety of servers, workstations, and software. City environments can be complex, with different hardware manufacturers and software companies providing services. If your data backup software only works for a few types of servers or is biased toward a particular vendor, then you need to explore more comprehensive options.
  5. Does your data backup run efficiently and not slow your network down? Your data backup software may work great, but if it runs all day, slows your computers down to a crawl, and interferes with your operations, then it’s not good software. An enterprise data backup solution should be configured to interfere very minimally with your equipment, while at the same time backing up your data in real-time as much as possible. As an example, when we work with cities we capture a snapshot of all of their data upfront and then back their data up incrementally from that point forward. The incremental backups are so small that they do not interfere with the servers and workstations, and we don’t need to back up every piece of data every day at the city—only the data that has changed.

You can use these questions to help evaluate your current data backup software and any options you’re considering. We encourage you to not settle for consumer-grade data backup solutions. These solutions do not meet the requirements listed above, and a city’s data is too important to trust without proper configuration and management. At the same time, expensive data backup solutions are often not tested or audited. If your data backup vendor cannot provide regular testing and auditing for you, then look for another solution as soon as possible.

If you want to talk more about data backup and disaster recovery, please contact us.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

One of the sneakiest time wasters in any city is the amount of time it takes to retrieve documents. In some cities we’ve worked with in the past, it’s often taken days or even weeks to collect documents needed for a project or information request. Not only is this inefficient for your city staff, but it also increases risk—especially if you can’t find a document or you take way too long locating it.

A switch to a document management system gives you some excellent time-saving benefits when searching for and retrieving documents. Here are some of the best search and retrieval benefits we’ve seen cities enjoy when they upgrade to an enterprise class document management system.

  1. Google-like search capabilities. When you search for something on Google, it’s easy and intuitive. You don’t have to think about it. The websites that appear are usually the most relevant ones that you need. Imagine searching for city documents like that. A good document management system has powerful search features built in. For example, when you search for “city council minutes” the documents in the search results will be the most relevant and list the most recent city council minutes. Other documents that may mention those words but without as much relevance will be lower down on the list of search results. You can even search for scanned documents this way.
  2. Highly organized documents. While this benefit depends more on your proactivity, good document management systems make it easy to organize your documents. When you’re working on a project or needing some documents from a specific city department, you waste time looking through past emails or asking people to share documents with you on a shared server. Document management systems often allow you to easily standardize how you organize documents.
  3. Tag documents with useful labels. Despite excellent search and organization capabilities, sometimes it still helps to label your documents with something called “metadata.” All that means is a label that you give your document. For example, your Microsoft Word documents automatically add metadata such as the date created, the title of the document, and the author. Document management systems allow for more powerful document tagging, such as adding keywords (e.g. “public safety”) or custom metadata (e.g. a required short document description). Because the metadata is customized the way you want it, tagging documents with regularity allows for better search and retrieval.
  4. Significant storage capabilities. A filing cabinet, computer, or even a typical in-house server only has so much space. These storage limits often hurt the ability to make sure all of your documents are uploaded and stored so they can be found. Many current document management systems take advantage of cloud storage, which means you can increase or decrease your storage capability depending on your needs. Most cities we work with always need more storage, so it helps to incrementally increase storage when it’s needed. Storage affects search and retrieval. With plenty of storage, you know that your documents are in the system. There is no longer any need to store documents in separate places or delete them to make space.
  5. 24/7 access (versus 9 to 5 access). An often overlooked benefit of document management search and retrieval is that you can access documents 24/7 from anywhere. If your documents are stored securely in the cloud or through an excellent data center, that means any authorized person can search for and retrieve documents when they need them. Some cities are limited to accessing documents during the day when computers are available (or in a few rare cases, when the building is open so that people can search for paper documents). In today’s world, you need access to documents instantly and at all times.

As you can see, document management systems—while internal to your organization—are really starting to imitate the ease of use of how people search for documents on the Internet. If you’re still rifling through paper or doing email searches to find documents, then you’re wasting time and missing out on the power of a modern document management system. After all, if you can’t find a document, what good is it?

If you want to talk more about document management systems, please contact us.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO
The Kentucky League of Cities (KLC) has recently partnered with Sophicity to deliver IT in a Box to cities in Kentucky. This new service was officially launched by the Kentucky League of Cities on Tuesday, February 12, 2013.
 
IT in a Box is consistent with KLC's mission to not only provide leadership and guidance for cities but also to help local government stay innovative and efficient in serving their citizens.
 
Participating cities include Lyndon, Morehead, and Tompkinsville. And Jonathan Steiner, Executive Director/CEO of KLC, said:
IT in a Box creates a secure, holistic IT solution designed just for your city.
 
For one monthly all-inclusive fee, a city will receive:
  • A website
  • Data backup and offsite data storage
  • Email
  • Document management
  • Microsoft Office for desktops
  • Server and desktop management
  • Vendor management
  • Helpdesk support seven days a week
 
Learn more about this service from the Kentucky League of Cities.
 
For additional information, please contact:

Kentucky League of Cities
Kirby Ramsey at (800) 876-4552 or kramsey@klc.org
Robin Cooper at (800) 876-4552 or rcooper@klc.org

Sophicity
Ray Ashley at (770) 670-6940, ext. 133 or rayashley@sophicity.com
Dave Mims at (770) 670-6940, ext. 110 or davemims@sophicity.com

Thursday, February 07, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

Cities are understandably wary about the idea of website templates versus a custom designed website. A custom designed website sounds more serious and sophisticated, and templates sound like they would restrict how your website would look. As a result, cities often decide to go with custom design.

The unfortunate thing about custom design is that it’s often overkill and it increases the cost of your website. In addition, template websites have improved a great deal over the past few years. There are more choices in design, layout, basic customization, and modules than ever before, and many inexpensive templates have been created by top-notch professional designers.

If you’re considering a website redesign and have not considered a template website, here are some aspects that may convince you that saving money can also lead to a great city website.

  1. You get to skip expensive custom design. You immediately save money and time by choosing to customize an already created design template. Since the template is already built, most of the major website design and development work has already been completed. If you were building a website from the ground up, you would be looking at many weeks and months of design and development time until you would be able to see the final end product. With a template, you customize it a bit and then it’s done.
  2. You don’t have to mess around with website coding. A common barrier that prevents city staff from working directly with a city website is when it is overly technical to use. We still see many cities using a webmaster because their website needs coding whenever an update or change is made. That limits a city’s ability to update website content. With a template, you can easily update content within different areas of the website without having to know any coding.
  3. Your website will look clean and professional. It’s unfortunate that many city websites still look sloppy and unprofessional because of a bad or obsolete design. A template enforces a consistent look across your entire website. No worries about the website colors randomly changing, layouts looking completely different from page to page, or inconsistencies in the navigation menu confusing users. Simply cleaning up your image with a website template can do wonders for your city’s public face.
  4. You can use templates based on what other cities use. You’re not the first city that needs pages for online payment processing, event calendars, city council agendas, or city departments. With the right vendor experienced at crafting template-based websites for cities, you can get set up quickly with pages ready to go for city hall, public safety, parks and recreation, and many other typical city departments and services.
  5. You can easily add pages and modules when needed. A good template website is crafted by experienced designers and used by many businesses, organizations, and government agencies. That means they are built to be adaptable. Need to add or delete pages? Add a calendar or online payment option? A website template makes it easy to scale up and down depending on your needs. With a custom designed website, those kinds of changes are expensive and will take development time.

While templates can be limiting for extremely large cities, they are absolutely sufficient for most small and medium cities. From our experience, templates tend to improve the professional look and feel of a website, increase user-friendliness, and enhance the ability to scale up and down when needed. We recommend considering a website template that has been successfully used by cities for many years, since you’ll know they work.

To talk templates in more detail, feel free to contact us.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

When it comes to buying computer hardware, many small businesses can sometimes still go to Best Buy or a similar store and pick up the computers they need. For cities, such a move is expensive, risky, and a waste of time. Even if you are a small city, your hardware needs are specific and particular, and you need to make sure you have an assessment and purchasing process in place to get the best, most cost-efficient hardware.

Vendors are often biased toward certain hardware manufacturers, so you also don’t want to blindly trust one vendor or hardware manufacturer. Any automatic or blind purchasing may mean spending too much money and failing to meet your city’s specific IT needs. Here are some recommendations from our hardware assessment and purchasing processes that you should implement at your city.

  1. Never purchase retail. Purchase direct from the hardware manufacturer or a certified reseller. First, it’s simply cheaper to purchase direct. Second, you will be able to take advantage of government discounts. Many people at cities don’t often realize how much they can minimize overall hardware spend and maximize municipal discounts to keep hardware purchasing costs as low as possible.
  2. Perform a needs assessment. People often buy computers impulsively, assuming that the latest and greatest computer will do everything they need. But that means buying computers with excessive features or, on the flip side, ones that lack the capacity for city employees to do their jobs. Before you purchase, work with your IT staff or IT vendor to ask, “What do I need to do?” Understand the minimum standards your hardware will need, where your current hardware is falling short, and what special needs your staff might have. And make sure your staff or vendor stays hardware-agnostic.
  3. Assess your server needs. As some of the most complex hardware you own, servers need special attention. From our experience, servers often need the most assessment and require significant upgrades when a city is considering new hardware purchases. For slow, failing, or near-capacity servers, there are many cost-effective options depending on your needs. This is where you might consider cloud solutions, data centers, and hardware you still want to have on site. Server hardware must also handle the complexity of your networking needs and demands.
  4. Assess staff workload for personal workstations. One computer’s size does not fit all. Too many times, we’ve seen a city purchase the same workstations for everyone despite staff having different needs. Some employees just use basic Internet browsing and Microsoft Office. Some might need laptops since they are on the go as part of their job. Some might have to use intensive databases, such as accessing and manipulating GIS data. You can make sure that specific city staff have exactly the workstations they need, while employees who only have basic or limited needs aren’t using up valuable hardware with expensive, unused features and software.
  5. Assess portability. In purchasing hardware, cities often overlook tablets, smartphones, and cell phones. But as these kinds of hardware become more and more essential for doing one’s job, a portability assessment is just as important as the above assessments. Who needs a smartphone? Who just needs a basic cell phone? For example, you might consider giving city management and elected officials tablets and smartphones, while anyone who stays at city hall all day, every day, might not need portable hardware at all. With cities always tightening their budgets, this is an expense that can easily get out of control without a clear assessment.

When purchasing hardware, conducting a vendor-agnostic assessment is a great upfront investment of time. You’ll make sure you’re buying exactly the hardware you need, customized for your city. Plus, sourcing hardware from a variety of vendors allows you to get the lowest price once you’ve decided what you need. A needs assessment gives you a great negotiating position and allows vendors to effectively compete for your business, but if you don’t know what hardware you need then vendors can take advantage of you.

If you’d like to talk more about your hardware needs, please contact us.

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