CitySmart Blog

Wednesday, September 05, 2012
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

Recently, I was talking with a city manager who wanted to learn more about our services. We chatted about how they would have email handled through Microsoft's cloud platform. During the conversation, he mentioned some other cities where the elected officials received email to their personal accounts and used those personal email accounts to conduct city business.

I mentioned that those accounts could be subject to open records requests, and he just nodded forebodingly. He had just gone through an open records request and noted how time consuming and expensive it was. He could not imagine what the process would be like if personal email accounts were involved.

Through our experience and conversations with cities, seeing email addresses such as mayor@yahoo.com is not uncommon. Georgia includes emails in its open records laws, and those emails need to be as retrievable and accessible as possible. This issue is real, and this year alone showcases many stark examples.

Preventing a Costly Open Records Request

Thankfully, while handling an open records request is never easy, it's a great deal easier with some simple email software and organization. Here is a quick assessment you can take:

  • Are you using a personal email address for city business?
  • Is city email being forwarded to a personal email address?

If yes, then your personal email is at risk for an open records request. Going forward, you need to eliminate this issue and keep all city business emails stored and archived in a city email account. If you do not have your own city domain name (e.g. mayor@cityofsomewhere.gov), then you need to acquire one. All city business email should then be conducted through city email addresses.

  • How much time did it take to process your last open records request?
  • How much did it cost?

Even if you already have a city business email account, your email might not be stored, archived, and accessed in ways that reflect best practices. For example, email cloud solutions exist that can be managed by IT staff or a vendor. That means if you get an open records request, your IT staff can easily enable you to access and collect the exact emails you need, quickly. Some vendors can even handle that for you for no additional fees.

For more about email solutions that may help this situation, read more about our solution and contact us if you have additional questions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

A recent CIO Magazine article discussed how businesses are empowering the mobile worker by allowing them to use their personal devices for work. If cities want to follow this trend, they must be more cautious than a typical business. Local government faces regulations and audits, handles sensitive information, submits to open records requests, and operates with high transparency expectations.

That means the blurring of personal and government information is especially frowned upon in local government. We've all heard the horror stories about government business conducted with personal email addresses and the consequences that result—both financially and from a public relations standpoint.

Yet, you don't want to halt progress and you want to accommodate people who use their own mobile devices and tablets. Personal devices are not going away, and yet you don't often have the money to buy all city employees business-only tablets and smartphones. What do you do?

Assessing the Risks

Many employees want access to city email, documents, and content from their smartphones, tablets, laptops, and home personal computers. We caution city management about making this access too easy for two reasons:

  1. Lack of control If the city does not own the personal device, they cannot control how employees use it. That opens the device up to viruses, unauthorized access, and exposing confidential information.
  2. Liability/exposure during e-discovery Wherever city data lives, it is considered discoverable. Do you want an audit to extend to your city employees' personal computers, laptops, tablets, or smartphones. What will auditors find on personal devices?

It's tempting to have employees bring their own device to cut costs. After all, isn't it great that you don't have to purchase an extra computer, tablet, or smartphone? But while device costs go down (reducing the city's upfront capital expenses), hidden costs associated with loss of control and potential for e-discovery skyrocket. You don't want a lawsuit or fine to result from the misuse of a personal device or an unintentional breach of city data security or privacy.

How To Best Handle City Employees' Personal Devices

Here are some tips and recommendations that will help you decide how to handle personal devices in your local government environment:

  • If possible, issue employees their own business-only devices. While this can be expensive, the hardware and software is locked down and controlled by the city. The employee then uses the device for city purposes only.
  • No data of any type (including email) should be stored on a device that is not a city asset. As tempting as it is to install email programs on personal laptops, tablets, and smartphones, don't! You run too many legal and security issues.
  • Use a cloud solution to allow employee access from a personal device. If you cannot budget for city owned personal devices, then consider cloud services. Employees can access email and documents without having to store that information on their personal devices. We recommend that a city point of contact requests and authorizes particular city employees who should have this capability before it is provisioned. This also gives cities the option to remotely delete data (e.g. Microsoft Office documents) on the city employee's mobile phone, which is useful in case the device is lost or stolen.
  • Wipe a city-owned device clean of all data before issuing it to another user. When an employee leaves the city and returns the device, it should be wiped clean of all data, securely, before re-issuing to another user. You do not want a new or different employee with access to sensitive city data.
  • Wipe a damaged city-owned device clean of all data before handing it over to a vendor for repair. This best practice is often overlooked. If a device is damaged and you need it repaired by a vendor, that device should also be securely wiped clean of all data prior to submitting it for repair. You do not want a vendor (or any outside unauthorized person) with access to city data. (If the device is so damaged that you cannot wipe it clean, then that device should be securely destroyed by a vendor that offers this as a service.)

If you would like to discuss these issues further, please contact us.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

A recent IDC Government Insights report revealed an alarming glimpse into the mindset of local government about cloud computing. GovTech's summary of the IDC report said, "Local government participants were the least optimistic about the cloud with 14.7 percent saying the cloud wasn't important." Overall, the report showed a need for more education about the benefits of cloud computing in terms of not only technology infrastructure but also budgeting.

This report is consistent with what we have traditionally seen with how fast local government moves versus the pace of technology and businesses.

We have written a good deal about the essence of cloud computing, so we will focus on traditional local government obstacles of adopting change due to funding and IT architecture concerns.

Cloud Solutions Offer The Potential to Cut Costs or Quickly Acquire Enterprise Level Services Within Budget

A common myth about the cloud is that it's an additional technology to purchase. Partly, that's the fault of the abstract, technological term "cloud computing." The term does not effectively reflect the financial and productive sides of its benefits.

Instead, cloud computing is an alternative, modern version of many existing technologies. That means you can audit and assess your current hardware and software investments and seek out areas to cut costs through cloud alternatives. If you've invested heavily in hardware and software, cloud computing solutions often significantly cut costs.

If you haven't invested in much hardware and software, then cloud computing offers you low-cost options to acquire enterprise-level tools and technologies (website, data backup, document management, etc.) that may have seemed out of reach just a few years ago. Typically, we find that local government underspends on important areas such as data backup, security, and business productivity because of the cost of traditional technologies. Cloud computing options give local government an unprecedented chance to address any chronic lack of investment in these essential areas.

To get a better handle on your potential cloud investments, first know what you're already spending for hardware, software, licenses, labor, and annual maintenance fees. We've written about this at length in the past, but it's good to currently analyze how much you're paying for:

  • Email servers and maintenance
  • Document management
  • Data backup and disaster recovery
  • Microsoft Office (or other vendor's) productivity suite
  • Antivirus and antispam
  • Web hosting and maintenance
  • Instant messaging and online meetings

If cloud computing options help bring these costs down, then you can not only approximate funding but also return on investment. If you're not currently investing much in these areas and need to justify funding, then you need to make your case from a different point of view.

It's not uncommon for local government to feel the pains of aging technology through hardware failures, data loss, and slowed productivity. Cloud options give you the chance to seriously look at modernizing your technology environment with enterprise grade solutions while keeping capital investments and overall costs at a minimum.

Changes to Your Technology Environment - The Cloud is Easier To Manage and Maintain

While most cities do not have large IT infrastructure environments, we sometimes hear concerns about how a switch to cloud computing will affect the management and maintenance of servers, workstations, and software. Three main concerns usually come up:

  • Fewer onsite servers Cloud options are available for nearly any function currently taken on by a typical server. Fewer servers means there will be more of a focus on remote cloud server management instead of managing servers onsite. For those used to managing only servers they can see and touch, a switch to remote cloud server management can be jarring.
  • Offsite data backup and storage After years of backing up data onsite, it can feel strange for your data backup to be stored in the cloud. However, the cloud can be a safer data backup option than doing it in-house. We've heard too many horror stories of neglected, forgotten, or misconfigured data backup that ends in painful data loss. While cloud solutions are not infallible, the data backup standards are extremely high. Intense vendor competition means they can't afford to let your data disappear, and this competition-driven innovation benefits you.
  • 24/7 remote access support Cloud services allow access to information 24x7. That means 24x7 support is more important than ever. This serious issue is not always addressed by cloud solutions. You may have cloud access via the Internet, anytime anywhere, but if something goes wrong, who do you call?

These infrastructure issues are really just aspects of technology change. Cloud solutions are where technology is headed, like it or not. These technologies are a significant improvement over managing and maintaining your own IT infrastructure. Any new change can create anxiety, especially if your staff is used to doing something a certain way for many years. For those cities without IT staff or a close relationship with a technology vendor, this anxiety is lessened but the justification for funding becomes more important.

This is why the local government concerns of the IDC report are legitimate and relevant. But do not fear. The switch to cloud computing is a significant revolution in technology, and it only benefits you - both from a cost perspective and an infrastructure management perspective.

For more about the cost and infrastructure sides of cloud computing, read more about our solutions or contact us to have a discussion.

Thursday, August 16, 2012
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

A recent article in "The Tennessean" (and shared in the Public Technology Institute's July 25, 2012 email newsletter) reveals how inundated cities feel by technology pressures. It just doesn't end—new technologies related to websites, servers, desktops, tablets, mobile phones, broadband, and GIS barrage cities every year. All of these investments require money that cities unfortunately lack in this rough economy.

The article highlights a few common themes that we've also seen while talking to cities.

  • Cities feel they are lagging extraordinarily behind. They watch businesses and society on the cutting edge of information technology, and they feel they got left behind in the 20th century.
  • Cities are strapped for cash. They do not have the budgets for a complete technology overhaul or additional IT staff.
  • Citizens expect better services and availability from cities. Citizens are used to their high-tech dealings with other businesses and their everyday smartphone, tablet, laptop, and desktop experiences.

Mayors, council members, city managers, and city finance officers feel caught between a rock and a hard place. If cities tried to do everything at once, they might have money for anything else. So where to start?

Cities do not have to attack every problem immediately. We usually see information technology investments as needing to occur in two phases.

City Information Technology: Basic Investments

Here are a few key areas to solidify first.

  • Data Backup and Disaster Recovery Make sure you have a data backup and disaster recovery plan. Even in the worst disaster, your data needs to be restored within a reasonable amount of time.
  • Aging Hardware and Software Replacement Replace your most creaky, ancient hardware. You would not drive a city van or truck to the point when it's falling apart. Start by replacing any hardware over five years old and any software that is no longer supported by a vendor.
  • Internet Service and Telecom Today is an excellent time to shop around and renegotiate contracts with ISP and telecom providers. Many older contracts are expensive. Cities can benefit from heavy competition - more services for less cost.
  • Server, Workstation, and Mobile Device Security and Maintenance Most cities have little to no security or support for their hardware and software. When things break, it disrupts city operations. Cities need to ensure they have a combination of skilled, knowledgeable IT staff and vendors securing and supporting their systems 24/7.
  • A Modern Website A city's website needs to not only look professional but also be easy to use for non-technical users. There are many cost-effective options for cities to choose from today. Citizens, visitors, and businesses all need to have a favorable online impression of your city and also have easy access to city services.

City Information Technology: Advanced Investments

Once you have planned to address the basic fundamentals, you can start to look at more complicated aspects of information technology. Many of these areas can only succeed if you have taken care of broken or failing IT infrastructure, data backup, website, and support.

  • Long-Term IT Budgeting Once you've put out your IT fires, you can work with your finance officer, IT staff, and IT vendors to plan out a cost-effective long-term IT budget. A city's strategy and priorities will drive the budget.
  • Hardware and Software Lifecycle Strategy Make sure you are replacing and upgrading hardware and software every 3-5 years.
  • Server Virtualization and Cloud Services Once your servers have been upgraded and are being maintained properly, the next step is always to see if they can be virtualized and even maintained in the cloud. Lowered costs and ease of management result.

Cities often jump to advanced information technology needs before they have dealt with the fundamentals. Mastering the fundamentals first will ensure that your long-term budgeting and advanced technology projects will be more likely to succeed.

If you're interested in learning more, contact us.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

As we meet with cities, we find that so much city activity centers on city clerks. They are the heartbeat of any city, and one of their key roles is document management. If you need a document for any reason, all roads lead to the city clerk.

However, despite their role, the city clerk does not have superhuman powers. They are limited by time and technology. With increasing demands and pressures, from customer service to government regulations, any significant document management limitations (or lack of any document management in the case of a paper filing system) cripple their ability to work effectively.

Major Document Management Concerns

We mostly hear three main concerns from city clerks about their document management:

  1. Time Spent Manually Purging Documents If you add up the annual time it takes to identify and manually purge records and documents that have expired, it adds up to many, many hours. Tedious and repetitive, this work is not productive and it takes city clerks away from more pressing duties.
  2. Locating Documents If manual documents are misfiled, locating them becomes a nightmare. Do you search every file cabinet? Every folder? Misfiling happens with paper-based systems, and locating those documents wastes massive amounts of time...that is, if you're able to find the document. Lost or misplaced documents are an unfortunate consequence of manual document management.
  3. Disaster Recovery City clerks (and Mayors) fear disaster. Fire, theft, or a natural disaster can permanently destroy manual records. When city business depends on these documents or auditors need to see them, this loss is embarrassing and irreparable.

Document Management Benefits for Cities

Thankfully, many cost-effective document management solutions now exist that not only eliminate these problems but also increase operational efficiency.

  • Scanning and Storing Cities can scan and store all of their documents electronically, eliminating reliance on paper.
  • Document Backup and Disaster Recovery All documents are stored either on a server with full data backup and disaster recovery, or in the cloud with similar protection. If a fire or natural disaster destroyed city hall, your documents would be safe.
  • Archiving for Open Records Requests You need to archive your email and documents for any open records requests.
  • Remote Anytime Access Instead of having to go to city hall to access a document, a document management solution allows you to have access to your documents at all times. Even if you're working from home or traveling, you will have access to any needed document.
  • Authorization and Access Rights With a manual system, some physical security is required to enforce access—and it's never perfect. But with online document management, you can set up permissions to make sure that only those with authorization can access documents. Documents can also be encrypted and protected from malicious access.
  • Automated Workflows Document management systems allow you to implement automated workflows to improve operational efficiency. It's very reassuring to know that a document will be processed in the same way—with appropriate checks and balances—every time. Version control can also help eliminate redundant or duplicate documents.
  • Audit Readiness When auditors come calling or regulations must be followed, it's a lot easier to know that your document management system provides a transparent, automated methodology for storing, archiving, and authorizing access to all documents.

For a relatively low cost, city clerks can be enabled to handle these challenges through a robust document management system. Just applying state record retention processes automatically to save a city clerk days each year will allow the document management solution to pay for itself—many times over. If you're interested in learning more, contact us about IT in a Box.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Dave Mims, President

Georgia Municipal Association helps city stabilize data backup, disaster recovery and email

Like many municipalities, the City of Oakwood, Ga. struggled with managing its technology and keeping costs associated with it affordable.

Challenge

Oakwood faced challenges with both its data backup solution and its email system. The city needed data backup to ensure information is never lost. And, the availability of the email system was critical for both City Hall and the police department to ensure during an emergency, hardware failure, or disaster, that city officials would be able to communicate with each other and residents via email.

Likewise, residents would not be able to reach city leaders electronically. Email provides a vital critical communication tool for cities.

Resolving and modernizing these technological challenges was likely going to be an expensive undertaking for Oakwood because of the required hardware, software, and labor costs. Once the initial investment was made, Oakwood would then have to pay ongoing maintenance and support fees because it did not have IT assistance in house.

Solution

To address its technology challenges, Oakwood engaged the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) for "IT in a Box," which is powered by Sophicity.

"IT in a Box" delivers a complete IT solution for municipal governments. It includes a website, data backup, offsite storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server and desktop management, vendor management, and a seven-day a week helpdesk.

Results

Using "IT in a Box," Oakwood saw tremendous results in just three months. Sophicity helped Oakwood:

  • Mitigate the risk of data loss through onsite and offsite server backups.
  • Ensure a highly available and dependable email system.
"Sophicity's reliable data backup service gives me piece of mind." - City Manager Stan Brown
"I have been extremely impressed with Sophicity's responsiveness to our needs 24/7." - Chief Randall Moon

Oakwood saved $46,977 (or 54%) of the costs that would typically be seen in modernizing a city network. This helped Oakwood stabilize its technology and create a predictable IT budget.

If you're interested in learning more, contact us about IT in a Box.

About Sophicity

Sophicity is an IT services and consulting company providing technology solutions to city governments and municipal leagues. Among the services Sophicity delivers in "IT in a Box" are a website, data backup, offsite storage, email, document management, Microsoft Office for desktops, server and desktop management, vendor management, and a seven-day a week helpdesk. Read more about IT in a Box.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

A slew of recent articles have pointed out that organizations still using Windows XP or Windows Vista will not be able to use Office 2013. The outcry stems from the fact that XP and Vista are still popular operating systems, and the argument goes that Microsoft is wrong to prevent those people and organizations from using Office 2013.

Of course, these are legitimate concerns. But we look at this issue very differently.

The Reality of Hardware and Software Lifecycles

Sometimes we wish hardware and software could be like land, a vehicle, or office furniture. We want our servers and computers to last more than ten years. We want to completely maximize our original investment.

But information technology is different. Think back to your servers and computers in 2001, just ten years ago. Or even in 2006, just five years ago. Think about what did not yet exist, remember your slow computers and cell phones, and recall the limited functionality of websites and online business. It was not that long ago, was it?

Technology moves at light speed. Let's return to XP and Vista, especially in context of running an organization. How would you face the following facts when your organization completely depends on your IT?

  • XP stopped being supported by Microsoft on April 14, 2009. (Extended support ends on April 8, 2014.)
  • Vista stopped being supported by Microsoft on April 10, 2012. (Extended support ends on April 11, 2017.)
  • A PC has an industry expectation of a three-year lifespan. Many people can stretch that lifespan to five years, but desktops and laptops will literally start to fall apart beyond that span of time.

Just like a bridge, a road, or a truck that falls into absolute disrepair after decades, IT falls into the same disrepair - but after only three to five years. It may be annoying, but unfortunately it is reality. But there are ways you can stay up to date without having to spend inordinate amounts of money on hardware and software upgrades.

Keeping Microsoft Office Up to Date Without Hurting Your Budget

With Office 2013, Microsoft is delivering a productivity suite that is designed to run on new equipment. That is because Office 2013 can take advantage of performance increases built into newer operating systems such as Windows 7 and Windows 8. We see two options depending on your operating system.

  • If you already have Windows 7 (or already plan on implementing Windows 8), great! You can already run Office 2013. Keep in mind that there are still minimum technical requirements In order to use Office 2013.
  • If you are determined not to change operating systems and stick with XP or Vista, then you can take advantage of services such as Office Pro Plus and Office Web Apps. Similar to Google Docs, you'll be accessing your Office 2013 from the cloud.

Keep in mind that if you are set upon running your servers and computers into the ground, you risk downtime and data loss - especially if those systems are no longer are supported by Microsoft. We recommend a strategy that at least does the following:

  • Takes as much of your software as possible into the cloud to reduce costs (especially from capital to operational expenses). That includes email, document management, and productivity software.
  • Consider replacing all outdated and unsupported servers and workstations with new equipment. When assessing your hardware and software, take advantage of a knowledgeable expert to help you figure out how this activity will save you money.
  • Ensure hardware and software is targeted and used only as necessary. In other words, everyone may not need to use every aspect of Office 2013.

Read more about hardware and software lifecycle best practices and contact us if you have additional questions.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Dave Mims, President

The Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) has recently partnered with Sophicity to deliver IT in a Box to cities in Georgia. This new service was officially launched by the Georgia Municipal Association on Thursday, July 26, 2012.

IT in a Box is consistent with GMA'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.

Lamar Norton, Executive Director of GMA, said:

IT in a Box is aimed at providing cities with state-of-the-art information technology tools supported by experienced, highly skilled IT professionals. This service is being offered through a contract with Sophicity, GMA’s longtime IT consulting partner. The cities of Oakwood, Oxford, and Flowery Branch have piloted the service, and each city has already provided very positive feedback.

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

Watch an interview with Mike Miller, Mayor of Flowery Branch, and Stan Brown, City Manager of Oakwood sharing their feedback and experience with IT in a Box.

Learn more about this service from the Georgia Municipal Association.

For additional information, please contact:

Georgia Municipal Association
Lou Comer at (678) 686-6260 or lcomer@gmanet.com
Pam Helton at (678) 686-6275 or phelton@gmanet.com

Sophicity
Dave Mims at (770) 670-6940, ext. 110 or davemims@sophicity.com
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

In 2012 alone, severe weather has challenged the fortitude of many cities around the United States. Massive thunderstorms hit the East Coast in late June and early July, the Southeast was hit by unusual storms back in January, and massive tornadoes slammed the Midwest in February. Recent wildfires and drought conditions have also strained the limited resources of municipalities that serve the West and Midwest.

To combat severe weather-related data loss, many have heard about cloud backup as a kind of modern cure-all. However, recent complaints (such as those quoted in a July 16, 2012 Computerworld article) show that cloud services (including Amazon's Cloud Services) were also affected by the same severe weather that hit various regions of the country. This kind of cloud services failure unfortunately encourages people and organizations to revert back to dangerous practices (such as only keeping one's data onsite).

During severe weather, data backup is especially important for cities since citizens often rely on municipalities for emergency information and services. If the cloud is not a cure-all solution, what is the ultimate answer to a city's data backup needs?

Data Backup Questions For Cities To Consider

To combat the effects of fire, severe weather, and other disasters, you need to strategically think through your data backup just as you would think through any other municipal disaster recovery policy.

  1. How long can you be down without your data? Is it okay to be down for several days? A week? Or do you need to be up in minutes or hours? Municipalities can differ based on the services they provide, so it's best to imagine the worst has happened. In that worst case scenario, how long could you last without your data?
  2. How long will it take to get your computer systems back online? Ask your IT staff or IT vendor to provide this information if you don't know.

Compare the two figures and you will quickly know if you are in trouble. For example, if you need to be back up in two hours, it's not a good thing if your servers will come back up in three days!

Ensure You Are Able to Recover Your Data

Now that you have a gut level understanding about where you stand with your data backup, you can then explore services and options to better align these numbers. We often deal with cities that need their systems available at all times, so our solution typically recovers files in minutes. In order to assist a city in recovering from a disaster, these files are stored in multiple data centers across the country.

Finally, data backups should be tested frequently to maintain your confidence that you can recover when disaster occurs. Simulate the ultimate disaster such as a massive storm hitting your entire region, a hurricane, or a tornado. Will your data be recovered even in the worst possible case? (The answer should be YES!)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Dave Mims, President
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