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CitySmart Blog

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

A recent research report from Veeam (a provider of virtualization and backup solutions) points out a number of problems that small and medium businesses are having with data backup and recovery. Since a city’s IT needs often parallel the needs of small and medium businesses, we think that some of these numbers are worth highlighting.

  • 1 in 6 (17%) data backup recoveries do not work.
  • Only 8% of small and medium businesses test their data backup.
  • e-Discovery is too expensive for 65% of small and medium businesses.

As SMBs are struggling with these issues, our experience shows that cities struggle with these issues even worse. We find similar patterns in the quality of data backup, the lack of rigor and testing, and an ability for cities to respond to open records requests effectively.

Using this excellent report as a foundation, we wanted to draw out some points that we think are relevant for cities when they confront similar data backup issues.

  1. Struggles with the cost of data backup management, licensing, and storage. Just like SMBs, cities struggle with the cost of data backup. Depending on the solution they are using, it often takes IT staff or vendor time to manage a solution, the software licenses are expensive, and the data storage costs often force cities to limit what they can back up. Data backup costs have come down as the technology has gotten better. We recommend that cities look at solutions that take advantage of cloud backup (which requires less management time), monthly subscription costs (instead of annual or multi-year software licensing), and unlimited data storage options.
  2. Improperly setting up and maintaining a data backup solution. Just like SMBs, many cities sadly try to set up and maintain their own data backup solution—with mixed results. While data backup management costs from vendors might seem like something to skip, you don’t want to try to do it all yourself. Many cities use backup agents but fail to manage them properly, leading to slow and failing data backups. If your data backups seem to take too much time and you cannot guarantee that they will work, then you need a professional to handle them.
  3. Testing and auditing your data backup. While knowing only 8% of businesses test their data backup is shocking, this shock also applies to cities. Many cities still do not regularly test and audit their data backup. That means when a server failure or disaster hits, they risk losing important data forever—financial data, public safety data, online payment data, etc. Testing should take place at least quarterly and simulate a disaster. You should pass that test with flying colors and have audit documentation to prove it. City data is just too important for anything less.
  4. Simplifying your IT environment to help reduce data backup needs. One interesting aspect of the report is its acknowledgement of how IT complexity affects your data backup needs and costs. If you have not performed an IT asset audit and simplified your environment, then you may have too many (and possibly redundant) servers and workstations, too many applications and software that you’re managing, and too many “do it yourself” IT management tools that often conflict and confuse each other. We often untangle complex IT environments by reducing hardware, moving certain software applications into the cloud, and simplifying the overall management of a city’s data and IT environment. This simplification makes it much easier to back up data.
  5. Understanding the trend that small organizations now have large organization IT needs. In the Veeam report, its President and CEO says, “More and more, SMBs are being subjected to the same IT challenges and business pressures as large enterprises. As such, any disruption to their IT infrastructure can have severe consequences.” Smaller cities may have gotten away with less technology a few years ago, but with high-speed Internet so prevalent, the Internet now a source of primary information for people, and the demands for modern business requiring fast information processing and response, it’s becoming less of an excuse for smaller cities not to have basic enterprise technology. At a bare minimum, cities are expected to have a functional website, document management that allows for easy search and retrieval, a professional customized email address, and a data backup solution that insures that data will not be lost.

Again, while the Veeam report focused on SMBs, cities also need to pay attention to these trends. An enterprise technology environment with cost-effective and tested data backup is not out of reach. However, cities are stuck with or have been burned by vendors over the last 5-10 years who have gouged them with the high costs of annual fees, licenses, and add-ons to their services.

But even in the last two years, IT has changed drastically and the quality standard has risen. Cities need to reevaulate their current data backup solutions and really look at the cost, current assets, and maintenance. If any of the above points seem to indicate any gaps, then it’s time to address those gaps so that you can increase your data backup quality while reducing costs.

To talk about data backup in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, July 18, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

Whether cities are pressured to buy hardware onsite or at a data center, vendors continue to assert that cities need to own their own hardware rather than rent it. While this used to make sense in the early days of the Internet before social media, mobile technology, and cloud computing became the norm, old habits die hard. Many cities unfortunately pay for expensive hardware that is overkill for their needs and budget.

Before considering new hardware purchases, cities first need to consider hybrid cloud solutions depending on their needs.

  • Public cloud - This is renting like a utility. You pay a monthly fee and can turn it off anytime. Your servers are hosted at one or more data centers, and may share space with other client data.
  • Private cloud - This is still renting, but you are renting individual machines for your own use. Your servers are hosted at your city or at a data center, and are kept separate from any other client data.
  • Dedicated hosting - This is the traditional method of how servers work, either residing at your city or at a data center. These are servers that you purchase.

We’ve noticed that many vendors are not offering cities these options. Instead, they are pressuring cities to only buy dedicated hardware for each software application instead of exploring hardware-as-a-service through the public or private cloud.

Why would vendors not tell you about these other options?

  1. Vendors want their equipment on dedicated hardware and isolated from other software applications. Understandably, it’s easier for vendors to manage their own equipment and software when it’s on a dedicated machine. Since they often need to access machines to perform upgrades and repairs, they tend to frown upon any hardware configuration that deviates from a single dedicated machine that you own.
  2. Vendors want you to purchase hardware from them directly because they make more money that way. Vendors enjoy a nice markup when you buy hardware from them. This includes money made from:

    - You purchasing the hardware at the vendor’s price, instead of the special state and local government price.

    - Bulk add-ons such as backup hardware and licensing. (Think of how car dealers make most of their money off of special features rather than the car itself. It’s the same idea.)

    - Professional services labor to perform the hardware installation.

  3. Vendors sell warranties and promote aggressive hardware lifecycles so they can keep replacing your equipment every time a new version of their application comes out. While many cloud software applications are wising up and simply providing upgrades as part of your ongoing service, there are still many vendors who make a lot of money the old-fashioned way by forcing you to buy new hardware too frequently.

A lot of municipal software still works primarily with the dedicated hardware model. As an example, we recently saw that the latest version of a particular kind of city software will cost cities about $15,000 in fees—before even considering the actual software licensing costs! This approach to always buying hardware is not sustainable economically, and these vendors will eventually need to relent and offer other options.

On the other hand, some purely cloud-based hardware models, where you’re essentially 100% renting, may not best fit your city’s website and software application hosting needs. However, there are hybrid or customized cloud offerings from vendors that work just like servers deployed onsite. The price points for these offerings continue to drop, so it’s time that your city started looking at these options. Otherwise, you’re just paying unnecessary fees to vendors and losing money.

So, to debunk the myth, buying is NOT better than renting. To talk about hybrid cloud options and hardware-as-a-service in more detail, please contact us.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

One of the main reasons cities utilize IT vendors is to help with IT talent or staffing shortages. In some cities, there might not be enough IT talent to hire locally, or the city’s budget would be strained with the salary required to hire an IT staff that covers all of its needs. An IT vendor can be a much more cost-effective solution that provides a city with all of the IT talent and resources they require.

But cities must also challenge the decision to use an IT vendor. Over the years, we’ve heard many questions about our people and expertise. Why us? Why any vendor? And while we get plenty of questions about the technology, the questions that matter most in the end are about the people.

Based on our experience, we offer up some observations and insights about what people-focused questions to ask when you’re evaluating IT vendors.

  1. They have experience with cities. While information technology can have many similarities across industries, cities are a specialized niche. There are common types of software, particular needs of departments such as public safety, and various demands such as open records requests and state retention policies that usually throw IT generalists off balance. Having many years of city experience helps IT engineers understand your environment quickly and lessen the learning curve.
  2. They have business acumen. While some junior IT engineers might stay extremely focused, most experienced IT vendors will have basic business acumen. That doesn’t mean you need to hire IT vendors whose staff have MBAs or who have owned businesses. It just means that your vendor’s IT engineers should always think cost-benefit when evaluating your IT. It’s when your IT vendor doesn’t think about cost that bad financial decisions are made and money is wasted.
  3. They focus on IT and wear one hat. We understand that smaller cities must make do with little to no IT resources, and that means giving certain vendors a wide range of responsibilities. While not ideal, at least an overtaxed IT vendor is focused on IT. What we see and discourage is when a general vendor helps not only with IT but other handy work. Your website developer or software vendor should not also be your IT vendor on the side. Despite a person’s natural ability, that lack of focus is not beneficial. On the flip side, your IT vendor should not also be handling non-IT tasks.
  4. They stay on top of technology innovation. While cities do not need to be bleeding-edge, their IT vendors do need to investigate, research, and embrace valuable new innovations in technology. We’ve seen IT vendors over the years tell cities things like, “I don’t think we’re ready for the cloud.” Or we see websites that are still run by a webmaster and require IT to make any changes. Understandably, many IT vendors fear change because they feel it threatens their security (like thinking the cloud will leave them with nothing to do). So, they don’t rock the boat or they use fear (such as questioning the security of every new innovation) to defeat any new initiatives.
  5. They have curiosity and passion. We had to include one intangible that is hard to quantify but impossible to do without. The best IT vendors, no matter what experience level, delve into IT problems because they are curious. They want to find answers to your questions, and they enjoy solving problems. IT vendors that bring an indescribable attitude to their work, those who really get into what they’re doing, tend to also be the ones who learn about your city the quickest and contribute the most.

While easy to talk about, it’s unfortunately difficult to find such IT vendors. When evaluating IT vendors, be picky. Look for vendors that combine municipal, business, and technical experience and who embrace change. By setting the bar high, you benefit from having the right IT vendor helping you.

To talk more about evaluating IT vendors, please contact us.

Friday, July 12, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

When we recently started offering unlimited data storage as part of IT in a Box, some cities asked us how this was possible. After all, data must reside somewhere and take up finite space. How can it make sense from a business standpoint to offer unlimited storage?

In this post, we’ll take you through various historical factors that have helped data storage evolve along with some reasons why there is an increased business need for unlimited data storage. As you will see, we are at a point in the evolution of information technology where cities no longer have to worry about limited (and expensive) data storage space.

Moore’s (and Kryder’s) Law. At the heart of understanding why unlimited data storage space is possible, you must understand the basic premise of Moore’s and Kryder’s Laws. Moore’s Law famously says that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit (the kind used in your computers) doubles in performance every 18 months, and Kryder’s Law applies a similar law toward disk storage density. Just like with circuit technology, we’ve also seen data storage capacity increase exponentially. This technological evolution also lowers the cost of data storage. It’s why when you buy a new computer, tablet, or smartphone, it seems to store more data while costing you less than a machine you bought a few years ago.

High-speed Internet. Until recently, the limitations of high-speed Internet affected how much data you could use and access. But with high-speed Internet becoming more ubiquitous even in rural areas, you can quickly access more data than ever. Smartphone and tablet technology has all but caught up too, with people accessing their email, Internet, and rich media while on the go. As high speed Internet access improves, the need for data storage grows as people need places to store their files, documents, and content.

Consumer-driven competition. While businesses obviously use more resources than individuals, early innovations in consumer-driven applications have often led to businesses also taking advantage of those innovations. For example, Gmail shocked everyone when it came out, offering 1 GB of storage for users when they were accustomed to only a few MB from other free email providers. As people began to take more photos and videos with phones, they needed places to store and back up that data, driving the creation of services ranging from Dropbox to Carbonite. Those competitive wars have helped increase data storage capability and reduce its costs.

Rich media now a must, not a nice to have. The expectations for rich media - video, audio, animation, presentations, etc. - have grown as the Internet becomes more sophisticated. As services such as YouTube grew over the past five years, businesses started to understand the power of using rich media to differentiate their content from competitors. To use rich media, you need storage space. Today, the appetite for rich media continues to grow - along with the storage space to match.

Cloud computing. The scale of cloud computing - with thousands of servers spread across many geographically dispersed data centers - has brought down the cost of data storage. Onsite hardware (with limited data storage space) is much harder to maintain and will be more expensive. It’s more cost effective to store your data in the cloud, and technology innovation keeps increasing cloud data storage capacity and reducing the cost. As a result, storing your data in the cloud becomes a no-brainer when cloud vendors can offer you the best quality and lowest cost when they operate on such a large scale.

Obviously, one last thing that makes unlimited data storage possible is knowing the human limits of how much data is actually needed. Most cities, even those with lots of videos or documents, will not come close to creating an abnormal amount of data. Whether it’s for data storage or backup, we’re now at a point where a typical city that has a need for growth and doesn’t want to worry about storage limits can comfortably store all of the data they want without any worries. Only very large cities with highly unusual data storage needs might require special customization.

If you’d like to talk more about unlimited data storage, please contact us.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

Having covered three PCI DSS compliance topics in past posts (vulnerability management, data protection, and network fundamentals), we now move on to authorization. While past discussions have focused on what you can do to secure your networks, it’s all useless if the wrong people have access to your systems.

Preventing unauthorized access to online payment information is extremely important because you are responsible for the protection of extremely sensitive citizen information. That includes credit card numbers, financial history, and even social security numbers. If the wrong person accesses that information, maliciously or innocently, you can find yourself legally liable.

Let’s look at some different aspects of authorization that need to be covered if you’re going to offer online payments.

  1. Vet your front-end administrative access. Probably the most obvious tip, you need to plan out who has access to what information. While most front-line employees will be responsible and ethical, it’s not uncommon for lower salary or entry-level employees to turn over more rapidly than higher-level positions. Since the requirements for hiring an administrative employee are much less than for a city manager, you cannot give these employees access to sensitive information. Work with IT and your online payment vendor to restrict access to sensitive information such as setting up dashboards that only show need-to-know information to employees.
  2. Vet your back-end administrative access. Just as importantly, you want to make sure your IT staff, IT vendor, and online payment vendor are the right people to have back-end access to your data. Have all technicians with access to your data been given criminal background checks? Have you met your technicians? Do they come highly recommended from other cities? Remember, these are the people who not only can look at this data but also control access. If they are not experienced or ethical enough, they should not have access to such sensitive information.
  3. Strengthen user access to online payment information. Whether it’s a citizen, administrative staff, or IT staff accessing online payment information, make sure you strengthen passwords and other forms of authentication. Consider using 2- or 3-factor authentication, which makes it harder for hackers and other unauthorized users to access an account. These forms of authentication could be passwords, captchas, a mobile confirmation code, a passkey, or some other extra authentication layer. Make them easy enough so that people don’t get frustrated when accessing information.
  4. Strengthen physical security. Often overlooked, physical security is an important element of preventing unauthorized access to information. Disgruntled employees or vendors with either IT knowledge or city password information should not be able to access machines once they have left their job or been terminated. Sensitive servers and computers should not be out in the open, sitting in unlocked rooms, or unmonitored during busy workdays. Security cameras, locked rooms, and physical authentications (such as key card access to machines with online payment information) can help prevent malicious behavior from someone entering your buildings and offices.
  5. Revisit and review policy. Often, unauthorized access to online payment information can take place when administrative and technical authorization is weak. If I call up your city, pretend to be someone else, and ask to get my financial information about a payment, what questions will I be confronted with? Am I asked any security questions to confirm that I am who I am? You don’t want your policy to be too overbearing, but at the same time employees should not give out sensitive information over the phone or through email without confirming the identity of the person on the other end. In addition, both IT and non-IT employees need to be clear on policies about not giving away usernames, passwords, or sensitive information to third parties without clear authentication.

Authorizing someone to access sensitive online payment data covers administrative policy, technical know-how, and physical security. All need to be considered and working together to make sure that only authorized people have access to online payment information. Work with your IT staff and vendors to both test and audit your overall security, including authorization. Look for gaps that may make it easy for people to gain access to your data, and shore up those gaps with a stronger information security policy, better IT network security, and more comprehensive physical security.

To talk about data authorization in more detail, please contact us.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

An operating system such as Windows XP can become so familiar that it seems unnecessary to change it. In fact, about 37% of desktops still use Windows XP. Many employees are not technologists who often seek the latest and greatest technology solutions. Non-technologists are like most people—you get used to something and become comfortable with it.

But there are many dangers to clinging to an operating system or outdated software. We’ll use Windows XP as an example, since so many cities use it and it’s been tagged by Microsoft for end-of-life in April 2014. When it reaches end-of-life, that means cities continuing to use Windows XP create huge security and liability risks.

Let’s cover some reasons why sticking with Windows XP will hurt your city.

  1. Microsoft will no longer support Windows XP. After April 2014, Microsoft will stop supporting Windows XP. That means when something breaks or goes wrong, there will be no one Microsoft-certified who is guaranteed to fix your problems. Think about how many Windows XP issues your users have and what it means if Microsoft no longer has your back in supporting you in fixing those issues.
  2. Microsoft will no longer release security updates for Windows XP. One of the most important features of supported software is that you receive important security updates from the vendor. For example, Microsoft regularly provides patches through Windows Update that cover security flaws and potential breaches. When those security updates stop, your Windows XP software becomes more at risk— like an abandoned house that no one is keeping up.
  3. Microsoft stops ensuring that software (even their own) is compatible with Windows XP. If you keep using Windows XP beyond April 2014, you may even find that software (even Microsoft Office!) stops working properly. That’s because vendors will not accommodate their software to work with such ancient platforms as Windows XP. Even if you’re using Microsoft software, that doesn’t mean it will work with Windows XP. Microsoft wants you using newer operating systems such as Windows 7 and 8, and you’ll find more and more that software you want to use simply doesn’t work on Windows XP.
  4. Windows XP cannot handle the system resources of newer computers. Newer computers are equipped with very advanced software applications needing lots of memory, storage, and other important system resources. Windows XP was built for the days of 2001, not 2013. When you purchase a new computer and yet install Windows XP onto it, you will find that a person cannot use most of the common resources and software on their computer.
  5. Windows XP is harder to manage, especially for mobile devices. Windows XP debuted in 2001. In technology time, that might as well be 100 years. In that time, the IT community has improved the way an operating system is managed on the back end. More current operating systems like Windows 7 and 8 benefit from an easy-to-use management interface. This makes the cost of managing your IT environment much lower for IT staff or vendors. In addition, Windows XP was not built for a high-speed Internet, cloud computing, teleworking, and the mobile world. As your employees work remote or need support on mobile devices, you will find yourself flailing more and more if you’re still trying to use Windows XP.

Remember that technology—hardware or software—is not like most things a business would buy. Buildings, cars, office equipment, and furniture can all last for many many years. Software such as Windows XP not only gets obsolete quicker, but it also becomes more and more of a risk when you keep it way beyond its shelf life. If Microsoft stops supporting it, that’s a sign you’ve kept it too long.

If you need one last reason to consider, then think about compliance and cyber liability. If you get hacked and your information is stolen because you were clinging to an unsupported operating system, then you will have a lot of legal questions to answer when people start piecing together what happened.

To talk more about updating aging software, please contact us.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

Has a friend or colleague ever told you, “Hey, I got a spam email from you!” Of course you didn’t send it, and you scramble to change your password as quickly as possible. When this happens as a city employee, it’s even more baffling. Did someone hack into your city email and send spam from your account?

Usually not. Spoofing is different from being compromised (e.g. someone hacking into your email account). Spoofing simply means that someone is using your email address to pretend that their spam or phishing email is coming from you. These spammers are tricking the way email programs work. Email programs identify to you who is sending an email, and spoofers simply use one of your trusted contact’s information to make it look like the email is coming from them.

Because spoofing an email address is very easy to do, it’s a common form of Internet fraud. While it’s incredibly difficult to prevent spoofing (short of never using the Internet or email at all), there are some common sense tips that can help reduce the risk of someone spoofing your email address.

  1. Do not give your email address to any and all websites. Just because a website requests your email address doesn’t mean you have to share it. If you do, make sure you’re sharing it with a reputable website such as trusted brand or institution. But if you’ve never visited the website before and the brand is not well-known, then it’s probably not wise to share your email address.
  2. Do not enter your email address when downloading free software. Similar to the above point, free software must adhere to the same standards you apply to websites. If the brand is trusted (e.g. Google, Adobe, Oracle), then your email is usually safe. But sketchier, less known companies that provide free software frequently make money by selling your email address to either semi-legitimate email list companies or illegitimate spammers.
  3. Do not post your email address on a website. This is one of the easiest ways that spammers can get your email address to spoof. If your email address is public and listed on the Internet, then spammers “scrape” your email off of these websites. To scrape emails, spammers use programs that scan websites and extract the email addresses listed on them.
  4. Use one primary email address for your work, and use a “junk” email address for sharing on the Internet. Many times, your Internet surfing and exploration of software will be extremely hampered if you are overly cautious and never share your email address. Use a “junk” email, such as a Hotmail, Yahoo, or Gmail account, that you use for all of the times when companies request your email address for newsletters, software downloads, and website registrations. Keep your primary work email address more private. Don’t post or share it anywhere and only use it for work.
  5. Use a strong antispam program and keep it up-to-date. Since spoofing lives and thrives by spam getting through your filters, then you want to make sure that your antispam software is strong and updated. While your antispam program won’t catch all spoofing emails, it will block amateurish spoofing emails that will be flagged because of how they are being sent. If a spoofer cannot get through to you, they will eventually stop and look elsewhere for victims.

While it may be frustrating to know that you cannot prevent email spoofing, be reassured that it’s not as serious as your email being compromised or hacked. Most people’s email addresses have been spoofed at one time or another. Overall, just keep your city email address as private as possible. Even if you’re a city official, use a secondary email address, a form, or a link to your email if you need to post your contact information on your website. There are many workarounds to make sure that your primary work email address is as private as possible so that spoofers leave it alone.

If you have been spoofed, change your email address. It may be hard to let go of your favorite email address that you’ve had for many years, but once you’ve been spoofed your email address will be in the hands of spammers indefinitely. After you create a new email address, keep it private (using our tips above).

To talk about spoofing in more detail, please contact us.

Friday, June 28, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

The Tribune 4.2 release has been completed and tested, and Sophicity.com has been running on it now for weeks. Our release date is Friday, July 12.

This release includes:

  • New Content Editor Control: The WYSIWYG control that provides the content editing capabilities for the Summary and Detail fields on the Story Management Detail screen has been replaced with a new control. This new control supports all features of the previous control but adds enhancements for better cross-browser support, the ability to paste cleanly from Microsoft Word, an image editor, alignment rulers, and more. Note: This is the Story Management Detail page where you spend most of your time in Tribune adding and updating content to your webpages.
  • Server Upgrades: A new production Tribune environment for hosted customers has been built with 64-bit Windows servers. Both shared and dedicated sites will be upgraded to the new environment.
  • 64-Bit Windows server compatibility: For our Enterprise customers, Tribune 4.2 is certified to run on both 32-bit Windows servers for backwards compatibility, and now 64-bit Windows servers. Tribune enterprise customers can migrate their sites to 64-bit Windows servers on their own timetable.
  • And, additional minor enhancements and fixes…

The next release will have Mobile Friendly Administration that allows you to add, update, and delete content on your Tribune website from mobile devices. Our ETA to deliver this next release is October.

On the radar to come:

  • Virtual Forms: Allow you to add forms to your Tribune website. You will be able to quickly create then publish forms yourself to your website. Once published, the form will allow a visitor to your website to submit a request or information. For example, you might create a form to report a pothole.
  • Virtual Products: Allow you to add items for online payment processing to your Tribune website. You will be able to quickly create then publish products yourself to your website. Once published, a visitor to your website can make a payment for the product. Example products include paying a parking ticket, paying a utility bill, etc.
  • And more, such as file manager, broken links reporting, slideshows, image gallery, recycle bin, spell checking, archiving, etc.

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

Thursday, June 27, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

One question we often hear from cities is “Is it safe to have my data in the cloud?” The main reason for this concern is a big change in IT habits over the past few years. If cities are used to how data was stored 5-10 years ago, it feels more secure when data is stored onsite. You can see the machines that are storing your data, and somehow you feel better knowing it’s all there.

Actually, your data is less safe when it’s stored at your city rather than in the cloud. Cities are usually not IT companies, and there are often limitations in how cities manage and maintain their servers, create data backup and redundancy, and secure their data from hacking and theft.

If that wasn’t convincing enough, it’s a simple fact that data is moving into the cloud because it’s safer, more secure, more cost-effective, and less hassle for individuals, businesses, government entities, and any organization. In this post, we explain some of the key reasons why storing your data in the cloud is safer.

  1. Your data is stored in well managed and maintained data centers. Occasionally, we’ll find a city that runs an exceptional in-house data center. But that’s rare because it’s expensive and becomes economically harder and harder to justify. Cloud vendors keep your data in data centers that adhere to the highest standards and regulations. Well-known cloud providers such as Microsoft and Google stake their business reputation on these data centers, and so they throw lots of money and resources at your data to make sure it’s safe.
  2. Cloud vendors use multiple Internet connections. Cities running their website or other important software on their servers can go down easily if an Internet connection goes down. It’s expensive to purchase multiple Internet connections at a city for redundancy, and it’s still easy for a local power outage to knock them all out. Cloud vendors operate on such a high scale that multiple Internet connections only add a negligible cost to you and help ensure nearly 100% uptime for your applications. That means your website will rarely go down, and your data is nearly always 100% accessible.
  3. Backup power is a given. Some cities may have generators in case of a power outage, but these resources are expensive and may be limited to only certain sections of a city. With cloud vendors, if power goes out at a data center, there is plenty of backup power (often for a week or more) until the problem gets fixed. That means if there is a problem at a data center, it rarely affects your data and you often never hear about it.
  4. Cloud vendors provide extremely high security. Data centers are fortresses. Cloud vendors provide high security to protect such valuable data, and they have stringent requirements about who has access to your data. Criminal background checks, authorization processes, and strict physical security all help protect the machines that host your data. No matter how well a city tries, it’s hard to beat this kind of security when storing data onsite. Too many cities keep servers in easy-to-access offices or rooms where theft, malicious damage, or hacking can occur.
  5. Your data is spread across different geographies. So let’s say the worst does happen. A Google or Microsoft data center is completely obliterated through some horrible disaster. It still doesn’t matter. Your data is safe! Cloud vendors don’t just store your data in one data center. They store your data across multiple secure data centers across the United States and the world. This helps keep your data up and running even if the worst case scenario happens in a particular area. That’s part of the real power of the cloud - it’s not just one data center but a network of data centers that make sure nothing is happening to your data.

Understanding how the cloud works at the data center level can help alleviate fears about how it’s secured. Letting go of your data can be hard. Even Sophicity went through a process where our dyed-in-the-wool IT experts who love their servers and technology had to phase out all of our hardware into the cloud. Feeling like you’re losing control can feel like a loss of security, but it was the right move. We not only saved money but also could scale up our technology faster and allow our staff more flexibility to work from almost anywhere.

As you can see, cloud vendors at the Microsoft and Google level have too much to lose and too many important clients to protect. They are throwing billions of dollars of resources to protect your data that no single organization can match. And that’s why the cloud is so revolutionary. It’s truly a leap forward in data security and management.

To talk about the cloud in more detail, please contact us.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

While we’ve touted the benefits of Voice over IP (VoIP) phone systems in the past, we’ve also acknowledged when you hit limitations. What are those limitations? And why do they exist?

To begin, it helps to define again what VoIP really does. Instead of transmitting phone calls across traditional phone lines, VoIP transmits your phone data over the Internet. Technology has improved so much that a VoIP system is nearly indistinguishable from a traditional phone system in terms of features and quality. With a usually much lower price point compared to traditional phone lines, VoIP suddenly becomes a compelling alternative.

But cities need to know when traditional phone lines still need to be used and in what situations. Below are some of our observations about the limitations of VoIP based on our experiences with cities.

  1. Public safety and 911 cannot go down with a power outage. Power outages are much more common than traditional phone line outages. That makes traditional phone lines more reliable during situations such as bad weather. Consider using traditional phone lines for these important services so that they are up and running despite a power outage. If you still want to use VoIP for 911 and public safety, you can also consider using a traditional phone line as a backup.
  2. Slow Internet speed will drastically affect VoIP quality. While high-speed Internet has permeated most of the country, there are still quite a few cities where Internet speed is still a problem. If your Internet connection is not fast, your VoIP call quality will suffer. That means people will sound choppy, sound will go in and out, and you may be unable to sustain a conversation. If your city still does not have cost-effective, quality high-speed Internet, stick to a traditional phone line.
  3. VoIP setup may be impacted by the quality of your network. Many cities have limited IT capabilities, and a VoIP system requires some standard IT network resources along with a slightly complex setup. By contrast, a traditional phone line is easy to set up - you just plug a phone into the jack. If your city still has extremely limited IT resources, then you may want to consider using a traditional phone line until you assess your overall technology needs.
  4. VoIP is only as good as your technology monitoring and maintenance. Since VoIP is software that harnesses your Internet connection, it is vulnerable to everything that a usual network and software application gets threatened by. Outages, security breaches, lack of memory or bandwidth, and viruses all can affect your VoIP system. If you don’t have IT staff or a vendor monitoring and maintaining your environment, then your phone system becomes vulnerable to problems just like your servers, computers, and software.
  5. VoIP equipment should not far exceed the price of a traditional phone system. The best VoIP systems on the market keep costs down by providing service in the cloud. That means VoIP vendors should not burden you with the costs of purchasing and maintaining a lot of new hardware. Remember, the point of switching to VoIP is to lower your costs. Setup and maintenance should be relatively minimal. If the total cost of your VoIP solution far exceeds the costs of traditional phone analog equipment, then have an IT professional ask tough questions about the VoIP vendor’s proposal.

As you can see, VoIP works best when you already have a strong technology network already in place. That doesn’t mean that smaller cities cannot take advantage of VoIP. It just means to look before you leap. Assess your phone system along with your technology, and explore if VoIP makes sense. In some cases, technology limitations or sensitive public safety systems may require traditional phone lines in all or parts of your city.

And remember, despite even us touting the benefits of a technology, always do an assessment to figure out if a particular technology is best suited for you.

To talk about VoIP in more detail, please contact us.

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