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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.

Friday, February 01, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

One trend we’ve been seeing at cities is a gradual improvement in how various city departments handle work orders. As cities move their servers and data backup into the cloud, as their websites improve, and as they start using more sophisticated document management and online payment systems, they find that improving the way they track work orders follows suit.

That’s because the same tracking and accountability for payments and documents becomes expected of work orders. Yet, many cities still use email, ill-fitting project management systems, and (yes) even post-it notes to keep track of customer service tickets and requests.

When cities talk to us about improving their work order systems, we often bring up the following five points in our discussions.

  1. Solidify your business processes. Despite often having business processes written down somewhere (usually in a binder on a shelf or in a hard-to-read PDF), people tend to follow their own processes. When they actually do the work, they do it the way they want. With a work order system, you can instead enforce specific business processes. For example, if a request comes in to fix a pothole, the work order system can enforce a time limit (e.g. 3 days) in which the pothole must be repaired.
  2. Track and follow-up on work orders. Work order systems allow for efficient tracking of customer service requests. One of the most common complaints that citizens have about cities is tracking and follow-up. They request that an issue be resolved, and then they never hear back. Calling the city again and again to inquire about the status of a request puts an annoying burden on citizens, and reflects poorly on the city. But if citizens or internal staff can check online about any work order, the system then lowers the amount of incoming phone calls and shows that you’re on top of every request.
  3. Hold people accountable. When a work order is clearly assigned to a specific person, there is nowhere to hide. Both from our experience and from studies we’ve read, holding people transparently accountable increases the likelihood of good work results. Work order systems assign customer service requests to individuals who then have a clear, objective list of tasks to complete. Red flags go off immediately when those work orders are not fulfilled on schedule, and customer service problems can be addressed sooner rather than later.
  4. Send out alerts and notifications. The great thing about automated systems is that they can give you automated alerts. Just like a good project management system, managers don’t have to bug employees constantly about the status of customer service requests. If you’re assigned some work, you will receive reminders about the deadline and notifications if it’s overdue. Managers can stay on top of issues proactively, and citizens can even receive updates about their requests.
  5. Provide 24/7 access. If people want to check a work order status outside normal business hours, or from home or a coffee shop, they can access the system whenever they want. City business often doesn’t work strictly from 9 to 5. Public works, public safety, city council meetings, and online payments all function after hours. If people need to check the status of customer service requests, quickly and while on the go, then a good work order system provides access to that information 24/7.

While a work order system may not seem revolutionary on the surface, it can have a huge impact at cities that traditionally just wing it with email and paper, or try to use Microsoft Outlook or a project management system in awkward ways. Your work order system does not have to be overly complex. It just has to be customized, streamlined, and built around your basic business processes to ensure that work is assigned, completed, tracked, and made transparent.

If you’d like to discuss work order systems in more detail, please contact us.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013
John Miller, Network Infrastructure Manager

Speaking as a vendor, we’d like to say that vendors mostly serve cities in the right ways and make sure that a city’s expensive investment in their services is put to good use. Sadly, we spend much of our time during the early part of a city engagement straightening out vendors who have been slacking off or taking advantage of cities.

What happens is that vendors get comfortable and complacent. They realize that cities (often long ago) made a long-term or large upfront investment. Trapped, they feel cities are committed to the arrangement. Vendors then often function on autopilot, focus more on upselling, and care mostly about renewing that contract every year. (That’s why you might only see your vendor face-to-face about once a year—around renewal time!)

From our experience, here are some ways we help cities with vendor management to help them save money, maximize their investment, and get vendors working more effectively and productively.

  1. We help cities define business objectives. This may seem counterintuitive at first. Managing vendors by getting cities to define business objectives? But a lack of business objectives is one of the ways that vendors can get unruly. If you don’t know what you want out of an investment, the vendor won’t necessarily help you figure it out. They just want you buying their product, software, or services. Make an assessment of what vendors you’re currently using and then define what business problems they are (supposedly) trying to solve. This can be an eye-opening exercise to help start assessing the state of your current vendor relationships.
  2. We challenge vendors that have not been challenged in a long time. When we start working with cities, we’ll find vendor relationships that have existed for many years—sometimes even decades. In most cases, no one has challenged these vendors for a long time. What are they providing? How do their services compare with other services in the market? Has their product or service evolved with the times? Is the investment producing a direct or indirect return on investment? We find that vendors especially need to be challenged in the telecom and software space. They’ve often set up shop long ago, collect their money every year, and rarely evolve their services or become a true partner with cities.
  3. We outline clear measurements and metrics. Vendors are supposed to be doing something for you. What is it? At first, this may seem like a simplistic question. However, many cities are using hardware, software, or other technology-related services that have an unclear purpose. Servers are not used for their original intent. Software is obsolete and underutilized. Website features are overkill for a city’s needs. Each vendor should be able to demonstrate clear metrics to you about how their services are positively affecting your city.
  4. We get vendors to discuss your needs instead of giving sales presentations. Instead of vendors stopping in to upsell you more products and services, they should instead discuss your business needs as if they are a part of your team. That means objective, unbiased assessments of your situation, backed up by telling you about positive experiences they’ve had with other cities. We often assess a city’s vendor relationships by the quality of their discussions. If they can talk shop about a city’s business needs and sincerely help solve a problem with their services, then that is a positive relationship. If they dodge discussion or tough questions and instead send their sales team to pitch you presentations, then that is a sign the vendor does not have what it takes to really help you.
  5. We enforce contracts, warranties, and service agreements. One of the things that cities often thank us for is simply enforcing existing vendor agreements. In cities with tight staff, there is often little time to scour vendor agreements. Yet, that is where the gold often lies. We usually find that a city’s IT staff (or even non-IT staff) is handling issues related to telecom, software, accounting systems, or other IT-related services when the vendor should be handling those issues. Agreements often include items that vendors are obligated to handle along with areas where vendors have built in extra support hours to help you. Like magic, just reminding vendors that they should follow their agreements is one of the best parts of our job when we manage vendors.

Overall, vendor management helps maximize your investments. You’re paying all that money to utilize a vendor. Shouldn’t you be getting the most out of that investment? Since handling these investments is so important, the IT vendor management role should be a dedicated one—either with a member of your IT staff or by utilizing an IT vendor experienced in dealing with cities.

If you want to discuss vendor management in more detail, please contact us.

Thursday, January 24, 2013
Dave Mims, CEO

In a recent blog post, we told cities that they should try to get online payments set up for all city services where payment is required. However, some cities might have difficulty if they have never used online payments before. Where to start? What services will really be useful to citizens? How do you make the business case?

If you are wondering where to start with online payments, there are a few common services that are a must. Based on our common experiences with cities, we’ve prioritized the list down to five and explained why it is important to get these online payment services up and running as soon as possible.

Traffic and Parking Tickets—Not only are these types of fines common, but they also affect people who do not live in your city. We hear from public safety that out-of-towners are notorious for not paying traffic and parking fines, but cities that make it a hassle through paper-based payments place unnecessary obstacles in the way of those people to pay their fines. By making it easy to pay traffic and parking fines online, that means more revenue for the city—quicker.

Utilities—If your city offers utility services, you make it easier on citizens and businesses to pay online and set up recurring payments. Utility competition exists and there are plenty of companies who would love to make money off your citizens and businesses. If city utilities lag behind in providing online payments, it’s all the more reason for a commercial company to swoop in and provide better service. You want that revenue, right? Then make it easy for citizens to pay their utility bills.

Property Taxes—Setting up online property tax payments might even be better for cities than the convenience provided to citizens. The main reason is that it takes the burden off city staff when property tax deadlines hit. Without online property tax payments, city hall foot traffic drastically increases when citizens come in to make payments and ask questions. Your mailroom gets hit with a flood of envelopes, increasing the risk of losing and misplacing paper payments. Providing a way to pay property taxes online reduces foot traffic, decreases error, and allows city staff to focus on helping citizens who have unusual, particular problems.

Business Licenses—Cities are competing for business every day. By making a city business-friendly, you open it up to downtown development, investment, and jobs. One small but important element is to make paying for a business license as simple as possible. Business owners should have the option to pay online for both general and specialized licenses (e.g. alcohol, taxi cab, pawnbroker, etc.). It’s hard enough to start or grow a business, so you want to make paying for licenses the least of a business’s worries in your city.

Permits—Paying for permits is potentially an annoying prospect for citizens who want to generate some kind of business or community activity in your city. Perhaps they want to put up a banner, put on a garage sale, or construct a building. Paying for permits online is an easy way for citizens to comply with the law in an effortless fashion. Otherwise, you’ll be hearing complaints at city council meetings or over the phone about difficulties in paying for and acquiring permits. An online option to pay for permits signals that you’re a citizen-friendly city that encourages community activity and participation.

By providing online payments for these basic services, you make it easy to collect revenue with as little city staff overhead as possible. Some people will still like to pay by mail, phone, or in person, but since more and more people are becoming used to paying online you will do your citizens a great service by providing this option. When it comes to collecting revenue, why not make it as quick and easy as possible?

If you’d like to talk about online payments in more detail, contact us.

 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Clint Nelms, COO

With so many email accounts getting hacked from the highest levels of government to the smallest cities, it might seem easier to throw up your hands and just assume that all email is vulnerable. Looking at the worst-case email hacking scenarios, often conducted by the world’s best cybercriminals, you might think, “How will I prevent something like that from happening to my small city?”

However, those worst-case scenarios are rare. More commonly, mediocre to below-average hackers from all over the world are always trying to hack your email. That is why you cannot give up.

Your email contains some of your most sensitive city information. Private correspondence about personnel, money, and legal matters needs to be kept private (or accessible only through open records laws). But email also seems like the loosest, least secure information in a city. (Usually) everyone has email, whether it’s on laptops, mobile devices, or desktops at home. That opens up many opportunities for risk.

With a set of simple best practices, you can secure your email and even increase the security depending on message sensitivity. Primarily, it helps to focus on three basic areas to make sure your email is secure.

  1. Encryption While encryption is very complex, what you need to focus on is email encryption in transit – meaning that the email you send from your desktop or laptop (for example, from Microsoft Outlook) to your server is encrypted. Microsoft, as just one example, automatically encrypts your email when you use their Office 365 cloud services. This level of encryption ensures that most common hackers or eavesdroppers cannot see your message.

    Unfortunately, many cities use Post Office Protocol (POP) versions of email, which is not encrypted. While that kind of email might be sufficient for personal use, it’s not a high enough standard for cities. If you are currently using POP mail, then you need to consider upgrading in order to ensure appropriate email encryption for your city.

  2. Antispam There are still too many stories of email hacking occurring when people are tricked by spam and phishing attacks. When email security is rigorously set up, you develop a proactively blocked and safe sender email list over time. We recommend that you apply antispam harshly. Software is available where you can look at your spam on a separate server and see if valid emails are getting caught in the spam filter. Then, you decide to let them through – instead of having to delete spam after it already gets to your inbox.

    We advocate the goal (following in the steps of Google and Microsoft) of traditional spam (such as Viagra emails or Nigerian money scams) never even reaching your spam folder. Ultimately, your spam folder should only contain things like unwanted newsletters, mass emails from businesses, and other unnecessary messages – with maybe only occasionally some traditional spam getting through. If your spam folder still looks dangerous and unmanageable, or if you still get spam in your inbox, your email security is failing you.

  3. Antivirus You are probably sick of hearing about needing antivirus as part of your email security, but what you might not have heard of is “multi-engine scanning.” If you’re using a simple antivirus solution (either free or low cost), it’s probably only single-engine scanning. That means the software is not only going to take a long time to scan for viruses, but it’s also only relying on one antivirus company’s database of viruses.

    Cities need an enterprise antivirus solution because the risks are too large if a virus hits. That means scanning faster and more thoroughly using different antivirus engines. For example, Microsoft Forefront uses a proprietary engine along with Authentium, Kaspersky, Norman, and VirusBuster. Along with the constant monitoring, proactive prevention, and better virus alerts, your email security system will not even let email messages through that have viruses.

    Too many email programs are still so loosely secured that viruses get through and people click on them. With city government, you cannot take that risk. A good enterprise antivirus program easily integrates with your email, and it stops virus-ridden emails at the server level so that they never even get to the user.

Correctly set up, your email security can be powerful and ward off most hacking attempts. If you’d like to discuss email security in more detail, please contact us.

Friday, January 18, 2013
Nathan Eisner, Network Manager

One of the best parts of our job is to help cities save money. One element of technology that always seems to be a great place to start is the city’s phone system. Cities are usually paying too much for their phones, clinging onto long-term contracts where telecom vendors are squeezing every last drop out of a city’s budget.

Since phone systems are quite complicated, especially with the advent of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), it might be helpful to look at VoIP more closely in terms of financial savings. It’s easy to misunderstand what VoIP is. Traditionally, cities often think of everything phone-related as “the phone system,” but there are many parts and pieces where you need to examine where you might be losing money to traditional telecom vendors.

Considering VoIP is an excellent way to challenge your existing phone system contracts and see if you can find some long-term cost savings.

  1. Your phone equipment is separate from a phone line. Many people still conflate phone lines with the actual phone itself. Phones are equipment—the hardware that allows you to communicate. The phone line is what’s used to transmit the voice communication to the phone. When you think about phone equipment in the same bucket as phone lines, it’s easy for phone vendors to sell you fancy equipment with lots of buttons and features. That’s meant to distract you from paying attention to the most important piece – the phone LINE. Let’s set the phone equipment aside for now. That’s easily purchased or leased. Instead, you need to pay attention to your phone line.
  2. VoIP saves you money by using your existing Internet connection as a phone line, instead of paying for a dedicated traditional phone line. Much of the cost related to a telecom contract is in paying for the dedicated phone lines owned by telecom companies (such as AT&T). However, most cities have gotten access to high-speed Internet bandwidth. VoIP uses your existing high-speed Internet connection as the phone line. So, since you’re already paying for that Internet bandwidth, the cost of your phone services can be reduced because you are not paying for a dedicated phone line anymore.
  3. You won’t notice a difference switching to VoIP since it works the same as a regular phone line. While the underlying technology might be different from a traditional phone line, you will not notice a difference in your voice communication. It will be the same quality, and you won’t have to do anything differently to communicate. You’ll still use a normal phone device (by purchasing or leasing phone equipment with all of the business features you’ll need) and the sound has achieved comparable quality compared with traditional phone lines. As long as you have good Internet bandwidth, you will notice no dip in voice quality.
  4. VoIP makes it easy to add or delete users, anywhere, anytime. Because VoIP is Internet-based and much easier to manage than traditional phone lines and hardware, you can easily add or delete people depending on when staff leaves or joins the city. With most traditional phone systems, it’s a hassle to add or delete users and there are often fees involved. For example, it’s often expensive to add traditional phone lines for people who work out of the office (either in a remote location or from home). With VoIP, it’s just a matter of adding another user. The technology makes managing your phone users very simple and scalable.
  5. You can keep your phone numbers. You can still use the same phone numbers you already have because of Local Number Portability. That means that switching over to VoIP will be a seamless process for your staff and citizens. People won’t notice any change in phone numbers or how they contact the city. From the outside, they won’t even know you switched to VoIP.
  6. Not only will you still have the same phone features you’re used to, but they will often be cheaper or included for free. Traditional phone vendors make extra money when you want extra features, but many VoIP vendors throw in extension dialing, call transfer/forwarding, and basic conference call functions (like 3-way calling) for free. Plus, you get features that traditional phone lines cannot provide such as voice mail going straight to your email inbox as an audio file. That means people can check voicemail from anywhere, as long as they have access to their email.
  7. You will be surprised when you perform an audit of your phone lines and Internet connection. An audit often shows you ways that VoIP will save you money and leverage new features without upgrades or changes. The audit will also point out phone numbers that should still remain on a traditional (analog) phone line such as fax, alarm, or public safety numbers.

As you can see, switching to VoIP not only replicates the phone system you’re already used to, but you have the potential to add new features, scale up and down easily, and—most importantly—save thousands of dollars per year. Phone systems have advanced greatly over the past 10 years. At this point, those advances mean savings to your city.

If you’d like to talk about switching to VoIP or assessing your telecom budget, please contact us.

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