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Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
Data backup and disaster recovery are probably the most important and least appreciated areas in information technology. When VML Insurance Programs (VMLIP) noticed data backup costs increasing too much while unnecessarily confused about exactly what services they were getting, they needed to reassess and find a different solution with less cost and comprehensive coverage. Steven Bergman, Director of Technology & Operations, shares his insights about VMLIP’s initial data backup problems and how he solved them.

What was VMLIP’s initial problem with its data backup?

First was cost. I felt our vendor was overcharging us. We also had difficulty restoring individual files or mailboxes, and the headache and hassle of working with the vendor was starting to take way too long. I never understood how we were billed and exactly how much data was covered.

What did VMLIP need as a solution?

We looked at several co-location facilities and initially thought we would replicate our data over to them. However, the costs in most cases were outrageous. We needed a cost-effective umbrella solution encompassing data backup, disaster recovery, and business continuity. We decided it was in our best interest to see if there was one vendor that could provide all of these pieces.

At first, the vendor research was frustrating. Even though we were clear about what we wanted to back up, vendors seemed to ignore that we had a lot of data in file shares that worked on virtual machines. They often said, “Oh, we didn’t realize you wanted that data backed up too.” And all of a sudden the price jumps way up. That happened three times with three different vendors. We told them exactly what data we had, and in all three cases they didn’t listen to us.

What did Sophicity provide as a solution?

Sophicity provided us with a reliable data backup solution that minimizes the risk of data loss because of how often (every hour) our information is backed up throughout the day. If we lose information, it’s an easy restore process. We just contact Sophicity’s helpdesk and files get restored. We also saw a dramatic decrease of 60% in monthly expenditures.

We partnered with Agility for continuity to provide a place to work in case of disaster. With the combination of Sophicity and Agility, we have data backup and disaster recovery, more options and less cost. Also, there is no bureaucracy to go through when getting data restored. With Sophicity, you send them an email or give them a call, they get back in touch with you, they get on it as soon as possible, and they do it.

Why would VMLIP recommend that local governments consider this solution?

First is cost. For what you’re getting, it’s a cost-effective solution. Second, many local governments probably have a data backup solution but not disaster recovery. It’s one thing to have your data backed up offsite, but if you lose your facility and you have no equipment, then what good is your data? Sophicity’s data backup and disaster recovery solution, along with the ability to either fail over to their data continuity appliance or they ship us another server, is very valuable in minimizing our downtime.

This article was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Virginia Municipal League's monthly magazine.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

In case you haven’t noticed, the theme of cloud computing and cost savings is spreading like wildfire through many organizations – including municipalities. According to a recent GovTech article, the City of Alexandria, Virginia will save $1 million over the next 6 years through its use of cloud computing services. A few tips stand out:

- Standardize computers, operating systems, and software packages to save money on licensing costs.
- Evaluate if your users are suffering from disruptions or obstacles to productivity. If so, it’s a good opportunity to reevaluate your information technology.
- Don’t ignore your phone systems. These are often very expensive, but the City saved money from transitioning off of Blackberries to iPhone/Androids. Cloud computing VoIP options may also help reduce costs.

You may feel your municipality or organization is in the Dark Ages of information technology with aging computers and software, and that modern trends have passed you by. Actually, if so, this is the best time to explore cloud options.
  
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development

Pujan Roka wrote an excellent concise article about cloud computing in the May 8, 2011 edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. In it, he describes how information technology is increasingly becoming more like a utility. Cities (especially for the cost savings) should seriously be looking at the cloud. For example, the City of Canton, Georgia is experiencing feature rich benefits from using Google Apps – while saving $10,000/year in costs.

In our discussions with both technical and non-technical decision makers at cities, we hear objections and some confusion about how the cloud will benefit them. One way to think about cloud computing is to consider the early days of electricity. Roka points out how factories initially had to produce their own electricity, which was expensive and created a lot of waste. Once electricity shifted to the utility model, costs came down and quality of service went up.

Information technology is going through a similar revolution and despite some recent highly publicized outages, the reliability is all but 100%. It’s now just a matter of jumping into the cloud – and bringing your costs down.

Monday, May 16, 2011
Dave Mims, President
Sophicity was a sponsor for High Tech Ministries Make it Feel Like Home project May 4 - 7, 2011 at Must Ministries Marietta. With the help of 120 volunteers and six corporate sponsors, three projects were completed within 72 hours that included a playground, kitchen, and welcome center.
 
"Sitting down together for a meal may be the most basic way to express hospitality to those who find themselves in the distress of homelessness. We can now offer this ministry in a more welcoming environment, which is a wonderful gift to our guests. Additionally, our guests now have a playground that will allow their children to relax and play. Being able to add beauty and inspiration to the kids' imaginations as they try to find a sense of normalcy amidst the stress of being in a shelter is a true blessing." - Bob Milburn, Director of MUST Emergency Shelter and Outreach Programs
 
Truly a wonderful blessing being able to work alongside so many from our technology community here in Atlanta with the goal of serving families and children in their time of need.
 
About High Tech Ministries (www.hightechministries.org)
High Tech Ministries is a non-profit organization that empowers workplace ministers to lead people in the Atlanta high technology community to a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
 
About MUST Ministries (www.mustministries.org)
MUST Ministries is a faith-based, 501(c)3 non-profit charitable organization dedicated to providing services to persons and families in crisis while maintaining their dignity. MUST is a place where one's faith can be put into action and where we can minister to the poor, the brokenhearted and those who are in crisis - in a place where "your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Dave Mims, President
Over the past few years, we have witnessed many technology support companies take advantage of the tendency for cities to simply pick the cheapest solution. Municipal procurement processes often encourage a “low price” philosophy, but this philosophy is especially damaging when information technology is treated like office supplies or a desk. Many technology vendors know how the game works, so they often submit a vague cheap quote that sounds good on the surface. When technical expertise is lacking, cities time and time again go with the cheapest solution.

It doesn’t take a prophet to predict what will happen 2-3 years down the road: frustration, bad service, and (yes) disaster. Cutting corners in the short-term leads to hemorrhaging money long-term. Not only are taxpayer dollars wasted, but cities do not realize the full ROI and value that information technology should be providing.

Unfortunately, information technology remains one of the most complex and least standardized services. It is often difficult to understand technology, equally compare technology vendors, and adhere to any standards (due to a lack of federal, state, or local regulations concerning technology support). As a result, many cities suffer from aging hardware that slows staff productivity, technology environments that are only fixed when a major disruption occurs (at which point it’s usually too late), information security that is the equivalent of leaving the doors of City Hall unlocked, and lack of data backup and disaster recovery. And cities thought their managed services provider was helping. So how did they end up here?

Asking the Right Questions and Understanding What You’re Getting

Many cities do not have the technical expertise to fully understand what “technology support” entails. Vendors often play up to this lack of understanding, focus solely on price, and get your business. We call this the “bottom feeder” approach. Cities think they’re getting a deal – until they see the bills that come later. Any problem that arises with a “bottom feeder” vendor often leads to a) another bill, and b) a chance for the vendor to upsell you on another product or service.

As you will see below, vendors will present services to you that are misleading and too good to be true. This article explains a set of typical “managed services” features that bottom-feeder vendors provide. I’m sure you’ve heard these claims. Perhaps your current provider even provides these “myths” to you. We ask you to challenge current and potential vendors with these questions. No matter what vendor you choose, understand what you’re getting.

24x7x365 Coverage

Myth: The vendor says they are providing services 24x7x365. That means they are taking care of my technology equipment 24x7x365, and whenever I have a problem I can call someone.

Fact: This is not true unless additional specific help desk support coverage is specified. It is typical for a managed services vendor to install agents on hardware and monitor it 24x7x365. That only means they are monitoring for problems. It does not mean you have access to a person for help 24x7x365.

In most cases, there will be long stretches of time during the week when either a) no human is staffed to cover your technology support, b) the person who is providing support is either the lowest-level technical resource or a non-technical resource, or c) a call center (usually with Tier 1 support somewhere unknown or offshore) will answer your calls 24x7x365. Depending on if any helpdesk hours are bundled into your monthly fee, these calls (and any problem resolution) will cost you money if steps need to be taken to solve a problem.

“Local” People Helping You

Myth: I feel comfortable using a local managed services provider because I trust these local relationships more than an outsourced or offshored model.

Fact: Do you really think your managed services costs are so low without any outsourcing or offshoring taking place? Numerous managed services providers engage your business by way of a local sales representative (e.g. CEO of company, account manager, etc.). However, they are often the only local staff of that company. In order to keep costs very low, these companies have to outsource and (in many cases) use offshore models in order for their companies to provide you cheap 24x7x365 coverage.

In other words, you may not be getting United States-based coverage. If that aspect is important to you, it is useful to know that many vendors are not forward about who and what type of engineers are providing you services. Thus, your level of comfort with a “local” provider is based on a false assumption.

Equipment Monitoring and Maintenance

Myth: The vendor is always monitoring my servers and workstations. That means when they find a problem, they fix it.

Fact: The vendor will certainly monitor and be alerted to any technology issues. However, this does not mean they will fix the problem. (It may just mean they closed another sale!) Automatic maintenance is usually limited only to the basic of basics: patching, removal of temporary files, running spyware scans, collecting data about the health of your hardware, etc. Maintenance does not mean fixing your servers or workstations when critical issues occur. You will be billed extra at a time when your choices are limited.

Conclusion

Below, you will find questions that give you a guideline for interviewing vendors about their services. Remember:

  • They prefer you don’t know what 24x7x365 really means – only that it sounds like it’s covering you all of the time.
  • They prefer you don’t know they are using offshoring to present a cheap solution to you – only that you’re reassured by their local sales presence.
  • They prefer you don’t know how much (or how little) “maintenance” really means – until a disruption occurs and they can start billing you hourly for “unexpected” costs.
Information technology support may be a difficult area to evaluate. The pressures for city administrators to bid out technology support and make a decision as quickly as possible may tempt them to think most vendors are the same. City Councils who are perhaps focused only with cost may simply rubber stamp the lowest cost solution. But the consequences of such decisions will haunt cities later with server and workstation failures, security breaches and viruses run rampant, data loss, and public embarrassment when audits reveal a staggering lack of technology professionalism – and waste of taxpayer dollars.


10 Questions to Ask Technology Support Vendors

  1. Define 24x7x365. What does it exactly mean?
  2. Are the vendor’s engineers working 24x7x365? Are they on shifts? What level of engineer is on these shifts? Can I meet these engineers? Where are they?
  3. Am I calling into a call center? Where is the call center? Trace the route of an issue from the time I call in to the time it’s resolved. What is the resolution time for an issue? How quickly can someone arrive onsite?
  4. Do I get the same type of engineers after hours that I do during normal business hours? Is it an engineer? Are issue resolution times consistent across all coverage hours?
  5. Do the engineers receive background checks?
  6. Who has access to my data and sensitive information such as passwords, user names, etc.?
  7. When an alert is generated, what happens next? Am I notified of the problem? When?
  8. What specifically is monitored? What different equipment is exactly supported? What automated activities are occurring to “maintain” my hardware?
  9. When a piece of hardware fails or has a critical issue, what happens?
  10. Why is my managed services contract so thick?
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Dave Mims, President

Are you still managing project tasks with post-its all around your PC? Are your estimates realistic? Are all team members and project sponsors on the same page? Do you have to crunch the numbers again and again to report status to decision makers? Maybe Microsoft Project’s predecessors give you a headache when running a large project schedule? :)

Check out my presentation at the Southern Municipal Conference IT Spring meeting where I shared and demoed a pretty cool tool that Sophicity is now using called LiquidPlanner. It solves, very well, a few of the pains that we all encounter managing IT projects.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development

Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager at Sophicity, recently published “Three Reasons Why Cities Should Consider Hosted Email” in the March 2011 issue of Texas Town & City. The magazine is published by the Texas Municipal League and focuses on a variety of contemporary municipal issues. We encourage you to read the complete article and also visit Texas Town & City online.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

You may have already implemented or considered cloud solutions, especially enticed by the reductions in technology costs. But many people are still concerned about security. “What happens to my data when it’s ‘out there’ in the cloud?”

Here’s Army General Keith Alexander, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency:

“This [cloud] architecture would seem at first glance to be vulnerable to insider threats—indeed, no system that human beings use can be made immune to abuse—but we are convinced the controls and tools that will be built into the cloud will ensure that people cannot see any data beyond what they need for their jobs and will be swiftly identified if they make unauthorized attempts to access data.”

Read the entire article from Forbes.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development


Chris Lagerbloom
City Manager
City of Milton, Georgia

Chris Lagerbloom was appointed as City Manager for the City of Milton in February 2009. He also served as the Director of Public Safety and Interim City Manager for the City of Milton prior to being appointed as the full-time City Manager. During his time with the City of Milton, Lagerbloom coordinated the initial deployment of police and fire services, synchronized and implemented policy and employed a top-notch staff. After moving into the Office of City Manager, he took the lead on moving the City of Milton to performing more services in-house, which represented a cost savings of more than $1.5 million. Before joining the City of Milton, Lagerbloom served as an accomplished public safety executive in various capacities with the City of Alpharetta from 1995 through 2006, working his way up through the ranks from Police Officer to Police Captain.


What are some of the biggest challenges facing Milton?

Like everyone else, our biggest challenge is managing our competing needs with available resources. A down economy has hit us hard during the last couple of years. As a result, probably the biggest challenge we have is adapting our service delivery to this new “normal.” I think dealing with this new reality is a better way to look at our situation, rather than waiting for an economic rebound that may or may not occur at some point in the future.

We’ve looked at how we leverage resources and tried to find ways we can diversify our internal staff, along with partnering with business and other governments external to our organization. We’re figuring out the right balance: what’s essential, and what’s nice to have. That’s a big challenge. We’re also newer than most cities, and we’re still dealing with many challenging first-time issues and items.

How have you been overcoming budget issues?

The down economy has renewed our respect for every dollar. We’ve looked for cost-saving measures and ways to tighten our belts in areas as large as limiting overtime in our Police and Fire departments to something as small as whether we provide coffee services at City Hall. We’ve taken each area and asked, “What is critical? What is the city using the public’s money for? Do I need it to keep the doors open?” If the answer to that last question is no, we’ve tried to limit those expenses. We also celebrate when we tighten expenses and save dollars, even if they’re small.

As we close out our fiscal year 2010, we have a fund balance of $7.5 million out of a total budget of $18 million. That’s a great percentage of revenues over expenditures, which keeps our reserves strong and will allow for additional capital projects to be completed this year. My philosophy of budgeting is to anticipate revenues conservatively and expenditures liberally. We’ve continued to outsource portions of government that we think are right for outsourcing, particularly in our Public Works department. We’ve also done our best not to acquire depreciating assets (e.g. lawn mowers, dump trucks, etc.).

How does technology fit into your overall strategic vision?

We have embraced technology. We recognize there are roles and tasks that technology is replacing the need for a person to do. We try to implement technology solutions when it makes us better at doing what we do. The explosion of social media has also affected us, especially considering the number of citizens with whom we can now connect. Before, we would have not had those relationships. After the January 2011 ice storm, we provided real-time updates to our citizens about what roads Public Works crews were on, when roads opened and other important news. The feedback we received from our citizens was amazing. With their cell phones, they were able to know when we were going to have plows on their road.

How has the city leveraged GIS?

We use GIS in just about every city department. Public Safety uses it for emergency responses. Every fire hydrant in Milton is plotted with a GIS layer. We’re documenting and inventorying our city infrastructure. Community Development uses GIS for zoning and land use. Finance uses it for tax parcel IDs and acreage. It is truly used across the city.

We currently don’t have a GIS program in which somebody could go to our website and access public GIS data. They can do that at the county level, but Milton’s data is more accurate because we only have to maintain it for a small portion of the county.

We even leveraged GIS as we were going through our initial ISO rating for the fire department. Inside the cockpit of our fire trucks, our firefighters can pull up what appears to be a satellite image of the location to which they are responding. On the satellite image, they can click on the building and it automatically pulls up building floor plans, hydrant connections and other things that make fire operations smoother, right on their computer.

How do you connect with and learn from other municipalities?

In North Fulton county, we probably have one of the strongest groups of available city and county managers and administrators with whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to work. I can call any of our partner cities for help, and I am lucky to have some pretty experienced managers in this area. As I was contemplating taking this position, one of them told me that if I’m not afraid to ask for help, they were not going to let me fail. That was a powerful statement – somebody who has been in the city manager business for 30 years telling me its okay not to know everything. I rely upon these men and women tremendously.

Networking is also important and one of the most critical things people can do to stay successful. You don’t have to be an expert in everything. You just have to know an expert. I stay involved in the Georgia City/County Managers Association, and I’m a member of ICMA. I’ve had the privilege of being selected this year for ICMA’s leadership class of 2012. Fifteen people from across the United States and Canada were selected. The networking and outreach that has come with this opportunity is just phenomenal.

How do you stay informed?

My peers are a great source of information. I’m also a big reader of PM magazine (which is ICMA’s magazine), Governing magazine, and the Harvard Business Review. I’ve established a strategy team in the City of Milton consisting of eight department heads. We not only get together to manage the business of the city, but we also get together to invest in each other’s professional development.

We’ve read books such as Good to Great and will be reading A Whole New Mind. A Whole New Mind is an interesting book. It analyzes how the left brain thinkers of the world, those people who deal with analytics and strategy, have to find some way to exercise their right brain. If there is a technology solution that can replace people, then it’s being implemented. If a job can be outsourced cheaper overseas, then it’s being outsourced. If you don’t exercise your creative abilities to get your right brain working in conjunction with your left brain, over time it becomes more difficult to answer the question, “Why do you provide value?” In our business, city managers often present cases to City Council. Where we probably fall short is with our ability to tell a story. People don’t always remember numbers, facts and figures. But if you tell a story, they’ll remember. That philosophy also applies to how you relate to citizens. You’ve got to demonstrate you’re doing something for your citizens that they can’t get from a computer or overseas.

What do you do for fun? How do you enjoy your free time?

I have a six-year-old who keeps me running ragged. We have a lot of fun. At this point in his life, baseball and Harry Potter keeps us occupied. I also have a wonderful wife. My favorite hobby is cooking. My specialty (and I think my staff would agree) is barbecue. And I’m not talking about a hamburger on a grill. I’m talking about real, honest-to-goodness barbeque! We do barbecue about once a month at City Hall.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Clint Nelms, Network Infrastructure Practice Manager

You may have already read about cloud computing hype, so skepticism in this Wall Street Journal article comparing it to the Industrial Revolution is understandable. It’s understood that cloud computing has distinct benefits. If you suffer headaches from purchasing and maintaining software or email on your own servers, then cloud computing’s “buy as you use” model (which works similar to utilities) can reduce your costs and increase performance without the worries of software maintenance.

However, the article also says: “Far-fetched though [the comparison to the Industrial Revolution] may sound, research published by the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research in December seems partly to reinforce this view. It predicts that the increased productivity, job creation, business development and competitive advantage brought about by cloud computing will generate an additional €763 billion ($1.04 trillion) in economic value and will create some 2.4 million jobs in Europe during the next five years.”

These benefits are a consequence of less disruption (and more operational continuity), reduced costs (and more hiring), and lower cost of entry (which means more access to critical line of business applications that improve citizen services). If your municipality has not seriously explored the cost and productivity benefits of cloud computing, talk to your IT director or a trusted vendor.

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