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Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
I found this template from a government department in the UK, which includes guidelines for setting up Twitter, by defining purpose, metrics and other important considerations.  If you’re interested in finding out who in government is already on Twitter, you can go to www.govtwit.com for a complete list.  In Georgia, there are many cities using it of varying size, such as Atlanta, Marietta and Tyrone.  Many state representatives are on the list as well.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Lately, we’ve been seeing an uptick in interest from cities reviewing their voice and data contracts, looking for ways to save money. If it’s been a while since you’ve even thought about it or if your contract is coming up for renewal soon, our experience is that money savings here is “low hanging fruit.”

At first, you might be inclined to create an RFP, since that’s how contracts are bid and you may be required to do this. The danger, however, is that if you don’t know what your needs are and you are unfamiliar with the technical terminology, you won’t understand the responding proposals and won’t have the information your City Council needs to make an informed decision. This is when an unscrupulous vendor might move in to take advantage.

You have several options to avoid this:

  • Ask Your Current Vendor: You can ask your current vendor for help, but they may only be able to price what you tell them you need.
  • Find a Broker: Brokers can help you find the best deal, but they may have pre-existing relationships with certain providers, limiting your choice and not necessarily acting in your best interest.
  • Independent Consultants: Their interest is finding you the best deal possible and in order to do that, many of them will perform a comprehensive needs analysis before doing anything else. Some of these consultants work for an hourly rate, but many of them are paid by the vendor you select, which doesn’t cost you a dime!

If you’ve been paying attention to Sophicity, you know we’re big on objective analysis, so we recommend the third option—especially those that are paid by the service provider you select. Voice and Data plans are not our specialty, but they are a critical component of your network infrastructure, which IS our specialty. If you have any questions about navigating these waters, let us know—we’re glad to help.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
Governing has a great article about energy conservation at the desktop level that fits in nicely with our recent piece on reducing municipal energy costs. As municipal governments are being asked to make cuts, even small reductions in the power consumption of the municipality’s buildings can save money which in turn can prevent the loss of jobs or critical citizen services. While the environmental benefits discussed in the article are a good side benefit, the real treat for cities is the ability to reduce that ever growing monthly electric bill.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Clint Nelms, Practice Manager: Network Infrastructure
When a municipality is tasked with reducing operating costs, one often overlooked area is energy use in the IT infrastructure. With energy prices on the rise, an increasingly taxed power grid and growing public concern over efficiency, new technologies and approaches to the way IT operates can lead to a dramatic reduction in monthly utility bills. While energy efficiency can be realized through high-tech means like solar panels or super-efficient air conditioning, such efforts are out of reach for many cities. However, there are three changes to network infrastructure that a municipality of almost any size can implement now to save money.

Increase Workstation Energy Efficiency
Workstations are the first place a municipality should look for energy savings. Think of a workstation as the computer, monitor, and printer that employees use to do their day-to-day work. Here are a few ways you can make sure that newly purchased workstations are energy efficient as possible:

Buy ENERGY STAR Compliant-hardware – Per energystar.gov, ENERGY STAR is “a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices.” Many electronics – including desktop computers, monitors, and printers – will be labeled with an ENERGY STAR logo, meaning that they meet high standards for energy efficiency. Purchasing ENERGY STAR equipment can noticeably reduce the power consumption of the average desktop and in many cases is no more expensive than standard hardware.

Replace Tube CRT monitors with LCD Flat Screens – Monitors may last longer than the computers that they are attached to, but tube-based CRT monitors (the ones that look like old televisions) can consume a lot more energy and produce more heat than newer LCD flat screen monitors. On average, a CRT monitor uses about 80 watts (~$56/year) whereas an LCD uses around 35 watts (~$24/year). Replacing 100 monitors with LCDs will save almost $3200/year in energy costs alone. [1] And since LCD’s generate less heat, you’ll save even more money due to reduced cooling costs.

Upgrade Desktops to Thin Clients – While desktop computers have historically been the mainstay for workstations, alternative devices called “thin clients” are changing the landscape. These tiny computers dramatically reduce the size and energy consumption of each workstation by offloading most of the work to a central server. While an average desktop uses between 65-90 watts (up to $63/year) depending on workload, a thin client can uses around 15 watts (~$10/year). Think of thin clients like using central air conditioning instead of putting a separate air conditioner in every office. Because the central server does most of the work, thin clients don’t need hard drives, cooling fans, or CD drives and therefore use much less power. In fact, replacing 100 desktops (at an average of 75 watts) with thin clients could save $4300 a year in energy costs. Also, because of their small form factor and lack of moving parts, thin clients introduce far less heat into the office environment, leading to drastically reduced cooling costs in offices that have numerous workstations.

Reduce the Number of Physical Servers through Virtualization

Virtualization is a technology that has been rapidly gaining popularity throughout the government sector. At its core, virtualization allows multiple physical servers to be combined into one physical server. In some cases, 10 or more servers can be placed onto one physical machine. IT staff is supportive of the technology because it greatly reduces the number of physical servers they have to purchase, maintain and secure. However, another major advantage of virtualization is that by reducing the number of physical servers, the network takes less energy to run and, because there are less servers, the heat output of the server room is greatly reduced, leading to lower cooling costs. In fact, most virtualization vendors say that each server eliminated will save an average of $700/year in energy costs and the figure is even higher when factoring in reduced cooling needs. This technology won’t conserve much energy for municipalities with only a couple of servers, but for larger offices with ten or more servers, the savings can be significant.

Implement Efficient Energy Management Policies

One of the easiest ways to see immediate energy efficiency gains throughout the municipality might not require any capital investment at all: energy management policies. In many offices, workstations and monitors are left running at full power all night after employees go home, leading to a lot of wasted energy and unnecessary cooling costs.

However, processes can be put in place to help curb this unneeded power consumption. Most modern operating systems allow the IT Department to set rules for how workstations behave when they are not being used. After a designated idle period, workstations can enter a low power which turns off most of the functions of the computer without erasing any unsaved data or forcing the user to quit out of programs. It’s like a pause button for a computer and it reduces energy consumption from 65-90 watts in running mode to as low as 6 watts in low power mode. For a network with 100 workstations that are active only 8 hours a day, savings could be $2600/year or more.

In addition, most modern monitors (LCD and CRT) have similar standby modes that turn off the device until it is needed. Note that it is far better to have monitors enter a standby mode than it is to have them on and running a screen saver, even if the screen is blank. If a LCD monitor uses an average of 35 watts when it is on, in standby mode it uses about 3 watts. So 100 monitors that are active 8 hours a day and then put in standby mode could save $1500/year. During working hours, most IT departments set computers to sleep after one hour and monitors after twenty minutes.

Why not just turn the workstations completely off? Turning off computers while not in use is a good idea in theory, but in practice things can be a bit more complex. Many computers automatically download patches and virus updates at night during off hours to minimize the load on the network. If the computer is fully powered off, these important updates will not get installed and could put the environment at risk. This is why low power mode is an overall better choice, as it will still allow software to be automatically updated. However, if the environment is manually patched by IT staff on a set schedule, then a nightly power down procedure could be a possibility and might save even more money. Talk with your IT staff or vendor to find the right mix of processes to meet the needs of your network.

The best part about energy management policies is that they require no additional purchases and are usually quick to implement even in large organizations, representing a great “low-hanging fruit” project that can quickly realize results.

Conclusion – Adding It Up

While reducing energy costs may not seem significant when compared to multimillion dollar road projects or expensive software purchases, it is important to remember that the savings it produces continue to add up hour over hour, year after year. Take our earlier examples and add them up: Replacing 100 workstations with thin clients and LCD’s, used 8 hours a day, and implementing smart energy management practices would save roughly $11,600/year in energy costs alone, not including reduced cooling costs. That’s 5155 gallons of gas (at $2.25 a gallon) for the Police Department, two movie nights at the park for your citizens, or 290 boxes (at $40 a box) of printer paper!

In many cases an energy conservation project can pay for itself after only a few years of operation, especially where a virtualization project eliminates a number of servers from the environment. When factoring how much energy is being saved by such projects, remember to include reduced cooling, maintenance, and time savings costs along with the direct energy consumption savings into the overall equation. With increased public awareness of energy consumption, implementing such projects will also give your municipality a great story to tell citizens about how their tax dollars are being better used to provide needed services instead of paying wasteful energy bills.

[1] All figures based on US average price of $.08 per kilowatt hour. To adjust for local energy prices, use this equation taken from MAXIMUMpcguides.com: A watts / 1000 = B kilowatts * 24 (hours per day) = D kWh * $.XX (your electricity cost rate per kWh) = E (cost per day) * 365 = F (cost per year).

Monday, July 20, 2009
Dave Mims, President
I’ve just returned from the Florida Local Government Information Systems Association's (FLGISA) Annual Conference in beautiful St. Augustine. FLGISA is an organization of IT decision makers from municipal and county governments in Florida that gather for knowledge sharing and education.

There was a great turnout of cities from across the State (Miami, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Jupiter, North Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Ocoee to name a few) and some interesting discussions came out from the group. What’s on the mind of Florida’s cities? They are right in line with what we are hearing from folks here in Georgia: RFP management, addressing the “graying” of the IT department staff, handling open records requests via indexing, transparency, social media initiatives, and, of course, budgets.

St. Augustine had great weather for enjoying the oldest city in the country. I’m a high triple digit golfer, far from par, so I stayed clear of the course and enjoyed the very good food and local scenes of St. George street.

Friday, July 17, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience
If your municipality received funds from the Recovery Act, then it should be no surprise that reporting how those funds are spent is a big part of the acceptance. The Federal Government's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board, recognizing some confusion about how the reporting should take place, are offering a series of free webinars to help cities better understand the rules and regulations behind the Act.

The webinars take place on the week of July 20 and registration is at recovery.gov.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Kevin Howarth, Director of Business Development
Helping municipalities cut costs through data collection and better management of the budget is something that Sophicity has been focused on for some years now. In the present economy, this kind of thinking is getting a lot more important than it used to be. No longer can we afford to let IT be a magic black box (or some might say black hole) in the basement.

That’s why it’s great to see other’s championing IT financial management, which is a nice way of saying that IT should be managed like any piece of an organization: with data, research, and total cost of ownership in mind. It’s not always easy, but opening up the IT department to the kind of scrutiny necessary to perform these tasks can lead to a much more efficient, secure, and stable environment throughout. As more cities move to online services for citizens, having a reliable network with rock-solid storage is a must have but IT financial management allows it to also be cost-effective and efficient too.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
I recently compared Twitter to the Dremel tool my fathergave me a while back - at the time, I couldn’t figure out what it was good for. But every couple of months, a problem comes up where it’s the perfect solution. Its value is still ambiguous--if you ask me what it’s good for, I’ll answer “all sorts of things.” There’s no single answer to the question but I always keep it handy “just in case.” So it is with Twitter.

The latest application is an enhancement to city 311 services. San Francisco is the first city in the nation to enhance their non-emergency services this way. From the City’s 311 web site, users with Twitter accounts can sign up to send direct messages to the City. This service is monitored 24/7/365 to ensure a prompt response. (You’ll recall that I recently posted about a similar service in New York City. In researching this, it does not yet appear to be available there, so for now, San Francisco stands alone).

To set this up, the City created a link on the 311 services web site to sign up for the service. The user must be on Twitter to make this work, and the actual correspondence takes the form of private, direct messages between the City and the resident.

Twitter has a set of tools that allow integration into existing web sites as well as the creation of entirely new applications, so if you think of new ways to use it, chances are there is a way to do it. As far as a city is concerned, the best application is an enhancement to existing 311 services, not as a stand-alone offering.

Monday, July 13, 2009
Dave Mims, President
Just wanted to drop a quick note that I’ll be manning the Sophicity booth at the Florida Local Government Information Systems Association's (FLGISA) Annual conference, which is running all this week down in St. Augustine, Florida. If you are planning on coming, drop by and chat with me about your City or County and the challenges that the IT Department is currently facing. Looking forward to a great show!
Friday, July 10, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
Many cities are starting to look at virtualization as a way to save money and its a common question topic that our customers ask us. While the implementation can be complex depending on the environment, the benefits almost always outweigh the costs. Still, there is a lot of confusion about why anyone should virtualize in the first place. This quick guide is a good place to start if you're looking for high-level info on virtualization to take to city council. It discusses the five main benefits from the technology: Increasing cost efficiency, mitigating vulnerabilities through better security, improving agility, using IT hours more efficiently, and simplifying IT initiatives. This is right in line with what we're telling our customers and its great to see governments embracing virtualization.
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