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Friday, May 22, 2009
Jeramie Mercker, Director of Technology
I came across an interesting PCMag.com article today announcing the launch of Data.gov, a new online service from the Federal Government.  This service is interesting in that its goal is to make a wide variety of non-sensitive government data available to the general public in a variety of formats including CSV, XLS (Excel), XML, and ESRI (used by GIS applications).  In addition to the raw data, Data.gov also makes available a variety of tools for mining the various datasets available.  Data.gov is freely accessible requiring neither user registration nor a fee for access. 
 
While only a limited number of datasets are available at launch (around 40), the Obama Administration plans to offer a lot more from a variety of federal agencies.  Data.gov is one of many initiatives underway to improve the efficiency of the federal government. 
 
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing
Not even the FBI is immune to being attacked by viruses. The Associated Press is reporting that a virus has infected the FBI and U.S. Marshall’s offices, forcing them to disconnect their networks from the internet. While I'm sure that the FBI gets attacked much more than most networks, it is still alarming that the department responsible for investigation hacking, viruses and other computer fraud is still alarmingly underequipped to deal with the problem internally. This is further evidence that a well-designed IT security plan is a necessary component to any network's stability. The FBI should be a model for this kind of thing, instead of a "How Not To" example. Hopefully the renewed interest in transforming government IT will lead to better fail safes in place to prevent this kind of thing.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Government Technology magazine wrote an article highlighting a new service the city of New Lenox, Illinois is using called Zumbox. This technology ties e-mail to a physical geographic location, such as your office or home address. Because of that association, e-mail can be geographically focused, allowing targeted (or isolated) communication. The City cited the example of notifying residents of road work in the subdivision in which they live. They knew the street addresses, but didn’t have everyone’s e-mail address, so they used Zumbox to contact the appropriate residents.

The concept is a little hard to digest—it took me a while to understand the real value over current methods. The service virtually mimics the USPS, so think of it in those terms and it starts to make sense. In fact, it becomes clear that the service combines the best of e-mail and the Postal Service and eliminates their drawbacks. For example:

  • You don’t need to know someone’s e-mail address to electronically contact them. Users are identified by their mailing address, so it’s just like sending a letter through the Postal Service. However, like an email account, the recipient can access messages from anywhere they have Internet access.
  • You have the ability to stop all paper mailings from companies on the service, eliminating junk mail from your real mailbox. While it’s true that it becomes junk mail in electronic form, you can block the electronic version quickly and permanently from these same senders as well.
  • Spam is virtually eliminated, which is reason enough to use this service, since spam makes up a good deal of e-mail traffic today.

Zumbox does this two ways:
  1. Marketers and advertisers are charged similar to the way bulk mailing is charged today. Spammers count on the delivery of messages to occur free of charge.
  2. Once you block a sender, the only way they can send you anything again is by establishing a new physical address. This means getting a new PO Box, moving to a new office building or, in the case of spammers, crawling under a new rock—all of which cost money. With e-mail, spammers are back in business within minutes after opening a new e-mail account.
The service uses state of the art security technology and is free to businesses, residents and government entities. This is crucial for adoption since it still competes with e-mail—an essentially free service--for your attention. However, I see two obstacles for this technology to overcome, which interestingly, are the same obstacles the telephone (and e-mail, for that matter) had to overcome in those early days:

First, the benefit is only realized if most or all of your desired contacts are on the service. A telephone wasn’t worth the price when only one or two of your friends had them—everyone had to have them to make it worthwhile.

Second, it’s best if there’s only one service of this type. In the same way that no one would have purchased multiple telephones, it would be cumbersome if you had to sign up for multiple services to receive all your mail. I have to admit, though—I have several e-mail accounts and I’m used to that situation, so it might not be that big of a deal.

If this technology does take hold, it’ll finally give people what they’ve always wanted with electronic correspondence—complete control of incoming e-mail as well as the means to allow legitimate users private correspondence with one another.

Monday, May 18, 2009
Clint Nelms, Practice Manager: Network Infrastructure
At the end of April 2009, a computer hacker managed to steal over 8.2 million personal records from the State of Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program, containing information such as social security and driver’s license numbers. Along with the stolen data, the hacker reportedly erased all of the State’s database backups, leaving no way to get the records back. The hacker then put the only copy of the information up for a $10 million ransom and threatened to sell to it the highest bidder if the State refused to pay. This incident, along with many others, has shed light on a serious data security and recovery problem at government agencies of all levels, including cities.

With increased attention on government data security and new regulations like Red Flag, many cities are looking for new ways to protect and store data. While a city may have data backup and security measures in place, these technologies are often out of date and susceptible to attacks like the one suffered at the State of Virginia. Such data loss can have dire consequences for a city government as displayed by a recent University of Texas study showing that only 6 percent of companies that experience catastrophic data loss will survive for longer than a year. Granted, a city is not a private business but it can be equally impacted by data loss, affecting the delivery of services like police, fire and utilities to citizens.

Tape Backups and Data Loss

Many data security problems can be traced back to the way that data is saved and stored. According to ZDNet’s Robin Harris, 80% of all data loss can be tied to either hardware failure or human error. A primary reason for the high rate of data loss is due to the use of traditional tape-based methods to backup the information combined with poor procedures for storing the data.

Tape-based backups work by sending the city’s data to an onsite device which stores the information on tapes. Because the tapes can only hold so much information, many typically have to be used and they must be manually removed and stored in a safe place on a regular basis, introducing a number of points where data loss can occur. Let’s examine the challenges facing a tape-based backup system:
  • High Costs – Tape backups require the purchase of a tape drive, management software licenses renewed annually, and the on-going costs of the tapes themselves. Add this to the cost of the time spent daily by staff to manage the system and it becomes a heavy burden on already stretched IT budgets.

  • Unreliable Backups – Are the backup tapes regularly tested by your staff? Storage Magazine reports that 34% of organizations do not test their tapes. When combined with studies that show tape failure rates of anywhere from 40% all the way up to an astounding 70% for a full restore, the evidence suggests that relying solely on a tape-based solution does not seem so reliable.

  • Slow Speed – As data storage needs expand, the speed of tape backups is becoming a major hindrance to daily operations. IBM has recently quoted International Data Corporation (IDC) estimates that data storage needs could expand at approximately 50 to 80 percent each year for businesses, and cities are likely not far behind. As data storage increases, nightly backups may last well into the morning, bringing network performance to a crawl during city operating hours. Also, in the event of a full data restore from tape, bringing the city fully back online may take days.

  • Frequency - Because of the slow speed of tape, only daily backups may be plausible at most cities, meaning that if data loss or disaster does occur, the city could lose over a day’s worth of data. In the case of police departments or utilities, even a day without access to critical systems can cripple the department.

  • Questionable Security – Where are the tapes stored? Onsite? In a fire safe? Does someone take them home at night? Onsite tape storage can be susceptible to natural disaster or theft by criminals or disgruntled employees. Also, most tapes do not use encryption, a way of electronically locking data so that only someone with the proper key can open it. Without encryption, a thief can easily copy the data.

  • Labor Intensive – Tapes require a great deal of time and effort from staff, especially in the case of a full restore which can take a day to fully recover (or weeks if new hardware is needed). As cities cut budgets, IT staff members are being asked to do more with less and time spent managing tape backups can add an extra burden.

Disk-Based Backups – A Modern Approach

How can cities avoid these data backup and security pitfalls? One solution is disk-to-disk based systems. In this method, instead of sending data from the servers to a tape drive, the data is automatically sent directly to one or more storage servers, to be saved on hard disk drives that rarely need to be replaced and require little management.

While onsite disk-based backups have been around for a number of years, the need to purchase costly hardware and software has made it prohibitively expensive for all but the largest cities. However, a new method known as managed offsite disk backups has recently been gaining popularity by allowing cities to avoid purchasing expensive technology. In this solution, the city will only pay a monthly fee based on use, just like an electric or phone bill. Managed offsite disk backups also have a number of advantages, including:
  • Reduced Cost – Managed disk-based backups have absolutely no upfront hardware or software costs and do not require the purchase of any costly media. Instead, the service provider takes the responsibility of managing the hardware, software and data backups. Minimal labor is required from city staff.

  • Increased Backup Reliability – Disk-based backups are much more reliable than tape for two main reasons. First, the hard disk drives that store the data have a much lower failure rate than tape. Second, because the data is copied and stored at more than one location, even if a server fails, another can easily replace it. Furthermore, disk backups can be quickly assessed and tested for stability and consistency.

  • Increased Speed – The time needed to perform the backup is only hampered by the data speed of the city’s network. The faster the network, the faster the backups; with full restores happening in minutes or hours instead of days.

  • More Frequent Backups– Disk backups are automatically performed throughout the day rather than just once a night. Most disk solutions can backup every hour, and some high-end systems can even backup data instantly, leading to drastically less data loss if disaster or theft occurs.

  • Increased Security –Most disk backup solutions are encrypted, making the data nearly impossible to steal even if someone were to hack into the server or take the physical hard drive. Also, the most recent daily copy of the backup is sent to multiple offsite data centers, ensuring that the data is protected from even the worst onsite disaster or outright physical theft.

  • Labor-free For Staff –The city will no longer need to worry about storage, maintenance, software licensing, scheduling, or loading tapes because the service provider will handle everything related to the backups, freeing up staff to focus on more important projects.

Conclusion

As cities look for ways to reduce IT costs and meet ever-tightening restrictions on data security, managed disk systems with offsite data storage become an attractive method for drastically improving data recovery and security across every department. While tape will continue to be a backup strategy, managed disk-based systems have begun to take over as the primary source of disaster recovery. In fact, Gartner analyst Nikhil Pant estimates that by 2010, disk-based backup and disaster recovery will be the primary method of restoring lost data, due mostly to its low cost, high security, and effortless operation. With these systems in place, hackers such as the one who struck the State of Virginia will have a much more difficult time practicing their criminal art.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Dave Mims, President
The April/May 2009 issue of Public CIO has an article explaining why Georgia outsourced its IT services to private industry. Writing: "Georgia's decision to outsource IT infrastructure is part of a larger effort by the Perdue administration to bring private-sector practices to state government services."

Governor Perdue "stressed the principles of efficiency, transparency, accountability, and customer service."

Jim Lientz, Chief Operating Officer of Georgia, said "We realized that delivering certain types of services is not a core competency of government and that we were putting ourselves at risk by our inability to manage them well."

Patrick Moore, Chief Information Officer of Georgia, explained "Issues such as security and backup that once troubled the agency [GTA] become components built into the solutions they are buying."

While this isn't guaranteed to get the State's IT infrastructure in place, its definitely a bold step in the right direction. It's taken years to assess the true needs of our own state government after watching the experiences of other states and agencies as they struggle with IT. Technology evolves very fast and can be complex to adopt, maintain, and leverage for non-IT related folks. The government reaching out to the private sector to take advantage of the IT expertise found there is a smart step to make. Now, finding the right private sector IT company to help is the challenge...
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
Government Technology is reporting that Microsoft is offering government applications on a cloud platform. My guess is it’ll take anywhere from 3-5 years for the client base to become comfortable with it as a solution. We’ll see some early adopters and it’ll grow, but based on my past experience with Software as a Service, it takes that long to get permanent traction.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Dave Mims, President
What do you expect to happen when financial troubles occur? You tighten your belt and make the necessary decisions to address them!
 
This appears to be exactly what the City of Canton, GA did.  Earlier this year the Cherokee Ledger News stated that, even after layoffs and budget cuts, the city is seeking to cut an additional $300,000 - $400,000 due to the economic downturn in late 2008.

It is now a little over three months later and the Cherokee Tribune is reporting that the City should be able to end the financial year in the black with a projected excess of $885,000 in its general fund. 

We just need a number of private businesses (and banks apparently) to figure this out as well.

Monday, May 11, 2009
Tim Verras, Director of Marketing and Customer Experience

(Tim Verras (center), and Marti Mims (right) rule the dance floor)

Sophicity was a sponsor of the 2009 TechBridge Digital Ball, a ceremony awarding non-profits that use technology in innovative new ways to help their cause. The black tie event, hosted at the Georgia World Congress Center, draws hundreds of technology movers and shakers from Atlanta’s bustling business industry. Along with a cocktail party, dinner and the awards ceremony, the event also featured a live soul band and a massive dance floor, which was promply taken over by our very own Dave And Marti Mims, Kevin Howarth, and yours truly. All in all, we had a great time.

TechBridge is a nonprofit organization that helps other nonprofits leverage technology to better serve the community and Sophicity is proud to support their efforts in making Georgia a better place through technology.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Dave Mims, President
Joel Spolsky recently wrote an article for Inc. magazine about what differentiates prospering and failing companies today, and his title on the print version of the piece pretty much says it all: "It Isn't the Economy, Stupid." Joel outlines differentiators that some might consider common sense, "sweating the little things," or any number of other clichéd business terms, but I think he’s dead-on. 

It all comes down to character and fundamental corporate culture. Running a successful services company begins with looking out for your client’s best interest before your own, being very knowledgeable about what you offer, always being willing to help, and delivering quality each and every time. Great article, Joel!
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Allen Koronkowski, Practice Manager: Projects
USA.gov, the Federal Government's information site, has moved to a new cloud computing platform that they expect will reduce costs by up to 90% and streamline operations. What’s most interesting is not so much the technology but the shift in culture it took to move away from a basic web presence built around an in-house server model to the current cloud model.

Cities are starting to look at moving some of their services to a cloud-based environment and I suspect they will face many of the same cultural problems that were found at the Federal level. While cloud computing does represent a significant change in thinking, it is surmountable with good planning, education, and implementation.

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