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Mecklenburg County extends employees' mobility, security

While many government organizations struggle to implement and manage basic mobility programs, one county in North Carolina is reaping millions of dollars in savings by doubling down and further equipping an already highly mobile workforce.

Mecklenburg County is home to 990,977 residents as of the last census. It's a predominantly urban environment, home to the city of Charlotte, making it the most densely populated county in North Carolina. Although there are a few smaller towns at the edge of the county borders, the nation's 17th largest city dominates most of the 546 square miles of the state's inland province. That gives Mecklenburg's officials a bit of an advantage when it comes to mobility programs because there aren't vast tracks of rural farmland or areas of sparse infrastructure within its domain.

Technical Services Director for Mecklenburg County Cliff DuPuy said that almost 3,300 county employees already carry smartphones, with 80 percent of those running iOS and the rest running Android. The devices are all setup to act as mobile hotspots, so no employee is ever out of touch while working.

"We are one of the largest Verizon Wireless customers," DuPuy said. "And all the phones are issued and configured by the county. We don’t allow any BYOD programs."

With thousands of employees carrying around mobile hotspots, Mecklenburg was in a unique position to fix some of the problems its mobile workers were having in the field. Case workers in the Department of Youth and Family Services were facing the most challenges because they are required to fill out forms to help county residents seeking aid. Much of that information is confidential, and some is protected by HIPAA regulations. Yet, even within this highly mobile county, the handling of forms was fairly low tech.

"Case workers had to come into the office to print their files out," DuPuy said. "Then they would visit all their clients, record the results on paper and keep those forms inside their vehicles before eventually coming back into the office to process them."

Besides security concerns with the confidential forms riding around the county in the back seat of case workers’cars, DuPuy said it simply wasn't an efficient process. It made workers much less productive, reduced their morale and made no provision to allow for them to respond to emergency calls quickly, since they frequently had to return to the office to access a computer, process their work or to print out new blank forms.

The county needed a mobile platform with enough processing power and security to handle the forms. But because employees already carried Internet hotspots with them everyday, the county’s available options were expanded.

Mecklenburg ended up choosing Microsoft Surface Pro tablets to equip their social workers. DuPuy said that the tablets were chosen because they are lightweight and can run a full version of Windows, which fit in well with plans to upgrade their backend infrastructure to Microsoft Office 365. The county has so far deployed 800 tablets and hopes to purchase at least 500 more by the end of the year. Those will go to everyone from restaurant inspectors to medical examiners who can make use of the touchscreen to process forms and other information on the road. The county also deployed 6,258 seats of Microsoft Office 365 to employees as part of their upgrade program.

"Office 365 allows us to push security policies out to all devices," DuPuy said. "And it gives each user a big 50 gigabyte mailbox for e-mail. All mail is now scanned for HIPPA and proprietary data before being sent, and the Microsoft Mail Protection Report shows us everything going on with our exchange server including what users are doing and the top malware attacks that are hitting us. It's a complete package."

Part of that package is that confidential data no longer travels in workers’ vehicles because Mecklenburg also implemented Microsoft Azure for cloud storage. Case workers can grab the forms they need on their devices in the field, fill them out and send the data back to the office in an encrypted format. No data is kept on the tablets at all, so if a device is ever misplaced or stolen, no data is lost. The Surface Pro tablets are also protected with BitLocker Drive Encryption, which lets DuPuy send out a code to brick a stolen device if needed, just to be on the safe side.

The move to Azure ended up saving Mecklenburg money outright. Before moving to the service, the county was paying $21 per gigabyte for disaster recovery storage at a data center in Raleigh, N.C. That fee was paid no matter if the data stored there was ever used or not. With Azure, Mecklenburg pays $50,000 per year for 150 terabytes of storage, or about 30 cents per gigabyte. If nothing happens to warrant the use of that data, then that is the total fixed cost for the entire year. In the event of a disaster, or as the county uses its data in the cloud, it pays an additional three cents per gigabyte to pull the data back out.

Mecklenburg's move to Azure also allowed it to clear out a lot of rack space in its own data center. Now, most files are stored encrypted in a 4U StorSimple hybrid SAN. The StorSimple device monitors storage use and follows a set of rules to keep everything uncluttered and backed up, such as automatically moving documents to the Azure cloud if they have not been accessed in a few weeks, or deleting records that are over seven years old.

DuPuy estimates that pulling out of the Raleigh data center and shutting down the fiber lines that served it, plus eliminating rack space in their own server rooms, when coupled with the lower cost of Azure overall, is saving Mecklenburg about $500,000 per year.

The other big savings comes from the use of the tablets. Those include fixed costs of between $300 and $700 saved per user from not having to deploy laptops and desktops to its mostly mobile social workers who are newly armed with the Surface Pros. And because the case workers are hourly employees, the fact that they aren't driving back and forth to the office allows them to service many more clients, more quickly. As such, the Youth and Family Services Department is reporting $3.2 million in productivity savings per year since implementing the new strategy.

But DuPuy says the most rewarding thing for him is to hear from the case workers themselves, who say they enjoy their jobs much more now and have extra energy to devote to the people who need them. "That’s really amazing to hear, and humbling for us IT folks," DuPuy said.

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