Mobile County, Ala., thinks different

Have you ever wondered what an Apple shop looks like? If so, take a look at the Mobile County, Ala., district attorney's office: It has about 100 employees, all of them using Apple MacBooks or MacBook Pro computers, according to Lisa Lemler, the technology administrator for the office.

"We've been 100 percent Mac since 1994 and we'll stay that way," she said.

In the world of government information technology, the overwhelming majority of offices run in a Microsoft Windows-based personal computing environment. While Apple Macintosh computers purportedly have security and ease-of-use advantages (as well as a price premium) over their Microsoft brethren, only recently, it seems, have government agencies and other organizations considered their use.

Would it be possible to run an environment with all Apple hardware? The Mobile County D.A.'s office shows how it could be done.

The head of the office, District Attorney John M. Tyson Jr., has endeavored to have his office do more than execute the typical D.A. duties of prosecuting lawbreakers. It also also helps the broader community whenever possible, through innovative programs such as an early warning truancy alert system, a bad-check notification program and a program that provides a haven for unwanted newborn infants. The idea is to avert behaviors that can lead individuals down the criminal path.

"Our job is [providing] peace and dignity," Tyson said. "Once we do the traditional job of arrest and incarceration, that puts us in the prevention business."

How does Apple help in this regard? For one, Tyson said, the computers establish an environment for employees to think more creatively about their work. While you may not think of lawyers as creative types, the jobs they do require a fair mount of innovation. "There are few people as creative as lawyers preparing their cases for trial and assembling their facts and various bits of evidence for their arguments," Tyson said.

Having an operating system that supports a creative environment helps the agency tackle novel problems with greater ingenuity. Apple Macs and their software have long been loved by creative types — a factor that is perhaps hard to quantify but easy to establish nonetheless by the degree of enthusiasm expressed over the machines by their users.

Perhaps just as importantly, Apple also helps relieve the burden of system administration.

The IT staff of the office is limited to three individuals, so the use of Apple helps streamline a lot of the low-level configuration duties that often besiege Microsoft Windows or Unix administrators. The Macs are "ready-to-go out of the box," Lemler said. The office has had a wireless local area network set up for the past eight years, which is also easy to maintain.

Instead of Active Directory and Microsoft Exchange Server, the department uses Apple Open Directory and Apple Mail Server. Like Active Directory, Open Directory is based on the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, an open standard for authenticating users to work on files within a network. Apple Mail Server, which uses Internet Message Access Protocol, has also shown to be easy to administer, at least for smaller offices such as this one.

"Information is granted based on the account on the laptop, so someone can't come in from the outside and jump on the network" Lemler said.

Another office necessity was calendaring. The employees have participated in a fair number of workgroups, so the ability to schedule meetings and share meeting-time information was a must. When Apple introduced its iCal server in 2002, which provides group calendaring, the office switched over to that software. As a result, it saved about $7,500 a year in licensing costs from what it was paying to use Now Software's Up-to-Date and Contact application.

Elsewhere in this Apple environment, FileMaker Pro provides the database. The version of Microsoft Office for Macs is the office productivity suite in use here. And, for administration duties, the tech team uses Apple Remote Desktop for updates and troubleshooting.

Security has been another reason that this office has stayed loyal to Apple, although Tyson admits that the advantage was borne of serendipity.

"We actually did not know the security advantage until we got into it, but for years and years and years we have benefited from the security offered to us by the systems. It's been a wonderful advantage that we didn't know about," he said. (The current configuration of the OS X operating system is based on a Unix operating system kernel, which sets stricter permissions on the actions users -- or their programs -- may perform).

Tyson said the only pain point brought about by the use of a nondominant computer system came with file format challenges, such as when the office received documents in obscure file formats that weren't supported, especially obscure audio and video formats. When such a document would show up, someone in the office would then have to go through the manual process of converting the document into a usable format through a PC.

File formats used to be a bigger problem than it is now, Tyson admitted. Microsoft Office documents now work seamlessly across both PCs and Macs, and a lot more people use Web-based formats that can be understood by all computers.

"With people going more and more Web based, it is a nonissue," Tyson said.

Price-wise, the office uses the Apple's leasing program,which allows all the computers and software to be swapped out every three years. The equipment is covered by an Apple three-year warranty.

"In order to marshal the resources necessary to [take on our] fights, we have to reach well beyond the limitations of our agency," Tyson said. "You can immediately see the advantages of having a robust and clever technology that allows successful communicate across the board."

NEXT STORY: FileMaker Pro 10

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