By embracing SaaS, Milwaukee County refocuses on constituents
- By John Breeden II
- Jul 24, 2014
Milwaukee County in eastern Wisconsin covers over 1,190 square miles, encompassing the city of Milwaukee and 17 other smaller towns. The county government’s 3,500 employees provide services to its 955,000 residents that range from maintaining General Mitchell International Airport, managing the award-winning Milwaukee County Zoo, and operating all the standard services of a big municipality, from law enforcement to trash collection.
But despite the size of the infrastructure, the technology backbone the county was using was aging and not interconnected in efficient or productive ways.
When county chief technology officer Nicholas Wojciechowski came to the county over two years ago, he was surprised that many basic services that other jurisdictions might take for granted were not in place.
“We wasted a lot of time trying to do things like scheduling a meeting because [a network] service wasn’t available,” he said. “So people would call one another and do things like that manually.”
Milwaukee had standardized on Lotus Notes for email and was using Domino databases for keeping track of contacts. The county was also still maintaining a fleet of PCs running Microsoft Windows XP, which were due for upgrading. According to Wojciechowski, a pending technology refresh of the desktops provided a unique opportunity to also upgrade its backend systems.
One of the more far-reaching options available to the county – a plan that was eventually adopted – was to upgrade the backend completely, making use of software as a service where possible and doing away with the county’s aging server-based infrastructure.
Stuart McKee, Microsoft’s chief technology officer for state and local government, said cloud-based solutions like Microsoft Office 365 are a good choice for municipal governments because all the backend IT is handled by the software provider, freeing up the agency to concentrate on using the tools to interact with users instead.
“What agencies get with a cloud platform from Microsoft is Tier 1 functionality, including the technical staff, infrastructure, network distributed technology and solutions with no need to maintain local resources,” McKee said.
As is the case with many big counties, Milwaukee’s workforce is highly heterogeneous, staffed with zookeepers and airport ground crews, as well as sheriff’s department officers and health workers. Many of those staffers use data that falls under strict regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) or the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) mandate.
Under the old system, data handling rules were maintained with third party programs that added complexity to an already strained system. When Office 365 was implemented, McKee said, many county employees with special requirements received automated compliance updates.
And those who weren’t cleared had their data secured anyway since many compliance protections are seamless and automatic. “Things like HIPPA compliance are not always a one stop shop,” McKee said, “But with FIPS 140-2 encryption of all data, as well as things like digital rights management built in, it makes compliance a lot easier.”
Yet even with automated protection in place for employees who needed it, Wojciechowski said he was still concerned that the transition from the old platform would be a long process that might confuse users. To help alleviate those concerns, the county decided that older email data would simply not be migrated to the new system.
Six months before the transition to Office 365, test accounts were set up for every employee who would eventually use the new system. They could log in, experiment with sending test emails and try out new functions like looking to see if colleagues were free for meetings. They could also experiment with Office programs like Word, Excel and PowerPoint offered in the new environment since the full Office 2013 suite would be included as part of the upgrade.
“We did it that way [so] we didn’t have to deal with mail migration,” Wojciechowski said. “I’ve gone through that before and what happens is that you can have a five nines successful (99.999 percent) migration, and you still end up spending days on a few problems. This way we could deal with everything that was needed during the test period and be ready for a fresh rollout with no problems on day one.”
The county has since eliminated half a dozen servers that used to host services under the old system. Most of the older desktop systems running Windows XP have also been eliminated and upgraded as well. The county maintains one server in its local IT department that houses a read-only archive of email collected under the older Notes platform. The new Office 365 program has been running for about six months, and eventually, Wojciechowski said, the archive server will be eliminated too, though they maintain it for now to make sure that nothing necessary was left behind.
According to Wojciechowski, the county’s future plans include training all users on how to use some of the advanced services available under the Office 365 platform, such as Lync, SharePoint and Team Site, all of which are available with the new cloud services.
Wojciechowski said that there were no surprises with the upgrade beyond users having to figure out the differences between Notes and Exchange for some functions, though most of those were worked out during the trial period before the rollout.
“We’ve been getting great feedback from users,” he said. “My favorite one said that they were glad that the county was finally moving into the 21st century. That one made me really happy.”