Government Technology
By Carl Drescher: Technology trends and their impacts on the provision of government services.

The Lay of the Land

September 29, 2008 By Carl Drescher

tucson3.jpg Before we get too far into the trenches, I would like to put things a bit into perspective and lay out a little about what we have done at the City of Tucson.  A lot of what will be written here is from the experiences that we have encountered implementing technological solutions.  We have planned well and we have also been extremely fortunate to have city managers over the years who understood the value of technology.

For those not familiar the City of Tucson is the second largest City in Arizona.  It spans an area of 250 square miles and has a population of approximately 547,000 making it the 30th largest City in the United States. The city employs approximately 6000 people not including the uniform police and fire personnel.  Tucson has placed in the top ten of the Digital Cities survey each of the last 7 years.

The City embarked on its broadband strategy in 1999, and over the last 9 years has created a robust communication network. This network interconnects all major city facilities such as fire stations, police stations, libraries, community and recreation centers.  The technologies used are a combination of wired and wireless.  A fiber optic backbone encompassing approximately 500 miles of fiber is connected redundantly as OC-48 and OC-12 SONET rings, and gigabit Ethernet pipes.  An OC-3 digital microwave network provides connections to sites that are not accessible via fiber.  The city has a wireless mesh network (for municipal use only) that covers all 250 square miles of the city. This mesh network was built as part of a project call ER-Link that provides video from a paramedic unit (while in transit) to the local trauma center.

The city owns, manages, and maintains the network.  This network is used by other government and quasi governmental agencies at a cost that is less than contracting these services from a provider.  The city currently has service contracts with the local community college, the county, and a local school district to provide wide area networking services across this network

The city continues to take advantage of this infrastructure for the provision of technologies and applications that offer a greater level of service and reduce costs.  Some examples include: VOIP, NOVA (our CRM implementation), streaming video, traffic signal management, and a number of e-services.  In the final testing and implementation phase are projects that provide GIS information to utility workers and first responders in the field, wireless applications for permitting and fire inspections, and consolidation of data centers.

Some other high profile projects that are in progress are:  use of open source software, outsourcing of the city payroll application, ITIL, a countywide public safety radio system, and the expansion of the city network to be a regional system.   

This obviously is a very general overview of technology and projects in Tucson. These are not unique initiatives, they are common to most municipalities and counties.  As we explore each of these over the next few months, I welcome your experiences, both good and bad as they relate to these technologies and initiatives.

Photo by Joe Brent. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

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The Data Center of the Future?

September 15, 2008 By Carl Drescher

An interesting article in the Times Online  about a solution proposed by Google for their new data centers. 

According to the article, Google is considering deploying the supercomputers necessary to operate their Internet search engines on barges anchored up to seven miles (11km) offshore.

The floating data centers could use wave energy to power and cool their computers. And if they had an "offshore status," the company would no longer have to pay property taxes on its data center properties around the world, an additional saving.

I have heard about the generation of electrical power from the motion generated from ocean waves, but this certainly solves issues associated with current data centers: power costs and cooling. 

While there are a whole hosts of issues associated with a scenario such as this that must be addressed, (and yes I know that Google is looking to address legal issues as well) but from a technical perspective I am interested to know what your thoughts are regarding the use of data barges as future data centers.

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The Cost of Wireless

September 9, 2008 By Carl Drescher

Municipalities and counties have come to realize the value of wireless networks for, among other benefits, communicating with field workers and providing a better level of constituent services. While the discussion of these networks has evolved away from "free" to the understanding that implementing these networks must be funded by the local jurisdiction, there are a number of operational costs and requirements that are initially overlooked as part of the need analysis and justifications. Some of these overlooked items are:

Maintenance: Most wireless networks pose a major problem for municipalities in that they require continuous maintenance. Access points are mounted on light posts or traffic signals which are susceptible to the elements, wildlife, and the occasional stray vehicle that veers off the road and takes out one of these mounting devices. In Tucson we have even found that our devices and aerial fiber cable have been used as targets for those who cannot make it to the local shooting ranges. While some will have the staff and equipment to replace and fix this equipment, others will have to outsource this function.

Staff Training: Most staff are not experienced in managing and supporting wireless networking equipment. Using Tucson as an example our network engineers are trained and experienced supporting switches and routers. In our case we not only would need to spend a considerable amount of money to train staff, but we need to hire 2 new staff members who (once trained) would be dedicated to supporting and managing the wireless network. Again the alternative to building this in house capability is to contract for these services.

Administration and Monitoring: Along with the addition of and training of staff, there are costs associated with the tools necessary to appropriately monitor and administer the network.

Technology refreshes and upgrades: As with all technology wireless components have a fairly short life cycle and their upgrade and/or replacement must be planned for and funded. You can bet that the wireless network will become as critical as your wired network and the demand from applications for bandwidth and functionality, not to mention the demands from the first responder needs, will not allow anyone to consider a life cycle of more that 3 or 4 years.

Addition of new applications: Adding new applications to the network or expanding its reach can result in significant costs if not planned for initially. Depending on the network design and concentration of access points new applications might require additional access points, this will require additional backhaul, and gateway locations. While a laptop might indicate that you can "see" the wireless network the wireless radios built into most laptops might not send a strong enough signal to be received by the access points without some sort of signal amplification. Networks that were built with one application in mind will invariably require re-architecting and more equipment as other applications are introduced.

As with all technology projects the ongoing operational and maintenance costs should be analyzed upfront and budgeted for, While wireless technology can be very effective in extending the reach of a network and access to applications and information where and when needed, without the proper care and feeding wireless networks can also quickly become a white elephant.

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In the Trenches
Carl Drescher

One of the constants regarding technology is that it is constantly changing. New technologies have the potential to change the way communities are governed. This blog will discuss some of these technological trends and how they are advancing government at all levels.

Please join in on the conversation so we might all learn from each other.