One of Minnesota’s “Twin Cities” will soon be the first municipal user of the state’s new cloud-based email service.
St. Paul, Minn., is transitioning its 3,300 city email inboxes to the state’s Microsoft Office 365 cloud platform. The project, which should be complete by early June, will give the city 24-hour technical support supplied by the state and a more reliable communications system.
Andrea Casselton, director of St. Paul’s Office of Technology and Communications, said the project is “very close” to being done. Announced last August, St. Paul is the first Minnesota city to enter into an agreement with the state for shared email services. The city had to wait to start work until its new budget cycle began in January, but the process is moving along.
Casselton explained that a number of background tasks are now in progress, including making sure the city’s Active Directory — which authorizes users and computers in a network — is structured properly and in-sync with the state. Overall, she felt that the move to the state’s cloud would be a positive one for the city, allowing it to address the needs of employees and expectations of residents as technology becomes more of a way of life in the region.
“One of the reasons we are moving to the state is the fact they can provide 24-hour support,” Casselton said. “That’s just not something we can do. We’re too small of a shop to provide that level of support.”
So far, the project has gone smoothly. Casselton said an email archival system has yet to be chosen, but the city would likely go with the state’s, chiefly because the city’s equipment is at the end of its life cycle and staying on it would require a bigger investment.
She added that St. Paul also has to make a decision regarding its email retention policy, as the city’s differs from Minnesota’s.
But other than resolving those issues, Casselton didn’t expect any hiccups as the process moves on this spring and employee email accounts are moved over to the state. Each account will have its email contacts and a one-year calendar transferred over.
Employees will have a chance to forward any active emails they are interested in retaining from the old mailbox to the new. Older mail will be archived and accessible using the archival system.
City employees currently use Novell GroupWise for their email client, so before the new system goes live, a training period will be established for workers to familiarize themselves with Microsoft Outlook. Casselton expected that training to go quickly, however, as many workers are already familiar with Outlook.
From a financial standpoint, Casselton said St. Paul’s transition to Minnesota’s cloud-based email system doesn’t help the city’s bottom line as much as one might expect. She explained that the shared services agreement won’t be less expensive than what the city now budgets for its current email system.
The difference however, is in the need for the expanded support services. With that need factored in, the move to the state’s shared email services makes better fiscal sense than adding more city-employed IT personnel to provide that technical support.
For St. Paul’s IT staff, the key benefit of moving email services to Minnesota’s cloud platform is shifting the workload. Casselton said that like many cities facing budgetary problems, her staff has been downsized over the course of the last few years, leaving everyone overbooked on projects.
The shared services agreement with the state will give city IT workers a little breathing room and enable them to be more proactive, rather than reactive when it comes technology.
“It frees up our staff from those mundane, break-fix tasks and allows them to focus more on the bigger picture and maybe exploring new technology and doing more strategic work,” Casselton said.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.