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Lessons Learned from Boston’s Move to the Cloud

Google App and SalesForce deployments are transforming city IT.

Rooted in tradition and yet forward thinking, Boston has always been a melting pot of historic culture and ingenuity in tech. The city won the Center for Digital Government’s Digital Cities Survey Award in 2013 and has extended its reach with cloud platforms such as Salesforce and Google Apps -- two centerpieces in Boston’s IT development strategy.

Despite hesitancy expressed by some states and municipalities -- still in a holding pattern on cloud stability and security -- Boston has embraced the cloud to equip employees and modernize older infrastructure. As a reference point, the city’s move to the cloud offers up best practices while providing a few reaffirming reasons behind cloud migration.

Justin Holmes, Boston’s interim CIO, is at the forefront of the city’s cloud use. Holmes took charge after Bill Oates, Boston’s former CIO, green-lighted both of the cloud platforms before he left to become CIO of Massachusetts. Holmes said cloud considerations are likely to factor into every major IT decision Boston makes in the near future.

"Clearly we've had a great experience with our Google implementation and we want to look to do more of that. With every major procurement we'll be considering if the cloud makes sense for that deployment,” Holmes said. The city completed a migration to the Google Apps platform in January of this year.

Holmes said cloud solutions may not be selected for every IT need, but they'll almost always be considered. "The benefits far outweigh any of the risks, at least for us," Holmes said.

Google Apps: Easy Infrastructure

The massive, yet successful, migration of the city’s 76,000 email accounts to Google Apps forms a foundation for Boston’s cloud emphasis. The move was a jump from Microsoft Exchange to Google for every city department, its 50,000 public school students and -- most notably -- for its police department staff. (Law enforcement communication typically has been a cloud deal-breaker due to security fears).

Patrick Collins, the senior project manager for Boston’s Google project, said Google was selected because of the platform's simple efficiency and its short and long-term financial savings. When costs were tallied, Collins said a Microsoft cloud deployment would have required an expensive IT infrastructure upgrade for departments with older systems and technologies.

Both Collins and Holmes cited stakeholder communication and an “extensive” RFP -- along with an associated Request for Information (the vendor research process) -- as project pillars.

“Change is hard, and I think change in government is harder," Holmes said. "So I think having a well formed plan for communication and change management is incredibly important."

Now, a little more than seven months into the city’s use of Google Apps, accessibility to email communication and shared documents stands out as a major benefit for staff, according to the city. The latest example of this manifested itself during the weekend of April 12-13 when Boston powered down its data center for servicing.

While the city’s major applications were temporarily suspended, Collins said the city’s email and document access was never interrupted, a benefit stemming from the city’s dual access to servers.

“It's a major undertaking in an organization of this size to shut down a data center and then bring it all back up, meaning 800 servers going down and back up in less than 24 hours," Collins said.

SalesForce: Keeping It Centered

Those familiar with Salesforce cloud platform know it's a name that’s become synonymous for data management. As Boston’s second major cloud platform, Salesforce’s data management tools were added about two years ago to Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development. The department is staffed with 150 people in five divisions and tasked to manage Boston’s real-estate portfolio, small business development efforts, housing development programs, and supportive housing initiatives that provide aid to homeless and near-homeless residents.

The purpose in Salesforce, says Devin Quirk, the department’s director of operations, was to weave the department’s various lines of communications, accounts and record-keeping chores into one structured information hub.

"The story is really about how we take old-fashioned back-end systems, Access databases and those types of things, and transition to transformational tools for our neighborhoods and businesses,” Quirk said.

As a preamble to a full department rollout, Salesforce was first deployed within the department’s Office of Business Development in the form of a portal site called the Boston Business Hub, a vehicle to automate and expedite the answering of incoming questions through the Web. The hub takes visitors through guided questionnaires, channels business owners to city resources, and provides educational material on permitting and licensing. Quirk said the portal was transformational, turning extended waits into next-day responses and increasing online inquiries by 40 percent.

"We get back to you within one business day, and that's something that we weren't even able to track before," Quirk said.

Staff members have handled the transition fairly well, considering the volume of change. Speaking for his department, Quirk said many employees are already familiar with Google Apps from personal use. Salesforce isn’t as widely known; however, comparing its efficiency to older data entry programs is an easy sell to staff.

"Change is not always met with enthusiasm in government, but in this case it's been going very smoothly … these cloud-based tools are becoming really standard, so we can bring in people who have experience with them and can really champion their use,” Quirk said.

The department is riding the cloud momentum and plans to gradually apply the Salesforce platform to all its divisions. Taking it a step further, Boston has called upon Cirrus Insight, a cloud app company based in Orange County, Calif., to merge both the Salesforce and Google App platforms together through a sidebar window in Google’s email app. The window allows city staff to sync both platform calendars together, edit and create Salesforce accounts, sync contact details, and save emails and attachments.

"I think it comes down to transparency around how we're keeping in touch with our customers and interacting with our customers,” Quirk said. “We wanted there to be one record with all the interactions we've had with a customer around a particular project."

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.