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Security Goes Virtual in Corpus Christi, Texas

As Corpus Christi field personnel move toward the use of mobile technologies, the push is to provide a secure information resource wherever and whenever needed.

by / July 16, 2014

As technology advances, the balance between data sharing, mobility and cybersecurity necessitates a re-evaluation for IT security and collaboration that reaches beyond a jurisdiction's IT department. New equipment, skilled hackers and, often, shared networks are increasing exposure to cyberattacks and making the convenience of the cloud more challenging.

But Corpus Christi, Texas, may have found the solution.

Last September, the city deployed virtual desktop environments for mobile users as a replacement to remote access technologies. This virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) allows access to the same features and resources available on desktop computers to any device and in any location served by the city’s wireless network or other Internet connection.

“People want their stuff whenever and wherever they are,” said the city’s CIO, Mike Armstrong. “We also have a lot more tools that we can put in users’ hands or that they can bring themselves. We can provide the same desktop experience on whatever device they have.”

The city began experimenting with virtualized environments five years ago with its police department, which improved computing capability in vehicle-mounted computers. Today it is working in phases to extend the technology to all departments within the municipality.

Virtualization allows applications to operate as if they had dedicated hardware and storage resources. In reality, it shares resources with other applications. As the city’s field personnel move toward the use of mobile technologies, the push is to provide an information resource wherever and whenever needed.

Thus far, 300 devices have VDI capabilities, costing $100,000 to $150,000. In the next two to three years, the goal is to make VDI accessible on 2,500 devices. It is estimated that the total project will cost about $500,000.

VDI has cost-saving potential because it allows the use of inexpensive thin-client devices instead of desktop PCs while also extending the life of desktop systems. And it allows the use of less expensive tablet devices instead laptops. According to the city’s 2012-2014 strategic technology plan, a tablet with hardened protective covering costs approximately one-third as much as a field-equipped laptop. The department, which is funded through an allocation process, chose to pay for the project as it progresses. 

“We have started with water and gas departments as they are big GIS users,” Armstrong said. “GIS is a heavyweight application, and we can do updates for GIS in the field with mapping. If we need to work with a complex set of work requirements, we can do that in Word. Without the virtualization piece, it is just difficult to make enterprise applications available in the field.”

Before starting the initial phase of VDI adoption, the city included a range of stakeholders in the conversation, including the police department, the public safety support group, mobile workers, support staff, security staff and administrators. However, the city’s executives primarily drove the transition.

“They all liked iPads, but wanted the familiarity of the Windows environment,” Armstrong said. “Through virtualization, we could provide the Windows environment on the iPad. If it made them happy, then I am happy. It also fit well with where we want to take the organization, and we are aggressive with moving things to the cloud. It was a logical step for us.”

For executive employees, training occurred one-on-one. The training for field workers began with more technically advanced departments, which allowed early adopters to learn quickly.

“The training curve is not very high,” Armstrong said. “You log into the system, and you are using your desktop applications. We are starting with the right people, and we will catch up as we can afford to do that.”

Although the city has not yet conducted official surveys, Armstrong said that antidotal responses are positive.

Some of the executive employees use their own tablet devices; exempt employees use their own phones. If there's a phone assigned to a vehicle or piece of equipment, then the city supplies it. In other data-sharing environments, there can be myriad security risks when employees use personal devices. However, with VDI, the city protects enterprise data by never allowing it on the device -- it remains in the virtual environment. 

One of the goals of adopting VDI is to ease security concerns. With this model, there's no data on the portable devices. The city is only transporting screen images and keystrokes, which keeps the IT department from having to pay more attention than it wants to device management or worrying about lost devices. It also provides a single point of change. As government is continually asked to do more with fewer people, virtualization allows the IT staff to manage a half dozen servers instead of, in the case of Corpus Christi, 2,400 devices.

“This is something that we’re going to see a lot more in government as the older generation retires,” Armstrong said. “It is going to be difficult to replace those skills. It is only going to get worse. If we can reduce the management workload, then we can spend the resources we have somewhere that can be more effective.”

The city focuses its technology strategic plan at least two years ahead of the way it plans to move forward, and often, is driven by the availability of skills that it may not have in two to five years.

“Most of us in this business have been working in a stable environment in the last decade,” Armstrong said. “We have exciting changes going on. Now, the challenge is how to best use the new tools that are available, and it is kind of fun.”

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Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.

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