Arlington County, Va., CIO Jack Belcher discusses the challenges and benefits of the county’s ongoing migration to Microsoft Office 365.
With last week’s official launch of Office 365 — Microsoft’s cloud-based service that brings together the company’s popular productivity suite, SharePoint and Exchange — some government agencies might decide that moving those common applications to the cloud is a sensible step. But first, many agencies likely will find some preparatory work is needed for a successful migration.
Such was the case for Arlington County, Va., an Office 365 early adopter. The county started its migration in early June, moving 6,000 e-mail accounts and Microsoft applications to the cloud in a phased rollout, said Arlington County CIO and IT Director Jack Belcher.
Like any early adoption of a new product, there have been speed bumps along the way. Belcher likened the process to moving from a single-family home to a condominium, where there are rules and regulations.
“Moving into the cloud is very similar — so we had done things that were specific to the county and they fit our needs,” Belcher said. “But when you move into the cloud, you have to modify, you have to make sure everything is ready to move into the cloud.”
Belcher said early in the migration process some users experienced connection delays. At first blush, Belcher thought the delays were triggered by the county IT network. But after process of elimination, he discovered users who didn’t have the latest versions of Microsoft Office on their computers were the ones experiencing connection delays.
As a result, the county needed to ensure that earlier versions of software such as Office 2003 had been updated to Office 2010. To migrate to Office 365, the county computers required Office 2007 and 2010 versions, but Office 2010 is the preferred platform, Belcher said.
Office 365 is available as both an entirely browser-based option or in a full office-client option. Arlington County runs Office 365 with the full office-client option, said Bob Ballard, government IT strategy adviser for Microsoft state and local government, in a statement.
“Most enterprise customers like Arlington County feel they need the capabilities of the full office client to meet their business needs,” Ballard said. “Some will choose browser only, some will choose full client only, and many will choose a mixture of both.”
An enterprise-level cloud migration has security ramifications for sensitive e-mail that shouldn’t be accessible online. Arlington County’s enterprise migration included the county Sheriff’s Office.
But at the county jail, e-mail accounts for sheriff's deputies aren’t accessible over the Internet because an inmate conceivably could hack into a deputy’s e-mail account.
“It was almost like an oxymoron,” Belcher said. “How do you provide Internet e-mail access, which is based in the Internet, without getting them to go to the Internet? That was an anomaly we didn’t know we’d run into.”
To remedy the problem, the county reconfigured the Microsoft terminal server to provide deputies with secure e-mail access, he said.
About 600 Arlington County employees use BlackBerrys on the job. But currently, BlackBerrys don’t integrate with Office 365. While Microsoft works to integrate the devices to the Office 365 platform, Arlington plans to partner with Notify Technology Corp. for its NotifySync application to allow BlackBerry users to continue receiving their e-mail.
According to the company, NotifySync directly connects BlackBerrys to e-mail platforms while interfacing with the device’s calendar, address book and task applications.
Belcher said the county plans to purchase NotifySync licenses for county employees who plan to keep their BlackBerrys as their work cell phones. Belcher is also planning to implement a BlackBerry buy-back program and distribute Androids and iPhones instead in an effort to cut costs.
Although Arlington’s migration isn’t complete, Belcher said the county is already reaping the benefits from moving its e-mail and Office applications into the cloud.
Previously employees had limited e-mail space. In the cloud, the county has 25 GB of mail storage per user. The county is still in the process of integrating SharePoint, but the end result will be beneficial for collaboration purposes across agencies, Belcher said.
Arlington County isn’t the only government entity using Microsoft’s cloud. University of Nebraska-Lincoln President James B. Milliken announced last month that the university will migrate its e-mail and calendaring to Office 365 and as a result, reduce annual costs by 50 percent.
“A robust, reliable, effective and secure email system is critical to the operation of the modern university,” Milliken said in a statement.