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Friday, January 27, 2012

Local governments opt for cloud-based information storage

By Serena Maria Daniels / The Detroit News

Macomb County is joining governments throughout Metro Detroit and elsewhere in the country in dumping antiquated tech systems and turning to cost-effective, cloud-based technology from providers such as Google, AT&T, Microsoft and IBM.

The cloud refers to Internet-based computing in which users can store and access information and data as it happens in real time from any Web-enabled device. Rather than paying to store data in costly hardware or software, customers of cloud services can pay on a contractual basis and have the benefit of the companies' IT departments to maintain the infrastructure.

The Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds Office is testing recording Macomb County Board of Commissioners meetings that use cloud-based Google apps.

"Anything we can do to make things run more efficiently, that's what we're doing," said Macomb County Clerk Carmella Sabaugh.

Robert Ferrari, director of digital strategy for Michigan Municipal League, said information technology upgrades are a big investment for cash-strapped jurisdictions.

"They have to buy servers, backup and hardware, where with the cloud you can kind of rent or pay on a monthly basis. You don't have the cost of having to update that infrastructure to stay current. That's what the big boys are for — the AT&Ts, the Googles, the Microsofts — to provide that support," Ferrari said.

The University of Michigan recently began rolling out Google Apps for Education, a free service to the campus's 90,000 students, faculty and staff. The university is to pay $1.8 million for initial merger assistance, but in the long-term will save $750,000 a year.

"We're driving out infrastructure costs but providing much higher service," said Laura Patterson, the university's chief information officer.

Dave Girouard, Google's vice president for apps product management, said the university's switch does more than help the campus save money. It helps to redefine the school's sense of community.

"Imagine yourself writing a term paper with a team of people. You can edit the same document at the same time from all over the world," Girouard said.

Elsewhere in Metro Detroit, municipalities saved big when they made the switch to cloud-based technology services.

Monroe County saved itself the cost of replacing its existing platform when it made the switch to Google Apps for Government last year, while Rochester Hills expects to save $50,000 over six years because officials there opted for Google instead of maintaining its old email system about a year ago. And Sterling Heights agreed to pay $2,400 for an AT&T-based cloud system to store data, about 10 percent of the cost of purchasing a new data storage device.

But cloud-based services like Google are not universally accepted by governments.

When Macomb County officials a year ago began researching the best method to replace its existing Novell GroupWise technology, the Sheriff's Office expressed concerns over security.

"I'm all for saving money and doing what's right on the taxpayer side, but until we have assurances that information is going to be sent securely, we're going to stay on the GroupWise platform," said Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, who is concerned about emailing criminal information, driver's license records and addresses.

Girouard said Google has been working with jurisdictions all over the country to address such concerns.

The clerk's office has been excited to have the virtual help. Since nearly $1 million was cut from the clerk's 2009-2010 budget, resulting in cuts to 20 positions, the office has had to seek out more efficient ways to help the department function.

"I think we're going in the right direction," Sabaugh said. "I think with the budget being what it is, there is not a whole bunch of extra money, but with Google we are able to make it work."

smdaniels@detnews.com

(313) 222-2175