Chattanooga hopes to eliminate all desktops with move to cloud

CIO Brent Messer details how the Tennessee city's adoption of Google Apps will help all government workers go mobile.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, Chief Information Officer Brent Messer is hoping to get every city agency to stop using desktop computers and go entirely mobile by the end of the year, and he thinks the city’s new move to the cloud will help him realize that ambitious goal.

The city started using Google Apps at the end of last year, and now Messer believes Chattanooga is on track to phase out all its desktops in favor of laptops, smartphones and tablets before the year is out.

“That’s kind of the pipe dream, because the uprights kind of shift every once in awhile, that’s how government works,” Messer told StateScoop. “It’s just all part of a whole strategy to get everybody mobile.”

Messer noted that the city has long had a liberal “bring your own device” policy for employees to help encourage this kind of shift, but he felt the government needed to get serious about using cloud services to truly make that vision a reality.


Accordingly, in late 2014, he said his team at the city’s Department of Information Technology started looking for a way to “push our commodity items like email and various systems that take a lot of time and effort to maintain in-house out into a cloud or managed service, something along those lines, and of course Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 both came up to the table.”

After meeting with both companies and a few months of debate, he said the department decided that Google was “hands-down the better choice.”

“It really just boiled down to the [fact that the] Apps platform really met more of what we were actually looking to do not short term, but long term,” Messer said. “Google’s spent millions and millions every year to grow their products and Microsoft tends to wait and play catch-up a lot of the time, so that was a consideration.”

Messer said the city devoted some time to “pre-emptive stuff” ahead of the migration, like deleting defunct user accounts and old files, and then was able to set to work moving to Google’s platform by summer 2015. By November, the city was ready to start using everything from Google Drive for cloud storage to Google Hangouts for virtual meetings.

“The turnaround time was quick, the return on investment was quick,” Messer said. “I get stopped constantly by people saying, ‘You know, I was hesitant about this Google change because I don’t know Google very well, but I’ll tell you, it’s been fantastic.’ Being able to communicate in real time has probably been the biggest benefit so far.”


[Read more: Chattanooga launches super-fast Internet service as private competition ramps up]

Indeed, Messer said the move to the cloud has been key for communication across the city’s various departments. Not only does Google’s video call capabilities make it easier for workers to telecommute, but Messer said the service is also key for emergency workers spread out around the city.

“The chief of police loves it, because he can get everybody in a room, whether they’re physically there or not, and hold an emergency meeting,” Messer said.

Similarly, he said that Google Drive has been hugely helpful for public works or transportation department staffers who need to access large files out in the field.

“You’d normally have to get onto a machine, get a VPN connection to a shared drive somewhere in our data center,” Messer said. “Now, they can pull something up and get a preview of it on their phone for most documents, if they just want a quick glance like ‘What was that third paragraph?’ So that’s been a big benefit for them.”


Even for something as mundane as city workers drafting a memo together in real-time using Google Docs, Messer said the switch has made a huge difference in making the city more efficient.

“To watch people’s faces when they can actually be on the same document at the same time with five different people watching the edits happen in real time, it’s such a time saver,” Messer said. “You don’t have to do what some of the departments were doing before, which is pick up the phone and call someone and say, ‘Hey can you close that document out on the shared drive, I need to get in there and edit something.’”

Messer noted that the move to Google is also encouraging more employees to start using their own devices, since it works across so many platforms. From the IT department’s perspective, the governance aspect of Google’s offering is a huge security boon as well, since Messer pointed out that if an employee leaves, his staff can “get all the city data off the phone, but leave their personal stuff intact.”

But as 2016 stretches on, Messer said his team is “looking for ways to integrate [Google] with other systems, especially with mobility in mind,” as they drive toward his vision of a desktop-free Chattanooga.

“Our job is to create value for the city, and the faster we do that, then the better off we are as a whole organization and Google has really helped us jump start that whole mentality,” Messer said.


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