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California Agency Embraces Mobility, Cloud Computing

The state's Public Utilities Commission is using the Open Campus application to give employees wireless access as well as virtual desktops and diskless laptops to ensure data security.

"We are custodians of the data. We maintain data integrity, backup, and recovery. The only data going back and forth is the key strokes," said Darren Hans Bobella, PUC's senior information systems analyst.

Users log in through captive portal software, currently an Aruba system that routes the user to an authentication system, even if he's trying to go somewhere else. Once logged in, standard Microsoft Office applications and e-mail are available; instant messaging is provided through the Barracuda Networks VPN, said Bobella.

The Open Campus application allows PUC employees to travel between San Francisco headquarters and the Sacramento and Los Angeles offices, using the same thin client and getting their own desktop services loaded onto it. If the laptop is lost, no commission data is lost with it. When the diskless laptop is shut down, the Terminal Services or VM running on it disappears. The user needs to reconnect and reload at the start of the next session.

The security that follows such a model is a big advantage, said Bobella. It has many pluses, but, like the desktop hardware that preceded it, it requires maintenance in the form of frequent updates to applications and personalized customizations of the virtual desktops. "Maintaining VM images is almost as much work as maintaining physical desktops," he explained.

Bobella is in the process of making Open Campus available to its first 300 users; he expects 500 in five months, and the full PUC staff of 1,200 in 18 months. "The biggest problem is user acceptance" of the diskless laptop as a replacement for their PC hardware. But so far, when the advantages are demonstrated to a group or department, employees line up to be equipped with it, he says.

He's giving employees who choose it the chance to work with open source OpenOffice. By experimenting with it on their own, users are providing IT with valuable feedback on how well it works in the PCU's work environment without imposing any training costs on IT.

"We are looking at more open source tools and applications as appropriate," Bobella said.

Successful implementations of open source apps are likely to find a ready audience among California state agencies. Although Lawson said the utilities commission was exempt from budget cuts, there was an air of anxiety at the Conference on California's Future, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned of drastic measures if budget reforms don't pass with the electorate May 19 and many state departments were showing how they were trying to hold the line on costs.

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