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Chicago Picks Microsoft Cloud For Email

CIO Brett Goldstein says Chicago's 30,000 civil servants will migrate from their current email and desktop applications to Microsoft 365.

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Six months ago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel asked CIO Brett Goldstein to bring the Windy City into the digital age. The most visible example of Goldstein's digital sprint came in the first week of January with an announcement that the city was shifting its 30,000 employees to cloud-based email and desktop applications based on the Microsoft 365 office cloud.

Cloud computing, which often seems too much hype and too little reality, is starting to capture real customers. And government organizations, cities in particular, are paying attention and starting to sign up for cloud services. Chicago, a city not known for being trendy for trend's sake, is the latest to make a big cloud commitment.

Chicago officials said they are migrating the city's 30,000 civil servants from their current email and desktop applications to Microsoft 365. The win is important for Microsoft, which is locked in competition with Google and Amazon over signing customers into their cloud-based environments.

[ Chicago is only the latest to choose Microsoft for cloud services. Read EPA Chooses Cloud For Email. ]

The decision to use a cloud service and the selection of Microsoft started last June and culminated in the January announcement. The selection process "took much longer than I would have liked," said Goldstein, who started in his position last June following a career that included stints both with the Chicago police department and in private industry as the director of IT at OpenTable Inc.

Although it might seem like a remarkable achievement to make in just six months a decision that would affect every city employee and citizen coming into contact with the city, "CIOs have to recognize that things have changed," said Goldstein, and challenging the status quo of aging infrastructures is part of that change.

"When I embarked on this journey, one of the things I came in with was I did not accept the 'this is good enough for government work' concept," said Goldstein. His mandate as developed by Mayor Emanuel was to modernize the IT infrastructure and offer the city's business and citizens the best digital services. Other digital initiatives on Goldstein's agenda include widespread broadband access, big data initiatives around more effective policing, mobile-based transportation alerts, and easier citizen access to government information and processes.

Although the city employees were already using Microsoft's applications, that was not the deciding factor in going with Office 365, said Goldstein. The user interface, the application development environment and, perhaps most importantly, security services were all part of the decision process, he said. Goldstein said he used a security expert to thoroughly review the cloud offering to make sure it would meet privacy and compliance concerns.

The choices governments make in computing environments provides a window into the vendor selection process often not available in private industry. Transparency regulations, for example, can shed light on pricing that private industry is not required to provide. The Chicago selection of the Microsoft cloud will see the city consolidating three previously disparate email systems into one Office 365 environment. That consolidation is expected to provide more than $1.3 million in cost savings over the next four years, which represents an 80% decrease in cost per employee, according to a blog by Michael Donlan, VP of U.S. state and local government at Microsoft. That savings estimate was echoed by Mayor Emanuel, who claimed the move to the cloud represented a $400,000-per-year savings for Chicago taxpayers.

"It is not just the cost of the software, it is the reduction in the total IT operations costs" that make the cloud option attractive to governmental organizations, said Donlan in an interview. For many smaller cities that do not have large technology staffs, cloud computing provides enterprise capabilities without the infrastructure investment, said Donlan. When asked which other cities had signed up for the Microsoft services, Donlan cited San Francisco, Minneapolis, Newark, N.J. and Plano, Texas. The ability to offer security, privacy, document retention and meeting compliance requirements are major Microsoft advantages over the competition, he contended.

A city CIO's decision to stay with current services or move to a cloud environment really depends on the costs and use case, said Asheville, N.C., director of IT service and InformationWeek contributing editor Jonathan Feldman.

"We sit down and do the math. If it makes sense we go with the new service," said Feldman. He cited a move to video services from New Jersey-based Vidyo as an example of service that offered "dramatic savings" over other competitors.

Government organizations seem confident that their future includes cloud computing, according to an IDC study. In a report issued last summer, 90% of the respondents anticipated cloud computing would have an impact on their infrastructure.

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