Columbia launches Google applications for city employee communication

Thursday, April 12, 2012 | 6:49 p.m. CDT; updated 8:06 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 12, 2012

COLUMBIA — About 1,200 city employees started using Google cloud technology for more efficient intracity communications Tuesday.

The official "go live" phase for the transition from Novell GroupWise to Google applications will continue until June 15, when the city’s contract with GroupWise will end.

"We’re not going to turn off the GroupWise Service right away," Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said. "All employees still have access to their old emails on GroupWise previous to April 10."

Between now and June 15, the employees will be responsible for archiving their old emails, if necessary, by either importing them to Google or saving them to a hard drive, St. Romaine said. One reason the staff must save emails is so that they'll be available in case they are the subject of a Missouri Sunshine Law request, he said.

Bob Simms, information technology director for the city, said the transition to the "go live" phase was very smooth.

"We had done a lot of training and production work," he said. "There was some trouble logging in the first time with the temporary passwords, but we haven't had any showstoppers yet."

St. Romaine agreed.

"My understanding is that the 'go live' transition went extremely well without many problems," St. Romaine said. "For a transition with over 1,000 employees, it was a success."

The city had a month-long "mock go live" phase during which it trained 125 employees in email and Google Docs as well as other Google applications, St. Romaine said. That phase began in March and ended in early April and was intended to "make sure things were working the way they were expected," St. Romaine said.

About a dozen employees were designated as trainers or department experts and will assist the other city employees in the transition.

A national networking and IT service and solutions company, Onix, partnered with Columbia to help train employees from different departments and disciplines who now are responsible for helping complete the switch, Simms said. 

"Onix helped set up a website with help videos and how to use the new Google technology," he said. "They set up a training site internally for people with accounts."

St. Romaine said feedback during the mock phase revealed no major concerns, but it did prompt the city to create a frequently asked questions page for employees to reference. That page will evolve as more workers make the transition over the next few weeks.

St. Romaine said city officials would have been happy to break even on the cost of the transition, but they've actually learned that Google Cloud will save money. The Google technology will cost $51,000 per year. That's more than the $35,000 it paid GroupWise, but they will save $35,000 to $40,000 because it will no longer have to pay for email storage or for a staff member to maintain the system.

"GroupWise has not really developed the technology we would have liked to see today," St. Romaine said. "We were looking for lowering infrastructure cost. Implementing Google will be a way to do so."

St. Romaine and Simms said the public probably will notice no difference. All email and Internet addresses will remain at the same domain. 

"But everything internally with the city will be more efficient,"  Simms said.

Meanwhile, the city is planning to update its website, but Google is not involved in that. Simms said those plans were in the works long before Google Cloud was implemented.

"The switch to Google should all be positive," Simms said. "With Google, it's all in the clouds, it's secure with user names and passwords but it will be available to the city employees anywhere they have Internet access."

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